Battle for Pentagon post in Biden Cabinet heats up

President-elect Joe Biden’s search for his Pentagon chief is stretching into December as battling Congressional groups and defense organizations push for their preferred candidate.

Michèle Flournoy, seen by many as the lead contender for the role, is facing stiff competition from former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson as well as retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd Austin.

Johnson, who is Black, is backed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and progressive groups who are urging President-elect Joe Biden to pick a more diverse Cabinet.

But Flournoy, who co-founded the consulting firm WestExec Advisors — is not out of the running yet and earlier this week reportedly sat down with Biden for a formal interview that “went well.”

A WestExec spokesperson referred questions to the Biden transition team which did not respond to requests for comment.

The deciding factor now, experts say, is how Biden’s team will weigh the pros and cons of each candidate.

One issue for Flournoy is the number of people who have already joined the administration who previously had ties to WestExec.

“People start adding up how many people are coming from WestExec into this administration at the most senior level,” said Mackenzie Eaglen, a resident fellow at American Enterprise Institute.

Biden has already chosen WestExec’s other founder, Antony Blinken as secretary of State.

Avril Haines, Biden’s pick to serve as director of national intelligence; Christina Killingsworth, who will work in the White House budget office; Ely Ratner, who is on the Biden Pentagon transition team; and Jennifer Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, also have WestExec ties.

Defense, along with State, Justice and Treasury, is seen as one of the top four Cabinet positions.

Biden has named Janet Yellen as his Treasury nominee and Blinken as his State nominee, which could raise pressure on him to pick a Black secretary of Defense. Black leaders have voiced some criticism that there have not been more Black Cabinet picks so far.

Johnson, who served under former President Obama, would be the first Black secretary of Defense, as would Austin, a former commander of U.S. Central Command.

Progressives, meanwhile, are pressing hard for Biden to pick someone other than Flournoy.

On Monday, five progressive organizations — CodePink, Our Revolution, Progressive Democrats of America, and World Beyond War — released a statement calling Flournoy “ill-suited” to serve as Pentagon chief and calling on Biden to choose someone “free of financial ties to the weapons industry.”

“The people of the United States need a Secretary of Defense who is untethered to the weapons industry and committed to ending the arms race,” the groups said. “Michèle Flournoy should not be put in charge of the Pentagon, and neither should anyone else failing to meet those qualifications.”

Flournoy has also faced opposition from congressional progressive voices such as Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who have urged Biden not to nominate a Pentagon chief who has previously worked for a defense contractor. Flournoy sits on the board of Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

Flournoy is not alone in her connections to the defense industry, however.

Johnson sits on the board of the largest U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin and Austin sits on the board of Raytheon Technologies.

Johnson has also come under criticism from the left.

Johnson faces scrutiny over his record of expanding family detentions and accelerating deportations while at DHS, as well as his approval of hundreds of drone strikes that hit civilians, according to an opposition book that has made the rounds on Capitol Hill.

Austin, meanwhile, would need a congressional waiver to serve as Pentagon chief because he only recently retired from the military.

Trump granted a waiver to former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in 2016, who was then confirmed by the Senate in a 98-1 vote, with Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) the sole “no” vote.

Nonetheless, some do not think Congress will be eager to grant another waiver.

“I don’t see Capitol Hill granting another waiver like they did with Sec. Mattis right now,” Eaglen said.

“I do think Congress has increasing concern about the state of civil military relations and right now the Biden team would have to spend a lot of political capital to make the case that another waiver was required,” Eaglen added. “Why would they pass the law in the first place if we’re going to waive it twice in half a decade?”

Another pro for Flournoy and Johnson is that they have previously been confirmed by the Senate. The confirmation process is arduous, and that fact that both have gone through the intense vetting process and the requirements of financial disclosure could give the Biden team more security about a nomination.

And while Flournoy is not without her critics, she also has vocal supporters, including many women in the national security world and several progressive-leaning lawmakers.

“We are keenly aware of the critical need for a leader with Flournoy’s expertise on complex national security issues,” House Armed Services Committee members Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), said in a joint statement endorsing her.

They added that her policy experience “will be vital to ensuring strong civilian oversight of the military, professionalism and ethics in our special operations forces, workforce diversity, and activities to strengthen our technological edge through science and innovation.”

Progressive member Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), meanwhile, tweeted that she “has a deep understanding of the existing DOD bureaucracy and the future of our defense. … I would love to see her nominated for Secretary of Defense.”


Tags Barbara Lee Biden transition Defense Department Jackie Speier Janet Yellen Jeh Johnson Jim Langevin Joe Biden Lloyd Austin Mark Pocan Michele Flournoy Pentagon Seth Moulton
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