The White House has been unusually vocal in its criticism of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's handling of his illness. “This is not the way this should happen,” said National Security Council communications director John Kirby on Tuesday, referring to the Pentagon chief’s information policy. He had recently made his prostate cancer public. According to the White House, US President Joe Biden only found out about it about a month after the diagnosis was made at the beginning of December. Calls from political opponents for the minister's resignation are becoming louder. The White House expressed its confidence in the minister.
The minister's health was the subject of speculation in the United States for days after the 70-year-old's continued hospitalization became known on Friday. The Pentagon provided sparse information about this - and only with a delay. Austin announced on Tuesday that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December. Shortly before Christmas he underwent an operation. Finally, complications arose on New Year's Day, the responsible clinic said. Austin had to go to the hospital because of a urinary tract infection and was temporarily treated in the intensive care unit.
US President Biden also did not know for several days that his minister was in the hospital. In the USA, the question arose as to who actually had the authority in the Pentagon in international crises such as the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and the tense situation in the Middle East if the defense minister was absent. The Pentagon therefore came under heavy criticism. It is common practice in the United States for the public to be very closely informed about the health of its top politicians.
The White House initially supported Austin and praised his achievements as Pentagon chief. Austin apologized for the information policy over the weekend. However, he did not provide any information about why he was in the hospital at all. Now the turning point came when the diagnosis became known: Biden was only informed on Tuesday morning that Austin had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, the White House announced. The Democrat found out about it just a few hours before the public. This was not “optimal,” the White House said.
In the press conference, both Kirby and spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre clearly expressed their dissatisfaction with the information policy. As a cabinet member, you have an obligation to be as transparent as possible, Kirby said. "The President (...) believes that transparency with the American people is very important." That's why something like this shouldn't happen again. When asked how it could be that Biden and Austin spoke on the phone a few days ago and the minister's diagnosis was not discussed, the White House had no answer.
As soon as it became known that Austin had kept his hospital stay secret for several days, political opponents called for Austin's resignation. But Democrats also expressed criticism. Now numerous Republicans are once again emphasizing that Austin cannot be kept in office. Republican Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, launched an investigation into the events. “The department is a robust institution designed to function when attacked by our enemies, but it is not designed for a minister who hides the fact that he is incapable of acting,” he wrote.
Four Republican members of Congress who themselves served in the military wrote to Biden. It is "dangerous, reckless and more than worrying" that a defense minister does not follow protocol during an operation. "If he does not resign, he should be fired immediately."
The White House didn't want to go that far on Tuesday. Asked whether Biden plans to hold on to Austin until the end of his term early next year, Kirby said, "Yes." Biden now wishes him a speedy recovery. He said he has confidence in Austin's ability to lead in the future because he has seen how well the minister has led in the past. The Pentagon said Austin was fully meeting his expenses from the hospital.
It remained unclear when the minister would be released from the hospital. Austin is making progress and “a full recovery” is expected, the treating clinic said. The infection has now subsided. But this could be a long process. With regard to the diagnosis of prostate cancer, it was said that the disease was detected early and the prognosis for a cure was “excellent”.
Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer among men in the United States after nonmelanoma skin cancer. In the early stages, the chances of recovery are generally good. The prostate (prostate gland) is an organ the size of a walnut that surrounds the base of the urethra in men.