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The White House has brushed off calls for Lloyd Austin’s resignation as it sought to quell a mounting furore over the Pentagon’s decision to withhold information about the defence secretary’s hospitalisation from Joe Biden for days last week.
“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continue the leadership that he has been demonstrating,” John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters on Air Force One as the US president travelled to South Carolina on Monday.
“The president’s number one focus is on his health and recovery and he looks forward to having him back at the Pentagon as soon as possible,” Kirby added.
The furore around Austin’s medical condition swelled after it emerged that the defence secretary had been secretly admitted to hospital on January 1 due to complications from a still-undisclosed elective surgery, transferring his duties to Kathleen Hicks, the deputy Pentagon chief.
The Pentagon failed to inform the White House, including Biden, of his condition until January 4, and did not release a public statement on it until January 5, in a glaring lapse of public transparency as well as a failure of communication within the government.
The criticism of Austin has been compounded by the fact that he was absent without notice in the midst of intense talks within the administration about the US response to growing fears of escalation in the Middle East.
Kirby said the administration would be reviewing the internal “processes and procedures” to try to “learn from this experience” and potentially make “some changes” but said Biden still had confidence in Austin.
The defence secretary, who is 70, remains in hospital but has resumed his duties. In a statement on Saturday he said that he took “full responsibility for my decisions about disclosure”.
“I recognise I could have done a better job ensuring the public was appropriately informed. I commit to doing better,” he added.
Biden and Austin spoke on Saturday and Kirby said the president “respects the fact that Secretary Austin took ownership for the lack of transparency”. Kirby added that Biden “respects the amazing job he’s done as defence secretary, and how he’s handled multiple crisis over the last almost three years now”.
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