President-elect Joe Biden addressed concerns Wednesday about nominating a recently retired four-star general to lead the Department of Defense, affirming his commitment to civilian control of the nation’s military.
Biden’s choice of Lloyd Austin — who hung up his uniform four years ago — requires a waiver from both chambers of Congress in addition to the typical Senate confirmation in order to serve in the Cabinet post, as the retired general has not been out of the military for the federally mandated seven years.
“I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it — it does call for it — and if I didn’t have the faith that I have in Lloyd Austin to ask for it,” Biden said at an event introducing Austin as his nominee.
President Donald Trump needed to secure a similar waiver for his first Defense secretary, Jim Mattis, though several lawmakers did so reluctantly and said they were unlikely to do so again anytime soon.
Biden and his transition team have leaned on a number of former military officers to serve in high-ranking positions, echoing a theme of the Trump administration with which some Democrats and outside observers have expressed unease.
Biden attempted to assuage that apprehension, insisting that civilian control would not be weakened under his presidency.
“I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military, so does the secretary designee,” he said.
During his remarks, Austin vowed that civilian political appointees and career civil servants would be well represented at the top of his staff and that the military would be “grounded in meaningful civilian oversight.”
“When I concluded my military service four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time and I went from being Gen. Lloyd Austin to Lloyd Austin,” he said. “It is an important distinction and one that I make with utmost seriousness and sincerity.”
Austin, the first Black general to command an Army division in combat and run U.S. Central Command before retiring in 2016, was not initially considered a frontrunner for the position.
The president-elect said he was the one who persuaded Austin to take the highly coveted position, and not the other way around.
“This is not a post he sought,” Biden said. “I sought him.”
Still, Austin’s confirmation is shaping up to be a tricky one for Biden, as several members of Congress who voted against the waiver for Mattis have said they would do so again.
“This principle is bigger than any single individual and I’m going to stick by it,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who is against granting Austin a waiver but thinks there is sufficient support for him to be confirmed, said Tuesday on MSNBC. “I will support Gen. Austin, but I will not support the waiver.”
The retired general is also likely to face questions about his policy views on an array of global concerns, including those outside the scope of the military, and ties to defense contractors during his confirmation hearing.
Austin did receive support Wednesday from Colin Powell, a retired four-star general who went on to become the first African American to serve as secretary of State, who called Biden’s nominee “a superb choice.”
“He has demonstrated his warfighting skills and his bureaucratic, diplomatic and political acumen,” Powell wrote on his Facebook page. “Congress should have no concern in waiving the requirement that he serve at least seven years in civilian life after retiring before accepting the Secretary of Defense position.”