It was always going to be difficult to convince Congress to again allow a general barely out of uniform to run the Pentagon. But according to four Democratic Hill sources, Joe Biden’s abrupt announcement of Lloyd Austin as defense secretary-designate was the sort of surprise that made Austin’s odds longer.
Few on Capitol Hill this week – with the likely exception of Democratic kingmaker Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina – were expecting Austin’s nomination. As The Daily Beast reported on Tuesday, Biden didn’t tell the Senate Armed Services Committee that he needed it to move forward with a legal waiver for Austin, who is three years short of the seven years that the law requires officers to have retired from military service before serving as defense secretary.
Now Biden’s Democratic allies on the Hill, many of whom rejected such a waiver in 2017 for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to serve, are in the uncomfortable position of eroding an institutional safeguard ensuring civilian control of the military on behalf of a figure few know and fewer saw coming. One staffer for a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who did not want to be named, called the announcement a “clusterfuck.” Another Democratic aide called the situation a “hot mess.” And it is jeopardizing what should be a historic moment: the nomination of the first Black secretary of defense.