Biden Expected To Nominate Gen. Lloyd Austin As Defense Secretary

Dec 7, 2020

Updated at 9:25 p.m. ET

President-elect Joe Biden plans to name Lloyd Austin, the retired U.S. Army four-star general, as his pick for secretary of defense in his incoming administration, two sources familiar with the decision confirmed to NPR.

Austin joins a growing and diverse list of nominees for Biden's cabinet, which the president-elect has said he wants to reflect the diversity of America. If confirmed, Austin would be the first African American to lead the department.

Austin brings to the table decades of military experience and had previously led the U.S. Central Command.

A third source familiar with the discussions said Biden came to trust Austin and his experience during Situation Room briefings over the years when Austin was head of Centcom.

The source says Austin emerged as the leading candidate over the course of the past week, noting Austin had "broken barriers" during his rise in the military. "He also appreciated that General Austin knows the human costs of war first-hand," said the source, who was not authorized to speak to reporters.

The news was first reported by Politico.

To be confirmed, Austin — who retired from the military in 2016 — will need a waiver from a law that requires the secretary of defense to be a civilian with at least seven years of retirement from the military. That waiver has been granted only twice before: once for President Trump's first secretary, James Mattis, and in 1950 for George Marshall, the top general during World War II.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped a retired four star Army general to be his secretary of defense. General Lloyd Austin is the former commander of U.S. Central Command with more than 40 years in the military. If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first African American to lead the Department of Defense. For more, we're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hey. So what else can you tell us about General Austin?

BOWMAN: Well, he's a West Point graduate from Mobile, Ala. He rose up the ranks to become the top general in Iraq, and as you say, in Iraq, as the U.S. combat mission was drawing to a close. And then, as you mentioned, he took over as the first African American to lead Central Command. That's a military organization that oversees operations in the Middle East region. In that job, Ailsa, back in 2015, he came up with the military plan to defeat the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria, an effort that took several more years. And my colleague Franco Ordoñez was told by people close to Biden that the president-elect came to trust Austin when he briefed the Obama administration officials during that time. Biden also liked the fact that Austin has broken barriers over the years and a military officer who really knows the cost, the human cost of war.

Biden, by the way, was always wary of increasing military presence, reluctant to increase the number of forces in Afghanistan during his time as vice president. And another candidate for the job, Michele Flournoy, who was long considered a front-runner, was in favor of increasing troops. So that could have been a factor as well. Now, Austin's highly regarded in the military. And one senior officer a number of years ago told me and a few other reporters Austin is a brilliant tactician and strategist.

And also, Ailsa, unlike many other generals I've met, he's quite humble and quiet. He rarely, if ever, gives - gave press conferences and really didn't make the rounds of Washington think tanks, dinners like others who held the top jobs.

CHANG: Which made him an aberration for a general. Well, as we've mentioned, if confirmed, Austin would be the first Black man to lead the Defense Department. Tell us why there was such a push for Biden to choose, in particular, a Black individual to run the Pentagon.

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, Biden himself said his administration would be diverse, his Cabinet and other top posts. He already has chosen a number of women for top jobs and the Hispanic attorney general from California, Xavier Becerra, to be head of HHS. And there was pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus for African Americans in the top ranks. So this is very significant.

Austin's nomination comes at a time when the military, you know, has relatively few African Americans in the top ranks or even in the officer corps, something officials have talked about repeatedly - how to recruit more, promote more African Americans, but so far have really not much to show for it. Now, this year, by the way, we also saw the first African American general, C.Q. Brown, become the first Air Force chief of staff and only the second Black member of the Joint Chiefs since Colin Powell back in the 1990s.

CHANG: OK. Now, General Austin would have to get a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary because he hasn't been out of the military for the required seven years. But all of this is coming as the administration has announced a drawdown on U.S. forces, most notably in Afghanistan. Do we have a sense of where General Austin might stand on that drawdown?

BOWMAN: You know, we really don't. Now, it's not like the - back in the Obama administration when you were talking about surging another 30,000, 40,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Those troops are expected to drop to 2,500 by early January in Afghanistan. Biden said he wants to keep just a few thousand to remain. So we don't really know the way ahead as far as General Austin's recommendations.

CHANG: That is NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.