Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gives opening remarks during a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Pentagon May 23, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — In a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill today, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin fended off accusations from House Republicans that he is “irrelevant” to the White House’s national security decision-making following his December hospitalization and failure to notify the broader Pentagon and federal government.

“Either the president is that aloof or you are irrelevant,” Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., said to Austin at the outset of the House Armed Services Committee hearing. Banks, and other Republicans on the committee, argued the fact that Austin could go three days without any communications with the White House implies his advice is not needed or sought.

Austin denied that accusation and insisted that despite the failure to notify the White House, command and control of the military was not adversely impacted. While Austin was hospitalized, his deputy, Kathleen Hicks, assumed his authorities, though she was reportedly unaware of his condition.

At the hearing Austin also said he did not direct any of his staff to “obfuscate” the status of his health from the White House, but resisted calls from GOP lawmakers to identify an individual staffer who did.

“I understand that leaders have to set the example. Again, I said that we didn’t get the notification right. Again, I was the patient, and so I expect that my organization would do the right thing,” he said.

Since the December incident, the Pentagon conducted its own investigation of the circumstances surrounding Austin’s hospitalization and briefed the results to lawmakers earlier this month. An unclassified summary of that review released to the public found the secretary’s staff was faced “with an unprecedented situation” and “executed a [transfer of authority] in the same way they had previously done.” The review also concluded that none of the staff had “any indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate.”

The full report was not released to the public because it contained classified details about the continuity of operations, Austin said during the hearing, a detail that irked some lawmakers following the briefing earlier this month.

The secretary also said the review made eight recommendations that the Pentagon is working on implementing, but neither Austin nor the unclassified summary elaborated on what recommendations were made. The Defense Department Inspector General is working on an independent review of Austin’s hospitalization.

For their part, Democrats on the committee reiterated Austin’s taking responsibility and repeatedly pivoted to the House not voting on legislation that would provide Ukraine with further aid to fight Russia.

“What we should be talking about is, rather than your health or those decisions that were made around them that are putting us as a nation and us as a world in peril, rather the inactions of Congress right now and specifically this House right now, and specifically the speaker of the House, Mr. [Mike] Johnson, right now is putting us and this world in peril,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Penn.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., accused Republicans of being “outraged” and creating “drama” over Austin’s mistakes to deflect attention away from the problems in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., shot back at Slotkin that he, as the committee’s chairman, chose to hold the hearing with Austin and that “there is no stronger proponent of Ukraine funding than the chairman.”