Let's take a closer look at the Lloyd Austin hospitalization story

In an administration that has not lacked for odd screw-ups and embarrassments, the hospitalization of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and the decision by Austin and his team to keep the rest of the administration in the dark, ranks among the strangest. As you’ll see below, last week was not exactly a slow, quiet week at the Pentagon — and apparently while the U.S. Navy was sinking Houthi boats and U.S. forces in Iraq killed the leader of an Iranian terrorist group, the Secretary of Defense was in an intensive-care unit. Why? How?

Why can’t this administration just be normal?

The Pentagon’s Wild Week

Let’s review what we know.

Late Friday afternoon, the Pentagon press secretary, Major General Pat Ryder, released a statement declaring, “On the evening of January 1, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for complications following a recent elective medical procedure.”

Austin is 70 years old, and he was not just in the hospital, but spent four days in the intensive-care unit, as we later learned from two senior administration officials who spoke to NBC News.

Intensive care is exactly what it sounds like, and while a patient can enter the ICU for many reasons, it usually involves something serious or potentially life-threatening. WebMD offers this list:

An obstructed or threatened airway

Respiratory arrest

A respiratory rate between 8 and 40 breaths per minute

Cardiac arrest

A pulse that’s less than 40 or greater than 140 beats per minute

Repeated or extended seizures

As of this writing, we still have no idea of what ailment or “elective medical procedure” sent Austin to the hospital and ICU. “Elective” simply means planned in advance; it may not be urgent, but it also isn’t necessarily optional. It could mean removal of a growth or wart, or removal of kidney stones, or putting in a heart stent, or an appendectomy, or any one of many other procedures.

Late last night, Ryder offered a few more details: that Austin “had a medical procedure Dec. 22, went home a day later and was admitted to intensive care Jan. 1 when he began experiencing severe pain.”

On January 2, some of Austin’s duties were transferred to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time. According to CNN, Hicks was not told that Austin was in the hospital when she assumed his duties, and was not informed about his hospitalization until Thursday, January 4.

January 1 was a Monday; according to a source speaking to CNN, “National security adviser Jake Sullivan ultimately informed [President] Biden late Thursday afternoon, soon after Sullivan himself learned Austin had been hospitalized.” In other words, for about three or four days, Austin was in the ICU and apparently no one else in the Biden administration knew about it. A U.S. official told ABC News, “President Joe Biden was exasperated at not more quickly being informed.”

What’s more, apparently President Biden and Austin did not speak until Saturday night.

The statement issued Friday afternoon declared Austin was “recovering well and is expecting to resume his full duties today.” Shortly after 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Ryder offered an update stating that Austin “remains hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center but is recovering well and in good spirits. . . . While we do not have a specific date for his release at this time, we will continue to provide updates on the Secretary’s status as they become available.”

Let’s point out that the first week of 2024 was not exactly a quiet stretch for the U.S. military:

On December 31, “U.S. Navy helicopters returned fire and sank three small boats carrying Houthi militants in the Red Sea.”

On January 2, “The United States has quietly reached an agreement that extends its military presence at a sprawling base in Qatar for another 10 years. . . . The Al Udeid Air Base, located in the desert southwest of Doha, is the biggest US military installation in the Middle East.”

On January 3, “Two explosions killed nearly 100 people and wounded scores at a ceremony in Iran on Wednesday to commemorate commander Qassem Soleimani ”; the following day, ISIS claimed credit for the attack.

On January 4, “U.S. forces in Iraq today conducted a self-defense strike which killed Mushtaq Jawad Kazim al-Jawari, a leader of the Iran-backed Harakat al-Nujaba terrorist group that is operating both in Iraq and Syria.” Two days later, Iraqi prime minister Shia al-Sudani’s office said his “government is setting the date for the start of the bilateral committee to put arrangements to end the presence of the international coalition forces in Iraq permanently.”

Also on January 4, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, confirmed that the U.S. Navy had “shot down 61 drones and missiles total since this began a couple of months ago,” and confirmed that for the first time, the Houthis had used “an armed unmanned surface vessel launched from Houthi-controlled Yemen.” The USV “got within a ‘couple of miles’ of U.S. Navy and commercial vessels in the Red Sea before detonating on Thursday.”

During all of that, the Secretary of Defense was in the ICU, and apparently up until the evening of January 4, no one else in the administration knew he was there.

There’s probably never a good week for the man who runs the Pentagon to be secretly laid up in the hospital, but last week was a particularly bad one.

You don’t have to look far to find people calling on President Biden to fire Austin, but we know that’s not going to happen. In an administration where no one was fired and no one resigned over the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the president is not going to fire the secretary of defense for not disclosing a health problem. Besides, the last thing this White House wants to do is to invite further public scrutiny about the health of elderly public officials.

For all the talk of our high-ranking public officials living in a fishbowl, they actually spend relatively little time in front of the television cameras or in the public eye. Our president usually does one public event per weekday with some long stretches away from the cameras; a cabinet secretary probably does one public event — testifying before Congress, a press conference, an appearance with a foreign counterpart — every couple of days.

When we don’t see our elected leaders, most of us just assume that everything is running reasonably smoothly, or normally, behind the scenes.

This administration grumbles that it is doing a terrific job and isn’t getting enough credit for all of its accomplishments.

And yet the Biden White House and his cabinet members keep having to square their boasts of competence and professionalism with disappointing realities and glaring stumbles. Biden’s team obviously wants to minimize the amount of time the president speaks in front of cameras and wants him to stick to what’s on the teleprompter. When speaking off the cuff, the president is prone to announcing that NATO might not respond to a “minor incursion” into Ukraine, that Vladimir Putin cannot “remain in power,” that “Armageddon” might be imminent, and so on.

Nor do Democrats have much faith in the woman who is a heartbeat away from the presidency.

The painful reality for VP Harris is that in private conversations over the last few months, dozens of Democrats in the White House, on Capitol Hill and around the nation — including some who helped put her on the party’s 2020 ticket — said she had not risen to the challenge of proving herself as a future leader of the party, much less the country. Even some Democrats whom her own advisers referred reporters to for supportive quotes confided privately that they had lost hope in her.

In October, after Hamas attacked Israel, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan had to stealth-edit an essay for Foreign Affairs that initially boasted that U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria were no longer under attack, that Biden’s policies had “reduced the risk of new Middle Eastern conflicts,” and that the Middle East “is quieter than it has been for decades.”

If everyone had faith that White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre could communicate the administration’s message effectively, they wouldn’t have called in John Kirby to take half her job away from her. And of course, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg took two months off for paternity leave while the country was facing a worsening supply-chain crisis.

If you run around boasting that the “adults are back in charge,” you had better act like adults.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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