Trump Appointee Will Temporarily Lead Pentagon Until Biden’s Pick Is Confirmed

WASHINGTON — A low-profile deputy defense secretary will be the lone Trump holdover running the Pentagon until President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s defense secretary pick is confirmed. Mr. Biden is also planning to install John F. Kirby — the former spokesman for John Kerry when he was secretary of state, Chuck Hagel when he was defense secretary 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 at the Pentagon, will be Mr. Biden’s acting defense secretary — if only for a few days — transition officials said.

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

Mr. Biden has decided that instead of bypassing Mr. Norquist and plucking Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to run the Pentagon until there is a confirmed defense secretary, he will adhere to tradition. Under federal law, a Senate-confirmed deputy secretary automatically assumes the duties of the secretary during an 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 veteran government public affairs officer and a respected figure at the Pentagon. A retired Navy rear admiral, he jumped from the Pentagon to the State Department in 2015 and worked closely with Mr. Kerry during the Iran nuclear negotiations and for the last two years of the Obama administration.

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

He also spent a year as the Pentagon spokesman under Mr. Hagel, and has been the spokesman for the Navy as well as for Mr. Mullen. Mr. Kirby declined to comment for this article.

A big part of his job will be to coax the new defense secretary to be more communicative with the news media. Mr. Austin was famous for eschewing press interviews when he was the head of U.S. Central Command.

Congressional critics of Mr. Biden’s decision to nominate Mr. Austin say they do not like the idea of granting a waiver to defense secretaries in two consecutive administrations. Jim Mattis, who was President Trump’s first defense secretary, also needed one.

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

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

“General Lloyd Austin has not been out of uniform for the requisite seven years,” the statement said. “Based on the lessons learned after the House made the unprecedented move of granting a waiver four years ago, the Republican Study Committee will oppose granting General Austin a waiver.”

In a memo to House members, the group accused Mr. Mattis of “often pushing away civilian leadership” and complained that in many cases he “was out of tune with the policy vision of the elected commander in chief, creating tensions.”

But it was Mr. Mattis’s ability to stand down some of Mr. Trump’s directives that reassured administration critics who feared that the president viewed 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 nomination is scheduled for Jan. 19, the day before Mr. Biden’s inauguration.

Eric Schmitt and Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting.

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