Lawmakers demand answers after Defense Secretary Austin delayed disclosing his hospitalization

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has come under scrutiny from a growing number of congressional lawmakers who are demanding answers after the Defense Department delayed informing administration officials, Congress and the public about his hospitalization.

The Pentagon waited three days after Austin arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to inform senior officials in the White House’s National Security Council of Austin’s condition, including that he had spent four days in the intensive care unit, a U.S. official previously confirmed to NBC News.

Austin’s deputy, Kathleen Hicks, who was on vacation in Puerto Rico at the time, learned about his condition two days after she took over her duties, a senior defense official told NBC News on Sunday.

On Monday, Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters that he was informed about Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 2, a day after he was admitted and two days before President Joe Biden and national security adviser Jake Sullivan were told. Ryder briefed reporters on camera on Thursday and did not disclose the secretary’s continued hospitalization. He did not provide further details — including whether he was directed not to tell anyone.

Ryder also said Monday that the Pentagon’s lawyers are reviewing whether any laws were broken during this failure to notify U.S. leaders and Congress.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, of New York, the No. 4 Republican in the House, on Monday called on Austin to resign. She decried the Pentagon’s move to wait several days to notify administration officials about Austin’s hospitalization as a “shocking and absolutely unacceptable” decision.

“This concerning lack of transparency exemplifies a shocking lack of judgment and a significant national security threat,” she said in a statement. “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.”

Austin was still in the hospital as of Sunday night, with no date set for his release, Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement. Ryder noted that Austin is “recovering well” following complications from an elective surgery and that he has resumed his duties. The Pentagon has declined to share more information about his condition and what led him to be hospitalized, citing “privacy reasons.”

During a press gaggle aboard Air Force One, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby on Monday confirmed that the White House and NSC were not told about Austin’s condition until Jan. 4, but said that President Joe Biden’s focus is on the defense secretary’s “health and recovery.”

Biden is not considering firing Austin for not disclosing his hospitalization last week, three administration officials told NBC News. The president still has “full trust and confidence” in Austin, one of the officials said. 

Biden and Austin spoke by phone on Saturday evening in what one senior administration official described as a “warm conversation,” during which the president “wished him the best in his recovery.”

The Pentagon said that Austin does not intend to offer his resignation.

“Secretary Austin has no plans to resign. He remains focused on conducting his duties as Secretary of Defense in defense of our nation,” Ryder said Monday in a statement.

Multiple members of Congress signaled that Austin will face questions from lawmakers as they return from their winter recess this week.

“I’m surprised, I want to hear the whole story, just why was he in the hospital, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, the number two Senate Democrat. “He has all but confessed that he didn’t follow the procedure and accepted responsibility. But we need to know more.”

“We hope Secretary Austin is doing okay, he’s an important guy, said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said. But the idea that the [the Secretary of Defense] is sort of out of commission and the president of the United States doesn’t even know about it strikes me as a monumental screw-up.”

Republican Sens. Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon’s delay is “unacceptable” and demonstrates the Defense Department’s “shocking defiance of the law.”

“Members must be briefed on a full accounting of the facts immediately,” Wicker said in a statement.

He added: “Worryingly, we now have more questions than answers. Why was the notification process … not followed and who made the determination not to follow it? What role did the Secretary of Defense’s staff play? When exactly was the President notified? What justification did the Department have for withholding information from the National Security Council? To what extent was the Secretary incapacitated by his surgery? The very fact that we have none of this information is an indictment of an administration which consistently holds Congressional authority on national defense matters in contempt.”

Cotton demanded that Austin “address promptly the troubling report” of the Pentagon not immediately notifying Biden or the National Security Council of his inability to carry out his duties.

In a later appearance on Fox News, he said Austin may need to resign. “It would appear that Lloyd Austin is the person who needs to resign, or his chief of staff, or both of them, because it also sounds like many senior Department of Defense officials were also not in the loop,” he said.

Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., a member of the House Armed Services Committee who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, told NBC News that Austin’s delayed disclosure was a “terrible mistake in judgment” and called for an “honest review” from the White House on the matter before making a call on whether Austin should resign.

“With a ‘zero fail’ nuclear deterrence mission, the decision by the Secretary of Defense to not tell the White House nor his deputy who was on vacation that he was in the ICU was a terrible mistake in judgment,” he said. “But not only for our nuclear deterrence mission, we need a clear chain of command everyday with Russia, China, Iran and Hamas.”

A Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee did not call for Austin’s resignation but told NBC News the defense secretary should hold a news conference to explain himself.

“It is very, very egregious in my opinion that the White House was not informed,” the Democrat said. “I don’t think he needs to step down, but I think he needs to explain this to the public.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D., Calif., echoed that in an interview Monday: “I do think he owes an explanation. It strikes me as not correct to have kept this private.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., a former Central Intelligence Agency case officer, said the White House should have known about Austin’s hospitalization “immediately,” but acknowledged the possible rationale for why his condition wasn’t made public initially.

“The fact that there wasn’t a public pronouncement to me is wholly acceptable. There’s a variety of reasons why the health and, you know, ongoings of our top nations officials may not need to be broadcast out for foreign governments to hear and learn about,” she said during a Monday interview on MSNBC.

“But certainly within the [Defense] Department and certainly within the White House, they should have been briefed immediately,” she added, calling for “a review to ensure that there wasn’t any jeopardizing of national security protocols or processes because of his condition.”

Austin in a statement Saturday took “full responsibility” for the lack of disclosure.

On board Air Force One, Kirby told reporters that Biden “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 and how he’s handled multiple crisis over the last almost three years now. And very much values his advice, candor leadership, and again, looks forward to having him back.”

Asked whether the president wants an official review into the delay in communicating Austin’s hospitalization to White House officials, Kirby said he expects the NSC will “do what’s akin to a hot wash” to try to see if there are any changes or modifications to improve processes and procedures for Cabinet secretaries to disclose medical procedures and hospitalizations.