Presumptive president-elect Joe Biden has yet to select a Secretary of Defense despite announcing his picks for top cabinet posts last week, but is said to be considering three candidates for the top Pentagon role.
Biden has reportedly narrowed his list down to three candidates: retired four-star general Lloyd Austin, Michele Flournoy, and Jeh Johnson. The delay in naming a nominee has opened the door to increased scrutiny of the final three and is viewed as a test of his vow to choose a diverse team, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Austin, a retired four-star Army general, led the military’s Central Command under former-President Obama. Austin also has an additional hoop to jump through that the other two candidates don’t: if chosen, he would need a congressional waiver allowing the civilian position to be filled by someone who was in uniform during the last seven years. Congress previously approved the waiver for retired Marine General Jim Mattis, President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense.
As a former top Pentagon official during Obama’s administration, Flournoy was considered the favorite by a number of defense experts. According to the Wall Street Journal, former officials said she would have been the first female Secretary of Defense if Hillary Clinton hadn’t lost to President Trump in 2016.
Johnson formerly served as the Pentagon’s general counsel prior to running the Homeland Security Department for the Obama administration. He was a key player in the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that prevented gay service members from openly serving in the military.
Some Democrats believe Biden has yet to name a sufficient number of Black officials to his administration. Both Johnson and Austin meet that mark, however.
Still, those supporting Flournoy believe her understanding of Pentagon bureaucracy and the future of U.S. defense makes her the frontrunner.
“That’s a rare combination. I would love to see her nominated for Secretary of Defense,” Former Marine and Representative Seth Moulton (D., Mass.) tweeted.
Michèle Flournoy has a deep understanding of the existing DOD bureaucracy and the future of our defense. That’s a rare combination. I would love to see her nominated for Secretary of Defense.
— Seth Moulton (@sethmoulton) November 25, 2020
Multiple progressive groups, on the other hand, criticized Flournoy, noting her relationship with the defense industry. CodePink, Roots Action and Progressive Democrats of America, among others, pointed out her role as a board member of Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., as well as her support of increasing troops in Afghanistan during Obama’s administration.
“We urge President-Elect Joe Biden and U.S. Senators to choose a Secretary of Defense who is unencumbered by a history of advocating for bellicose military policies and is free of financial ties to the weapons industry,” the groups said in a statement. “In the interests of national and world security, we must close the revolving door that enables military contractors with close ties to government officials to propel us further into a costly, unnecessary and dangerous high-tech arms race.”
All three candidates have connections to the defense industry. Johnson is a member of the board of directors for Lockheed Martin Corp., and General Austin is on the board of directors for Raytheon Technologies Corp.
The Wall Street Journal reported that officials close to Biden’s transition team haven’t ruled out the possibility of an additional candidate.