By Steve Holland, Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden did not learn that his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, had prostate cancer until Tuesday, the White House said, minutes after it was disclosed to the public along with an infection that was also kept under wraps.
Austin, who is 70, has been hospitalized since Jan. 1 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center — a fact that the Pentagon had kept from the public, the White House and Congress for much of last week, triggering a major political backlash.
Austin’s own deputy, Kathleen Hicks, was also kept in the dark for days, even after she was told during a vacation in Puerto Rico to assume some of his duties on Jan. 2.
“He (Biden) was not informed until last (Thursday) that Secretary Austin was in the hospital. He was not informed until this morning that the root cause of that hospitalization was prostate cancer,” White House spokesperson John Kirby said.
“Nobody at the White House knew that Secretary Austin had prostate cancer until this morning, and the president was informed immediately after.”
Austin and Biden spoke on Saturday and it was unclear why Biden did not learn until Tuesday about Austin’s prostate cancer.
Republicans seized on the incident as evidence of dereliction of duty by Austin, a retired four-star general who led forces in Iraq and is America’s first Black defense secretary. The Republican who leads the House Armed Services Committee launched a formal inquiry.
“With wars in Ukraine and Israel, the idea that the White House and even your own Deputy did not understand the nature of your condition is patently unacceptable,” Representative Mike Rogers wrote in a letter to Austin on Tuesday.
Austin was taken by ambulance on Jan. 1 to Walter Reed after suffering complications from his Dec. 22 prostate cancer treatment, including nausea with severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain. After he was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, Austin was moved on Jan. 2 to an intensive care unit.
“Further evaluation revealed abdominal fluid collections impairing the function of his small intestines. This resulted in the back up of his intestinal contents which was treated by placing a tube through his nose to drain his stomach,” the hospital said.
Austin’s prostate cancer treatment on Dec. 22 required Austin go under general anesthesia, but he has retained consciousness during his latest visit, according to a statement from Walter Reed.
Walter Reed gave an upbeat outlook for Austin but cautioned that his recovery could take time.
“His infection has cleared. He continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery although this can be a slow process,” it said in a statement released by the Pentagon.
Austin, who is 70, sits just below Biden at the top of the U.S. military’s chain of command, and his duties require him to be available at a moment’s notice 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 from an ICU bed.
The Walter Reed statement was signed by Dr. John Maddox, Trauma Medical Director, and Dr. Gregory Chesnut, Center for Prostate Disease Research of the Murtha Cancer Center Director at Walter Reed.
Biden’s administration has struggled to quiet the political furor that has erupted following revelations that the president, who is running for re-election, did not know of his defense secretary’s Jan. 1 hospitalization until Jan. 4.
The Pentagon initially said Austin’s December treatment was for an elective medical procedure. It was not clear how prostate cancer treatment would be considered elective.
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.
“The secretary continues to remain focused on recovering but more importantly, on carrying out his duties as secretary of defense and defending the nation,” Air Force Major General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing.
The way the Defense Department handled Austin’s hospitalization stands in contrast to how the State Department dealt with then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s prostate surgery on Dec. 15, 2003.
The State Department spokesperson at that time issued a statement in the morning making public that Powell, a retired four-star general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was in surgery at Walter Reed and would remain there for several days.
It also disclosed Powell would be on a reduced schedule while he recovered from the operation. The department’s spokesperson at the time, Richard Boucher, then offered details on Powell’s surgery in his daily briefing.
Ryder said the Pentagon would do better as the White House acknowledged damage to its credibility.
“I think the Pentagon has been very, very honest with themselves about the, the challenge to credibility by what by what has transpired here and by what and by how hard it was for them to be fully transparent with the American people,” Kirby said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Idrees Ali, Steve Holland and Jasper Ward; Writing by Phil Stewart; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Daniel Wallis)