WASHINGTON – There seems to be no end to this secretary’s secrecy.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hosted this month’s meeting of the multinational Ukraine Contact Group from his house Tuesday and skipped over prewritten remarks acknowledging his recent health scare, which he scandalously kept from his colleagues at the Pentagon – and boss in the White House – for days.
“As you can tell, I’m joining from home today,” Austin was supposed to say at the top of his speech opening the meeting with the UCG, a group of more than 50 nations who join monthly to discuss ways to support Ukraine’s defense needs. “I’m feeling good and looking forward to being back at the Pentagon very soon. And I’m grateful for all of your warm wishes.”
Instead, he blasted past what would have been his first live acknowledgment of his perplexing decision not to tell President Biden or his Defense Department colleagues that he was hospitalized Jan. 1 with complications from a Dec. 22 prostatectomy.
“We’re eager to enter this new year with new energy,” Austin said as he skipped ahead in his prepared script. “We’re all here to reaffirm our support for a free secure and sovereign Ukraine and to ensure that we continue to get Ukraine the capabilities that it needs for the winter and beyond.”
Austin shocked Washington this month when it was revealed he did not even tell his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, of his hospitalization as he transferred his secretarial authority to her from the hospital. It was not until Jan. 4 — three days after she took over his duties — that Hicks, the White House and the rest of the Pentagon learned why he’d done so.
Austin returned to work virtually from Walter Reed on Jan. 5, advising the president on crucial defense matters — including the US-British-led airstrike on Houthi terrorists in Yemen on Jan. 11 — through most of his two-week hospital stay. He was released last Monday and has since been working from home until he has recuperated enough to return to the Pentagon.
Before Austin’s health crisis, Tuesday’s meeting of the UCG had been scheduled to happen in-person. Since its start in May 2022, the group has alternated between in-person and virtual meetings each month, although the last was also held virtually.
Given Austin’s inability to travel, arrangements were made to take the meeting online.
But Tuesday’s virtual session was different because the secretary appeared from his more than $3.5 million home in Virginia.
While his colleagues — Chief of the Joint Staff Army Gen. CQ Brown and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs — called in from the usual official set-up flanked by massive Ukraine and US flags in the Pentagon briefing room, Austin awkwardly appeared from a stark white room that looked more like a closet than an office.
The secretary apparently tried to make the makeshift set appear more official, but the efforts fell flat. He sat in front of what looked like a large sticker of the Department of Defense seal and two miniature US and Ukrainian flags propped up on a copy machine in the corner.
Another thing Austin didn’t mention: the current strife over whether Congress will pass a supplemental funding bill that would Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars in more weapons as Russia’s war on the country approaches its second anniversary next month.
Instead, he pressed the other nations on the call to provide more support for Ukraine, as the future of US funding for the effort remains hazy.
“[Russian President Vladimir] Putin hopes that missiles and drones will demoralize the Ukrainian people and break the fighting spirit. of the Ukrainian military,” Austin said. “So I urge this group to dig deep to provide Ukraine with more life saving ground based air defense systems and interceptors.”
But if Austin wants to win legislative support for the additional US funding, his recent scandal has done little to help in that effort.
Both Republicans and Democrats have called for his resignation over the ordeal.
He has been invited to testify on the matter before the House Armed Services Committee on Feb. 14.
The Pentagon has not yet said whether the secretary plans to comply with the request and appear for the hearing.