White House Seeks to Prevent Repeat of Austin Situation

Chief of staff is reviewing procedures connected to delegation of duties
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 9, 2024 1:57 PM CST
White House Is Reviewing Protocols After Austin Episode
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 31, 2023.   (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File)

The White House doesn't want to have another situation where the president is unaware for days that the defense secretary or another Cabinet member is unable to perform their duties. In a memo Tuesday, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients asked all Cabinet secretaries to "submit your existing protocols for a delegation of authority," Axios reports. Zients said the White House is "conducting a review of agency protocols for a delegation of authority" and while it is underway, Cabinet agencies should follow procedures including notifying the White House chief of staff and the Office of Cabinet Affairs "in the event of a delegation of authority or potential delegation."

The memo didn't mention Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who was hospitalized Jan. 1 after complications from elective surgery. He transferred some of his authorities to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, the AP reports, but she wasn't notified until Jan. 2 and the White House wasn't informed until Jan. 4. Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said there had been a delay in notifications because Austin's chief of staff was sick with the flu. Austin also transferred some of his authorities to Hicks when he had the surgery on Dec. 22, without notifying the White House.

"Agencies should ensure that delegations are issued when a Cabinet Member is traveling to areas with limited or no access to communication, undergoing hospitalization or a medical procedure requiring general anesthesia, or otherwise in a circumstance when he or she may be unreachable," the memo from Zients said. The Pentagon, which is also reviewing procedures, said Monday that a wider circle of officials will be notified the next time a defense secretary transfers their authorities. Aides said Monday that President Biden isn't planning to fire Austin. (More Lloyd Austin stories.)

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