“A lot of us who have been reasonably supportive are just kind of shocked,” said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Appropriations panel that controls most of the Pentagon budget.
“He should call those of us who … try to deal with the administration as much as we can,” Calvert said. “And so this puts us in an unfortunate situation.”
Historically, the panels focused on defense policy and appropriations work with the Pentagon in a more collegial and bipartisan manner than they do with the broader chambers.
But the latest developments —
including calls from some Republicans for Austin to resign — only worsen an already fraught relationship between the Pentagon and Congress. Defense officials who have worked closely with Austin say he created a culture of silence in his front office that strained the relationship with the Hill. Many congressional leaders have had little to no engagement with Austin over the past three years, said one DOD official, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.
The secretary and his front office staff don’t respect the Pentagon’s “principles of information,” which is DOD’s policy to make available timely, accurate information to the public, Congress and the press, the official said.
A DOD spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
The developments come at a tense moment for the U.S. security situation, as war rages in the Middle East and Ukraine and as tensions remain high with China.
House Armed Services Chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.),
who just launched a probe into the episode, said Austin had lost standing with Republicans over a host of issues. Austin’s lack of candor over his hospitalization further erodes that standing, particularly with lawmakers who were in his corner early on.
“When people like me — who worked with him very early,
worked to get him a waiver to get the job — have talked to him, he’s just given us the Heisman,” Rogers said. “So that behavior does not help you when you get in a situation like this.”
Plenty of rank-and-file GOP members had already lost confidence in the Pentagon chief over a series of dust-ups during his three years in office.
The list of Republican complaints includes the Pentagon’s handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, missteps in dealing with a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the U.S. before it was shot down, policies aimed at shoring up troops’ access to abortions, the administration’s Covid protocols, and personnel policies that lawmakers claim politicize the military.
“He’s been on thin ice ever since Afghanistan. It was such a botched withdrawal,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said of Austin’s standing. “I think with our side of the aisle, he used up a lot of chits on that right there. I mean, it was such a gross disaster.”
Bacon, who hasn’t called for Austin to resign, says he has sympathy for the Pentagon chief but said keeping the White House and his deputy in the dark about his medical condition still “shows a gross lack of judgment.”
Some Republicans called for Austin’s resignation after the Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021 that saw the Taliban rapidly topple the U.S.-allied government there. Other Republicans have roasted Austin and Pentagon brass over
the handling of a Chinese spy balloon that wasn’t shot down until it had already spent several days flying over the U.S.
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) on Tuesday
filed articles of impeachment against Austin. Though the hardline GOP member dinged Austin over the lack of disclosure over his hospitalization, Rosendale’s impeachment resolution centers on the spy balloon, which traversed his home state. The resolution faults Austin for not shooting the balloon down sooner, though President Joe Biden held off until it was over water on the Pentagon’s recommendations.
Impeaching Austin is almost certain to go nowhere, and
the White House is standing by the Pentagon chief.
But the ordeal quickly became a political headache that threatens to distract from the administration’s immediate priorities of securing aid for Ukraine and Israel and avoiding a government shutdown in the coming weeks. It further mushroomed on Thursday, as the Pentagon inspector general’s office
announced a review into DOD handling of Austin’s hospitalization. It also comes as the U.S. attempts to contain conflict in the Middle East as the Israel-Hamas war rages.
“This is just a list of calamities here. I mean, with all this crap, you got Houthis firing missiles at ships in the Red Sea, and very easily something could happen there,” Calvert said. “And you have this question: All right, who’s in control? Because obviously if there’s a retaliatory attack, it has to be signed off by the secretary of defense.”
The DOD official also cited Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) monthslong hold on senior military promotions over the Pentagon’s abortion travel policy as a prime example of the breakdown in communications between Austin and Capitol Hill.
“If you talk to any other political leader, if they were in Austin’s situation, all events would’ve been canceled and they would’ve been on the Hill every damn day,” the official said. “It [the promotions blockade] went on for a year — that’s crazy.”
Yet Austin is not universally disliked by Republicans, most of whom aren’t yet calling for his ouster.
Many Republicans have been more willing to criticize Biden instead. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said Austin has been the fall guy for administration policies, adding that Armed Services Republicans “have respected him.”
“The challenge has been that this administration has had a policy of leading from behind with regard to foreign policy and the use of appropriate military force, so he takes the brunt of some of that criticism,” Rounds said. “Although that should more appropriately be on the president’s back, he’s the messenger in some cases.”
Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas), the official physician to the president under Barack Obama and Donald Trump, argued that Austin behaved irresponsibly and should resign.
“No one’s saying that he should have went out and told the whole world about his medical stuff, but he needed to notify his chain of command, which he did not do,” Jackson said.
“He’s embarrassed the president, he’s made the president look horrible and he’s demonstrated that he’s not the leader that everybody expects from the secretary of defense,” Jackson added. “So I think the right thing for him, the right thing for the country or for the president — if he’s concerned about the president — he would at least offer his resignation.”
Calls for Austin to resign are “an overreaction,” countered Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). The retired general is one of the most experienced leaders to hold the top Pentagon job, and behind closed doors, that’s how Republicans actually view him, Blumenthal said.
“When I hear him brief me or other senators, he has a command of the facts and an authority of judgment that is deeply respected by my Republican as well as Democratic colleagues,” Blumenthal said. “When they deal with him one-on-one, they show deep, well-justified respect for his judgment, which goes back decades. He is a military professional in his bones.
“What senators say in the hallways here to [reporters] is not what they seem to be saying when they actually are with him,” Blumenthal said.