Biden to nominate retired Gen. Lloyd Austin for defense secretary, a first for a Black American

Carol E. Lee, Kristen Welker, Courtney Kube and Dartunorro Clark
Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, prepares to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 16, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images News | Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin as the nation's defense secretary, according to three people familiar with the decision.

If confirmed, Austin, 67, a retired four-star Army general and former head of U.S. Central Command, will be the first African American to fill the position. He was also the first Black American to lead Central Command, which oversees the U.S. military in the Middle East and parts of Africa, Central Asia and South Asia.

Austin was offered the job on Sunday. He became the front runner over the past week, but his relationship with Biden goes back years. The two spent hours working together when Austin was running CENTCOM.

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The Biden team sees Austin as someone with deep knowledge and experience at the Department of Defense and believe he will be able to hit the job running once confirmed, according to a source familiar with the decision process.

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would require a congressional waiver to serve as defense secretary because he retired less than seven years ago. He would among only two other nominees who have ever been granted such waiver, George C. Marshall and James Mattis, who served under President Donald Trump.

Asked whether they think Austin will get the waiver, the source said the Biden team is confident he will be viewed as a strong nominee for the job.

As Biden continues to fill out his Cabinet, he is under pressure to name Black Americans to top posts. Biden has promised to make his Cabinet the most diverse in history.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, told CNN in an interview on Sunday that Biden needed to pick a Black American for top cabinet positions, like defense or the attorney general, noting that Austin was one the top contenders backed by the Congressional Black Caucus, which she chairs.

Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris to be his running mate, and she will become the nation's first Black vice president, in addition to being the first woman and Asian American to hold the job.

So far, Biden has made several choices for cabinet secretaries, including Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, who is Hispanic, Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, whose parents immigrated from Cuba to the U.S., and his pick for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, who will be the first woman to hold the job. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, will serve as Biden's ambassador to the United Nations, a position that is often included in the Cabinet under Democratic presidents.

Biden faces pressure, however, to select people who not only will be "accepted by all elements of the Democratic Party," as he recently said but who also stand a reasonable chance of getting confirmed by a Senate that will be in GOP hands if Democrats don't win both of next month's Georgia runoffs.

The choice is expected to be announced in a statement Tuesday, with a public event to follow Wednesday. Biden's transition office said Monday that the president-elect would name his Pentagon chief as well as other members of his domestic and economic cabinet by the end of this week.