Biden defends choice of Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon

President-elect addresses concerns department would not be led by a civilian

President-elect Joe Biden introduces retired US army general Lloyd Austin (left) his nominee to be secretary of defense, in Wilmington, Delaware on Wednesday. Photograph: Hilary Swift/The New York Times

President-elect Joe Biden introduces retired US army general Lloyd Austin (left) his nominee to be secretary of defense, in Wilmington, Delaware on Wednesday. Photograph: Hilary Swift/The New York Times

 

US president-elect Joe Biden has staunchly defended his choice to lead the Pentagon, amid signs of significant backlash from Democrats and Republicans.

Introducing former four-star general Lloyd Austin in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday, Mr Biden directly addressed concerns that the defence department would be led by a former military leader rather than a civilian, as is traditional.

“I believe in the importance of civilian control of our military – so does secretary-designate Austin. He will be bolstered by strong and empowered civilian senior officials working to shape Department of Defense policies and ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people,” the incoming president said.

The defence department has only twice been led by a former military commander – the latest being Jim Mattis who served as outgoing president Donald Trump’s defence secretary. Though Mr Austin, a respected former general who led US efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan during the Obama administration, retired from the military in 2016, he would need a waiver from Congress to be confirmed in the post.

Several Democrats who opposed Mr Mattis’s nomination, have indicated that they continue to oppose granting a waiver, even as they welcomed the nomination of the first African-American for the top defence role.

House of Representatives minority leader Steny Hoyer welcomed Mr Biden’s “historic choice” for defence secretary, but said the House would have to consider the waiver.

Leading Democrat Elizabeth Warren is among those in the Senate who said she would vote against a waiver for Mr Austin, though technically senators could still vote to approve him as defence secretary and some Republicans have indicated that they will approve the waiver.

Mr Austin’s ties with defence contractors through his work on Raytheon, one of the world’s largest weapon makers, is also likely to face scrutiny.

Mr Biden called on the House and the Senate to approve Mr Austin “swiftly” stating it was “long past time” that the leadership of the Department of Defense reflected its diversity. “I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it,” he said.

‘Different perspective’

Speaking in Delaware on Wednesday, Mr Austin said he understood that the position of defence secretary required “a different perspective,” than a career in uniform. “I intend to keep this at the forefront of my mind,” he said.

Mr Biden is finalising the names for other  cabinet positions this week, naming Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary – he held the position during the Obama administration – and Ohio congresswoman Marci Fudge as secretary of housing and urban development. Her departure will reduce Democrats’ majority in the House of Representatives further, following a disappointing result in last month’s elections.

Speculation is growing in Washington that former Alabama senator Doug Jones could be chosen as attorney general, though other names under consideration are Merrick Garland, who was nominated by Mr Obama for the supreme court but not given a hearing by the Republican-majority Senate.

Meanwhile, Mr Trump continued to dispute the outcome of the election results, despite the passing of the “safe harbour” deadline on Tuesday which saw most states certify their results.

Mr Trump posted a string of tweets on Wednesday, making unsubstantiated claims about electoral fraud, which were labelled by Twitter as potential misinformation. “If somebody cheated in the Election, which the Democrats did, why wouldn’t the Election be immediately overturned? How can a Country be run like this?” he wrote in one.

The Electoral College will meet next Monday to officially confirm the results of the November 3rd election in each state.