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Updated Jan 9, 2024, 3:57pm EST
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Defense Secretary Austin was treated for prostate cancer, doctors say

Insights from Slate, NPR, and Politico

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Lloyd Austin
REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura/File Photo
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin underwent surgery for prostate cancer and was hospitalized with subsequent complications, specifically a urinary tract infection, his doctors said Tuesday.

It is the first time that officials have revealed Austin’s prostate cancer diagnosis and the reason for his hospitalization earlier this month that many — including President Joe Biden — were left in the dark about. While Biden and other White House officials were informed of Austin’s hospitalization on Jan. 4, they did not learn of his diagnosis until Tuesday morning.

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December, and on Dec. 22, underwent a prostatectomy to treat and cure it, according to a statement from his team at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

He later developed complications from the surgery and was admitted to the hospital on Jan. 1 with nausea, severe abdominal, hip, and leg pain which was due to a urinary tract infection. The next day he was transferred to the ICU for a “higher level of care,” the statement said.

“His prostate cancer was detected early, and his prognosis is excellent,” doctors said, adding that has infection has been cleared. ”[Austin] continues to make progress and we anticipate a full recovery although this can be a slow process.”

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Austin looks set to stay as part of an unusually stable Cabinet

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Sources:  
Politico, The Brookings Institution, Axios

White House staff have insisted that Biden has not considered firing Austin, with one telling Politico that the president would not accept the defense secretary’s resignation if offered. While Austin did what a Cabinet secretary should never do — he became the story — the decision is in line with Biden’s loyalty and his desire for continuity in his personnel. Biden’s Cabinet and key executive staff have seen the lowest turnover of any administration in at least forty years, according to The Brookings Institution. Only one of Biden’s Cabinet members has resigned so far. By contrast, 14 Cabinet members departed during Trump’s tumultuous years in the White House, with Ronald Reagan’s administration coming in second place for turnover.

Defense Secretary’s unnoticed absence sparks debate about his role

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Sources:  
Slate, The Wall Street Journal

The fact that Austin could be out of action for four days before the White House learned of his hospitalization suggests that Austin is far from essential to U.S. foreign policy making, national security columnist Fred Kaplan wrote for Slate. Since his time as vice president, Biden has been wary of being boxed in by the Pentagon and may have selected Austin because he “is a classic ‘good soldier,’ who would not push back,” Kaplan wrote. While Austin has proved a loyal Secretary, he is someone “who executes policy rather than shapes it,” current and former officials told The Wall Street Journal. Some former military officials believe he has been too willing to go along with the White House’s cautious use of military force, the Journal reported.

Not the first official to spark chaos with sudden illness

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Sources:  
Bipartisan Policy Center, NPR

Austin’s hospitalization is not the first time a senior official has gone AWOL, the Bipartisan Policy Center wrote. In 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized, leaving his deputy James Comey in charge. Comey refused to reauthorize part of a post-9/11 surveillance program, leading White House counsel to go to the hospital in an unsuccessful bid to get Ashcroft to overrule his deputy. Comey was tipped off about the plan and also rushed to the hospital. Meanwhile, in 1893 the president himself, Grover Cleveland, hid out on a yacht for four days for a secret surgery to remove a tumor, which was only made public decades later.

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