Senate Confirms First Black Defense Secretary, Says He Supports Reversing Transgender Military Ban
Retired General Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his conformation hearing to be the next Secretary of Defense in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, on January 19, 2021.

Lloyd J. Austin became the first black American to serve as U.S. Secretary of Defense on Friday after the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his appointment with a bipartisan 93 to 2 vote.

NPR reports, “Austin served more than 40 years in the Army, and headed U.S. Central Command, the Pentagon’s key post leading military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.”

“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,” Austin tweeted on Friday morning. “Let’s get to work.”

Austin, 67, arrived at the Pentagon later in the day to be sworn in and reportedly received his first salute from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, before entering the facility.

During a confirmation hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin had said he supports reversing the Trump administration’s ban on transgender people serving openly in the military.

“If you’re fit and you’re qualified to serve and you can maintain the standards, you should be allowed to serve and you can expect that I will support that throughout,” Austin said.

President Joe Biden is likely to change the policy via executive action “in the coming days and weeks,” according to Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

Austin takes over the Pentagon as far-reaching decisions lie immediately ahead. Among them: whether to proceed with further troop drawdowns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria; clarifying the military‘s role in assisting the domestic response to the COVID-19 pandemic; and how to focus U.S. security strategy more on countering China in East Asia, which Austin has said will be one of his priorities. Austin will also have to work on easing tensions with allies in Europe and Asia over U.S. defense commitments. Those relations frayed considerably under former President Trump.

Austin’s speedy approval came despite some lawmakers’ concerns that putting a recently retired officer in charge of the armed forces might further weaken the nation’s principle of civilian control of the military. Austin reassured lawmakers that he understood his role as a civilian official would require him to be independent of the armed services in advising Biden.

The way was cleared for his confirmation Thursday, when the House and the Senate voted to waive a law that requires former officers to have been out of uniform at least seven years before they could become Defense secretary. Austin retired in 2016.

The National Security Act of 1947 created the legally mandated seven-year wait period to safeguard civilian control of the armed forces. Austin’s confirmation marks the third time the Senate had waived the restriction since its implementation more than 70 years ago. The body previously granted waivers to George Marshall, a retired Army general nominated to the post by President Harry Truman in 1950, and retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis in 2017, who served as President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell voted to confirm Austin. Still, as CNN reports, he urged the Senate to “pause and reflect” on the reasons the rule was initially established after World War II.

“The law that we keep waiving actually exists for a good reason,” said Sen. McConnell on Friday. “Civilian control of the military is a fundamental principle of our republic. We emphatically do not want high-ranking military service to become a tacit prerequisite for civilian leadership posts over the Department of Defense.”

Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Josh Hawley of Missouri voted against Austin’s confirmation.

According to the L.A. Times, “Austin also worked with Biden’s late son, Beau, who served on the general’s staff in Iraq, attended Mass with him, and stayed in touch following their deployments, before Beau Biden died of a brain tumor in 2015 – an important bond with Biden.”

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