Person appointed by Trump will temporarily lead Pentagon until Biden’s choice is confirmed

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WASHINGTON – A low-key Deputy Secretary of Defense will be Trump’s only vestige of Pentagon head until President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice of Defense Secretary is confirmed. Mr Biden also plans to install John F. Kirby – the former spokesperson for John Kerry when he was Secretary of State, Chuck Hagel when he was Secretary of Defense and Mike Mullen when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – as the next Pentagon Press Secretary.

David L. Norquist, who is now the No. 2 civilian in the Pentagon, will be Mr. Biden Acting Defense Secretary – if only for a few days – said transition officials.

The transition team has been pushing for Mr Biden to be selected for the first post, a retired four-star Army general Lloyd J. Austin III confirmed as soon as possible. But unlike Team Biden’s other top national security contenders, Mr. Austin will have to go through three Congressional hoops first. The Senate and House must approve a waiver for him to rule the Pentagon since he has not been removed from military service for at least seven years, and then he must be confirmed by the Senate.

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Mr Biden has decided that instead of bypassing Mr Norquist and plucking Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy to lead the Pentagon until there is a confirmed defense secretary, he will follow the tradition. . Under federal law, a deputy secretary confirmed by the Senate automatically assumes the functions of secretary in the event of absence. The decision to keep Mr Norquist until a defense secretary is confirmed was reported earlier by Politico.

Mr. Kirby, for his part, is a former government public affairs officer and a respected figure in the Pentagon. A retired Navy Rear Admiral, he moved from the Pentagon to the State Department in 2015 and worked closely with Mr. Kerry during the Iran nuclear negotiations and during the last two years of the Obama administration. .

Mr. Kirby worked with Mr. Austin when they were both on the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Mullen, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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He also spent a year as a Pentagon spokesperson under the direction of Mr. Hagel, and was the spokesperson for the Navy as well as Mr. Mullen. Mr. Kirby declined to comment for this article.

Much of his job will be to persuade the new Secretary of Defense to be more communicative with the media. Mr. Austin was famous for avoiding press interviews while in charge of the US Central Command.

Critics in Congress of Mr. Biden’s decision to appoint Mr. Austin say they don’t like the idea of ​​granting defense secretaries waivers in two consecutive administrations. Jim Mattis, who was President Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, needed it too.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter Tuesday, Mr Austin’s outlook was clouded, as a majority of lawmakers on both sides argued that the exception that had been made for Mr Mattis, a retired four-star naval general should not be repeated.

As Mr. Austin enjoys greater support in the House, the Republican Study Committee, a House caucus that advocates for conservative causes, released a statement on Thursday opposing Mr. Austin’s waiver.

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“General Lloyd Austin has not been in uniform for the required seven years,” the statement said. “Based on the lessons learned after the House made the unprecedented decision to grant a waiver four years ago, the Republican Study Committee will oppose granting a waiver to General Austin.

In a note to members of the House, the group accused Mr Mattis of “often pushing back civilian leaders” and complained that in many cases he “was out of step with the commander’s political vision. elected chief, creating tensions ”.

But it was Mr Mattis’ ability to overrule some of Mr Trump’s directives that reassured administration critics who feared the president would view the military as his own personal militia ready to act on his political whims. . Mr. Mattis resigned in December 2018.

Mr Austin’s Senate hearing for his appointment is scheduled for Jan. 19, the day before Mr Biden’s inauguration.

Eric Schmitt and Jennifer steinhauer contribution to reports.

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