Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, greets Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley as he arrives at the Pentagon on Friday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, greets Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley as he arrives at the Pentagon on Friday. Alex Brandon / AP

Purity Tested, Senators Confirm General Austin for Secretary of Defense

With little actual opposition in the end, members voted for the waiver and the man.

It wasn’t much of a fight. With no floor debate and an overwhelming vote of 93-2, senators confirmed retired Gen. Lloyd Austin on Friday to become President Joe Biden’s first defense secretary — and the country’s first Black defense secretary. The vote cast aside opposition from liberal members who for the past month had expressed dismay or vowed to block the president from appointing a recently retired general with defense industry ties. 

Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., one of the body’s most vocal opponents of the defense revolving door, voted yes.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to serve as our country’s 28th Secretary of Defense, and I’m especially proud to be the first African American to hold the position. Let’s get to work,” Austin said, in a tweet.

Few members of Congress took public issue with Austin’s leadership abilities, policy positions, or basic qualifications for the job. Austin, the final commanding general of the Iraq War, retired five years ago as the 4-star commander of U.S. Central Command, overseeing the wars in Afghanistan and Syria. The main concern was his relatively recent status as a uniformed officer. By law, nominees for defense secretary must be out of uniform for at least seven years. Senators who granted an exception for Donald Trump’s first SecDef bristled at being asked to pass similar legislation again.

At Austin’s confirmation hearing last week, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee asked about his commitment to civilian rule of the military. Warren received Austin’s assurances that he would recuse himself from decisions regarding Raytheon, where he was a board member. But other members were not convinced. On Thursday, 27 senators cast their votes against the waiver for Austin. They did so knowing they would lose, and 25 of these dissenters voted for his confirmation on Friday.

“I believe that Mr. Austin is highly qualified for this role. However, the importance of civilian leadership at the Department of Defense is greater than any individual nominee,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who voted against the waiver but for Austin’s confirmation, along with notables like Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

No floor time was given for other senators to debate the nomination before Friday’s vote. Some released written statements explaining to constituents why they supported the waiver and the man.

“After a careful evaluation of his military service, experience and commitment to bolstering civilian roles at the Department of Defense, I believe Lloyd Austin is the best person to lead the Pentagon and voted in support of his nomination,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

“My conversations with Mr. Austin and his testimony before the Armed Services Committee have reassured me that he understands the value of a civilian-led DOD, and will surround himself with strong civilian leaders,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. 

“Lloyd Austin is committed to civilian control of the military and is well-equipped to lead the Department of Defense as it protects us from enemies foreign and domestic, including the troubling growth of white supremacist and other extremist mindsets within our own Armed Forces,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Biden’s selection of Austin — and not Michèle Flournoy, the former defense undersecretary for policy under President Barack Obama widely believed to be lying in wait for the post ever since Hillary Clinton announced her 2016 candidacy —  took some in Washington by surprise. Many liberal supporters groaned. They had granted a special exception just four years earlier for Jim Mattis, Trump’s first defense secretary, largely on the desire to surround the volatile rookie politician with stable, experienced leaders. “Mad Dog” Mattis, as he was known — his actual call sign is “Chaos” — was a beloved military leader with an encyclopedic knowledge of history and an affectionate and almost cult-like following. His arrival was seen to calm the nerves of Republicans and Democrats anxious that Trump would too quickly make drastic moves with U.S. troops abroad or threaten adversaries with attacks, threaten allies with financial blackmail, and threaten to use nuclear weapons — all of which he eventually did. Mattis, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, had to work hard to shield the military from the hotbed partisan politics of Trump’s White House. They drastically reduced public media engagements and on-camera briefings while maintaining close ties with the press behind the scenes. History has yet to fully judge the success of their efforts, but the experiment was reason enough for some members of Congress to rise in opposition to Austin.

House members approved the waiver language on Thursday after meeting privately with Austin, but not unanimously. Many cited his experience and race as reasons for their assent.

“This is not an easy question,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., on the floor Thursday. Smith said he believed Austin was qualified, committed to the principle of civilian control of the military, and worthy of a waiver to install the first Black American as defense secretary, “which is enormously important in and of itself. The military has a problem with diversity. They have an insufficient number of people of color who have been advanced to high positions, to general and general flag officers. It is enormously important that they address that….Having a highly qualified African American be secretary of defense

will be an enormous step toward addressing that problem.” 

Others also cited Austin’s race. “His confirmation is more than a symbolic milestone towards genuine integration of the Department of Defense; it is a substantive answer to many of the challenges that the military faces,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, D-Md. “What are those challenges, Mr. Speaker? White supremacy and extremism. There is a dramatic rise in White supremacists and racist hate groups within our military. They actively recruit from our uniformed ranks.” 

Republican Mike Rogers, of Alabama, the new minority ranking member of the committee, expressed anger that Austin did not sit for a public committee hearing. “I voted for the waiver for General Mattis, and I will vote for the waiver for General Austin,” Rogers said. “For me, it is just fair: a waiver for a Republican President and a waiver for a Democrat President. But I stand here frustrated by this dysfunctional process.” He said presidents either should honor the law as written or change it in the next National Defense Authorization Act.

Some Republicans who voted for Mattis’ waiver objected to Austin’s. “I want to make clear that I have enormous respect for General Austin’s service,” said Rep. Mike Gallagher, of Wisconsin. “I don’t think anyone can look at his record and not come away very impressed. But I also strongly oppose this bill. There is no waiver; we are actually changing the underlying law.” 

Gallagher also argued that Austin, whose later career was focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan, was unqualified to take on China or the politics of Washington. Mattis, he said, had proven that kind of background  a clear deficiency. 

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., voted against Mattis’s waiver, in part because Trump and Mattis did not previously know each other. “That relationship did not go well, unfortunately,” Hoyer said, whereas Biden and Austin have a long history.  

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., said, “I don’t think the American people are concerned about process arguments, about whether someone wore a uniform or didn’t wear a uniform.” Instead, he argued, they want to know if the defense secretary is going to start new wars or circumvent civilian control and the president of the United States. “General Austin deferred to President Obama, and [as defense secretary] he will absolutely defer to President Biden.” 

Gallagher’s warning that Austin lacks political experience in Washington may prove prescient, given the hyper-partisan state of politics on the Hill and within Republican ranks. The two senators voting against Austin’s nomination were Mike Lee, R-Utah, and the extreme right’s latest poster boy, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who days earlier blocked Senate action on the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to lead the Department of Homeland Security, in protest over Biden’s pledge to defund the Mexico border wall.

Shortly after noon on Friday, Austin arrived at the Pentagon’s River Entrance, greeted by elbow-bumps from a masked-up Joint Chief Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. 

“Good to see you guys,” Austin said to the waiting press, “look forward to working with you. See ya around campus.” 

After being sworn in by Tom Muir, acting director of Washington Headquarters Services, Austin was scheduled to meet with Milley, host a COVID team briefing, call NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, and hear briefings on China and the Middle East.