Austin’s Secret Hospitalization Prompts Congressional Inquiry, Calls for Hearings

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee has launched an investigation into the secrecy surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization for complications that arose from a surgery for prostate cancer, a diagnosis that was also secret until this week.

Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., sent letters Tuesday to Austin, his chief of staff and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks demanding a stack of documents and answers about why Congress, the White House and most of the Defense Department weren’t informed sooner.

The inquiry signals that fallout from the episode is mounting even as the Pentagon tries to contain the turmoil that has roiled Washington since the department first revealed Austin’s hospitalization around 5 p.m. on Friday. In addition to Rogers’ investigation, more Republicans have demanded Austin’s resignation; calls for public hearings from both sides of the aisle have grown; and one Republican launched a long-shot effort to impeach Austin.

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“With wars in Ukraine and Israel, the idea that the White House and even your own deputy did not understand the nature of your condition is patently unacceptable,” Rogers wrote in his letter to Austin. “The department is a robust institution, and it is designed to function under attack by our enemies, but it is not designed for a secretary who conceals being incapacitated.”

Austin was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and admitted to the intensive care unit Jan. 1 after suffering from severe pain that doctors later determined was caused by a urinary tract infection and a buildup of abdominal fluid, complications from an earlier surgery to treat prostate cancer.

While the Pentagon has said some key officials were informed of Austin’s hospitalization Jan. 2, including his chief of staff Kelly Magsamen, it has acknowledged that the White House, Hicks and other top Pentagon officials weren’t told until Jan. 4. Congress and the public weren’t informed until Jan. 5.

And while Austin’s cancer diagnosis came in early December and his initial surgery was Dec. 22, President Joe Biden was only told about the cancer Tuesday morning, hours before the Pentagon publicly revealed the diagnosis.

The Pentagon has depicted the failure to immediately disclose the Jan. 1 hospitalization as a series of errors and miscues, including the fact that Magsamen was out with the flu when she was told Austin was in the hospital. Austin has also said he takes “full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”

But several questions remain, including why Austin waited more than a month to tell the president about his diagnosis and whether he ever ordered his staff to keep his situation quiet.

Rogers posed dozens of questions in his letters to Austin, Hicks and Magsamen, including whether anyone else could have informed other officials about Austin’s hospitalization while Magsamen was out with the flu and whether Hicks made any operational decisions during the few days she was delegated some of Austin’s authorities.

“It is mind-boggling that the commander in chief was not aware of the location or operational competence of the secretary of defense,” Rogers wrote in his letter to Hicks.

Both the Pentagon and the White House have directed reviews into the breakdown of communications. But lawmakers say internal reviews aren’t sufficient, and some are demanding public hearings.

“We need to have some sort of public airing of this,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Tuesday. “The department is going to have to be transparent sooner or later, and they need to realize that.”

Wicker and every other Republican on the Senate panel also sent a letter to Austin on Wednesday demanding a briefing by Jan. 19 and accusing the Pentagon of violating a law requiring Congress be notified of executive branch vacancies.

In an appearance on Fox Business on Tuesday, Wicker declined to join in on other Republicans’ calls for Austin to resign. But the GOP calls for Austin to leave office are growing.

“We believe Secretary Austin’s blatant violation of the Pentagon’s Principles of Information and serious lapse in judgment warrants his immediate resignation, as well as the resignation of any staff involved in covering up his hospitalization,” four House Republicans who served in the military wrote in a letter to Biden on Tuesday. “If he does not resign, he should be immediately dismissed.”

No Democrats have yet called for Austin to step down, a sign his job is likely secure. The White House has also said it has no plans to fire Austin. But Democrats are still frustrated at the lack of disclosure and are open to public hearings.

“I think we’re trying to first establish what happened, and we’re also waiting for the general to leave the hospital,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., told reporters Wednesday when asked about holding a hearing, referring to Austin by his former title. Still, he added, a hearing is “certainly a possibility.”

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, said on CNN on Tuesday evening that lawmakers “just need Secretary Austin to answer the question: Why did he think that it was appropriate for him not to tell the president that all of this was going on?”

Meanwhile, Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mont., a conservative firebrand who has been eyeing running for Senate this year, on Tuesday filed articles of impeachment against Austin. While Rosendale’s move was timed to the drama over Austin’s hospitalization, the resolution itself only cites the Pentagon’s response to last year’s Chinese spy balloon as the “high crimes and misdemeanors” warranting his removal.

The resolution has no co-sponsors and was not filed as a privileged resolution, meaning Rosendale cannot force a vote on it and that it is unlikely to be considered as Republicans juggle ongoing impeachment efforts against Biden and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. It is also the second time a Republican has filed articles of impeachment against Austin after Rep. Cory Mills, R-Fla., did so last year over Austin’s handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Related: Defense Secretary Austin Diagnosed with Prostate Cancer that Led to Further Hospitalization for Infection

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