US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has cancelled a trip to Brussels where he was to take part in meetings with other Nato defence ministers, a US official said on Monday, after the Pentagon chief was admitted to a critical care unit and had to transfer his duties to his deputy.
Austin, 70, was taken to Walter Reed Military Medical Centre on Sunday for “symptoms suggesting an emergent bladder issue”, the Pentagon said.
Austin had failed to disclose a prostate cancer surgery in December and a subsequent hospitalisation in January to deal with its complications.
Austin was set to depart for the meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) defence ministers in Brussels taking place on Thursday, and a separate meeting with allies tomorrow on how to continue supporting Ukraine in countering Russia’s invasion.
The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the meeting on Ukraine’s defence needs, known as the Ukraine contact group, would be held virtually.
It was unclear how long Austin would remain in the hospital, but he has transferred his duties to Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen Hicks.
Hicks “assumed the functions and duties” just before 5pm (2200 GMT), Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said in a statement, adding that the White House and Congress had been informed.
Ryder noted initially that the defence chief brought along classified communications systems and would be retaining “the functions and duties of his office”.
However, the announcement that Hicks would instead be taking over came just a few hours later.
Austin’s secrecy during his hospitalisations in December and January raised a political uproar.
Republicans accused him of dereliction of duty.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, has said he has confidence in Austin despite what the president agreed was a lapse in judgement.
Earlier this month, Austin apologised for failing to tell Biden and senior staff about his cancer diagnosis ahead of time, adding that the health scare was a “gut punch” that had shaken him.
The most recent hospitalisation was publicly announced soon after he was taken there by his security detail.
Austin is scheduled to testify before Congress on February 29 about the secrecy surrounding his initial hospitalisation.
His trip would have come at a critical time in Europe.
A narrowly divided US Senate moved closer to passing a $95.34bn aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan on Sunday, but it would face an uncertain future in the House of Representatives.
The legislation includes $61bn for Ukraine, which is viewed as crucial by Kyiv as it grinds toward the second anniversary of full-scale Russia’s invasion, with front lines in the east and south largely static for many months.
Former president Donald Trump, who is seeking a return to power in the November election, raised a storm of criticism from the White House and top Western officials over the weekend for suggesting that he would not defend Nato allies who failed to spend enough on defence and would even encourage Russia to attack them.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin