White House Says ‘No Plan’ To Fire Defense Secretary After Secret Hospitalization

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The White House said on Monday that there is “no plan” to fire Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the top military leader waited several days before informing the public, Congress, Pentagon officials and even the president that he is being hospitalized.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and NSC spokesman John Kirby said that President Joe Biden still has “complete confidence” in Austin, despite the secretary’s stunning lack of communication about his medical status.

“The president’s No. 1 focus is on the secretary’s recovery and he looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible,” Kirby said. “The president respects the fact that Secretary Austin took ownership for the lack of transparency. He also respects the amazing job he’s done as defense secretary.”

“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job,” he continued, adding that the White House will “take a look at the process and procedure here and try to learn from this experience” and see “if there are changes that need to be made.”

Austin was admitted to the intensive care unit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1 after experiencing complications related to an earlier elective surgery. Despite remaining hospitalized all week, many top government leaders — including Biden — were not informed of his condition until Thursday.

The Pentagon disclosed Austin’s hospitalization to the public and Congress on Friday, resulting in swift backlash over the secret nature of a top military leader’s medical status while the country faces multiple national security crises. The department’s second-in-command, Kathleen Hicks, was only informed of Austin’s hospitalization two days after she was asked to assume some of the secretary’s duties.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin looks on during a joint press conference with Israel's defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec.18, 2023.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin looks on during a joint press conference with Israel’s defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Dec.18, 2023.

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

“There’s an expectation that when a Cabinet official becomes hospitalized, that that will be notified up the chain of command,” Kirby said. “There is that expectation.”

Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Sunday that Austin has since resumed his full duties as of Friday evening, receiving operational updates while giving necessary guidance to his team from the hospital.

“He has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor DoD’s day-to-day operations worldwide,” Ryder said in a statement, adding that Austin spoke to Biden on Saturday and has been in contact with Hicks, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. CQ Brown and his senior staff.

Kirby redirected reporters asking about the specifics of Austin’s elective surgery to the Pentagon, adding that he does not know how much Biden knows about the procedure. The Pentagon has not yet disclosed the nature of Austin’s surgery nor what kind of complications he was experiencing.

“I am very glad to be on the mend and look forward to returning to the Pentagon soon,” Austin said in a statement on Saturday. “I also understand the media concerns about transparency and I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better.”

Ryder said that Austin remains hospitalized at Walter Reed as of Sunday, “but is recovering well and in good spirits.” Austin does not yet have a date for his release, he added, but the secretary’s office will continue to give updates on his status.

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