White House backs Defense Sec. Austin after secret ICU stay

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  • Biden has no plans to fire Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is under fire for not disclosing his emergency hospitalization to top officials for several days.
  • Austin was in the intensive care unit at a D.C. hospital for complications after an elective surgery and kept White House officials out of the loop for three days.
  • Members of Congress have expressed alarm at the lack of transparency, some calling for Austin’s resignation.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin speaks to the media after a meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base on April 21, 2023 in Ramstein-Miesenbach, Germany.
Thomas Lohnes | Getty Images

White House officials on Monday reinforced their support for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who is under fire for failing to disclose his emergency hospitalization to administration officials for several days.

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that there are no other plans “than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job.”

On Jan. 1, Austin was admitted to the intensive care unit at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after complications from an elective surgery he had on Dec. 22. Austin failed to communicate his medical status to White House officials for three days. On the afternoon of Jan. 4, he informed his deputy secretary and the National Security Council of the ICU stay.

Pentagon officials said that “at all times” Austin was ready to exercise the power of his post, though they also reported that he transferred some operational responsibilities to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks on Jan. 2.

Austin has not publicly confirmed what his initial elective surgery was nor why he delayed telling the White House about his ICU visit, though he took responsibility for the lack of transparency.

“I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” Austin said in a statement Saturday.

In Austin’s case, keeping his medical status hidden from peers is not just a simple communication blunder — it has national security implications.

His secret hospitalization came during a week when the U.S. was weighing several notable national security matters, including military action in the Middle East.

On Jan. 4, the Pentagon launched a drone strike in Baghdad that killed an Iran-backed militia leader as part of the U.S. effort to weaken Iranian military arms. The Biden administration also reportedly held meetings to discuss options for a strike against the Iran-backed Houthi rebel group in response to its Red Sea attacks against commercial ships, which have disrupted major shipping routes.

Austin’s marked 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 on the undisclosed hospital stay.

“While we wish Sec. Austin a speedy recovery, we are concerned with how the disclosure of the Secretary’s condition was handled,” Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Adam Smith, D-Wash., wrote in the statement.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., issued her own statement calling for Austin to step down and for Congress to launch a formal investigation into the incident.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that President Joe Biden maintains “complete confidence” in Austin. Biden spoke with Austin Saturday evening in what a senior administration official described as “a warm conversation.”

Kirby said Monday that Biden respects Austin’s ownership of the mistake. He added that while the president does not intend to fire Austin, the White House will look into shoring up communication protocols.

“If there’s some changes that need to be made in terms of process and procedure, we’ll do that,” he said.

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