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Why Rubio's criticisms of the Pentagon chief are so misplaced

As Florida struggles with a COVID crisis, Marco Rubio invested time into complaints that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin took the threat too seriously.


Late last week, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin posted a short video via social media, showing him landing in the Philippines. It didn't seem especially notable, though Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) denounced it as "embarrassing."

Sen. Marco Rubio mocked Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday for wearing a mask and face shield upon arriving in the Philippines. "Our [Defense secretary] is vaccinated," Rubio wrote in a tweet alongside a video that showed Austin deplaning. "But he arrives in the Philippines wearing a mask AND a face shield. Embarrassing COVID theatre," he continued.

What the Republican senator didn't seem to realize is what the U.S. embassy quickly made clear: "The Philippine government has mandated that everyone must wear full-coverage face shields together with face masks while in public places. Local governments continue to implement additional requirements to slow the virus' spread."

It was an unfortunate error for Rubio -- a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- who probably should've thought this through before taking a public shot at the Pentagon chief.

But instead of walking it back and/or deleting the tweet, the Florida Republican pressed on a day later, pointing to images of Austin with a mask but no face shield. In apparent sarcasm, Rubio tweeted, "I guess the face shield mandate was lifted shortly after he landed."

This, of course, only compounded the mistake: Rubio apparently didn't notice that the other images of the Defense secretary were from other countries, which have different safety protocols. What the senator thought was a "gotcha" moment that would make him look better actually made Rubio look worse.

To be sure, senators routinely publish unfortunate ideas online, but this one stood out for a reason.

For one thing, Rubio is ostensibly someone who takes foreign policy seriously, but as his own country's Defense secretary completed a successful Asian tour, the Republican focused less on the substance and more on trivia -- which Rubio managed to get wrong.

For another, the senator's own home state is dealing with a brutal COVID outbreak. As we discussed yesterday, Florida's tally of new cases has reached its highest point since the start of the pandemic. COVID hospitalizations in the state have also reached an all-time high.

Over the course of the crisis, conditions in Florida had gotten bad, but not this bad. Tom Bossert, a former Homeland Security Advisor in the Trump White House, noted, "This wave is now larger than all previous waves." An NBC News report added over the weekend, "The state has become the new national epicenter for the virus, accounting for around a fifth of all new cases in the U.S."

It's against this backdrop that the state's senior U.S. senator is investing time into complaints that Lloyd Austin took the COVID threat too seriously.

Someone ought to be embarrassed, but it's not the Defense secretary.