(Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin faced bipartisan criticism from lawmakers Thursday for keeping his recent hospitalization secret from President Joe Biden for days, but members disagreed sharply over what the failure said about the president and his Pentagon chief.

“Do you usually go days without talking to the commander-in-chief?” Representative Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican who’s running for the Senate, asked Austin at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee focused on Austin’s absence from his post. “Either the president is that aloof or you are irrelevant.”

Austin responded, “It’s neither. The president is not aloof and I participate in all of the critical decision-making.”

Austin, 70, underwent treatment for prostate cancer in late December and was hospitalized for two weeks in January over complications from that surgery, an episode that touched off a furor because he and his team at the Pentagon waited for days to inform Biden and Congress of the cancer and the hospitalization. The defense chief, who guards his privacy closely, later apologized for keeping his illness secret, regret that he repeated at Thursday’s hearing.

Biden has expressed his continued confidence in Austin. He said he shouldn’t resign, but should have informed him of his illness.

The House panel’s top Democrat, Adam Smith of Washington, faulted Austin’s handling of his hospitalization but said the Biden administration met all national security demands well in his absence and criticized using the episode for partisan attacks. Nothing made the US appear weak, Smith said, emphasizing that the administration carried out pre-approved airstrikes in the Middle East while Austin was away.

Claiming otherwise, Smith said, would be “merely giving aid and comfort” to US adversaries. Democrats on the panel also used the opportunity to criticize Republicans for holding up US aid to Ukraine. Austin testified that Russian forces are making “incremental gains” daily in Ukraine while the aid remains in limbo.

Austin faced a demand from the chairman of the House panel to reveal exactly who at the Pentagon decided to keep his hospitalization from the president. 

“Although you’ve publicly stated you are solely responsible, you’ve also informed this committee that it wasn’t you who decided to withhold the information from the president,” Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, said in an opening statement. “We appreciate your desire to protect your subordinates, but it’s important in a democracy that public officials are held accountable when mistakes are made.”

Rogers also took a verbal shot at what he suggested is Austin’s lack of influence in the Biden administration at a time of conflicts in Ukraine and the Mideast. “I find it very concerning that the secretary could be hospitalized for three days without anyone else in the Administration even noticing,” he said.

The defense secretary so far has remained steadfast in taking the blame for the failure to inform the White House that he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

“We did have a breakdown in notifications during my January stay at Walter Reed — that is, sharing my location and why I was there,” Austin said in his opening statement. “Back in December, I should have promptly informed the president, my team Congress, and the American people about my cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. Again: We did not handle this right. And I did not handle this right.”

Read more: Pentagon Finds No ‘Ill Intent’ in Austin Hospital Confusion 

An internal Pentagon review found the process for making decisions about transferring the secretary’s authority to the deputy secretary “could and should be improved” and said that Austin has directed carrying out its recommendations for changes. 

“In the future, if the deputy secretary ever needs to temporarily assume the duties of my office, she and several White House offices will be immediately notified,” Austin said Thursday. “That includes the White House Situation Room and the White House chief of staff.” He said the reason will be included in writing.

In a sign that Austin is still recovering from his ailments, Rogers, the committee chairman, said the hearing would be kept to two hours because he understood that “sitting for too long is not the best thing for your health.”


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