Washington —announced Wednesday that he retired Army General Lloyd Austin to serve as secretary of defense and urged Congress to approve a waiver allowing Austin to lead the Pentagon sooner than he is allowed under federal law. Austin will be the first Black man to helm the Pentagon if confirmed by the Senate.
Mr. Biden unveiled his decision to tap Austin as defense secretary in an essay published Tuesday by The Atlantic, in which he called the retired Army general a “true and tested soldier and leader.” Then, in an event from Wilmington, Delaware, Wednesday, Mr. Biden praised Austin as someone he has “seen perform to the highest standards under intense pressure.”
“There’s no question that he is the right person for this job at the right moment, leading the Department of Defense at this moment in our nation’s history,” the president-elect said, adding that he and Austin have traveled to “some of the more interesting parts of the world” together while Mr. Biden was vice president.
In acknowledging the barriers Austin would break if he is confirmed to helm the Pentagon, the president-elect noted the retired general has made history throughout his military career.
“He’s been breaking down barriers and blazing a trail forward in this nation for many years now, for more than 40 years, and he has a long way to go and he’s going to do it again,” Mr. Biden said, calling him “cool under fire” and “inspiring” to those around him.
“That’s Lloyd Austin,” he said.
If his nomination is approved by the Senate, Austin, 67, will be the second former uniformed military commander to lead the Pentagon in the last four years, following former Marine General Jim Mattis, President Trump’s first secretary of defense. Federal law requires military officers to wait seven years after retiring from active-duty service before serving in top civilian defense roles, such as Pentagon chief. But Congress can approve a waiver exempting Austin, who retired in 2016, from the law, as it did for Mattis in 2017.
Whether Congress will grant such a waiver, however, remains unclear, as several Republican and Democratic senators seemed hesitant to do so when pressed by reporters on Tuesday.
Mr. Biden said there is “good reason” for the law, but said he would “not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it.”
“Just as they did for Secretary Jim Mattis, I ask the Congress to grant a waiver for secretary-designee Austin,” he said. “His many strengths and his intimate knowledge of the Department of Defense and our government are uniquely suited for the challenges we face now, the crisis we face now. He is the person we need at this moment, in my opinion, and given the urgent threat and challenges of our nation’s forces, he should be confirmed swiftly.”
In remarks following the president-elect, Austin said that serving in the Cabinet “requires a different perspective and unique responsibilities from a career in uniform,” and vowed to keep that “at the forefront” of his mind.
“When I concluded my military service four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time and went from being General Austin to Lloyd Austin. It is an important distinction and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity,” he said. “I come to this role, this new role, as a civilian leader with military experience to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military.”
Austin, a four-star Army general who served in the military for more than 40 years, was the first African American to serve as commander of U.S. Central Command. He oversaw the withdrawal of troops from Iraq during the Obama administration.
If confirmed, Austin will take over the Defense Department as it prepares to help with distribution of avaccine.
With 42 days until Mr. Biden is sworn in, the president-elect has begun to fill out his Cabinet and the top ranks of his administration. Mr. Biden has introduced his health, economic, national security and foreign policy teams, though so far he has yet to reveal who will serve as his attorney general, one of the so-called “Big Six” Cabinet seats — State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
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