US Defense Secretary Austin cancels travel after new hospitalization

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin canceled a trip to Brussels for NATO defense talks after being admitted to a military hospital for a second time this year, the Pentagon said on Monday.

Austin, 70, was taken to Walter Reed Military Medical Center on Sunday for “symptoms suggesting an emergent bladder issue.” On Monday, he underwent nonsurgical procedures under general anesthesia to address his bladder issue, the hospital said.

“Secretary Austin will no longer travel to Brussels this week as originally scheduled,” Air Force Major General Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesperson, told a news briefing.

Austin had failed to disclose a prostate cancer surgery in December and a subsequent hospitalization in January to deal with its complications, triggering a political uproar and multiple investigations.

The Pentagon has not said whether Austin’s bladder issue was another complication from that prostate surgery, but the hospital appeared to be upbeat about his cancer prognosis.

Austin was set to depart for the meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels taking place on Thursday, and a separate meeting with allies on Wednesday on how to continue supporting Ukraine in countering Russia’s invasion.

The Pentagon said the meeting on Ukraine’s defense needs, known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG), would be held virtually.

“While Secretary Austin currently intends to participate in the virtual UDCG, he will remain flexible depending on his healthcare status,” Ryder said.

It was unclear when Austin would be discharged from the hospital, but he has transferred his duties to Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks. Walter Reed said Austin was expected to be able to resume his normal duties on Tuesday.

“A prolonged hospital stay is not anticipated,” it said in a statement.

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said on Monday that President Joe Biden has no concerns about whether Austin can serve after his latest hospitalization.

Under fire for his secrecy surrounding his medical condition, Austin apologized earlier this month 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 hospitalization was publicly announced soon after he was taken there by his security detail.

Austin is scheduled to testify before Congress on Feb. 29 about the secrecy surrounding his initial hospitalization.

His trip would have come at a critical time in Europe.

A narrowly divided U.S. Senate moved closer to passing a $95.34 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan on Sunday, but it would face an uncertain future in the House of Representatives.

The legislation includes $61 billion 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, touched off a storm of criticism from the White House and top Western officials over the weekend for suggesting he would not defend NATO allies who failed to spend enough on defense and would even encourage Russia to attack them.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Eric Beech and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis, Mark Heinrich and Deepa Babington)


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