On Tuesday the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing for retired U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, in which Austin vowed to rid the military of racism and extremism, said he supported President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to overturn President Donald Trump’s transgender troop ban and more.
The Senate is considering whether to grant Austin, who retired from military service on April 5, 2016, a waiver to head the Pentagon. Federal law prohibits U.S. military members and recent veterans from serving as the defense secretary for at least seven years after leaving service in order to ensure civilian control of the department.
“We also owe our people a working environment free of discrimination, hate, and harassment,” Austin said during his opening remarks at a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee. “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.”
Austin added, “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.”
Addressing the Trump-era ban on transgender service members within the ranks, Austin said he supports Biden’s day-one plan to overturn the ban on transgender troops.
“I support the president’s plan to overturn the ban,” Austin said. “I truly believe, as I said in my opening statement, that if you are fit and qualified to serve, and you can maintain standards, you should be allowed to serve.
During the hearing Sen. Jeanne Shaheen asked Austin about the U.S. plans to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Austin said, “I would certainly like to see this conflict end with a negotiated settlement and we’re going to make every effort that we can to ensure that that happens.”
He added, “In accordance with what the President-elect wants to see, I think we want to see in Afghanistan in the future that does not present a threat to America.”
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. entered into an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 to remove U.S. troops from the country within 14 months in support of intra-Afghan peace negotiations. Austin did not say whether the Biden administration would continue to support the Trump-era agreement or adopt a different set of timelines and conditions for the full U.S. troop withdrawal.
Asked about plans to increase the U.S. Navy’s fleet size, Austin said, “Our Navy is the most capable naval force on the face of the planet. It will remain so if I’m confirmed.”
Of the Navy’s goal to add 82 new ships between 2022 and 2026, Austin said, “I look forward to having that conversation with the department of the Navy . . . I really look forward to having that conversation more in depth.”
During the hearing, Sen. Jonie Ernst (R-IA), a U.S. Army Reserve and Iowa Army National Guard veteran, asked Austin how he would handle the growing U.S. national defense budget, prevent wasteful defense spending, and pass an audit.
Austin said, “You have my commitment that … we will lean into this and continue to push to make sure that we can get that clean audit in the not too distant future.”
During the hearing, Senators on both sides of the political aisle expressed their opposition to granting Austin a waiver to serve as the defense secretary.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), a retired U.S. Army infantry captain, said he opposed granting Austin the waiver to serve as defense secretary. In his decision, Cotton said though he supported granting a similar waiver to retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis, he no longer believes Congress should grant such waivers.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who served in the Marine Corps Reserves from 1970 to 1976, also voiced his opposition to the waiver. Blumenthal said, “My opposition to the waiver is not personal, it’s a matter of principle.”