Defense secretary expected to return to Pentagon Monday after nearly a month away

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to return to the Pentagon Monday after nearly a month away and host NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, according to a defense official.

Austin was admitted to the hospital on New Year’s Day due to complications from surgery to treat prostate cancer in late-December. He spent two weeks at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center before he was released on January 15. Since then, he has been working from home, where he has continued his recovery.

On Friday, Austin visited Walter Reed Medical Center for a follow-up appointment. Doctors at the hospital released a statement saying he is recovering well and is expected to make a full recovery.

“Beyond planned physical therapy and regular post-prostatectomy follow up appointments, he has no planned further treatment for his cancer,” a statement from his doctors said.

Austin’s unannounced hospitalization, which was not disclosed to the media or President Joe Biden and other senior administration officials for days, raised major questions about transparency and communications within the Biden administration. Republicans have been highly critical of how the Pentagon handled Austin’s illness and the House Armed Services Committee has called on the defense secretary to testify next month about the failure to notify key government leaders.

The White House has new guidelines for agency notification of key absences following its review of each federal agency’s plans for “delegation of authority” when a Cabinet member is unable to perform his or her duties, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients said in a memo first reported by The Associated Press and obtained by CNN.

Every time there is a delegation of authority, Zients said in the memo to Cabinet secretaries, the agency must notify the offices of Cabinet affairs and White House chief of staff. Additionally, any delegation of authority must be documented in writing both when it has gone into effect and when it is over, he added.

Biden acknowledged earlier this month that Austin’s failure to notify him about his hospitalization was a lapse in judgment.

Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly Magsamen, directed a 30-day review of the Pentagon’s processes and procedures for notifying senior national security leaders and the White House when the defense secretary needs to transfer authorities to the deputy secretary, which was required during Austin’s hospitalization. And the Defense Department inspector general launched a separate investigation of whether the Pentagon had the appropriate policies in place to ensure an effective transfer of power and duties.

During Austin’s hospitalization and subsequent recovery at home, the Pentagon has said that he had full access to secure communications capabilities and was able to oversee a number of national security issues.

From the hospital, Austin authorized the first round of strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen and spoke daily with senior Pentagon officials. From his home on Tuesday, Austin hosted a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, making his first public remarks since he had been hospitalized.

Asked if Austin would take questions from the media upon his return to the Pentagon, press secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder demurred.

Ryder said the Pentagon was “very aware of the request” but did not have a date to provide.

This story has been updated with additional information.

CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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