Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listens to a question during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing in January 2021.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listens to a question during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing in January 2021. (EJ Hersom/Department of Defense)

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress are demanding to know why it took the Pentagon days to notify Congress and the White House about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization, prompting some lawmakers to urge for resignations over the incident.

Calls for accountability mounted Monday as Austin remained at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for an undisclosed medical condition, and lawmakers questioned the lack of transparency about his surgery and hospitalization.

“We are concerned with how the disclosure of the secretary’s condition was handled,” said Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Adam Smith, D-Wash., the top Republican and Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “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 was made, and the reason for the delay in notification to the president and Congress.”

Austin was hospitalized Jan. 1 due to complications from an elective surgical procedure, according to the Pentagon, but the White House was not notified until Jan. 4. Congress did not learn of Austin’s hospitalization until Jan. 5, infuriating some Republicans in particular.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused the Defense Department of deliberately withholding information and said the incident further eroded trust in President Joe Biden’s administration.

“When one of the country’s two national command authorities is unable to perform their duties, military families, members of Congress and the American public deserve to know the full extent of the circumstances,” he said. “Members [of Congress] must be briefed on a full accounting of the facts immediately.”

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., another member of the Armed Services committee, also said Austin must come to the panel with an explanation.

Other Republicans are pushing for Austin’s resignation.

Republican Rep. Rick Crawford of Arkansas, an Army veteran, wrote on X that Austin’s failure to alert the president of his hospitalization was a “dereliction of duty that deserves removal from his job as Secretary of Defense.”

On Monday, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., issued a statement calling on Austin and “those that lied for him” to step down. She said Austin breached the trust of Congress and left a dangerous leadership vacuum at a time when U.S. troops are under attack in Iraq and Syria.

“This concerning lack of transparency exemplifies a shocking lack of judgment and a significant national security threat,” she said.

The White House continued to stand by Austin on Monday and said there were no plans to fire him.

“The president’s number one focus is on the secretary’s recovery, and he looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, told reporters. “The president respects the fact that Secretary Austin took ownership for the lack of transparency. He also respects the amazing job he’s done as defense secretary.”

Still, Kirby acknowledged there is an expectation that the hospitalization of a Cabinet member is communicated up the chain of command. Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, found out about Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 2, and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, who took over some of Austin’s duties last week, learned about Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 4.

“We’ll take a look at the process and procedure here and try to learn from this experience and [see] if there are changes that need to be made,” Kirby said.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Armed Services committee, said Congress needs to launch an investigation into whether the incident violated any law.

“The American people deserve a full explanation for this serious lapse of communication,” she said.

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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