Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin says cancer diagnosis was 'gut punch,' instinct was keep private

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Thursday, February 1, 2024
Defense Sec. Austin addresses keeping hospitalization secret
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said his cancer diagnosis was a "gut punch" and that his first instinct was to keep it private -- which he acknowledged was a mistake.

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 acknowledged 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. He had a visible limp walking to and from the podium.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin makes a joint statement with Israel Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, after their meeting in Gaza, in Tel Aviv, Israel on Dec. 18, 2023.
AP photo/ Maya Alleruzzo

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. President Biden publicly faulted Austin for not informing him earlier, telling reporters last month he still had confidence in Austin but agreeing it was a lapse in judgement.

Austin said he directly apologized to President 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 contended 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 also 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."

He also said that by keeping his condition under wraps, he missed an opportunity to send an important message.

"I was diagnosed with a highly treatable form of cancer," he said. "A pretty common one: one in eight American men will get prostate cancer, one in six Black men will get it. And so I'm here with a clear message to other men, especially older men. Get screened. Get your regular checkups."