Senior White House officials pushed the Pentagon to release a statement on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization after learning of his status on Thursday, two administration officials told CNN.
White House chief of staff Jeff Zients and national security adviser Jake Sullivan called Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, on Thursday urging the department to release a public disclosure statement as soon as possible, the officials said.
Sullivan learned about Austin’s hospitalization shortly before he and deputy national security adviser Jon Finer were set to appear with Austin at an event at Joint Base Myer on Thursday, one official said.
The Pentagon is reiterating that DoD officials began drafting the public statement as “a logical next step,” seemingly pushing back on reports that the White House pushed defense officials to release a statement.
“On the afternoon of January 4, the Deputy Secretary and Secretary of Defense’s Chief of Staff immediately engaged on the drafting of a public statement and congressional outreach. This was a logical next step and part of a coordinated effort that involved multiple stakeholders, to include the White House,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday.
Politico was the first to report on the White House’s push for a statement.
Austin is being treated for prostate cancer and suffered complications that led to him being taken to the hospital on New Year’s Day, according to a statement on Tuesday from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
The statement revealed that the cancer was discovered in early December. He underwent a “minimally invasive surgical procedure” on December 22 called a prostatectomy to treat the cancer.
On January 1, Austin was readmitted to the hospital due to complications “including nausea with severe abdominal, hip and leg pain.” He was found to have a urinary tract infection, the statement said.
The Pentagon had been facing intense questions after it was revealed on Friday that he had been admitted to Walter Reed on January 1 and had been hospitalized for days without notifying the public. It was subsequently reported that President Joe Biden, senior national security officials and even Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks – who had assumed Austin’s duties – were not aware of the defense secretary’s hospitalization until three days after he was admitted.
It was previously unclear if Austin had been under anesthesia during the procedure, which the Pentagon had not previously disclosed and did not alert the White House to.
Following the confusion of Austin’s hospitalization last week, Zients is ordering agencies to submit for review their protocols for delegating authority when a Cabinet official is incapacitated.
As the review proceeds, Zients said in a memo on Tuesday that agencies must tell the White House if agency heads are unable to perform their duties, spelling out a procedure that the defense secretary did not follow last week when he was admitted to hospital without informing the White House.
Despite the obfuscation of his diagnosis to the president, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the president has “complete confidence” in Austin and plans to keep him in his position through his term, while simultaneously acknowledging the situation was not ideal.
According to the American Cancer Society, prostate cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in American men, behind lung cancer. Black men are 70% more likely to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than White men and are more than twice as likely to die from the disease.
While it can be serious, most men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not die from it, and the death rate has declined sharply over the last few decades.
CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Natasha Bertrand and Shania Shelton contributed to this report.