Biden on Vacation Same Time Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin Was Hospitalized

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 20: U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Secretary of Defense Lloyd
Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin — the two officials with National Command Authority, or the authority to give military orders — were both out of office on New Year’s Day, raising questions as to who exactly would be in charge in the case of a military emergency.

Biden began his vacation to the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday, December 27, 2023, and headed back to Washington on Tuesday, January 2, 2024. He was scheduled to leave St. Croix around 5:45 p.m. Eastern.

US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on December 27, 2023. US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden travel to St. Croix, US Virgin islands, to spend the holidays. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on December 27, 2023. They will travel to St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, to spend the holidays (Mandel NGAN/AFP).

By then, his defense secretary had — unbeknownst to him — already been hospitalized since the night before.

According to Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, Austin was admitted to intensive care on the “evening” of January 1, after “experiencing severe pain” following an elective medical procedure on December 22, per CNN.

That meant that from the evening of January 1 through the evening of January 2, both Biden and Austin were either on vacation or hospitalized.

In addition to that, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks was also on vacation on January 2 when Austin reportedly transferred some of his responsibilities to her. She assumed those duties while staying in Puerto Rico, even after learning that Austin was in the hospital on Thursday, January 4. She remained there after Austin returned to full duties from the hospital on Friday, January 5.

Austin’s secret hospitalization came at a fraught time for the U.S. military.

U.S. troops have been targeted nearly daily in Iraq and Syria since mid-October, in some cases being critically injured. At the same time, Iran-backed Houthi militia have been launching missiles and drone attacks on U.S. military and commercial ships in the Red Sea, in one case leading to the U.S. Navy killing Houthi militants in self-defense.

On Wednesday, January 3, the White House issued a statement with international partners calling on the Houthis to cease, warning that they were “determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks.”

And the U.S. military on Thursday, January 4, conducted a strike against an Iran-backed militia targeting U.S. forces in Iraq — which raised questions as to who exactly ordered the strike. According to CNN, the strike was “preauthorized.”

Members of Congress are now demanding to know who was in charge of military orders during Austin’s hospitalization.

“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,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which has oversight of the Pentagon.

“The Secretary of Defense is the key link in the chain of command between the president and the uniformed military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the weightiest of decisions must be made in minutes,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), another member of SASC, said, adding, “There must be consequences for this shocking breakdown.”

Wicker has demanded a briefing from the Pentagon, while over in the House, Army veteran Rep. Cory Mills (R-FL) is demanding the House launch an investigation:


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