Defense secretary pick Lloyd Austin breezes through confirmation hearing

Austin, a retired Army general, will become the first Black man to serve as secretary of defense.

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Retired Army General Lloyd Austin would be the first Black man to serve as secretary of defense if confirmed this week, and that is expected to happen on Thursday. 

At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Austin spoke to the concerns of some lawmakers who will have to approve a waiver for him to lead the Defense Department. 

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin answers questions Tuesday during his Defense Secretary confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Greg Nash-Pool/Getty Images)

“Let me say at the outset that I understand and respect the reservations some of you have expressed about having another recently-retired general at the head of the Department of Defense,” Austin said. “The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil.” 

By law, a civilian must control the military. A former officer can serve after seven years or with a waiver from Congress. Most recently, former Trump administration Defense Secretary James Mattis was granted a waiver in 2017. 

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Four U.S. senators have come out against granting the waiver to Austin, including three Democrats and, most notably, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a veteran. 

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton also opposes the waiver.

“My decision reflects not at all on you personally or your record, which I respect,” Cotton told Austin at the hearing. “Rather, I believe Congress should no longer grant such waivers at all.”

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Austin is expected to be confirmed after the waiver, which is expected to get an affirmative vote when the House votes on it Thursday. Austin will be the first defense secretary in modern times who was not confirmed before Inauguration Day. 

At his hearing, Austin was asked about how he will address extremism in the military, a question especially timely since more and more veterans have been identified as having participated in the deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol Building two weeks ago. 

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He noted he was a lieutenant colonel when an investigation discovered that 22 soldiers at Fort Bragg were linked to extremist groups in 1995. Austin said the military “discovered that the signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to. But we learned from that.”

Austin also pledged to fight against sexual assault and racism within the military and to “create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.” 

“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies,” he asserted. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”

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