Cabinet secretaries received a message from the president’s chief of staff urging them to notify the White House if they anticipate being unable to carry out their responsibilities.
White House Directive on Secretary Austin’s Health
A top official at the White House has instructed Cabinet members to keep their offices informed, noting that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was hospitalized for several days last week without notifying President Biden or his staff. This situation potentially hampers his ability to fulfill duties.
White House Staff’s Position
In a memo, Chief of Staff Jeffrey D. Zients directed Cabinet officials to assess their current policies for handing over responsibilities when a secretary is incapacitated and to forward these processes for White House review. Zients emphasized that White House officials should be updated on major medical developments such as Secretary Austin’s condition.
Zients outlined that both Cabinet offices and the White House Chief of Staff should be notified of any changes in the representative body’s status or potential representative body. He specified the preference for such notifications to be “in writing.”
Concerns in the West Wing
Zients’ directive reflects concerns in the West Wing about top defense officials, part of the nuclear chain of command, potentially staying in intensive care units without the knowledge of the President or other national security principals. Some are disappointed with the limited communication regarding Secretary Austin’s health.
While President Biden signaled no immediate plans to dismiss Secretary Austin, there are internal discussions expressing deep frustration and disappointment among some members of the President’s team. Although Secretary Austin, a retired four-star general, does not have a close relationship with President Biden’s team, he is generally well-regarded, making the situation even more complicated for him.
There are calls within the White House for more transparency regarding Austin’s medical issues. He was transported by ambulance to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on January 1st, following complications from a “routine medical procedure.” The Pentagon has been vague about the exact nature of the procedure or the complications.
On Monday, Pentagon spokesperson Major General Patrick S. Ryder stated that Secretary Austin resumed his duties from his hospital bed on Friday, receiving updates and necessary guidance.
Defense Department’s Review
The Defense Department has ordered a 30-day review to assess what happened and how protocols might need to be adjusted. Another memo obtained by The Times revealed that Chief of Staff Kelly E. Magsamen instructed the department’s administrative and management director, Jennifer Walsh, to identify relevant facts and circumstances.
During this review, Magsamen directed that if the secretary’s responsibilities are delegated again, notifications should be sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman and Vice Chairman, combat commanders, service secretaries, and heads of staff. Additionally, the Pentagon’s General Counsel should be informed, along with the Secretary and his deputy and senior aides in the White House Situation Room.
By Tuesday, Zients instructed all Cabinet departments to send their current processes by Friday so that a determination can be made about the need for adjustments. He clarified that power should be transferred “when a Cabinet member is traveling to areas with limited communication, is hospitalized, or undergoing medical procedures that require sedation, or in other instances when they might be unreachable.”
It remains unclear if President Biden himself is aware of the intricacies of Secretary Austin’s medical situation. While both spoke on Saturday, details of their conversation have not been disclosed, except that Biden expressed his wishes for the secretary’s speedy recovery. Many White House officials claimed they were unaware of Austin’s condition. National Security Council spokesperson John F. Kirby stated on Monday that “the President’s number one focus is on his health and recovery” and indicated no plans or considerations beyond that for Secretary Austin’s employment.