Five things to know about Lloyd Austin, Biden's Pentagon pick

Five things to know about Lloyd Austin, Biden's Pentagon pick
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Retired Gen. Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia Warren-backed amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to defense bill Pentagon chief to restore advisory panels after purge of Trump loyalists MORE, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden on hecklers: 'This is not a Trump rally. Let 'em holler' MORE’s choice to be Defense secretary, is seeking to put a history-making cap on a 40-year career that already saw him breaking several barriers along the way.

To get there, Austin will need to convince a skeptical Congress to grant him a waiver to the law requiring Defense secretaries to be out-of-uniform for at least seven years.

Lawmakers are also sure to have questions about his ties to defense contractors and somewhat rocky tenure heading the U.S. military command in charge of America’s wars in the Middle East.

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Here are five things to know about Austin

He and Biden formed a close bond

In explaining Biden’s choice, the president-elect and his transition team have played up the close relationship he developed with Austin during the Obama administration, when Austin commanded U.S. forces in Iraq and later led U.S. Central Command (Centcom). That makes Austin part of a trend of Biden turning to trusted longtime associates to fill out his Cabinet.

In an op-ed for The Atlantic, Biden recalled the “countless” hours he spent with Austin in the Situation Room and out in the field after former President Obama tapped his vice president to oversee the withdrawal in Iraq. Biden attended Austin’s change-of-command ceremony in Iraq in 2010.

The two also share a connection in Biden’s beloved son Beau, who died in 2015 of brain cancer. Beau Biden served on Austin’s staff in Iraq 2008 and 2009. He and Austin sat next to each other at Sunday Mass most weeks and kept in touch after Beau Biden returned from deployment, according to Biden’s transition team.

“I know how proud Beau was to serve on the general’s staff,” Biden said Wednesday.

Austin, in turn, called Beau “a very special person and a true patriot, and a good friend to all who knew him.”

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He has had a trailblazing career

If confirmed, Austin would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense. And it would not be the first time he has been the first Black person to serve in his job.

The Alabama native was the first Black general to command a U.S. Army division in combat, to lead a corps in combat, to command an entire theater of war, to serve as vice chief of staff of the Army and to serve as Centcom commander.

He was also just the sixth African American in the Army to become a four-star general.

His ascension to the Pentagon’s top job would come at a time when the military continues to grapple with racism in the ranks, an issue that has received increased scrutiny since this summer’s nationwide racial justice protests.

His time at Centcom came with controversies

When Biden formally introduced Austin as his nominee Wednesday, he touted Austin’s leadership at Centcom during the fight against ISIS, saying he “did a heck of a job” building an international coalition.

But at the time, Austin’s leadership came under some scrutiny.

At a 2015 hearing, then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE (R-Ariz.) blasted his somewhat optimistic testimony about progress in the fight against ISIS as “divorced from the reality.”

At the same hearing, lawmakers shredded Austin after he acknowledged a $500 million program to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters to battle ISIS only produced “four or five” fighters.

In his 2019 memoir, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrote that he recalled thinking Austin’s initial plan to retake Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS was “entirely unrealistic” because it relied on “Iraqi army formations that barely existed on paper, let alone in reality.”

There were also allegations at the time Austin ran Centcom that the command downplayed intelligence about the threat of ISIS and painted a rosier picture of the fight than reality. A 2017 inspector general investigation cleared Centcom of wrongdoing.

He has ties to defense contractors

One of Biden’s other leading candidates to be Defense secretary, Michele Flournoy, came under intense scrutiny for her ties to defense contractors. But Austin, too, has relationships with contractors.

Austin has been on the board of Raytheon Technologies since shortly after he retired from the military in 2016. He is also a partner at Pine Island Capital Partners, an investment firm that has been buying up small defense contractors.

Austin is also on the board of Nucor, America’s largest steel producer. The company provides steel to at least two defense contractors, Oshkosh Defense and Huntington Ingalls Industries, according to Politico.

It’s not uncommon for Defense secretaries to have ties to contractors, and Biden’s transition has said Austin will recuse himself where appropriate. Mattis was on the board at General Dynamics, former Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Pentagon chief defends Milley after Trump book criticism | Addresses critical race theory | Top general says Taliban has 'strategic momentum' in war The Biden administration and Tunisia: Off to a good start Overnight Defense: Navy pulls plug on 0 million railgun effort | Esper defends Milley after Trump attacks | Navy vet charged in Jan. 6 riot wants trial moved MORE was Raytheon’s top lobbyist and former acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanSenators introducing bill to penalize Pentagon for failed audits Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee Biden Pentagon pick could make up to .7M from leaving Raytheon MORE was an executive at Boeing.

But it is a practice blasted by progressive Democrats and other critics of the Pentagon’s so-called revolving door.

He is media-shy

Austin is notorious for avoiding public and press engagements.

Despite being in charge of some of America’s most high-profile military operations while at Centcom, Austin did few public appearances or interviews, and he declined to take reporters with him on trips to the region.

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In one illustrative 2014 episode, as reported by Defense One at the time, Centcom would not allow cameras at an on-the-record event with Austin at the Atlantic Council, which typically livestreams its panels.

One of Biden’s campaign promises was to restore press relations scaled back during the Trump administration, including reinstating regular briefings at agencies such as the Pentagon.