Jan 11, 2024

Lloyd Austin's disappearance.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. Photo: Defense Department / Flickr
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. Photo: Defense Department / Flickr

Plus, how biased is Tangle?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin disappeared for three days. Plus, how biased is Tangle?

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A very bad morning.

Over here at Tangle HQ, yesterday kind of felt like one of those terrible opening scenes in a rom-com movie where a person is fumbling around trying to get to work — walking into glass doors, dropping their keys, putting their coat on backwards, with toilet paper still stuck to their dress shoes.

For some reason, one we still haven't discerned, yesterday's newsletter was sent with a serious formatting error that made every element in a list gigantic and bold. After trying to remedy that by re-sending the issue properly formatted, the new email accidentally displayed advertisements to paid subscribers (who shouldn't get them) and displayed duplicated ads to free subscribers.

To top it all off, our "Have a nice day" section included an outright error. We had a parenthetical about 120 kilograms, noting that it equaled 44 pounds. In fact, 120 kilograms equals 264 pounds. The mistake happened because the news source we linked to in the article had the calculation wrong, and we failed to double-check it before sharing the story.

This is our 98th correction in Tangle's 230-week history and our first correction since December 14th. We track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

See you tomorrow?

Tomorrow, we'll be publishing our annual review of last year's writing. That means we'll be looking back at our biggest articles and predictions from 2023 and then grading how we did. Heads up: we are off on Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday. 

Quick hits

  1. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spent their final pre-Iowa debate criticizing Donald Trump and accusing each other of lying on the campaign trail (The debate). Separately, Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) dropped out of the 2024 presidential race (The announcement)  
  2. House conservatives blocked a package of GOP bills in protest of Speaker Mike Johnson's spending deal with Senate Democrats. (The rebellion
  3. Hunter Biden made a surprise appearance at a House hearing to hold him in contempt of Congress. The House Oversight and Judiciary Committees then advanced resolutions recommending he be held in contempt of Congress. (The hearing
  4. A new video appears to show the Israeli army shooting three Palestinians and killing a 17-year-old in the West Bank without provocation. Israel said one of the men was kneeling to light a molotov cocktail, while his friends said he was starting a fire to keep them warm. It is the latest incident in the West Bank that has drawn international outrage. (The incident)
  5. The SEC approved the first Bitcoin Exchange-Traded Fund (ETF), making it easier for investors to add cryptocurrency to their portfolios along with stocks and bonds. (The approval)

Today's topic.

Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization. 70-year-old Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin disappeared from public view on New Year's Day, later disclosing that for three days he had been hospitalized in intensive care without the public being informed. On Tuesday, it was revealed that Austin ended up in intensive care after suffering complications from a surgery required to treat his prostate cancer, a diagnosis he kept from the public and from President Biden.

Walter Reed Hospital issued a statement saying Austin had been admitted on January 1 with severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain after a "minimally invasive surgery" known as a prostatectomy a week before. Austin had developed an infection, which has since cleared, according to the statement. His cancer prognosis is "excellent," the doctors said, adding that it had been detected early.

However, the mystery around Austin's whereabouts and the revelation that he had kept both his cancer diagnosis and his stay in the intensive care unit hidden from the president and the public has set off a firestorm of criticism. Austin is second in military command only to the president.

Now, several Republicans, and even one Democrat, are calling for Austin to resign.

“The failure to notify Congress of his inability to perform his duties was a clear violation of the law,” Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), the senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said.

Questions about the competence of staff members in the Department of Defense — including the junior officials who tried to protect his privacy — have worsened the public relations crisis. One former Walter Reed surgeon also questioned the characterization of prostatectomies as "minimally invasive," telling The New York Times it "is a major cancer surgery."

White House spokesman John Kirby also said that the White House was not informed of the procedure despite it taking place under general anesthesia, which would normally mean Austin — who is in the nuclear chain of command — officially transferring his duties to a deputy.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to this story from the left and right, then my take.


The left and right are in near total agreement that Austin’s actions were unacceptable and reflect poorly on the Biden administration. While they differ in their assessment of what the consequences for Austin should be, both sides view this incident as a concerning series of errors.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is outraged at Austin’s absence and Biden’s muted response, especially during a time of heightened tensions abroad. 
  • Some say Austin’s actions embody the worst of today’s U.S. military culture. 
  • Others slam Biden for not holding bad behavior to account in his administration. 

In The New York Times, Bret Stephens wrote “the Secretary of Defense can’t go AWOL. Neither can America.”

“We are living in an era of dissolving systems,” Stephens said. “There’s a deeper cause: the fading away of Pax Americana — the idea that the United States has a duty, rooted in values and interests, to police the global commons, defend embattled allies, deter anti-American dictatorships and punish major violations of international order… This is the context for the strange but telling story of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s unannounced medical absence.” 

“The dereliction of duty here is so serious that it ought to require Austin’s immediate resignation. The job of secretary of defense is to be on the job. Imagine if the Houthis had put a hole in an American ship, requiring an immediate response. Hours could have been lost while combatant commanders tried to get direction from the Pentagon,” Stephens added. “Failing to dismiss the secretary of defense sends a signal of unseriousness that Americans may not notice but our adversaries do.”

In American Greatness, Christopher Roach described Austin’s behavior as part of “a culture of casual and self-serving dishonesty” among military professionals. 

“Austin’s actions might seem secretive, worrisome, and self-serving, and indeed they are. But his actions, unfortunately, should not be surprising. A culture of dishonesty and corruption has plagued the Pentagon since Vietnam, and it became particularly flagrant during the failed campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, where then-general Austin served in multiple senior leadership roles,” Roach wrote. “Austin cannot escape significant responsibility for these failed campaigns.”

“Austin was a typical product of the Biden-era military: mediocre, overpromoted because of his race, and a company man through and through,” Roach said. “Now why would Secretary Austin jerk around the White House? It seems mostly likely that, being a former four-star general, he has a general’s sense of privilege coupled with the entire uniformed services’ skepticism of civilian oversight — this, even though he is now, in fact, one of those civilian overseers.”

In The Messenger, Joe Concha said “going AWOL is not new for Team Biden.”

“Imagine if all of this was happening during the Trump administration, with news suddenly breaking that President Trump had no idea that his Defense secretary was in a hospital ICU — and, obviously, since the president wasn't aware of this, neither were most Americans, because no one in the Pentagon decided to disclose that the Defense secretary had been there for nearly a week,” Concha wrote. “What do you think the media reaction would look like? We'd be hearing how it's clearly amateur hour in the White House. ”

“This is the current nonfiction reality for President Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. And yet — most fortunately for Democrats — it isn't generating the kind of outrage from the media that it completely deserves,” Concha said. “Even if Austin did the right thing and resigned, Biden has already stated that he would not accept his resignation. Why? Because this is a president who sees everything through a political prism, and to see Austin go would be viewed somehow as a victory for Republicans and for Trump in an election year, plain and simple.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left is similarly critical of Austin’s decision making and suggests he needs to be actively transparent about his health going forward. 
  • Some call the incident an unforced error for Biden’s administration and question Austin’s credibility. 
  • Others say Biden has few good options in choosing how best to respond. 

In Bloomberg, Nia-Malika Henderson argued “Austin must come clean about his health.”

“There are two cardinal rules when it comes to dealing with your boss — especially in the world of politics. Make sure your boss is never surprised and don’t step on the boss’ message. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin violated both these rules,” Henderson said. “Austin has acknowledged his lapse in judgment, but the damage is done. The secretary dominated the news cycle on what should have been Biden’s big weekend following the president’s powerful campaign speech at Valley Forge. His lack of transparency fed the narrative that Biden is aloof and out of touch with what’s happening in his administration.”

“This continued lack of transparency is unacceptable and unsustainable. Austin, who is said to be receiving operational updates, must offer a fuller explanation of his condition and why he failed to be transparent with top officials. Given the secrecy surrounding his condition, it’s hard to trust what the Pentagon says until he does so,” Henderson wrote. “Biden campaigned on competency and ‘no drama,’ yet Austin’s move was an unnecessary, unforced error.”

In The Washington Post, Josh Rogin said “Austin’s avoidable scandal was caused by hubris and mismanagement.”

“Austin’s problematic actions and those of his senior staff go well beyond his failure to tell [his deputy Kathleen] Hicks why she was assuming some of his duties and his failure to tell the White House he was in the intensive care unit. Austin also failed to disclose his diagnosis for several weeks. And the way this was handled constituted a breakdown in the United States’ national security bureaucracy,” Rogin wrote. “This episode also exposes something about Austin. As a general, he was never a big fan of speaking to Congress or the media. Even now as a Cabinet official, he apparently doesn’t feel he owes them basic transparency. That’s hubris.”

“Will Austin resign? Probably not. But his credibility and confidence in his leadership have taken huge hits, as have the credibility of his chief of staff and press secretary. They undermined the public’s trust in the U.S. government and created a completely avoidable scandal for Biden at the worst possible time.”

In CNN, Peter Bergen said “the Lloyd Austin incident sheds harsh light on Biden’s team.” 

Austin’s absence is “a surprising development that puts a harsh light on President Joe Biden’s national security team. And the odd thing is that there may be very little Biden can do about it, practically speaking,” Bergen wrote. “Austin’s introversion and seeming lack of Washington savvy may help explain why he and his team didn’t give senior US national security officials a heads-up about his condition… Everyone is entitled to keep their own medical information to themselves or to select people, but that doesn’t preclude telling others that you are out of commission for a few days, especially when you are the US secretary of defense.”

“So, what, if anything, can Biden do? Probably not much. A public reprimand of Austin by Biden would also only serve to reinforce the view held by Republican critics that the Biden team isn’t especially competent. If Biden fired Austin, he would only bring more attention to the issue, and in this political environment, finding another candidate for the position and getting them confirmed by the US Senate would be a very heavy lift.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Austin was wrong to conceal his issues, he’s wrong not to resign, and Biden is wrong not to ask him to.
  • This could have been a catastrophe if something serious happened abroad — and that’s how it would have been framed under Trump.
  • Biden should swiftly appoint a new Defense Secretary, and if Republicans won’t confirm them then that’s their political problem.

It's easy to conjure up some sympathy for Austin. Having had family members who have fought cancer, I certainly understand the desire to keep an illness private, or share it with a select few, or try to get on the other side of it (like, say, after a surgery) before wanting to tell everyone you were ill. But when you're the Defense Secretary, none of those desires trump the need for transparency. None of those desires trump national security.

On the most basic level, what Austin and his team did is an inexcusable and fireable offense. I don't really know any way around that. Though plenty of left-leaning writers acknowledge Austin’s mistake, all the most cogent and resonant points seemed to be coming from the right on this. As Bret Stephens said, imagine if there had been a major attack on a U.S. ship in the Red Sea and we had to spend hours trying to figure out where the Defense Secretary was. Those hours could have cost American lives or totally reshaped the beginning of a new conflict. As Joe Concha noted in The Messenger, imagine if something like this had happened under Trump. It would have been framed as a premier example of his administration's dysfunction and secrecy. It should be precisely the same for Biden.

I also can't wrap my head around why Biden would not accept Austin's resignation. Why die on this hill? There is no reason to protect someone who didn't do the most basic thing to preserve the stability of the department he is running. Biden should have spent this week promoting his opening campaign salvo in Valley Forge, but instead he spent it trying to explain how his White House could go three days without even knowing where his Defense Secretary is — the literal second in command of our armed forces.

All of this, of course, is to say nothing of the timing.

It's not like this is an era of great stability and peace. We aren't living in a world that Biden and Austin created together where the threats to U.S. national security are at bay and our allies are living happily ever after abroad. On the contrary, this is a moment of deep global instability. China's leadership is insisting Taiwan will be theirs. Russia and Ukraine's war barrels on. Israel continues to bombard Gaza even as the U.S. ramps up pressure for it to stop. And all throughout the Middle East, there is grave danger: Our forces are exchanging fire with fighters in Iraq and Syria, Houthi rebels are attacking ships in the Red Sea, Israel and Hezbollah are shooting at each other in Lebanon, and Iran continues to fund its proxies in the Shia-Sunni battles.

With all this going on, Austin goes MIA for three whole days? And he conceals a prostate cancer diagnosis, even from the White House?

It is, in a word, incomprehensible. The idea that Biden should avoid doing anything about this (as CNN's Peter Bergen argued) because confirming a new Defense Secretary right now would be a "heavy lift" is nonsensical. Keeping someone at the head of the military who just did what Austin did is the heavy lift, and if Republicans want to stonewall a Defense Secretary in times like these, then Biden should let that be their political problem, not his.

Austin seems like a decent man and he was a perfectly mediocre Defense Secretary, like many before him. I wish him well and hope he recovers speedily. But he should resign, Biden should accept his resignation, and the administration should do its best to own this mess and find a new Defense Secretary.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I was interested to read the breakdown of where Tangle's audience falls on the political spectrum. But I thought the most interesting question on the survey was where we thought you fell on the spectrum. I'd love to know the final tally.

— Keith from Barnwell, South Carolina

Tangle: That’s a question I was super interested in, too. We surveyed our subscribers at the end of the year to get a sense of who our readers are, how they think, and what they think about Tangle. I’m happy to go through the question on our bias, mostly because I’m happy about the results — but also because they raise an interesting question.

72% of respondents rated Tangle as unbiased, center-biased, or independent. 23% rated us as center-left, and 5% said we were center-right. A negligible percentage of people rated us as far-right or far-left (see below).

If the results were any different, suffice it to say that would result in a great deal of soul-searching. We pride ourselves on trying to cover every issue on its own without carryover bias, and in treating every argument with fairness and patience. That said, I don’t claim to have no biases — everyone’s biased. On some issues I’m biased towards the left — like abortion, the environment, and trans rights — and on others I’m biased towards the right — like small governance, free speech, and gun rights.

So, I’m happy with the results. That 72% of our readership rates us as center-biased or independent is validating. It’s also a little puzzling that more of our readers rate us as left-leaning than right-leaning, because the two biggest media bias raters put us smack in the middle. AllSides has us leaning ever so slightly to the left, while Ad Fontes has us just as slightly to the right. But our audience is saying, with statistical significance, that we’re leaning a bit more to the left.

So what gives?

My best guess is that on the issues that matter to conservatives right now, namely abortion and Donald Trump’s legal cases, I’ve been more aligned with the left than the right in the past year, and readers are weighing those issues more. At the same time, even on an issue like gun control, where I usually align more with conservatives, the never-ending scourge of gun violence has led me to argue for things like registration and training systems to buy firearms — which many stringent Second Amendment supporters do not support. 

All this is on top of the fact that I have pretty mixed feelings about our current president. Although I don’t think Biden should be running again in 2024, I also think he’s been pretty average — not terrible, not great, but fine (we have a reader question about this I’m going to answer next week, so keep an eye out for it). Yet many Republicans think he has been very, very bad, so I’m sure that impacts their view of “my take” over the last year.

There are plenty of examples that could counter those. For instance, we’ve covered a lot of the Hunter Biden saga, free speech issues, campus culture, and Israel in the last year, and on those stories I’ve often been more aligned with the right than the left. But I think those issues just aren’t weighted as highly by our readers.

Ultimately, what is important to me is not how readers view my own personal politics, it’s if they trust Tangle. My goal with Tangle is and has always been to be fair, transparent, and balanced — so as long as I am being honest about what I think, our readers trust us as a news source, we have an ideologically diverse audience, and the majority of our readers view Tangle’s coverage as independent or center biased, then I think we are winning. Those are the benchmarks I really care about.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Negotiations on a border security bill have begun to focus on parole changes, as Senate Republicans are demanding that a border policy update be tied to $106 billion of funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. GOP senators are pushing for a cap on parole, the process where an individual who may be ineligible or otherwise inadmissible to the United States can be allowed in by the president for a temporary period. Parole has been used broadly during times of crisis, like when the U.S. allowed in refugees from Afghanistan or Ukraine. But it's also been wielded expansively by the Biden administration, including for current border policies that allow in 50,000 migrants per month, including record numbers from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. The Washington Post has the story

Impact Public Service Fund.

I am associated with a nonprofit called Impact, which recently launched a university fellowship program for college students interested in promoting 360-degree conversations. If you are a student interested in helping launch a group, organization, or nonprofit that addresses some of our biggest issues in a non-partisan manner, check out the opportunity and tell them Tangle sent you.


  • 1. The number of cabinet officials who have left their positions during the Biden administration to date. 
  • 14. The number of cabinet officials who left their positions during the Trump administration. 
  • 3. The number of cabinet officials who left their positions during the 8-year Obama administration. 
  • 2. The number of Secretaries of Defense who resigned or were fired during the Trump administration — Jim Mattis and Mark Esper.
  • 5. The number of cabinet members fired by President Jimmy Carter over two days in 1979. 
  • 1800. The year President John Adams dismissed Secretary of State Timothy Pickering from his position, the first instance of a cabinet secretary being fired in U.S. history. 
  • 1868. The year President Andrew Johnson was impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade presidents firing cabinet officials without the permission of the Senate. The Act was repealed in 1887.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we talked about Biden's new border plan.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was — again — Pew's 10 facts about alcohol consumption.
  • The budget is too damn high: 540 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about the recent spending deal with 33% saying the budget allocations are too high. 30% said they are far too high, 25% said they're mostly fair, 3% said they're too low, and only two people said they're far too low. 9% were unsure or had no opinion. "We simply spend too much money. There is no other real argument to be made," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: The best (and worst) states to raise a family in.
  • Take the poll. What do you think of Defense Secretary Austin's hospitalization? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

The Make-a-Wish foundation is well known for being able to help terminally ill children live their dreams, but their best stories come when the children they help get better and no longer qualify for the organization’s help. That was the case with Jacob, a boy who was on his way to Disneyworld with his mother to get his Wish fulfilled. With the help of an airline pilot and several cooperative passengers, Make-a-Wish was able to tell Jacob and his mother that he was cancer-free in a way that would rival any Make-a-Wish moment. “Jacob, just before takeoff, a representative from Make-A-Wish made contact with the airline. We were informed that you no longer meet the requirements to be a Make-A-Wish candidate,” he said. Posted on TikTok by a story feed called @bestindid, the pilot adds that Jacob would still have his Wish granted, but “according to your most recent exam, you have many more years to take all the trips you could ever dream of.” Good News Network has the story (and video).

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.