President-elect Joe Biden has chosen retired General Lloyd Austin, who oversaw U.S. forces in the Middle East under President Barack Obama, to be his defense secretary, two people familiar with the decision said on Monday.
Austin, who would be the first Black U.S. secretary of defense, was a surprise pick over Michele Flournoy, a former top Defense Department official who was considered the leading contender for the job. Flournoy would have been the first woman defense secretary.
The news was first reported by Politico.
Austin, who retired in 2016, will need a waiver from Congress since it has been less than the required seven years since he served. He would be the second Pentagon chief in four years to need a waiver, after President Donald Trump picked James Mattis, a retired Marine general, to be his first defense secretary.
The nomination of Austin, who headed U.S. Central Command under Obama, could draw fire from some progressive groups given his role in retirement on the board of a number of companies, including weapons maker Raytheon Technologies Corp.
But Biden and Austin developed a working relationship during the Obama administration and the retired general has been advising the transition team on national security issues, one of the people familiar with the decision to name him said.
Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, on Monday also announced key members of his health team to lead the administration’s response to the raging coronavirus pandemic.
Biden chose California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for secretary of health and human services and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, to run the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was named as Biden’s chief medical adviser on the virus.
Biden’s first major challenge in the White House will be containing a resurgent COVID-19 virus that has killed more than 283,000 Americans, and finding ways to jump-start an economy still reeling from millions of pandemic-fueled job losses.
He installed Jeff Zients, an economic adviser known for his managerial skills, as coronavirus “czar” to oversee a response that will include an unprecedented operation to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of a new vaccine, coordinating efforts across multiple federal agencies.
“This team of world-class medical experts and public servants will be ready on Day One to mobilize every resource of the federal government to expand testing and masking,” Biden said in a statement, adding they would “oversee the safe, equitable, and free distribution of treatments and vaccines.”