Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking to the press for the first time since his Jan. 1 emergency hospitalization, apologized for how he handled the secrecy surrounding his medical absence, including his failure to tell President Biden.
“I want to be crystal clear -- we did not handle this right, and I did not handle this right,” he told reporters during a Pentagon press conference.
Austin was hospitalized Jan. 1 due to complications from a Dec. 22 surgery to treat prostate cancer. Neither Austin nor his staff alerted senior White House officials, including the president, about his diagnosis, his surgery or his subsequent hospitalization. Biden did not learn Austin was in the hospital until Jan. 4, three days after he was admitted. The president and other White House officials did not learn of his cancer diagnosis until days later.
“I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public,” Austin said. “I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”
Austin, who was not released from Walter Reed Medical Center until Jan. 15, said he kept the matter a secret because he was “shook” by his cancer diagnosis and is a private person by nature.
“It was a gut punch, and frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private,” he said. “I don't think it's news that I'm a pretty private guy. I never like burdening others with my problems. It's just not my way. But I've learned from this experience. Taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect.”
Austin, who is still recovering from his time in the hospital and using a small golf cart to move about the Pentagon, emphasized there were “no gaps” and “no risks” in the national security chain of command while he was in the hospital.
“At every moment, either I or the deputy secretary was in full charge,” he said. “And we've already put in place some new procedures to make sure that any lapses in notification don't happen.”
Still, Austin said he and his team will do a better job of notifying the White House if Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks must temporarily assume his duties. It is unclear what Hicks knew of Austin’s condition and when she was made aware of it.
“In the future, if the deputy secretary needs to temporarily assume the office -- the duties of my office, she and several White House offices will be immediately notified, including the White House Situation Room, and so will key officials across the department. And the reason for that assumption of duties will be included in writing,” he said.
Meanwhile, Austin’s staff is running an internal review of the matter and the DOD inspector general has begun its own investigation.
The news of Austin’s secret hospitalization consumed Washington for days, potentially become a political liability for Biden as he pursues re-election.
“I don't talk about conversations with my boss, but I can tell you I've apologized directly to President Biden, and I've told him that I'm deeply sorry for not letting him know immediately that I received a heavy diagnosis and was getting treatment,” Austin said.
Austin said he never considered resigning and the White House made clear early on that Biden continued to have confidence in him.
“He has responded with the grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect, and I'm grateful for his full confidence in me,” Austin said.
However, several congressional Republicans, and one Democrat, have called for Austin’s resignation.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) has requested that Austin appear before the panel on Feb. 14 to discuss the matter.
Austin did not commit to attending the hearing but did say he would remain in contact with Rogers and his office.
“Congress had some very relevant questions that they've asked us, and we will continue to answer those questions,” he said. “We'll continue to work with Chairman Rogers' office to address any additional questions or issues that he might have. And again, we'll stay in touch with Chairman Rogers' office as things play out.”