White House officials on Monday reinforced their support for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is under fire for not disclosing his emergency hospitalization to management officials for several days.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said there were no other plans “other than to keep Secretary Austin on the job.”
On January 1, Austin was admitted to the intensive care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after complications from an elective surgery he had on December 22. Austin failed to share his medical condition with White House officials for three days. On the afternoon of January 4, he informed his deputy secretary and the National Security Council of the ICU stay.
Pentagon officials said “at any time” Austin was ready to exercise the power of his position, though they also said he had turned over some operational responsibilities to Acting Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Jan. 2.
Austin has not publicly confirmed what his initial elective surgery was or why he delayed telling the White House about his ICU visit, though he has taken responsibility for the lack of transparency.
“I recognize that I could have done a better job of making sure the public was properly informed. I’m committed to doing better,” Austin said in a statement Saturday.
In Austin’s case, keeping his medical condition hidden from his peers isn’t just a simple miscommunication — it has national security implications.
His secret hospitalization came during a week when the US is weighing several high-profile national security issues, including military action in the Middle East.
On January 4, the Pentagon launched a drone strike in Baghdad that killed an Iranian-backed militia leader as part of the US effort to weaken Iran’s military weapons. The Biden administration was also reportedly holding meetings To discuss options for a strike against the Iran-backed Rebel Houthi group in response to Red Sea attacks on merchant ships, which have disrupted major shipping routes.
Austin’s stark lack of transparency has alarmed members of Congress, some of whom have called for his resignation.
Democratic and Republican representatives from the House Armed Services Committee issued a joint statement on Sunday demanding more clarity about the unknown hospital stay.
“While we wish Sec. Austin a speedy recovery, concerned about how the disclosure of the secretary’s status was handled,” Reps. wrote in the statement. Mike Rogers, R-Ala.
Dr. Elise Stefanik, RN.Y., issued her own statement calling for Austin to resign and for Congress to open an official investigation into the incident.
White House press secretary Karin Jean-Pierre said Monday that President Joe Biden has “absolute confidence” in Austin. Biden spoke with Austin on Saturday night in what a senior administration official described as “a heated conversation.”
Kirby said Monday that Biden respects ownership of Austin’s mistake. He added that while the president has no plans to fire Austin, the White House will consider supporting the communications protocols.
“If there are any changes that need to be made in terms of process and procedure, we will,” he said.
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