- If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary to lead the US military.
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Lloyd Austin, a four-star general with over four decades in the military, was one of the leading candidates for Biden’s Cabinet, three people told Politico. Austin’s name was one of several that was thrown in the mix in recent weeks, including Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, who was widely believed to be the frontrunner for the top Pentagon position.
If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black defense secretary in the US.
Biden’s transition team had been considering other factors in addition to experience for their selection, including a candidate’s race, unnamed sources said in a previous Axios report. The former vice president was criticized by some Democrats for not naming qualified candidates of color for his Cabinet picks.
Biden’s team did not respond to a request for comment on Monday evening.
Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina told The Hill in late November that although he heard Black candidates were “given fair consideration,” only one Black person had been named to Biden’s cabinet. Former diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, was selected to be the next United Nations ambassador.
Since then, Biden has picked other Black staffers for Cabinet-level positions, including Cecilia Rouse for chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Austin first served in the Army in 1975 and graduated from West Point. He took on numerous leadership roles, having commanded all of the US’s troops in Iraq and helmed US Central Command, the combatant command responsible for all US operations in the Middle East, for three years. Austin retired in 2016 and founded the Austin Strategy Group, a consulting service in Washington, DC.
Austin was also on defense contractor Raytheon Technologies’ board of directors since 2016, as well as steel producer Nucor Corporation’s board.
“Back when I was a brand-new second lieutenant, I was ready to take on the world,” Austin said in a speech in 2016. “I wanted to get out and do great things.”
“I’m very proud to have had the opportunity to lead troops in combat,” he added. “I have seen our young leaders do amazing things in really tough and dangerous situations.”
Former Homeland Security Sec. Jeh Johnson, who is also Black, was being considered by Biden for the Pentagon post, Politico reported. Some Democrats, however, reportedly expressed concern over Johnson for his tenure in the Obama administration.
Austin’s potential role still faces some challenges from Congress. Critics have long argued that defense secretaries must have had some level of separation from the military, given the political nature of their duties, and to avoid any bias based on their prior service.
Retired service members are also required to have been separated from the military for at least seven years, a requirement Austin has not fulfilled. Austin would need a waiver from Congress, just like James Mattis, a four-star US Marine Corps general, who served as President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary before resigning in 2018.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said in 2017 that he would not support a similar waiver to Mattis’ in the future.
“Congress has enacted an exception one time since the creation of the Department of Defense,” Reed said, according to Defense News. “And waiving the law should happen no more than once in a generation. Therefore I will not support a waiver for future nominees. Nor will I support any effort to water down or repeal the statute in the future.”