“I remain concerned that vital chain of command and notification procedures were not followed while the Secretary was under medical care,” Reed said in a statement on Monday. “He is taking responsibility for the situation, but this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Department.”
Meanwhile, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, has joined the panel’s GOP chair, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), in airing their concerns about the series of events and pressing for more information from the Pentagon. Austin was hospitalized following complications from an earlier medical procedure on Jan. 1 and
took days to inform senior White House officials, including President Joe Biden.
“Several questions remain unanswered including what the medical procedure and resulting complications were, what the Secretary’s current health status is, how and when the delegation of the Secretary’s responsibilities were made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the President and Congress,” Smith and Rogers in a joint statement.
“Transparency is vitally important,” the bipartisan pair said. “Sec. Austin must provide these additional details on his health and the decision-making process that occurred in the past week as soon as possible.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) also criticized Austin’s action. The Virginia Democrat said it was “too early to say” whether Austin should resign, but said the Pentagon chief needs to explain himself.
“Once he is released from the hospital and recuperated, he has some explaining to do,” Connolly told CNN. “This is not an acceptable situation for one of the most senior Cabinet-level responsibilities, and given what’s going on around the world. It is a complicated world, there are wars going on, we have engaged in hostile action to take out a terrorist leader. The secretary of defense cannot go missing and cannot go missing unexplained.”
“[I] voted for him, would do it again,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “But there are a lot of questions unanswered.”
It’s a preview of the bipartisan criticism the Pentagon could face in the coming days from Capitol Hill. But so far, the public heat on the administration is coming almost entirely from Republicans.
House GOP conference chair Elise Stefanik, the fourth ranking Republican in the chamber, became the most senior member to say Austin should lose his job. In a statement Monday, the New York Republican called it “shocking and absolutely unacceptable” that Biden and other leaders weren’t notified sooner. She also called for Congress to probe the issue.
“There must be full accountability beginning with the immediate resignation of Secretary Austin and those that lied for him and a Congressional investigation into this dangerous dereliction of duty,” she said.
Stefanik’s call for Austin’s resignation followed former President Donald Trump,
who argued Austin should be fired. Another Trump ally, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.)
told Axios that Austin “has been a disaster since Day One and should be replaced.”
Stefanik and Banks are both senior members of the House Armed Services Committee.
Austin’s job doesn’t appear to be in immediate jeopardy, and the Pentagon says the defense chief has no intention of resigning. POLITICO
reported Monday that Biden is not considering firing Austin and would not accept his resignation if offered.
In a statement Saturday, Austin took responsibility for the delays in notification and pledged to do better.
Despite the outrage, most Republicans have stopped short of calling for Austin’s ouster, instead venting frustration and raising questions about who was in charge of the nation’s defense during the episode.
Hard-right Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) called for Rogers to hold a public hearing with Austin and his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, arguing the episode “reflects the lack of leadership, competency, and transparency” in the administration.
“The White House has already signaled that Secretary Austin will face no consequences as a result of this scandal,” Gaetz said in a statement. “Therefore, Chairman Mike Rogers and the House Armed Services Committee should immediately hold a hearing and receive testimony from Secretary Lloyd Austin and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks regarding Austin’s absence and Hicks’ failure to return from vacation to perform her duties.”
Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, posted a long list of mysteries, including who was authorizing strikes in the Middle East and communicating orders from Biden to the Pentagon and whether regional commanders were aware of any new chain-of-command.
“I don’t know whether it’s more concerning,”
Waltz wrote, “that the chain of command literally didn’t exist for multiple days or the White House apparently communicates so little with the pentagon that nobody noticed the Defense Secretary missing at a time of two major wars!”
Former Trump deputy national security adviser Victoria Coates, now with the conservative Heritage Foundation, argued Biden “almost has to fire” Austin.
“It’s really malpractice that anyone in the Cabinet could make the president look this weak and out of touch that he didn’t even notice his secretary of defense was gone for four days,” Coates said on Fox Business’ “Mornings with Maria.”
“The president should be absolutely livid over this and the secretary should offer to resign over this massive judgment failure,” Coates added.
Ursula Perano contributed to this report.