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Biden Criticized For Pick Of Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin As Pentagon Chief

NOEL KING, HOST:

Another one of Joe Biden's cabinet picks is the retired four-star General Lloyd Austin. Biden has nominated Austin to be his secretary of defense. General Austin is widely respected. And he would be the first Black American to lead the Pentagon. But his confirmation is facing some opposition already because he retired from active duty only four years ago. Now, secretaries of defense, by law, have to be retired for seven years when they take the job. With me now is Jim Golby. He's been a special adviser to vice presidents Biden and Mike Pence. And he also served 20 years in the Army. Good morning, sir.

JIM GOLBY: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

KING: We're glad to have you. You wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that Austin should not be secretary of defense because he retired too recently. Can you explain the argument there?

GOLBY: Yes. It's really - has very little to do with General Austin, who is a really fine public servant and, hopefully, will continue to serve our nation. It has to do with the precedent and who will lead our military going forward. The Pentagon relies on both civilian and military leadership. And the secretary of defense is supposed to be a civilian leader. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs is supposed to be the military leader.

KING: Why is the secretary of defense supposed to be a civilian? What's the importance of that?

GOLBY: So they really have different roles. And you want, as secretary of defense, someone with a really broad perspective in civilian life. They're the person who is responsible for making value and political choices, for managing relationships with the White House, Congress, other agencies in the government and, most importantly, for explaining the administration's policies to the public. That's inherently a partisan and political task. And it's not something that we necessarily want military - the military to be directly involved in. That's something that we entrust to our civilian leaders.

KING: OK. That's a fair point. So defense secretaries legally required to have retired from active duty for at least seven years. But, worth noting, Congress passed a waiver for President Trump's first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, because he hadn't been retired all that long. Why shouldn't another waiver be given to General Austin?

GOLBY: Well, I don't think the waiver should've been granted in the last case.

KING: OK.

GOLBY: There were a few people who did make the case that they believe since Trump was a threat to constitutional governance that it was warranted to have a steady hand like Jim Mattis still running the Pentagon to try to balance some of the president's worst tendencies. But in this case, I really do think that it's about the precedent. Again, it's nothing to do with Austin personally. But part of the reason we're even having the discussion about whether he should be secretary of defense is because we broke this precedent four years ago and it would be the second time in four years after not doing so for 65.

KING: OK. Joe Biden is aware that people have problems with this choice. He wrote an editorial in The Atlantic defending his pick. He pointed to Austin's military record when he was overseeing Middle East operations for U.S. Central Command, basically, saying experienced leadership is vital. You say the same thing, experienced leadership is vital. The Pentagon is going to play a role in the COVID-19 response and in vaccine distribution. All signs point to General Austin is the kind of person we want with the kind of track record we want. May I ask, who would you like to see be secretary of defense?

GOLBY: There were a number of fantastic candidates who were civilians who would not require us to change the law so it doesn't apply to one person. Michele Flournoy was a great candidate, who many thought was one of the leading candidates for the job, as well as Jeh Johnson, former Department of Homeland Security director, who was also a leading candidate until he announced that he would not join the administration yesterday.

KING: OK. And lastly, a point that Joe Biden made in this editorial. General Austin would be the first Black American to lead the Defense Department. The Pentagon does need diversity at the top. There's been lots of reporting on that. How do you square that one?

GOLBY: So again, I think that's why someone like Jeh Johnson or Michele Flournoy, who both would've brought diversity, would've been great choices as well. I think the real question as we look at this is it's a great thing that Americans who couldn't before look up at the secretary of defense and see themselves in that person can now do that in their nominee. It just would've been great if that nominee were another African American like Jeh Johnson or a woman leader like Michele Flournoy.

KING: Do you suspect that General Austin will get that waiver that he needs from Congress?

GOLBY: I think it'll be enough - much tougher fight on the Hill than it has been for the previous waivers. There have been a number of senators, like Senator Jack Reed, who voiced a lot of skepticism even as they approved the waiver for Mattis who have sent some mixed signals so far. So I think it'll be a tough fight. But I think, in the end, it will probably be a close pass for Lloyd Austin.

KING: Jim Golby was a special adviser to vice presidents Biden and Mike Pence. Thank you so much, sir.

GOLBY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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