Biden Faults Austin for Judgment Lapse, but Says He Still Has Faith in Him

President Biden said on Friday that he maintained confidence in Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, but faulted him for not notifying the White House for days this month about his hospitalization after complications from prostate cancer surgery.

Mr. Biden made the succinct remarks, his first in-person comments on a matter that has raised grave questions about national security and the chain of command, in response to reporters’ shouted questions as he toured small businesses in Pennsylvania.

“I do,” Mr. Biden told reporters when asked if he still had faith in the secretary’s leadership. Asked whether it was a lapse in judgment for Mr. Austin not to have notified him sooner, Mr. Biden responded, “Yes.”

Mr. Austin, 70, was hospitalized and put in intensive care on Jan. 1 after experiencing complications from a surgery he underwent on Dec. 22; the procedure was a prostatectomy, in which part or all of the prostate is removed. But the Pentagon waited three and a half days to inform the White House of his hospitalization, and White House officials said that they also did not know about the cancer diagnosis until this week.

In addition, Kathleen Hicks, the deputy defense secretary, was told on Jan. 2 while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico that the secretary’s power was being transferred to her, but officials have said it was not until days later that she was informed that Mr. Austin was in the hospital.

The communications breakdown left broad concerns about who could answer major national security questions during wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. It has also raised questions about the Defense Department’s competence and Mr. Austin’s credibility.

The White House had previously said Mr. Biden still had confidence in Mr. Austin, and has denied that there was any breakdown in command. Mr. Austin has left intensive care, and John F. Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, has said the secretary has continued to work while hospitalized.

“It was seamless, it was as if — his participation was no different than it would be on any other given day, except he was briefing the president on options and engaging those questions from the hospital, but he was fully engaged,” Mr. Kirby said.

Mr. Austin gave the final go-ahead on a major series of strikes against the Houthi militia in Yemen from the hospital on Thursday.

But Mr. Kirby also acknowledged that the situation should not have played out the way it did.

“It’s not good,” Mr. Kirby said earlier this week. “It’s certainly not good, which is why we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The White House has ordered a review of procedures and sent a directive to cabinet secretaries making clear that they are to inform the White House when they are unable to perform their duties. And the Pentagon’s inspector general has announced an investigation into the “roles, processes, procedures, responsibilities and actions” related to Mr. Austin’s hospitalization.

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