Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin’s Mysterious Hospitalization—Which Biden Didn’t Even Know About—Explained

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The Department of Defense hid Pentagon Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization for days from both the White House and his deputy who assumed some of his duties, according to multiple reports, prompting widespread outrage at a sensitive time for the U.S. military amid wars in Ukraine and Israel.

Austin was hospitalized on Jan. 1 for complications resulting from an elective medical procedure, the Pentagon said Friday, but the White House was unaware of his hospitalization until Thursday, according to multiple reports.

Austin spent four days in intensive care, according to NBC, and was still hospitalized as of Saturday night.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks partially resumed some of his duties, and was not told until Thursday why Austin was not working, CNN reported Sunday, citing two anonymous defense officials.

The Pentagon reportedly told senior Defense officials he was working from home for the week, and did not notify Congress until 15 minutes before his hospitalization was made public in a Pentagon statement Friday evening, Politico reported.

News of the secret broke Saturday night, prompting widespread outrage among media and lawmakers, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who warned there would be “consequences” for Austin, while the Pentagon Press Association asserted in a statement “Secretary Austin has no claim to privacy in this situation.”

Biden spoke to Austin Saturday night, according to an anonymous government official, who reportedly told Politico the two had a “cordial conversation” and assured the outlet “the president has complete trust and confidence” in Austin.

“The secretary of defense is the key link in the chain of command between the president and the uniformed military, including the nuclear chain of command, when the weightiest of decisions must be made in minutes,” Cotton said in a statement. “If this report is true, there must be consequences for this shocking breakdown.” Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who served as President Obama’s secretary of defense, also was critical, telling Politico, “The president has to know where his Cabinet members are at all times.”

Austin released a statement Saturday, saying “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.” He added: “But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.” The Pentagon attributed the information lapse to an “evolving situation” and “medical and personal privacy issues,” while Austin admitted an err in judgment and said he “commit[s] to doing better” in a statement.

Austin, a retired four-star Army general, became the first Black Pentagon chief days after Biden took office in January 2021, when the Senate confirmed Austin in a 93-2 vote. His hospitalization comes at a particularly precarious time for the U.S. military as Navy ships stationed in the Red Sea have increasingly been caught in the crossfire of the Israel-Hamas war. The secret also adds tension to ongoing negotiations between Democrats and Republicans for additional aid to Ukraine and Israel. Austin has advocated for the funding increase on behalf of the White House, but the deal has been stalled in Congress over Republican demands for stricter border controls. The Defense Department has repeatedly come under fire from Republicans throughout Biden’s tenure over culture war issues, including its policies surrounding abortion and gender-affirming care for military members.

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