President-elect Joe Biden says it’s the “right moment” in US history for his defence secretary nominee, retired general Lloyd Austin, despite concerns him taking on a role reserved by law for civilians.
The choice of Austin, who if confirmed would be the first black US secretary of defence, requires both houses of Congress to waive a law requiring the military’s top brass to have been out of the armed forces for at least seven years before running the Pentagon.
Austin, 67, retired in 2016.
In announcing his pick in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden called Austin “the right person for this job at the right moment”.
“I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it – does call for it – and if I didn’t have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin,” the Democrat said.
Biden has pledged to name a cabinet that reflects America’s diversity and his nominees so far have included several firsts, including Janet Yellen, who would be the nation’s first woman Treasury secretary, and Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first immigrant to run the Department of Homeland Security.
A handful of Democratic senators say they would oppose giving Austin the waiver, which was last issued for President Donald Trump’s first defence secretary, retired Marine General Jim Mattis.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told reporters she looked forward to meeting Austin but the required waiver was a big concern.
“My view is that civilian control of the military is part of our constitutional principles,” she said.
The Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, said while he also had concerns, he did not reject Biden’s choice.
“I come to 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,” Austin said.
An intensely private man, he avoided the spotlight during a distinguished four-decade career in uniform, including a stint as head of the military’s Central Command overseeing US troops across the Middle East.
His nomination follows a year of reckoning over systemic racism and injustice after a series of police killings of black Americans and as many call for greater diversity in the leadership of the armed forces.
Biden is more than halfway through the nominees for his cabinet ahead of his January 20 inauguration and has settled on several more names still to be announced.
Katherine Tai, the House Ways and Means Committee’s chief trade lawyer, has been picked to serve as US trade representative, four sources familiar with the decision said on Wednesday.
Tai, 45, played a key role in negotiating stronger labor provisions with the Trump administration in the new US-Mexico-Canada trade deal and has the support of labour and business circles.
Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack will be nominated as agriculture secretary, according to sources.
Biden reportedly also plans to nominate black congresswoman Marcia Fudge as housing secretary.