President-elect Joe Biden has reportedly chosen retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon in what seems to be his latest Cabinet pick.
The decision, first reported by Politico on Monday and confirmed by CNN, follows Biden telling reporters just hours earlier that he would announce his pick for defense secretary on Friday. Austin, who is Black, would be the latest person of color to join the president-elect’s Cabinet.
For weeks, confusion and debate steadily grew over Biden’s process for choosing a defense secretary. The longtime front-runner was Michèle Flournoy, a senior Pentagon official under President Barack Obama whom Obama had considered tapping for the top Defense Department post and who would have almost certainly gotten the job under 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Flournoy would have been the first woman ever to run the intensely male-dominated agency, a big selling point for many national security officials. She is well-respected across Washington; on Monday, House Armed Services Committee Chair Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters he had recommended that Biden appoint her.
Some progressives loudly opposed Flournoy, however, highlighting her support of a major naval build-up near China, her ties to the defense industry and her post-government job at a for-profit consultancy that has declined to reveal its clients.
Activists may claim a win if Politico’s reporting proves correct and Flournoy loses out on the Cabinet position. However, Austin has himself been involved in hawkish policies like arming Syrian rebels, and he sits on the board of directors of weapons producer Raytheon.
National security experts have expressed wariness about choosing Austin, stressing that he has not been out of the military for the required seven years and would therefore need a waiver from Congress to lead the Defense Department. If picked, he would be the second defense secretary in four years to require the wavier, after President Donald Trump chose retired Gen. Jim Mattis to lead the Pentagon in 2017.
“From a civil-military relations perspective, this seems like a terrible idea,” tweeted Rosa Brooks, a former Pentagon official who penned an op-ed in The New York Times calling for Biden to choose a woman to lead the department.
“Lots of damage during the Trump era. Especially after Mattis, Kelly, McMaster, Flynn…. putting a recently retired 4 star, no matter how wonderful, into the top civilian DoD position sends the worst possible message.”
As a heavy favorite, Flournoy may still be under consideration ― and the criticism Austin has received could drive Biden to make a choice that many Democrats would be happy about, both because of their faith in Flournoy and their wariness of granting Austin the waiver he would need.
The Biden transition team did not immediately reply to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Biden is facing increased pressure to diversify his Cabinet. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus had a heated discussion with his transition team last week over its decision to drop New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham from consideration for Health and Human Services. Biden announced this week that he’s picked California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for the role instead.
Politico previously reported that members of the Congressional Black Caucus had urged Biden to choose a Black defense secretary and for Black candidates to be “seriously considered” for national security jobs in the administration.
Antony Blinken, who is white, is Biden’s choice to lead the State Department and Janet Yellen, who is also white, is his choice to lead the Treasury Department. He is also strongly considering Sally Yates, another white person, to be attorney general.
“A lot of people are anxiously awaiting to see what the Cabinet looks like once it’s completed,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a CBC member, told Politico. “But also note the fact that the African American numbers need to be better than what they are at this point.”