White House will review defense secretary’s hospitalization notification, but Biden has


Washington
CNN
 — 

The White House will review the “process and procedure” surrounding Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization last week and make changes, if necessary, but President Joe Biden has no plans to fire him.

“We will obviously, I think, as you might expect, we’ll take a look at the process and procedure here and try to learn from this experience,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters aboard Air Force One.

He said if there are changes required following that review, the White House would implement them.

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

Still, Kirby said Biden retains confidence in Austin and looks forward to seeing him return to the Pentagon.

“I think our main focus right now is on Secretary Austin’s health and making sure that he gets all the care and the support that he needs to fully recover,” Kirby said.

“There is no plans or anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continue in the leadership that he’s been been demonstrating,” he added.

Austin is facing intense questions after it was revealed on Friday that he had been hospitalized at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for days without notifying the public. It was subsequently reported that Biden, senior national security officials and even Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks – who had assumed Austin’s duties – were not aware of the Defense secretary’s hospitalization until three days after he was admitted.

In a statement Saturday, Austin said, “I recognize I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better. But this is important to say: This was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”

The Pentagon revealed Monday that it did not inform the White House that Austin would be traveling to Walter Reed to undergo an elective medical procedure on December 22, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder said in response to a question from CNN.

It was that procedure that led to the complications that resulted in Austin suffering severe pain and being transported in an ambulance to Walter Reed on January 1, where he remained as of Monday.

Ryder said he did not know what procedure Austin was undergoing on December 22, but that during the procedure he delegated certain responsibilities to Hicks. Hicks did not know when she was delegated those authorities that Austin was in the hospital undergoing that procedure, Ryder said.

Ryder added later that Austin has not offered to resign, nor has his chief of staff or anyone else who was in a position to notify the president of Austin’s condition. He remains in the hospital, though he is no longer in intensive care, Ryder said.

In a memo Monday, Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, directed a 30-day review of the Pentagon’s processes and procedures for notifying senior national security leaders and the White House when the secretary needs to transfer his authorities to the deputy secretary of defense.

This appears to be the first public memo from the Office of the Secretary of Defense signed by Magsamen, who had the primary responsibility of notifying other officials of Austin’s status. Ryder told reporters that Magsamen was out sick and therefore did not notify senior leaders or the White House of Austin’s condition until days later.

In the memo, Magsamen said she has directed the department’s director of administration and management, together with its general counsel, “to immediately lead a review to identify the relevant facts and circumstances during this period and evaluate the processes and procedures through which the Deputy Secretary of Defense was notified” that she would be given Austin’s responsibilities.

The memo, however, makes no mention of Austin’s earlier hospitalization on December 22 for the elective medical procedure.

On Monday, Kirby said Austin “took ownership” of the situation in his statement, a step he said Biden “respects.”

“He also respects the amazing job he’s done as Defense secretary. Now he’s handled multiple crises over the last almost three years now. And (he) very much values his advice,” Kirby said.

White House press seecretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden has “complete confidence” in Austin and looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon.

She declined to say whether Biden knows what the initial medical procedure was that resulted in Austin’s hospitalization.

Kirby described the review process to be undertaken as “akin to a hot wash” as officials look to “see if processes and procedures need to be changed at all or modified so that we can learn from this.” A “hot wash” is a term used by the government to describe an intense, quick review of a situation.

Kirby confirmed no one in the White House or the National Security Council knew of Austin’s situation until Thursday afternoon, saying the process in place at the White House accounts only for principal’s general whereabouts.

“There’s a process for the Situation Room, the ops center, to check in every morning to get the general location of all the non-White House principals, Cabinet officers,” he said. “There is a process of connection to the agencies to do that. But it’s generic. It’s for what town they’re in, DC or overseas, where they are. That’s the process. The issue of when a Cabinet official gets hospitalized, that’s really on the agency to inform that that has happened.”

Austin’s lack of disclosure is drawing sharp barbs from Capitol Hill.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Elise Stefanik, who is also a member of the House Armed Services Committee, on Monday became the most senior House Republican to call on Austin to resign.

“This concerning lack of transparency exemplifies a shocking lack of judgment and a significant national security threat. There must be full accountability beginning with the immediate resignation of Secretary Austin and those that lied for him and a Congressional investigation into this dangerous dereliction of duty,” Stefanik posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter.

The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democratic Sen. Jack Reed, said in a release that he’s concerned notification procedures were not followed and said that it “must never happen again.”

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters that he was “surprised” by Austin’s failure to disclose his hospitalization.

“I’m a big fan of the secretary. I voted for him, I’d do it again, but there are a lot of unanswered questions, and a lot of his friends would like to know just what happened,” said Durbin, saying that calls to oust Austin were coming “way too early.”

Asked whether he was disappointed, he said, “I was surprised. I want to hear the whole story – why was he in the hospital and what was the circumstance? He has all but confessed that he didn’t follow the procedure and accepted responsibility, but we need to know more.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

CNN’s Oren Liebermann, Haley Talbot, Haley Britzky, Morgan Rimmer and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.



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