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Democrats Aren’t Ready to Abandon Lloyd Austin Yet

The defense secretary will appear before a House hearing on Thursday, and Democrats will be watching closely.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized twice this year. Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Democrats are holding their breath on whether Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin can continue to carry out his duties effectively while undergoing cancer treatment, particularly after he failed to disclose his diagnosis or hospitalization.

“This is not a time we can have a part-time secretary of defense,” Rep. Seth Moulton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee and combat veteran, told NOTUS during Austin’s second unscheduled trip to the hospital since the start of the year.

Moulton is one of only two Democrats, along with Rep. Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania, to publicly call for Austin’s resignation. Most aren’t willing to go that far — many have defended Austin amid criticism for how he handled a January hospitalization — even as they express concern over the lack of transparency from Austin’s Department of Defense. But they’ll be watching closely on Thursday when he appears before the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing on his failure to properly disclose his January hospitalization.

A new report released by the Pentagon on Monday did little publicly to clear the air. The report, which was mostly classified, stated that “nothing examined during this review demonstrated any indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate” about Austin’s hospitalization in January, which was concealed from the public and the White House for days.

Senators on the Armed Services Committee were briefed Tuesday morning on the classified version of the report. The continued lack of transparency worried Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. “I’m concerned that they’re facts that the American people should know,” he said. “I can’t talk about them because they’re classified. There’s no reason for them to be classified.”

Sen. Angus King of Maine also wasn’t satisfied with the contents of the brief. “People are rightly concerned about the procedures that were or were not followed,” he said. “There will be questions, we’ll follow what happens in the House, and I suspect our committee will follow up as well.”

Last month, Austin apologized to the president for his handling of the matter and assured the public earlier this month that he is “in good condition and my cancer prognosis remains excellent.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Austin is performing his duties “with the same level of effectiveness and capacity that he always has.”

Many Democrats remained concerned. One lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the “sensitive” issue, told NOTUS that the White House should consider how Austin’s health, as well as the concerns with chain of command and transparency, are impacting perceptions abroad.

“These are serious issues, and I just hope that the administration is giving thought to what this means going forward,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

Still, a significant proportion of Democrats have stood behind Austin or said it’s not their place to say whether or not he should step down. “I still have a ton of confidence in his ability to make the decisions about continuity of command and I defer to him and the president of the best way to do that,” Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado said.

“I’m not, you know, his doctor or anything, and I will allow and respect that time with him and his medical provider, his family and the president that’s making the decisions long term,” North Carolina Democratic Rep. Don Davis said.

Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia pointed out that, while Austin’s duties are quite important, our “security is not dependent on any one particular person.”

Rep. Pat Ryan of New York told NOTUS that while Austin’s ability to do the job was an important question, people should remember “he’s a human being who’s dealing with serious health issues.”

“I get a little frustrated when folks skip that part,” Ryan said. “He’s a guy who’s essentially given his entire fucking life to our country. So we need to give him a little bit of space and slack as a human, as someone that’s worn the uniform, and now as the secretary of defense.”

John T. Seward is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.