Key Republican senators are holding off on joining former President Trump’s call for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to be removed from office, though they are heaping criticism on the nation’s Defense chief for waiting days to tell the White House of his hospitalization.
Senior members of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s (Ky.) leadership team are calling Austin’s unexplained absence “a dereliction of duty” and “unacceptable” but aren’t yet willing to go as far as Trump in calling for his ouster.
Even so, they are blasting Austin for keeping his absence from duty a secret and demanding a Senate hearing to get to the bottom of the matter. They say the Pentagon appeared to violate a statutory requirement to provide a notification of Austin’s absence.
GOP senators are also slamming the Biden White House for not immediately noticing that Austin was missing from the job, calling President Biden’s handling of the situation “irresponsible.”
Even though Republican senators aren’t willing to match Trump in calling for Austin to be booted from his job, they are rallying behind the former president’s full-throated criticism of the national security lapse.
The brewing scandal is giving members of the GOP establishment in Washington a chance to begin mending fences with Trump, their party’s likely nominee for president, by echoing his assault of the Biden White House.
Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.), who has clashed with Trump over the political wisdom of continuously arguing about the results of the 2020 election, called the episode a “terrible dereliction of duty” Monday.
“He’s going to have to answer for it,” he said, but stopped short of calling for Austin to lose his job.
“The committees are going to have some hearings, and hopefully get some of those answers, so I will reserve judgment until they do. But I think it’s completely unacceptable in terms of what he did,” Thune said.
Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.), the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is calling on the administration to brief lawmakers fully about the situation.
“Members must be briefed on a full accounting of the facts immediately,” Wicker posted Monday on the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter.
He says it was “unacceptable” for the Defense Department to “deliberately” withhold information about Austin’s medical condition “for days.”
Wicker told reporters Monday that the secrecy around Austin’s unexplained absence is “very serious.”
But he wasn’t ready to call on Austin to resign or be fired.
“I think we should have a quick hearing about this and to find out to what extent the department has ignored the statutory requirement” to inform other senior government officials of the Defense secretary’s hospitalization, he said.
He said military officials have said it’s not unusual for the civilian chief of the military to transfer command authority to another person on a temporary basis.
“We’re told today that this happens — this sort of transfer of power happens frequently,” he said. “If that’s the case, then this is one of several instances and merely the first one we’ve heard about, then it does become very serious.
“The statutory requirement is not a suggestion. It’s a statutory requirement, and there’s a reason for that,” he added.
Austin was hospitalized following complications from an undisclosed elective medical procedure.
Wicker and other senators say they still don’t know precisely why Austin was placed in intensive care.
Senate Republicans are glad to go on offense against the administration over a high-profile national security issue after they were put on the defensive for months because of Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-Ala.) holds on hundreds of nonpolitical senior military promotions.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), an influential member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a key ally of McConnell, called for either Austin or his chief of staff — or both — to resign Monday for what he called a “cover-up.”
He said they “displayed terrible judgement in failing to disclose his hospitalization.”
Trump said Sunday that “Austin should be fired immediately for improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty.”
He also jabbed at Biden for not having “had a clue as to where he was, or might be.”
Austin, in a statement released over the weekend, promised he wouldn’t keep the nation’s leaders in the dark about a serious medical condition in the future while also suggesting that he deserved some privacy.
He said he understood “the media concerns about transparency” and recognized “I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed.”
“I commit to doing better,” he said. “But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
Other senior Republicans are hesitant to oust the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense, despite the many unanswered questions they have about the situation.
Senate Republican Policy Committee Chair Joni Ernst (Iowa), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Austin’s secret absence “absolutely unacceptable.”
“When we’ve got Houthis attacking Americans and carrier ships, when we’ve got the Israeli-Gaza war going on,” she said.
But asked about whether Austin should step down, Ernst said: “We will see. We’ll get more clarity in the next several days.”
“What should the remedy be here? We’ll find out as we learn more,” she said.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the senior Republican on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, called the secrecy surrounding Austin’s hospitalization “inexplicable.”
“It appears that even the president, his national security adviser, and the deputy secretary of Defense were unaware of Secretary Austin’s hospitalization for at least three days,” she said, noting what she called “the extremely serious military decisions” the United States is dealing with amid attacks on U.S. troops by Iranian proxies, and the wars in Israel and Ukraine.
She also stopped short of calling for resignation.
Even Senate Democrats were shaken by the lapse in military leadership at the start of the new year.
“I have a lot of questions,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said. “I’m a big fan of the secretary. I voted for him, and I’d do it again, but there a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of his friends would like to know just what happened.”
Durbin said it’s “not unreasonable” for Senate Republicans such as Wicker to demand a full accounting of Austin’s absence from the White House and Pentagon.
Asked about calls for Austin to be fired or resign, Durbin said “it’s way too early to draw that conclusion until we know the facts.”
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