Morning Joe Despairs on 'AWOL' Lloyd Austin: Ignatius Sighs Say It All

January 12th, 2024 3:15 PM

David Ignatius MSNBC Morning Joe 1-12-24 Move over, Algore. There's a new King of Sighs in town, and his name is David Ignatius, columnist of The Washington Post.

Gore famously put a dent in his presidential ambitions when he sighed his way through his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000.

Those were sighs of disgust, as compared to the sighs of despair Ignatius unleashed on today's Morning Joe.

For days, the show had blacked out the scandal surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's lengthy failure to inform the White House of his hospitalization and his cancer diagnosis.

But Morning Joe could no longer avoid the story when on today's show, Sam Stein raised it in the context of asking whether Austin's situation had delayed the administration's decision to strike the Houthis in retaliation for their attacks on commercial shipping.

You might have expected Joe Scarborough to play defense for the Biden administration on the matter. But instead, a skeptical Scarborough asked Ignatius how Austin survives this, and whether any other Secretary of Defense would keep his job in such circumstances. Declared Scarborough: Austin "went AWOL." Ouch!

A stumbling Ignatius, playing defense for Austin, unleashed multiple sighs in response. He asserted that Austin's failures were not a "capital crime" [i.e. a firing offense].

The heaviest sigh came in response to Susan Page's suggestion that Austin be fired or resign. Ignatius joked that no one worried about a lack of communications at the Pentagon when Mark Milley headed the Joints Chiefs of Staff. But his replacement, Charles Brown, is "reticent" -- not a big talker to the press -- and neither is Austin. Ignatius said this has been a "continuous problem" with Austin, and nothing new.

At the end of the discussion, Ignatius argued that firing Austin in an election year would be "more trouble than it's worth." Really? Leaving Austin in place could cause untold trouble for the Biden campaign. Imagine the Republican ad: "Joe Biden--weak on crime, weak on the border, weak on military preparedness" -- as scenes of looters and border crossers, and a shot of Austin, flash on the screen.

Stein mentioned something that was truly shocking.  Apparently, even when Austin finally got around to phoning Biden, he didn't reveal his cancer diagnosis. If that doesn't constitute a "capital crime" of trust in Ignatius's eyes, what would it take—calling Biden to his face, a lying, dog-faced pony soldier?

Biden has said that he wouldn't even accept Austin's resignation. Almost nobody in Biden's cabinet has resigned, and he doesn't want to look like he's dumping a black man who, we're told, faces a stigma in "communities of color" about their manhood when discussing intimate prostate issues. 

Here's the transcript.

Morning Joe
6:13 am ET

SAM STEIN, POLITICO: I have a question about that operation [the strikes on Houthi installations by the US and allies], and maybe you don't know the answer to this. But, obviously, this is taking place in the backdrop of what was happening with Lloyd Austin. Gone for three days, unexplained absence, in the hospital, clearly sidelined.

Did that affect the timing of this? There's been a lot of criticism from some factions. Other factions say they shouldn't have done it without the authorization from Congress. But some factions say, you waited too long. Deterrence was clearly not working,we should have hit quicker. Was the Austin situation at all a factor of why it took this long?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I don't think so, Sam. I, I, I, I think the Austin situation is its own set of problems. What he did wasn't a capital crime, but it clearly, it clearly was clearly a mistake, and he understands that. The discussions with the United States and Britain about just what to do have been continuous over the last two weeks.

ELISABETH BUMILLER, NEW YORK TIMES: It's CENTCOM would pick targets. It's something he would approve, but he wouldn't be in the weeds on it.

STEIN: Reports are he was approving it from the hospital bed.

BUMILLER: Well sure. But he wasn't planning it from the hospital bed.

IGNATIUS: I think signed off on it from the hospital bed would be roughly the right phrase.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: Fair enough. I've just got to ask. How does the general -- how does the secretary survive this?

IGNATIUS: [Loud sigh] Well, ahh, I don't see him being fired. Um.


IGNATIUS: Because, ahh, Joe Biden likes him and basically trusts him.

SCARBOROUGH: Would any other Secretary of Defense survive this?

IGNATIUS: [Deep inhale] Um --

SCARBOROUGH: He went AWOL for three, four days. He's in the nuclear chain of command.

IGNATIUS: He, he, he, so, the problem at the Pentagon in terms of lack of communication didn't begin with the hospitalization of Lloyd Austin. It's been a continuous problem to this administration. He is not a communicator. He is, he is a person who is really allergic to talking to media. And something like what happened --

SCARBOROUGH: But shouldn't somebody in the chain, "Mr. President, he's going to be out of commission for three days?"

IGNATIUS: As long as you had Mark Milley as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, no one worried about the Pentagon not communicating enough [laughter.] Not a problem. General Milley was out there. With the new Chairman, successor, Charles Brown, very reticient. Good officer but very restrained, you've got a top team at the Pentagon that just doesn't communicate. And that's a problem. But I don't see --

SUSAN PAGE: Should he be -- should he be fired or resign? Is this a sufficient offense? And obviously, as you say, at least a mistake, that he should leave?

IGNATIUS: [Long, loud, double sigh] It is, it is a violation of procedures. It's in character for the way he ran the Pentagon. This should have been addressed in terms of his broad communications long ago, before you got to this. I just can't imagine in an election year that he would be dumped now. I think it'd be more trouble than it's worth.

. . . 

STEIN: The most amazing thing to me was, he talked with Biden on Saturday in a one-on-oneconversation. Did not reveal the cancer diagnosis during that conversation.


STEIN: So clearly, absence of communication here. I mean, the inspector general report that was just launched by the DoD will answer these questions, but it's fascinating to think that you would not report that something of that significance up the chain.

SCARBOROUGH: It's a real problem. I can't imagine, in most administrations --

STEIN: Biden said he won't even accept a letter of resignation.

SCARBOROUGH: Yeah, well, it's fascinating.