UPDATED: 2:10 p.m. ET —
The man who could become the first Black person to lead the Department of Defense is at the center of a brewing inter-Party controversy as a growing number of Senate Democrats have signaled their opposition to his nomination.
Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin was designated by Joe Biden for the lofty and powerful cabinet position and the president-elect has defended his decision. But there is a law for secretaries of defense to have established civilian status for at least seven years. Austin, 67, who had an illustrious career in the Army for more than 40 years, has been retired for fewer than five years.
The only way to circumvent that rule is for Congress to grant a waiver, something that Democrats were highly resentful of when Donald Trump‘s Defense nominee Gen. James Mattis was given one and ultimately confirmed to the cabinet position. Granting a waiver to Austin would be seen as hypocrisy and could be used as political capital against them by Republicans, Democrats fear.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren is one of the leading Senate Democrats who seem to have already made their minds up about Austin.
“I opposed a waiver for Gen. Mattis, and I will oppose a waiver for Gen. Austin,” Warren said Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think we ought to be doing these waivers.”
Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, both Democrats, have also expressed similar sentiments.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, suggested Biden designate another nominee instead of Austin.
“I think the preference would be for someone who is not recently retired,” he said.
The resistance from Democrats signals additional opposition for at least one of Biden’s cabinet picks that was originally anticipated to only come from Republicans.
Biden laid out a compelling argument in an op-ed for the Atlantic for why Austin should be an exception to the rule. He lauded Austin’s use of “diplomacy” instead of destruction in being the primary architect for both the U.S. military’s drawdown in Iraq as well as designing and executing “the campaign that ultimately beat back ISIS, helping to build a coalition of partners and allies from more than 70 countries who worked together to overcome a common enemy.”
Biden called Austin “the person we need in this moment” and said Congress should grant him a waiver just like it did with Mattis.
“Given the immense and urgent threats and challenges our nation faces, he should be confirmed swiftly,” Biden wrote.
Biden repeated those calls when introducing Austin as his Defense secretary-designate during a press conference touting his national security team.
Joe Biden on Lloyd Austin: “At a time when more than 40% of our active duty forces are people of color, it’s long past time that Department leadership reflects that diversity.”
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) December 9, 2020
Austin credited previous pioneering Black military members for his nomination, including the Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, Gen. Colin Powell and Henry O. Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point. Austin and Flipr are both from Thomasville, Georgia.
Austin also addressed the elephant in the room.
Speaking about the “important distinction” between “General Austin” and “Lloyd Austin” the retired civilian, Austin tried to allay concerns about having any conflict of interest while serving as secretary of defense.
“I come to this new role as a civilian leader,” he said. “With military experience, to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation for maintaining civilian control of the defense department.”
He said he would surround himself with career civil servants and ensure there is “meaningful civilian oversight.”
The controversy comes as Biden has vowed to have a presidential cabinet that “looks like America.” He’s been making good on that promise, too, what with multiple Black, brown people as well as women being selected for key roles within his administration.
Many of those people already tapped to be a part of the Biden-Harris administration will be the first Black people to serve in those roles. Biden ran down the list of historical firsts during which Austin broke racial barriers in case anyone forgot.
“He was the first African American general officer to lead an Army corps in combat and the first African American to command an entire theater of war; if confirmed, he will be the first African American to helm the Defense Department—another milestone in a barrier-breaking career dedicated to keeping the American people secure,” Biden reminded.
With former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announcing he will not be in Biden’s administration, this hardline posturing from Congress — especially Democrats — could effectively prevent the nation from having its first Black secretary of defense.
Considering the nationwide racial reckoning happening that has already led to widespread change — not to mention all the Black voters who secured Biden election victory for Democrats — it would seem that granting Austin a waiver to be nominated for Secretary of Defense should rank relatively low on Congress’ totem pole of priorities as the country works to confront a pandemic that has upended the U.S. economy and had a devastating rippling effect on the Black American community Austin represents.
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