On Saturday, President Joe Biden nominated two women to lead top U.S. military combatant commands. In February, former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he delayed their promotions out of concern Trump would not back the nominations.
In separate Pentagon statements, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced Biden nominated Army Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson to the rank of general to lead U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and Air Force Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost to lead the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM). Van Ovost was previously promoted to four-star general — the first-ever female general — during the Trump administration on Aug. 20, 2020.
Biden confirmed during remarks at the White House late Monday afternoon that he had submitted their nominations to the Senate, calling them “qualified warriors and patriots.”
“When confirmed, they will become the second and third women in the history of the United States armed forces to lead combatant commands,” Biden added.
The New York Times reported last month that both women were considered for the leadership roles during President Donald Trump’s time in office, but then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley decided to hold back the recommendations until after the November elections, out of concern Trump would not support them.
“They were chosen because they were the best officers for the jobs, and I didn’t want their promotions derailed because someone in the Trump White House saw that I recommended them or thought DoD was playing politics,” Esper told the New York Times. “This was not the case. They were the best qualified. We were doing the right thing.”
According to the New York Times, Esper and Milley were worried recommendations for any candidates other than white men would meet resistance from the Trump White House.
It’s unclear clear why Esper and Milley believed Trump would not support Richardson and Van Ovost. Trump nominated a number of women to military leadership positions during his presidency, including Barbara Barrett to the role of U.S. Air Force Secretary and Brig Gen. Lorna Mahlock, the first black woman general in U.S. Marine Corps history.
Speaking to the New York Times, former Trump administration officials disputed the White House would have opposed female candidates. Those officials said nominations were delayed out of concern the Senate wouldn’t be able to consider the nominations before the end of the congressional session and so the Pentagon delayed nominations until after new lawmakers took office at the beginning of the year.
Former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said the promotions were delayed due to the timing and “not that they were women.”
Retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, also criticized the reported decision by Esper and Milley to hold back the nominations. Vindman, who formerly served in the White House National Security Council, wrote for the Lawfare blog that Esper and Milley should have pushed the nominations despite their concerns about Trump’s reaction.
“By retreating from the expected confrontation with the Trump White House and maneuvering around the military’s own process, these senior leaders have undermined good civil-military relations,” Vindman wrote. “Moreover, this disingenuousness represents the opposite of the institutional values of the military. Upholding good order and discipline within the military does not mean dodging difficult debates with the commander in chief.”
Austin declined a New York Times request for comment about his predecessor’s decision to hold back the nominations.
“I would just say that I’ve seen the records of both of these women,” Austin said. “They are outstanding.”