Biden picks retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to be his secretary of defense, source says


President-elect Joe Biden has selected retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the former commander of US Central Command, to be his secretary of defense, a source familiar with the decision told CNN on Monday.

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black man to lead the Department of Defense.

Biden reached out to Austin over the weekend to offer the job, according to the source, and he accepted. Austin emerged as the leading candidate last week, the source said. Politico was first to report on Biden’s selection of Austin.

The selection to one of the most prominent Cabinet positions would make Austin one of the most prominent members of Biden’s incoming administration. The secretary of defense is in control of the nation’s largest government agency, commanding troops around the world and the complicated internal workings of the Pentagon that make it one of the world’s most formidable bureaucracies.

Austin has a long history of working within the Pentagon, and has worked with Biden closely in the past.

When he was vice president, Biden worked with Austin in a variety of positions, most prominently when he was commander of CENTCOM from 2013 to 2016, during which they had discussions on a range of issues including the Middle East and Central and South Asia. Before that, but still during Biden’s time as vice president, Austin was vice chief of staff of the Army and commanding general of US forces in Iraq.

“They’ve known each other for a long time,” the source said. “There’s a comfort level.” The source said that “the historic nature of the pick is something Biden is excited about. Especially given the history of the US military being barrier breakers in a lot of areas.”

The Biden transition team declined to comment to CNN.

Austin would need a congressional waiver to be confirmed for the civilian post because he retired from active-duty service only four years ago. Federal law requires seven years of retirement from active duty before taking on the role.

Though the use of the waiver is rare, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis received a waiver from Congress in 2017 to serve as President Donald Trump’s defense secretary. Some Democrats in Congress at the time expressed concerns about setting aside the precedent of maintaining civilian leadership in the military, but the waiver was ultimate approved by both chambers, allowing Mattis to serve in the position until his departure in December 2018.

“There has been engagement with people on the Hill about a waiver,” the source told CNN, saying the Biden-Harris transition team is “hopeful leaders of the committees and members responsible for bringing that forward will support that,” particularly given the historic nature of the nomination.

Austin, the source says, “knows the Pentagon inside and out” and would be “an excellent person to run logistics on Covid-19 vaccine distribution.”

He also “knows the cost of war firsthand,” the source added, “having informed families who have lost loved ones.”

CNN had reported that Austin was among three final contenders for the role. Michèle Flournoy, a veteran Pentagon official who served as under secretary of defense for policy in President Barack Obama’s administration, and Jeh Johnson, a former secretary of Homeland security, were also under consideration.

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, was backing Flournoy for the post. Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, told reporters on Monday that he had communicated to the Biden transition team that Flournoy was “hands down the best qualified person for the job.”

The expected announcement would come two weeks after Biden rolled out key members of his foreign policy and national security teams, including the first woman to lead the US intelligence community and first Latino to helm the Department of Homeland Security.

Biden named Avril Haines, a former top CIA official and deputy national security adviser, to lead the US intelligence community;

Alejandro Mayorkas, a former deputy secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, as Homeland Security secretary; Antony Blinken, his top foreign policy aide, as secretary of state; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a career foreign service official, to be the US ambassador to the United Nations.

He also tapped Jake Sullivan, a former Obama administration official, to serve as his national security adviser, and former Secretary of State John Kerry to serve as climate czar.



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