White House officials on Monday reiterated the president’s support for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said he did not intend to resign in the face of sharp bipartisan criticism for failing to disclose his emergency hospitalization to administration officials or Congress for several days.
National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said there are no plans other “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 a Dec. 22 elective surgery. Austin did not communicate his medical status to White House officials for three days, though some staff members said they learned of his condition on Jan. 2.
Congressional leaders, including the top Democrat and Republican on both the House and Senate armed services committees have questioned Austin’s lack of transparency. Some Republicans have gone even further. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., has called on Austin to step down and for Congress to launch a formal investigation into the incident.
Pentagon Press Secretary Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement Monday that Austin “has no plans to resign. He remains focused on conducting his duties as Secretary of Defense in defense of our nation.”
The White House continued to downplay the situation, framing it as a protocol error, and not as a more serious failure in the chain of command.
“If there’s some changes that need to be made in terms of process and procedure, we’ll do that,” said Kirby.
The Pentagon said Austin’s Chief of Staff Kelly Magsamen was informed of Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 2, but she had the flu and did not pass along the message to the National Security Council.
On the afternoon of Jan. 4, Austin informed his deputy secretary and the NSC of the ICU admission.
Pentagon officials said Monday that Austin had been moved out of the ICU and he was in good condition, though he was still experiencing discomfort. He remained in the hospital in a more private area, they said, and did not yet have a release date.
They did not offer any additional information about why he was admitted in the first place.
On Monday, the spokesperson said Austin took several phone calls, including with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
The Pentagon also announced Monday that it would conduct a review of its notification practices, though a spokesperson did not commit to publicizing the findings of that review. The Pentagon’s lawyers were examining whether any laws were broken when Austin failed to report his medical condition.
U.S. Code 3349 requires leaders of executive agencies to report any vacancies among their senior officials as soon as they happen, and report who is acting in the position during the absence.
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, as his condition worsened.
Austin has not revealed what his initial elective surgery was for, nor why he delayed telling the White House about his ICU admission, although he took responsibility for the highly unusual secrecy.
“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. Kirby said that President Joe Biden respects Austin’s ownership of his mistake.
But for the secretary of defense, keeping his medical status hidden is not just a simple communication blunder — it has major national security implications.
Austin’s 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.
The marked lack of transparency from Austin, who is sixth in the line of succession for the presidency, has alarmed members of Congress.
The top Democrat and Republican on 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.
On Monday, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Jack Reed said “this was a serious incident and there needs to be transparency and accountability from the Department.
“This lack of disclosure must never happen again,” said Reed. “I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday that Biden maintains “complete confidence” in Austin. A senior administration official said Biden and Austin spoke by phone Saturday evening in what the official called a “warm conversation.”