Biden, Harris formally introduce Lloyd Austin as first Black Defense Secretary nominee


President-elect Joe Biden argued Wednesday that his pick for secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, deserves a waiver to serve in that role despite recently leaving the military. "I will not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn't call for it - it does call for it - and if I didn't have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin to ask for it", Biden said at the press conference.

"When I concluded my military service four years ago, I hung up my uniform for the last time, and went from being General Lloyd Austin to Lloyd Austin". But his confirmation is already facing opposition because he has been in retirement for less than five years.

"Austin also knows that the secretary of defense has a different set of responsibilities than a general officer and that the civil-military dynamic has been under great stress these past four years", Biden wrote.

Biden nominated Austin, who served as head of the US Central Command, to be defense secretary in his administration to be launched next month.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat and former Pentagon official, said Tuesday she respected Gen. Austin, who retired from the military in 2016. Democrats and Republicans in Congress have expressed reluctance at doing so for Austin, even though they granted one for Jim Mattis when he was named President Donald Trump's first defense secretary. A waiver of the 1947 law had only been passed one other time, in 1950.

His message Wednesday was aimed directly at Congress, highlighting its move to grant Mattis a waiver.

USA law, which has been amended over the years, states that a person may not be appointed as secretary of defense within seven years after leaving active duty without a waiver.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a former chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said in an interview on MSNBC on Tuesday that it is his "inclination" to support a waiver for Austin.

Because the House has to vote on a waiver, "we ought to have the nominee before our committee, so that we can ask questions about his understanding of civilian control of the military, and to reassure ourselves", said Smith, a Democrat from Washington.

However, the Massachusetts Democrat plans to vote against the congressional waiver needed to confirm Austin to the position.

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He also said the US must work to rebuild relationships and engage partners, a dig at the Trump administration's "America first" policy that left some allies wary.

"I understand the important role the department plays in maintaining stability, deterring aggression, and defending and supporting critical alliances around the world, including in the Asia-Pacific, in Europe, and around the world", said Mr Austin, adding that he shared Mr Biden's belief that America was strongest when it worked with allies.

Biden, who becomes the nation's 46th president on January 20, said Austin's intimate knowledge of the Pentagon makes him "uniquely suited for the challenges we face now, the crisis we face now". The 41-year veteran and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., has extensive combat experience, leading troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant general and assumed command of Fort Bragg before becoming commander of U.S troops in Iraq from 2010 to 2011, where he oversaw the end of the USA -led invasion of the country and the withdrawal of all US forces.

FILE - In this September 16, 2015, photo, U.S. Central Command Commander Gen. Lloyd Austin III, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"Is the nation so short on leadership and those with national security experience that the only person the new administration could find is a recently retired senior general?" said retired Col. Steve Ganyard, a former deputy assistant secretary of state and now an ABC News contributor.

But the general came under fire by lawmakers in 2015 over a $500 million program that ultimately trained just a handful of Syrian fighters. While threats there continue, the Defense Department is now focused on countering Russian Federation and China in the years ahead.

"He is an unorthodox choice for that reason - though it doesn't mean necessarily that he's a bad choice", O'Hanlon said.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer met four members of Biden's economic team, including Yellen and Office of Management and Budget director nominee Neera Tanden, on Wednesday and said he wanted to see commitment from them to more COVID-19 relief.

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