(WASHINGTON) — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, facing reporter questions for the first time since his secret hospitalization, said his cancer diagnosis was a “gut punch” and that his first instinct was to keep it private — which he now acknowledges was a mistake.
“We did not handle this right. I did not handle this right,” Austin said.
“I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis, and should also have told my team and the American public,” he continued. “I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people.”
The media briefing was also the first time the public is seeing him standing. He continues to undergo physical therapy, and said he is recovering well but still has some leg pain.
The defense secretary underwent a minimally invasive surgical procedure for prostate cancer Dec. 22, which led to a urinary tract infection and serious intestinal complications. He was hospitalized again on Jan. 1, but the White House didn’t learn of it for three days.
The delay in informing President Joe Biden and top administration officials of his hospitalization prompted intense scrutiny and is under investigation by lawmakers and the Pentagon.
Austin also said he directly apologized to Biden, and told him he was “deeply sorry” for not letting him know of his diagnosis immediately.
Asked by ABC News whether he ever considered resigning amid the severe blowback from his handling of the situation, Austin said no.
Austin said he never “directed anyone” to keep his Jan. 1 hospitalization from the White House, and also denied creating a “culture of secrecy.”
The secretary was pressed further on what his staff knew and when, and whether he directed his aide to ask a 911 dispatcher to have the ambulance arrive at his home with no lights or sirens.
“I asked my assistant to call the ambulance,” he said. “I did not direct him to do anything further than just calling ambulance. And so what he said and why he said it, I think that should come out in the review as well.”
Asked if they were committed to sharing that review with the public, Austin said some information may be classified but they “share as much as possible as soon as possible.”
Austin spoke frankly about his first response after learning about his cancer diagnosis.
“The news shook me, as I know that it shakes so many others, especially in the Black community. It was a gut punch,” he said. “And frankly, my first instinct was to keep it private. I don’t think it’s news that I’m a pretty private guy. I never like burdening others with my problems. It’s just not my way.”
“But I’ve learned from this experience,” he continued. “Taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect. The American people have a right to know if their leaders are facing health challenges that might affect their ability to perform their duties — even temporarily. So a wider circle should have been notified, especially the president.”
On Jan. 12, Biden publicly faulted Austin for not informing him earlier that he was hospitalized for complications from cancer treatment.
When a reporter asked Biden whether it was “a lapse in judgment for him not to tell you earlier,” Biden replied, “Yes.”
At the same time, when asked by a reporter if he still had confidence in Austin, Biden replied he did.
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