By MJ Lee, Oren Liebermann, Haley Britzky, Natasha Bertrand and Kevin Liptak, CNN
(CNN) — President Joe Biden was not aware for days that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was hospitalized, a source familiar with the matter told CNN.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan ultimately informed Biden late Thursday afternoon, soon after Sullivan himself learned Austin had been hospitalized, the source said. Austin was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day due to complications from an elective surgery.
The Pentagon announced the hospitalization Friday. Austin issued his first statement Saturday, five days after being admitted to the hospital, saying he could have done a “better job” of notifying the public.
Austin offered no details about his condition, nor did he say exactly why he was hospitalized on January 1. As of Saturday evening, he remained in the hospital, according to a defense official.
On Saturday evening, Austin thanked the “amazing” staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for the care he has received and said he is “on the mend” and looking forward to returning to the Pentagon.
He acknowledged “media concerns about transparency” and said “I commit to doing better” in the statement, which totaled seven sentences. But he did not apologize for failing to notify the public or the press in a timely fashion. Senior administration and military officials who are hospitalized normally put out a statement within 24 hours.
On New Year’s Day – the day Austin was admitted to the hospital – the defense secretary was among Biden’s top national security officials who participated in a call with the president to discuss, among other things, the escalating situation in the Red Sea, a source familiar with the call told CNN.
It was not clear whether the call – which was said to have taken place in the morning – was before or after Austin was hospitalized. But the secretary sounded fine during the meeting, the source said.
The fact that the defense secretary spoke directly with the president about highly sensitive national security matters on the day he had to be admitted to the hospital – and that the White House would not learn about it until days later – underscored the highly unusual nature of the circumstances.
Senior administration officials said they were shocked to learn of Austin’s hospitalization and the delay in informing the White House. The overriding reaction has been one of concern for the well-being of Austin, who is generally well-liked within the White House.
Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks periodically assumed the duties of the defense secretary while she was on vacation in Puerto Rico during the time Austin was hospitalized, two US officials said. Hicks had arrived in Puerto Rico prior to Austin’s hospitalization.
GOP Sen. Roger Wicker, the highest-ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Saturday that the chain of events was “unacceptable.”
“Worryingly, we now have more questions than answers. Why was the notification process under 5 U.S.C. 3349 not followed and who made the determination not to follow it?” he said, alleging Austin did not follow the US code for reporting vacancies in an office, which applies to the head of each executive agency.
“What role did the Secretary of Defense’s staff play? When exactly was the President notified? What justification did the Department have for withholding information from the National Security Council? To what extent was the Secretary incapacitated by his surgery?” he said in a statement.
“The very fact that we have none of this information is an indictment of an administration which consistently holds Congressional authority on national defense matters in contempt,” Wicker added.
Austin has since reassumed his full duties, and a White House official told CNN that Biden and Austin spoke Saturday evening. The White House official described the call as a “warm conversation,” and added the “president has complete confidence in Secretary Austin and is looking forward to him being back in the Pentagon.”
The congressional oversight committees were not notified of Austin’s hospitalization until Friday night, according to three congressional aides familiar with the matter.
Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Friday evening that Austin was “recovering well.”
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.
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