By Jeff Mason, Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden does not plan to fire Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin after his failure to disclose his hospitalization last week, officials said on Monday, as the Pentagon revealed a second hospital stay that was kept from the White House.
Biden’s administration attempted to quiet a political furor that has erupted following revelations over the past several days that Biden did not know his defense secretary was in the hospital for several days, although Austin’s role means that he is supposed to be available at a moment’s notice in the case of a national security emergency.
Some prominent Republicans, including Donald Trump, called for Austin to be removed from his job.
But the Pentagon said the retired four-star general had no plans to resign and the White House said Biden was not seeking to remove him. Austin remains at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington D.C., where he was taken by ambulance on New Year’s Day and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit for reasons that are unclear.
The Pentagon said that Austin was carrying on with business, even as he remains hospitalized. He had calls on Monday with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, General Erik Kurilla, who heads U.S. troops in the Middle East, and other senior national security leaders.
“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job,” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told reporters on Air Force One on Monday.
Former President Trump, who is Biden’s likely Republican challenger in the 2024 election, said Austin should be fired for his “improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty.”
“He has been missing for one week, and nobody, including his boss, Crooked Joe Biden, had a clue as to where he was, or might be,” Trump wrote on Truth Social.
Austin, who is 70, sits just below Biden at the top of the chain of command of the U.S. military, and his duties require him being available to respond to any national security crisis.
That includes always being ready to enter secure communications with other officials in the event of an incoming nuclear attack, something that would be difficult to do from an ICU bed.
Air Force Major General Patrick Ryder, the chief Pentagon spokesperson, disclosed that Austin had also been admitted to Walter Reed on Dec. 22 for an overnight stay for a still-undisclosed elective medical procedure that required him to transfer certain authority to his deputy, Kathleen Hicks. Ryder said the White House also was not informed of that hospitalization.
“There must be full accountability beginning with the immediate resignation of Secretary Austin and those that lied for him,” Elise Stefanik, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Top U.S. Senate Republican Mitch McConnell was asked about Austin’s nondisclosure and told reporters: “It was certainly a shock to everyone.” He ignored repeated questions about whether Austin should resign.
‘LACK OF DISCLOSURE MUST NOT HAPPEN AGAIN’
The Pentagon said that Austin spoke with Democratic Senator Jack Reed, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, over the weekend.
In a statement on Monday, Reed said he was concerned “that vital chain-of-command and notification procedures were not followed while the Secretary was under medical care.”
“This lack of disclosure must never happen again. I am tracking the situation closely and the Department of Defense is well aware of my interest in any and all relevant information,” Reed added.
Officials disclosed on Sunday that Austin’s deputy Hicks was among the long list of people who were kept in the dark for days about his most recent hospitalization.
Hicks assumed some of Austin’s operational duties on Jan. 2, while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico. But Hicks was only told why Austin was unavailable on Jan. 4, the Pentagon said.
That is the same day that Biden and other senior White House officials learned Austin had been hospitalized since Jan. 1.
The list of outstanding questions about Austin’s hospitalization is long, and includes what Austin is being treated for at Walter Reed, whether he was ever unconscious and whether he broke any laws about notifications to the White House or Congress.
The Pentagon said Austin was doing well and had resumed full duties, but could not say whether he may be under heavy pain medication or whether he was taking medication at all. It has not shared his formal medical prognosis or said definitively whether these two hospitalizations are the only ones that were withheld from public disclosure.
Ryder said he did not know what elective medical procedure Austin had sought in December or details about his specific medication condition. Kirby also said he did not have that information, but that Biden and Austin had talked in recent days.
“It is not something that we can speak to,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said when asked about Austin’s illness, adding that the president had spoken to him on Saturday.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Phil Stewart, Patricia Zengerle, Andrea Shalal, Idrees Ali and David Morgan; Writing by Doina Chiacu, Heather Timmons and Phil Stewart; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Rosalba O’Brien)