“I did not handle this right,” Lloyd J. Austin III said after being widely criticized for failing to immediately disclose his absence to the White House.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III appeared at the lectern of the Pentagon briefing room on Thursday to take questions from reporters for the first time in more than a year, beginning what is expected to be a protracted period of explaining why he kept the public, and the president, in the dark for weeks about his prostate cancer and surgery.
“We did not handle this right; I did not handle this right,” Mr. Austin said. “I should have told the president about my cancer diagnosis. I should have also told my team and the American public, and I take full responsibility.”
Mr. Austin also said that he never told his staff not to inform the White House about his hospitalization.
The defense secretary, long known as an extreme introvert who loathes talking about himself in public, sought to explain why he kept quiet about an illness that he described as a “gut punch.”
Mr. Austin said his first instinct was not to say anything. He said doctors told him that he had a narrow window to get his surgery, and he decided to have it just before Christmas, thinking that was a time when he was expected to be away from work. Mr. Austin said that he thought President Biden had enough to worry about without having to be concerned about the personal problems of his defense secretary.
“When you’re president of the United States, you’ve got a lot of things on your plate,” he said. “I just didn’t feel that that was a thing that I should do at the time. But again, I recognize that that was a mistake.”