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Biden defends Austin as choice for Pentagon chief amid bipartisan skepticism

Biden defends Austin as choice for Pentagon chief amid bipartisan skepticism
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Fauci predicts high schoolers will receive coronavirus vaccinations this fall Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE formally introduced retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinBiden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump Sunday shows: Manchin in the spotlight after pivotal role in coronavirus aid debate Pentagon chief: Response to rocket attack in Iraq will be 'thoughtful' and 'appropriate' MORE on Wednesday as his nominee to lead the Pentagon, defending the choice in the face of bipartisan skepticism of another recently retired military officer taking the civilian job.

“I believe in the importance of civilian control of the military,” Biden said. “So does Secretary-designate Austin. He'll be bolstered by a strong and empowered civilian sector and senior officers, senior officials I should say, working to shape DOD’s policies and ensure that our defense policies are accountable to the American people.”

If confirmed, Austin would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense, the latest first in a trailblazing 40-year Army career. Nodding to those achievements, Biden said Wednesday that Austin is “going to do it again.”

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“More than 40 percent of our active-duty forces are people of color. It's long past time that the department's leadership reflects that diversity,” Biden said.

Wednesday’s event comes a day after Biden announced he picked Austin as his Defense secretary nominee. Austin, who was once seen as a long shot for the job, beat out other leading contenders, including former under secretary of Defense for policy Michèle Flournoy and former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

“This is not a post he sought, but I sought him,” Biden said of Austin, who thanked Biden for his “trust” and “confidence.”

Austin retired from the military in 2016, after serving as the commander of U.S. Central Command since 2013.

His military career also includes time as the commanding U.S. general in Iraq and as the vice chief of staff of the Army.

The biggest hurdle emerging to Austin’s confirmation so far is that he is a recently retired military officer.

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A law aimed at preserving civilian control of the military requires a Defense secretary to be out of uniform for at least seven years.

Congress could approve a waiver for Austin like it did to allow retired Gen. James MattisJames Norman MattisRejoining the Iran nuclear deal would save lives of US troops, diplomats The soft but unmatched power of US foreign exchange programs The GOP senators likely to vote for Trump's conviction MORE to be Defense secretary four years ago.

But several lawmakers in both parties expressed unease Tuesday at the thought of waiving the law so soon after Mattis, wary of setting a precedent of recently retired generals taking a job meant for civilians. Prior to Mattis, Congress had approved a waiver just once before, in 1950 for George Marshall.

On Wednesday, Biden pushed back, saying he “would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn't call for it."

“There’s a good reason for this law that I fully understand and respect,” Biden said. “The civilian-military dynamic, that dynamic itself has been under great stress the past four years, and I know that Secretary-designate Austin is going to work tirelessly to get it back on track.”

Citing Austin’s work drawing down in Iraq in 2010 and later helping build an international coalition to fight ISIS, Biden also framed Austin as a “statesman” in another apparent rebuttal of criticism that a retired general would militarize U.S. policy.

“If you don't think that required some diplomatic skill putting that group together, then you don't understand what was going on,” Biden said of building the anti-ISIS coalition. “He did a heck of a job.”

For his part, Austin pledged to come to the job from the perspective of a civilian.

“Four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time and 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. And so, I come to this role this new role as a civilian leader, with military experience to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military.”

He also vowed to surround himself with “experienced, capable” civilian appointees and career civil servants.

Biden and his team are also leaning on Austin’s logistics experience in the military, saying such a background will be vital as the nation rolls out the COVID-19 vaccine with Pentagon support.

Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisWhite House says Biden would prefer to not end filibuster Biden takes victory lap after Senate passes coronavirus relief package It will be Vice (or) President Harris against Gov. DeSantis in 2024 — bet on it MORE, who will be the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, called Austin the “right person to lead the Department of Defense at this critical moment.”

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“We need a proven leader to help address this pandemic, someone with the experience to help make sure safe and effective vaccines are distributed equitably to all,” Harris said.

Biden was under immense pressure to pick a Black nominee for the Pentagon, with Black leaders saying he was falling short of his pledge for a diverse Cabinet.

But in picking Austin, Biden also turned to someone he formed a bond with during the Obama administration.

The two grew particularly close when Biden’s late son Beau served on Austin’s staff in Iraq in 2008 and 2009. Biden’s transition team has highlighted that Austin and the younger Biden often sat next to each other at Sunday mass and kept in touch after returning from his deployment.

On Wednesday, the president-elect recalled his son telling him about advice imparted on him by Austin: “If you focus on your people, take care of them, get out in front and lead them, they'll refuse to let you fail.”

“That's why he’s inspired so many young people who work for him, and give their very best to live up to his example of leadership including for time a young lawyer serving a year in Iraq as a captain with his Delaware National Guard unit,” Biden said.

“I know how proud Beau was to serve on the general’s staff,” Biden said Wednesday. “And I know that under your leadership, general, the Department of Defense will advance the security of the American people in ways that always, always, always honor our highest values and ideals.”