'Not Optimal': John Kirby Acknowledges SecDef Austin's Failure to Notify WH of Condition Is a Problem

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

If the idea behind making a late Friday announcement regarding the hospitalization of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was to aid in it quietly being forgotten over the weekend, chalk it up as a colossal failure. Since the news first came to light, the story has only mushroomed and raised myriad questions regarding the Pentagon chain of command, communication in the Biden administration, and where the heck those in-charge "adults" are. 


On Tuesday afternoon, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby took to the podium in the White House Briefing Room and addressed several rather pointed questions regarding Austin's condition and (mis)handling of the whole affair. 

Kirby started off by acknowledging that Austin's failure to apprise the White House of his cancer diagnosis was "not optimal."

GABE GUTIERREZ (NBC News): The president didn't learn about this for a month after the diagnosis in early December. Just, quite simply, does the president think that's acceptable? 

KIRBY: It is not optimal, Gabe. It is — for a situation like this to go as long as it did without the commander in chief knowing about it or the national security advisor knowing about it — or, frankly, other leaders at the Department of Defense —that's not the way this is supposed to happen. The president understands that, and that's why he wants the chief of staff to take a look at processes across the administration at agencies here, and that's why DOD is also looking at their own procedures to make sure that that doesn't happen again.

(I suppose it's good to know that the president "understands" how things are supposed to work in these situations. Presumably, Austin and his staff did, too, yet they failed to follow the proper procedures.)


However, Kirby disputed the charge that calling cancer surgery "elective" was misleading. 

GUTIERREZ: The Pentagon referred to the surgery as an "elective procedure." Technically, it may be, but isn't that, at best, misleading?

KIRBY: As far as I know, Gabe — again, I barely got a History degree, so I'm not capable of talking about medical stuff — but as far as I know, that phrase — "elective medical procedure" — came in the statement by the two doctors at Walter Reed. That wasn't a Pentagon assessment; that was the wording chosen by the two doctors. 

GUTIERREZ: But isn't it misleading for the Pentagon to put that forward? 

KIRBY: You'd have to talk to the Pentagon and the doctors. Gabe, I'm not a physician. The two physicians that are responsible, they used that phrase. They should speak to what that means. I'm not an expert. 

Still, Kirby conceded that the situation presented a "challenge to credibility" for the administration. He was asked by Fox News' Peter Doocy: "John, what kind of commander in chief is President Biden that, at a time when American forces are under fire in the Middle East, he can go days without knowing that his defense secretary is in a hospital bed?" Theirs ended up being a fairly heated exchange. 


PETER DOOCY (Fox News): More broadly, why should we believe anything that this administration tells us about anything ever again? 

KIRBY: I think we all recognize — and I think the Pentagon has been very, very honest with themselves about the challenge to credibility by what...has transpired here, and by...how hard it was for them to be fully transparent with the American people. I think we all recognize that and...wait, now, just give me a second now. I know you've got another one coming here, but we all recognize that this didn't unfold the way it should have — on so many levels. Not just the notification process up the chain of command, but the transparency issue. We all recognize that.

(I think we all recognize that Kirby was doing his darndest to appear like he was actually answering the question...while not answering the question.) 

Doocy pressed Kirby further on the administration's credibility and lack of transparency. It's a fascinating exchange — worth the watch: 

DOOCY: But if the administration is going to go to such great lengths to keep secrets about the defense secretary's health, how can anybody be certain that the administration would not go to the same lengths to keep secret problems with President Biden's health in the future? 

KIRBY: If you could logically argue — and you can't — but if you could logically argue that the admin—

DOOCY: He's 81 years old. 

KIRBY: Wait a second — just give me a second here, Bub. I'll get there. If — if — the administration made some sort of Machiavelian effort across the board to keep this from getting public, then I think your question has merit and certainly is a fair one. I don't think it's a fair one because that's not what happened here, Peter. What happens is that the Secretary of Defense, for whatever reason — I can't answer the question why — that information wasn't shared. It wasn't shared widely in the department and it certainly wasn't shared within the interagency—

DOOCY: You guys didn't know. Isn't that worse? 

KIRBY: It's not good. It's certainly not good. Which is why, again, we want to learn from this. We want to make sure it doesn't happen again.


Nevertheless, Kirby reaffirmed President Biden's belief that no consequences for Austin's situation and the resultant controversy should be brought to bear. 

KIRBY: The president believes that Secretary Austin should get the appropriate care that he needs to get better so he can get back at work at the Pentagon. He believes we ought to learn from this — both in terms of notification and about transparency to the American people. And we're going to do what we have to do — as Karine said — we're also going to take steps here at the White House to make sure that we have a good, tight alignment across the interagency about notification procedures on delegation of authorities.

READ MORE: White House Says SecDef Austin's Job Is Not in Danger and That's a Problem

So, there you have it, folks. The White House acknowledges that Austin's handling of the situation was less than optimal and that the administration faces a credibility challenge over it but doesn't plan to hold Austin (or others) accountable for any of it. About sums up Joe Biden's tenure pretty well, no? 


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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Has Been Hospitalized for a Week and Just Told Congress Today



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