US President Joe Biden is not considering firing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a White House official said, but the official was unaware whether Mr Austin was unconscious in the last several days.
Mr Austin withheld his hospitalisation on New Year’s Day from the president and the public for days and on Saturday said he took “full responsibility” for the secrecy.
The Pentagon waited until Friday evening to announce that Mr Austin, 70, had been hospitalised four days prior “for complications following a recent elective medical procedure” – a breach of standard protocol at a time when the United States is embroiled in the Middle East crisis.
NBC News reported Mr Austin was in the intensive care unit for four days.
The number two at the US Defense Department was not informed that Mr Austin had been hospitalised when she assumed some of his duties on 2 January, according to a report from CNN.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks was not notified until two days later that Mr Austin had been admitted to hospital on New Year’s Day, CNN reported yesterday citing two unidentified defence officials.
Reuters reported on Saturday that President Biden was only informed of the hospitalisation on Thursday evening, according to a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Mr Austin sits just below Mr Biden at the top of the chain of command of the US military and his duties require his being available at a moment’s notice to respond to any manner of national security crisis.
Mr Austin said in a statement on Saturday that he took “full responsibility” for the secrecy surrounding an ongoing, week-long hospitalisation for a still unspecified medical condition.
A spokesperson for the Pentagon said Mr Austin remains in the hospital and is “recovering well,” noting that he resumed his full duties on Friday evening. Politico reported that General Charles Q Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, did not learn of Mr Austin’s hospitalisation until Tuesday.
The Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment on when Ms Hicks and Gen Brown learned of Mr Austin’s hospitalisation.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said during a press conference yesterday that he “wasn’t aware of his medical issue” and had spoken to Mr Austin last weekend.
“I’m very much looking forward to seeing him fully recovered and working side by side,” Mr Blinken said.
It remains unclear the extent to which his duties were delegated to Ms Hicks, or whether Mr Austin was involved in any key decisions during his absence.
The Pentagon has yet to detail why Mr Austin is being treated, whether he lost consciousness over the past week or offer any details on when he might be discharged from the hospital.
Democratic Representative James Clyburn told CNN that he had been told Mr Austin is “now in charge of things as he was before the illness” and that he did not think the lack of disclosure was a dereliction of duty.
“He does have a duty to keep the public informed, and I don’t know whether it was him or somebody inside of the military establishment that decided to do it this way, but I’m sure he will do a little better going forward, as he said he would,” Mr Clyburn said.