Austin, who underwent elective surgery for prostate cancer in late December, was rushed in an ambulance to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Jan. 1 for complications associated with a urinary tract infection. While top staffers
learned about the hospitalization the following day, when Hicks assumed Austin’s duties while on vacation in Puerto Rico, it took days for the White House, Congress and the public to learn of the emergency, and even longer to find out that Austin had been diagnosed with cancer.
By the time that President Joe Biden learned about Austin’s cancer on Tuesday, Austin himself had known for roughly a month.
In a Jan. 6 statement, Austin said he recognized “I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” while noting that “this was my medical procedure, and I take full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure.”
In response to the hospitalization and the media scrutiny that has followed, White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients ordered agencies to review
guidelines for notifying the White House when Cabinet members are unable to perform their duties for medical reasons. But Republicans on Capitol Hill, and at least one Democrat,
are not satisfied with the administration’s response and are calling for Austin’s firing or resignation in response.
Several Senate Republicans who have been calling for accountability over the episode quickly hailed the announcement. Senate Armed Services ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) called it “good news” and continued to press for the panel’s chair, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), to call Austin to testify before the panel.
Reed told reporters Thursday that the various investigations would help inform the committee’s response.
“You have the inspector general and individuals developing the facts, and once we have those, I think we have a better idea of what we want to do, and what we should do,” Reed said.
Wicker has argued Austin breached a legal responsibility to inform certain officials and Congress about his hospitalization, and Wicker has called for an independent investigation. He and other Republicans argue there was a communication breakdown that put national security at risk.
“It was announced a day or two ago that there would be an internal review. We were very much concerned that this would be conducted by some of the very people who were involved in this absence of notice,” Wicker told reporters. “And so it is encouraging to me that we have that opportunity with the DOD inspector general to get to the facts here.”