White House rejects calls for US defence chief to go

Lloyd Austin criticised for not disclosing his multiday hospitalisation to the president and public for several days.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Tel Aviv, Israel, last month [Violeta Santos Moura/Reuters]

US President Joe Biden does not plan to fire Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin over his failure to disclose for days that he has been hospitalised, the White House says, despite calls from Republicans for the removal of the Pentagon chief.

Austin, 70, sits just below Biden, a Democrat, in the chain of command of the US military. He remains in hospital, which he entered on New Year’s Day.

“There is no plan for anything other than for Secretary Austin to stay in the job and continue the leadership that has been exhibited,” John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told reporters on Air Force One on Monday.

“We’ll do what’s akin to a hot wash and try to see if processes and procedures need to be changed at all or modified so that we can learn from this,” Kirby said.

U.S. President Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden is flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

Austin has been criticised for failing to immediately tell the president and the public about his hospitalisation during a war in the Gaza Strip and fears that the conflict could spread in the Middle East.

Former President Donald Trump, a Republican who is a likely rival to Biden in November’s presidential election, has argued that Austin should be fired from his position for his lack of transparency, calling it “improper professional conduct and dereliction of duty”.

“He has been missing for one week, and nobody, including his boss, Crooked Joe Biden, had a clue as to where he was or might be,” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social.

Elise Stefanik, a Republican congressperson from New York and member of the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives, called for Austin’s resignation.

“There must be full accountability beginning with the immediate resignation of Secretary Austin and those that lied for him and a Congressional investigation into this dangerous dereliction of duty,” Stefanik said in a statement.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Biden had “complete confidence” in Austin.

Kirby said the “main focus” is Austin’s health and recovery.

“He has already resumed all his authorities. He’s already doing all the functions he would normally do. He’s just doing it right now from the hospital,” he said.

It was revealed on Sunday that Austin’s hospitalisation was kept more secret than previously known, including his deputy and others close to Biden being unaware of Austin’s health condition.

“There was no notification of knowledge at the White House or the National Security Council until Thursday afternoon,” Kirby said.

The health issue that Austin is receiving treatment for has not been disclosed by the US government. Kirby said he did not have that information but Biden and Austin had spoken in recent days.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies