Austin arrived at the Pentagon just after noon on Friday and was sworn in. An official swearing-in will take place next week at the White House.
The new Defense secretary’s first day is tightly scheduled, starting with meetings with Deputy Secretary David Norquist — one of the few holdovers from the last administration who filled in as acting secretary while Austin awaited confirmation — and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.
Austin is also set to chair a coronavirus briefing with Pentagon leaders and speak to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
“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 wrote on Twitter upon being confirmed. “Let’s get to work.”
The confirmation vote came just a day after the House and Senate approved a waiver to allow Austin to serve. Austin, who retired from the military in 2016, falls short of the legal requirement that military officers be out of uniform for seven years to serve as Defense secretary.
Austin, a former commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, is the second four-star general to be granted the waiver in four years. Congress also passed an exception for former President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis.
Despite the trailblazing nature of Austin’s nomination and his lengthy record, lawmakers in both parties were concerned that installing another general atop the Pentagon would upend already out-of-whack civil-military relations. Even some supporters of Trump and Mattis, such as Republican Sen. Tom Cotton or Arkansas, argued that supporting Mattis in 2017 was a mistake and Congress should never grant the waiver again.
While 27 senators voted against the waiver a day earlier, only two senators opposed Austin’s confirmation: Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri and Mike Lee of Utah.
Austin doubled down on civilian control of the military at a Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing Tuesday. Most senators were satisfied by Austin’s commitments to bolster civilian control of the military and empower senior civilians at the Pentagon rather than surround himself with former military brass.
“Mr. Austin has a storied career in the Army, but those days are behind him,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said ahead of Friday’s vote.
“He must once again demonstrate to the world that the U.S. military will always support out friends, deter our adversaries and, if necessary, defeat them,” Schumer said. “Lloyd Austin is the right person for the job.”
The outgoing Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, argued Austin is the right pick to helm the Pentagon as the military redirects its focus toward matching gains by China and Russia.
“We are in the most threatened times that we have been in,” Inhofe said. “And I can’t think of a better person to take the helm than Gen. Austin to provide that leadership.”
Despite supporting Austin, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cautioned senators to “pause and reflect” on the fact that Congress has exempted two retired generals from federal law to lead he Pentagon at the start of consecutive administrations.
“We’ll investigate steps that Congress can take to help restore balance over at the Pentagon,” McConnell said. “The law that we keep waiving actually exists for good reason. Civilian control of the military is a fundamental principle of our republic.”
In his first days on the job, Austin will likely oversee the dismantling of Trump’s restrictive transgender troop policy. Biden has pledged to roll back Trump’s ban and return to the Obama-era policy that allows transgender people to serve openly. Austin testified to senators that he supports overturning the ban.
He also pledged to quickly review the Pentagon’s efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic to ensure the department is doing all it can to help distribute vaccines and vaccinate troops.
He will also take over a Pentagon that is grappling with issues of systemic racism and extremism in the ranks after months of racial unrest in the country and a deadly insurrection this month at the U.S. Capitol in which some former military members took part.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies,” Austin testified on Tuesday. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
It’s the historic nature of the choice that also underscores one of Austin’s major challenges: making the military more diverse, particularly at the higher ranks.
“If African Americans are gonna be successful, we have to work harder, stay longer and get in earlier. It’s always been that way,” said Rep. Anthony Brown, a former Army officer. “We have to clear that bar with a whole lot more room to spare than other people. Austin is clearing that bar.”
“The moment he walks through the door will energize the department,” he added.
But it won’t be that easy to make the military more representative, warned retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and chief of naval operations.
“He has got to push through this, hold the services’ feet to the fire on this issue, because it’s a priority for the country. And now’s the time,” he said in an interview.
Yet bringing more equality to the military goes well beyond promoting more Black officers, he said.
“My biggest regret when I was a CNO and chairman is I couldn’t do much on the Latinx stuff at all,” Mullen said. “I was pushing women and minorities and the Latinx piece of it, you know, there was no place to push. I didn’t have a pool and that has to be created.”
Austin is the first Pentagon nominee to be confirmed in this administration.
Biden has also nominated Kathleen Hicks to be Austin’s deputy and Colin Kahl to be Pentagon policy chief, but neither has received confirmation hearings yet.
Lara Seligman and Nolan McCaskill contributed to this report.