President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate retired Army General Lloyd Austin to be his first defense secretary, multiple people familiar with the plans tell CBS News. If confirmed, Austin — the former head of U.S. Central Command and military forces in Iraq — would be the first Black man to lead the Pentagon.
Austin, 67, retired as a four-star Army general in 2016 and would be the second former uniformed military commander to head the Defense Department in the last four years. Like former Marine General James Mattis, who served as President Trump's first Pentagon chief, Austin would require a special waiver passed by Congress in order to exempt him from a federal law requiring military officers to wait seven years before serving as defense secretary.
Mr. Biden told reporters on Monday in Delaware that he plans to formally announce his choice to lead the Defense Department during an event Friday in his hometown of Wilmington. But aides said late Monday that the announcement may now happen sooner.
Austin's emergence as a potential choice came amid growing calls from national civil rights organizations and Democratic Asian, Black and Latino caucuses to ensure that Mr. Biden nominated minorities and women to senior Cabinet posts.
Late Monday, Democratic Representative Steven Horsford of Nevada, who is serving as a liaison between the Biden transition team and the Congressional Black Caucus, said his caucus "is pleased with President-elect Biden's selection of this historic nominee. Once confirmed, former General Lloyd Austin will be the first African American to lead the Department of Defense and provide critical leadership to the men and women who serve our country and protect our freedom."
Other candidates considered for the role included Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary for defense policy touted by many Democrats as a qualified pick who would have been another potential history-maker as the first woman to lead the Pentagon, and Jeh Johnson, the former homeland security secretary who previously served as the Defense Department's general counsel.
Austin was the top U.S. commanding general on the ground in Iraq during the major Obama-era troop drawdown, and Mr. Biden met with Austin when he visited Iraq in 2011. Austin oversaw the removal of U.S. forces and equipment from Iraq at the end of that year — a massive logistical feat that Biden allies are likely to play up in the coming weeks as the Defense Department prepares to help distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. He was also involved in the national security briefings that Mr. Biden received from experts outside government when he was not yet receiving the President's Daily Brief.
But Austin faces a couple of hurdles, including his position in recent years as a member of the board of directors of defense contractor Raytheon. And some elements of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party are likely to be unhappy about yet another former uniformed commander — and one with ties to a defense contractor — serving as the civilian leader of the military.
Biden transition officials declined to comment late Monday. The news of Austin's nomination was first reported by Politico.
First published on December 7, 2020 / 9:04 PM
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