Biden pick for Pentagon cruises through confirmation hearing
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to be Defense secretary, avoided any major missteps at his confirmation hearing Tuesday, setting him on a path to confirmation despite some lingering concerns from lawmakers about a recently retired general leading the Pentagon.
Austin, who would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense, sought to blunt any such concerns right away, pledging in his opening statement to ensure strong civilian control of the military.
“Let me say at the outset that I understand and respect the reservations some of you have expressed about having another recently retired general at the head of the Department of Defense,” Austin said.
“The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil,” he added.
A 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the military requires Defense secretaries to be out of uniform for at least seven years before taking the job. Austin retired from the military in mid-2016.
But Congress can approve a waiver to the law to allow someone within the cooling-off period to lead the Pentagon and has done so twice: first for George Marshall in 1950 and then for James Mattis in 2017.
The waiver, which needs approval from both the House and Senate, is seen as Austin’s biggest hurdle to confirmation.
While Austin is expected to ultimately be confirmed, one more senator Tuesday came out in opposition to the waiver.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), seen as a potential 2024 presidential candidate, said he has come to regret supporting Mattis’s waiver and will vote against Austin’s.
“Unfortunately, I must announce that I oppose the waiver of the seven-year cooling off period,” Cotton said at the hearing. “My decision reflects not at all on you personally or your record, which I respect. Rather, I believe Congress should no longer grant such waivers at all.”
Three other members of the committee — Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) — have previously said they would not support Austin’s waiver.
Unlike Mattis’s confirmation hearing, which ended with the committee voting on his waiver, no vote was taken on Austin’s waiver Tuesday. The panel will next meet Thursday, outgoing Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said at the end of the hearing.
The House must also approve Austin’s waiver and is scheduled to vote on it Thursday. The timing means Austin will be the first Defense secretary in decades not confirmed on Inauguration Day.
Austin’s hearing took place under the shadow of a Capitol that is still reeling from an attack earlier this month carried out by supporters of President Trump who were intent on overturning Biden’s victory in the presidential election.
Since the attack, about 25,000 National Guardsmen have been deployed to provide security at Wednesday’s inauguration.
Concerns have also been raised about extremism in the ranks after several veterans were arrested in connection with the insurrection, and 12 guardsmen have been removed from inauguration duties after FBI vetting flagged them.
Several lawmakers asked Austin about his plans to root out extremists. Without delving into specifics, Austin pledged to address the issue. He recounted learning from his time as a lieutenant colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division in 1995, when an investigation found 22 soldiers at Fort Bragg had ties to extremist groups.
“We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things that we certainly held them accountable for,” he said. “But we discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to. But we learned from that.”
Austin was also similarly pressed repeatedly on his plans for addressing sexual assault in the ranks and again pledged to tackle the issue without offering specifics.
“If confirmed I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault and to rid our ranks of racists and extremists and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” he said. “The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
Austin also faced questions from Warren about his position on the board of directors at major defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corp. In ethics forms ahead of his confirmation hearing, Austin said he would recuse himself from decisions involving the company for a year unless a Pentagon ethics official determines the need for his participation outweighs the perception of a conflict of interest.
But under Warren’s questioning, Austin pledged to recuse himself for four years and also said he would look for alternatives before seeking an exception to his recusal. He also said he has no plans to become a lobbyist or rejoin a board at a defense contractor after he serves as Defense secretary.
Warren, who has torn into previous Pentagon nominees for their ties to defense contractors, appeared satisfied by Austin’s answers.
“Going above and beyond what federal law requires, as you are doing here, sends a powerful message that you are working on behalf of the American people,” Warren told Austin.
Austin was also peppered with questions about confronting China. Austin’s military career was largely focused on the Middle East, and detractors of his nomination have questioned whether he has the experience to address what is expected to be the biggest national security issue in the coming years.
Austin pledged to be “laser-focused” on remaining competitive with China if he’s confirmed.
“Globally, I understand that Asia must be the focus of our effort, and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department,” he said.
Austin also said the war in Afghanistan must come to an end, but left open the possibility of leaving U.S. counterterrorism forces in the country.
“In accordance with what the president-elect wants to see, I think we want to see an Afghanistan in the future that does not present a threat to America,” Austin said. “So a focus on some counterterrorism issues, I think in the future … would be helpful.”
Austin also unequivocally said he supports overturning the Trump administration’s ban on most transgender military service.
“I support the president’s plan to overturn the ban,” he said. “I truly believe, senator, as I said in my opening statement, that if you are fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve.”
In perhaps the most fraught exchange of the hearing, Austin briefly tangled with Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) over nuclear policy.
Early in the hearing, Austin said he “personally” supports the nuclear triad, which refers to delivering a nuclear weapon by air, sea or land. But pressed by Fischer on whether he supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs, Austin would only say he needs to review the issue when he’s confirmed, an answer Fischer called “surprising.”
“I understand it’s a complicated topic, but it is a 60-year-old, foundational concept that we have here,” Fischer said of the triad.
“I think that we’re in agreement that this is a priority, this needs to remain a priority,” Austin replied. “What I was just conveying was specific timelines of which pieces are being resourced at what rate. Those things I would really like to get into details and have a further discussion with you on that. But there’s no question that I consider this to be a priority, and it will remain a priority.”