‘I should have told the president’

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin apologized Thursday for not properly handling and communicating his cancer diagnosis and treatment to President Joe Biden, Pentagon staff and the general public.

“I want to be crystal clear. We did not handle this right. And I did not handle this right,” Austin said at a press conference at the Pentagon after returning this week since his hospital stay at the beginning of January.

“I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility. I apologize to my teammates and to the American people,” Austin said.

The defense secretary said he wanted to make clear there were “no gaps in authority” and “no risk to the department’s command and control” during his hospitalization. He said that the Pentagon has already instituted new procedures to ensure no future lapses in notification.

Austin summarized what he went through since receiving a diagnosis for prostate cancer in December, saying that he was “offering all of this as an explanation and not an excuse.”

“The news shook me, and I know that it shakes so many others, especially in the Black community. It was a gut punch,” he said of his diagnosis, which the public was informed about on Jan. 9.

He said his first instinct was to keep the matter private, noting that he’s generally a private person and doesn’t like burdening others with his problems.

“I’ve learned from this experience that taking this kind of job means losing some of the privacy that most of us expect,” Austin said. “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.”

Austin recounted that he had a minimally invasive procedure on Dec. 22 to cure his prostate cancer and after going home the following day, on Jan. 1, he was taken back to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after feeling severe leg pain as well as pain in the abdomen and hip. Doctors determined that Austin had a bladder infection and abdominal problems, he said. On Jan. 2, “I was also experiencing fever and chills and shallow breathing. The medical staff decided to transfer me to the critical care unit for several days for closer monitoring and better team care by my doctors,” he said.

It was on that day that the deputy defense secretary assumed his duties. While the White House and Biden weren’t informed about his hospitalization until two days later, on Jan. 4, Austin said Thursday, “I never directed anyone to keep my January hospitalization from the White House.”

Austin said that he also never directed staff to conceal his hospitalization and never considered resigning from his Cabinet post.

“I can tell you I’ve apologized directly to President Biden,” he said. “And I’ve told him that I’m deeply sorry for not letting him know immediately that I received a heavy diagnosis and was getting treatment. And he has responded with a grace and warm heart that anyone who knows President Biden would expect. And I’m grateful for his full confidence in me.”

Austin was released from Walter Reed in mid-January after more than two weeks of receiving care.

The defense secretary said that he’s still recovering from the complications, still experiencing some leg pain, and is undergoing physical therapy to help improve it. He acknowledged that he’s currently using a golf cart to move around the Pentagon.

Austin said he wanted to use the opportunity to highlight the important public health issue of prostate cancer, which he noted Black men face a higher risk of developing.

“If your doctor can spot it, they can treat it and beat it,” he said. “The side effects that I experienced are highly, highly unusual. So you can count on me to set a better example on this issue today and for the rest of my life.”

Austin said the Pentagon is conducting an internal review into how his hospitalization was communicated to others, as is the Pentagon’s inspector general.

The defense secretary has been called to testify by House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., about what happened at a Feb. 14 hearing. When asked about that at the press conference Thursday, Austin wouldn’t say whether he will testify, noting only that his team will remain in touch with Rogers about answering his questions.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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