Overnight Defense: Biden inaugurated as 46th president | Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief | Senate confirms Biden's Intel chief

Overnight Defense: Biden inaugurated as 46th president | Norquist sworn in as acting Pentagon chief | Senate confirms Biden's Intel chief
© AP/Pool

Happy Wednesday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: Joe BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE is officially the commander-in-chief.

Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday afternoon. In his inaugural address, Biden made an appeal for unity and sought to turn the page on the divisions of the Trump era.

Unity, he said from the West front of the U.S. Capitol, is necessary in order to contain the coronavirus pandemic, restore the U.S. economy, address the effects of climate change, deliver racial justice and mend deep divisions that were laid bare over the last four years. 

“To overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity,” Biden said.

Biden spoke with optimism about the country’s future. But the difficulties the new president will face were on full display at his swearing in.

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE, who refused to concede that he lost fairly, did not attend the inauguration. The Capitol complex was surrounded by fencing erected after pro-Trump rioters sought to halt the certification of results by Congress affirming Biden as president two weeks ago. And attendance was scaled back for Wednesday’s festivities as the Biden team urged Americans to avoid traveling to Washington, D.C., amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Day One actions: Hours after being sworn-in, Biden signed his first executive actions.

Biden, wearing a mask while seated at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, signed executive actions mandating mask use on federal property to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and extending support for underserved communities.

The executive actions are among 17 items that Biden is signing on Wednesday.

He was also expected to sign orders Wednesday pausing construction of the border wall, which Trump funded with Pentagon dollars, as well as an order ending Trump’s Muslim travel ban.

Not among those being signed Wednesday is an order to reverse the Trump administration’s transgender military ban despite Biden referring to that as a “day one” priority during the campaign. But Biden’s team has said that will happen in the coming days.

Relive the day: The Hill has been maintaining a live blog throughout Inauguration Day. If you missed anything, catch up here.

PENTAGON TRANSFER OF POWER: As Biden was sworn in, the Pentagon was undergoing its own transfer of power.

Biden’s nominee, Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — The Quad confab Top State Dept. official overseeing 'Havana syndrome' response leaving post Pentagon 'aware' of reports Wisconsin military base's struggle to feed, heat Afghan refugees MORE, hasn’t been confirmed yet. So, as some news outlets reported last week, Trump administration official David Norquist is taking the reins temporarily.

“At 12:01 p.m., Jan. 20, David L. Norquist assumed the duties of acting Secretary of Defense,” the Pentagon said in a statement Wednesday. “In his capacity as acting secretary, Norquist will maintain continuity and readiness of the department until a defense secretary is confirmed.”

Norquist, brother of prominent anti-tax advocate Grover, has been deputy Defense secretary since 2019. Before that, he was Pentagon comptroller.

In a statement later Wednesday, Norquist hailed the transfer of power and thanked the service members who helped provide security at the inauguration.

"More broadly, the Department of Defense remains ready to provide forces that deter war and protect the security of our nation,” he added. “We look forward to seamlessly onboarding the incoming administration so America may maintain its strategic advantage and vast partnerships."

The Pentagon also confirmed the acting secretary of the Army is John Whitley, the acting secretary of the Navy is Tom Harker and the acting secretary of the Air Force is John Roth. All three were comptrollers during the Trump administration.

The Pentagon also released its full line of succession naming dozens of acting officials until Biden’s nominees are confirmed.

Meanwhile, dozens of political appointees who do not require confirmation were sworn-in, some in-person and some virtually.

Austin status update: While it’s not happening on Inauguration Day as is tradition, Austin is expected to be confirmed and got a boost in that process Wednesday when the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee announced his support.

“Lloyd Austin is a decorated leader who has led a distinguished career and is exceptionally qualified,” Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal We have a plan that prioritizes Afghanistan's women — we're just not using it This week: Democrats kick off chaotic fall with Biden's agenda at stake MORE (D-R.I.) said in a statement released the day of Biden's inauguration.

“He has demonstrated a clear commitment to civilian control of the military,” Reed added. “I will support his historic nomination and believe he will restore direction to a Pentagon that has been left rudderless and adrift for too long under the previous administration. His character and integrity are unquestioned and he possesses the knowledge and skill to effectively lead the Pentagon.”

Reed’s announcement is unsurprising after he has been signaling in recent weeks he was leaning toward supporting Austin, who would be the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense.

But the strong endorsement from the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee is the latest sign Austin will be able to overcome lingering concerns from some lawmakers and ultimately be confirmed.

Reed’s statement is also notable because four years ago he bluntly stated he would not support another waiver to allow a recently retired general to lead the Pentagon after supporting one for Trump’s first Defense secretary, James MattisJames Norman MattisFormer Defense Secretary Mattis testifies in Theranos CEO trial 20 years after 9/11, we've logged successes but the fight continues Defense & National Security — The mental scars of Afghanistan MORE.

At least one nominee got a vote: Biden was initially at risk of having none of his nominees confirmed on Day One in break from tradition.

But after working out a holdup, the Senate confirmed at least one of them: Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee to be director of national intelligence.

Haines had her confirmation hearing Tuesday. 

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio Democrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit MORE (R-Fla.), the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday morning he was skipping Biden's inauguration to work on resolving objections to the Senate quickly confirming Haines.

The objection to moving quickly came from Sen. Tom CottonTom Bryant CottonHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Tech groups take aim at Texas Republican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services Debt ceiling fight pits corporate America against Republicans MORE (R-Ark.), who announced on the Senate floor later Wednesday that Haines answered his question and so he would allow the vote to proceed.


Defense One and Nextgov will host a conference on artificial intelligence featuring Alka Patel, head of ethics policy at the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, at noon. https://bit.ly/3iuhvqd


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