Biden says he has confidence in Austin amid scrutiny over defense secretary’s hospitalization

President Joe Biden said Friday that he has confidence in Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after the Pentagon waited three days to tell the White House that the top defense official was in the intensive care unit.

Biden also affirmed that Austin had a “lapse in judgment” by not telling the White House about his hospitalization earlier.

The president’s comments were in response to reporters’ questions when he stopped at a coffee shop in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

A journalist asked the president, “Do you have confidence in Secretary Austin?”

“I do,” Biden responded.

“Was it a lapse in judgment for him not to tell you earlier?” the journalist asked.

“Yes,” Biden said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has previously said during news conferences that the White House has “complete confidence” in Austin, but Friday was the first time the president himself has said so.

Austin was hospitalized days after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer. He was taken by an ambulance to a hospital on Jan. 1 and transferred to the ICU the following day, but his team did not inform the White House about the secretary’s hospitalization until Jan 4.

Austin acknowledged scrutiny over the delay in his hospitalization disclosure, saying in a statement that he is committed to doing better.

“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,” Austin said in a Jan. 6 statement. “But this is important to say: this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”

The White House has also previously acknowledged that the delay in notification of Austin’s hospitalization was a problem.

“It’s true, we didn’t know he was hospitalized, and I’ve said repeatedly that that’s a problem,” said John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, during a Thursday press briefing. “That should not happen again — that if a Cabinet official becomes hospitalized or has to be seen for medical, certainly to the degree where the authority has to be delegated, that the White House needs to know.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks assumed Austin’s duties on Jan. 2, before the White House was aware of Austin’s hospitalization. Austin has since resumed his duties.

Austin is still hospitalized and “remains in good condition,” according to a statement Friday from Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder.

“He’s in contact with his senior staff and has full access to required secure communications capabilities and continues to monitor DOD’s day-to-day operations worldwide,” said Ryder, who added that the Pentagon does not know when Austin will be released from the hospital.

Biden had a phone call with Austin on Jan. 6, which a senior administration official previously indicated was a “warm conversation.”

“The President wished him the best in his recovery and said he looks forward to seeing the Secretary back at the Pentagon soon,” the senior administration official said.