Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense: Austin takes helm at Pentagon | COVID-19 briefing part of Day 1 agenda | Outrage over images of National Guard troops in parking garage

Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: The Senate has approved President Biden’s nominee to lead the Pentagon, paving the way for retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to make history as the nation’s first Black secretary of Defense.

The Senate confirmed Austin in a 93-2 Friday morning vote, giving Biden his second Cabinet member two days after his inauguration. The only no votes came from GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Mike Lee (Utah).

“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 after he was confirmed. “Let’s get to work.”

Why the slight delay?: Presidents typically have key national security nominees confirmed on Inauguration Day, but a combination of factors — including the Trump administration delaying the transition, control of the Senate being up in the air until the Georgia runoffs in early January and the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol — meant Biden only got one nominee confirmed on his first day: Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

The Senate could also vote as soon as Friday on Biden’s nominees for secretary of State, Antony Blinken, and Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, but votes have not been scheduled.

Austin had the additional hurdle of needing Congress to approve a waiver allowing him to bypass a law barring recently retired generals from leading the Pentagon.

Jumping the hurdle: Under the 1947 law meant to ensure civilian control of the military, Defense secretaries must be out of uniform for at least seven years. Austin retired from the military in 2016.

Citing a confluence of crises including the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers fast-tracked the waiver Thursday, with both chambers of Congress approving it within hours of each other.

Congress has waived the law twice before — first for George Marshall in 1950, and then for James Mattis in 2017.

The argument around it: Lawmakers in both parties had expressed concern that waiving the law again so soon after Mattis would further erode the principle of civilian control of the military. On Thursday, 14 Senate Democrats and 13 Senate Republicans voted against the waiver. In the House, opposition came from 15 Democrats and 63 Republicans.

But Democrats largely coalesced around Austin as a historic pick with the logistics experience necessary to fight the pandemic.

“I will support his historic nomination and believe he will restore direction to a Pentagon that has been left rudderless and adrift for too long under the previous administration,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement announcing his support for Austin despite four years ago pledging to never again approve such a waiver. “His character and integrity are unquestioned and he possesses the knowledge and skill to effectively lead the Pentagon.”

GOP backs him: Austin also garnered support from top Republicans, with outgoing Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (Okla.) saying he is “very confident that Lloyd Austin will be a strong, capable civilian leader for the Pentagon at this critical time.”

During his confirmation hearing, Austin sought to blunt any concerns lawmakers had about the waiver, saying he knows the “safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces.”

Austin also said he would empower civilian leadership under him, pledging to include his under secretary of Defense for policy in key decisionmaking meetings to ensure “strategic and operational decisions are informed by policy.”

Jumping into itAfter he was sworn in by Tom Muir, acting director of Washington Headquarters Services, Austin jumped into his duties with an intelligence briefing and meetings with Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, according to a Pentagon statement.

Austin also had plans to chair a COVID-19 briefing, attended by the Norquist, Milley, service secretaries and chiefs, combatant commanders, staff and Pentagon COVID-19 Coordinator Max Rose.

In addition, he will call NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and receive operational briefings about China and the Middle East, the Pentagon said.

The rest of his afternoon will consist of administrative check-in procedures.


OUTRAGE OVER NATIONAL GUARD IN CAPITOL PARKING GARAGE: National Guardsmen were allowed back inside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday night after having been moved to a parking garage.

Guardsmen had moved to a nearby parking garage after they were ordered to vacate the Capitol and other congressional buildings, Politico reported. They were asked to set up mobile command centers outside of the Capitol or at hotels.

Guardsmen were also told to take their breaks in parking garages, the outlet reported.

The report, which included a number of photos of Guardsmen sitting and sleeping in a garage, sparked outrage among lawmakers, who offered to lend their offices to troops needing to take rest breaks.

Lawmaker’s response: Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said Capitol Police apologized to Guard personnel by 10:30 p.m.

“Unreal. I can’t believe that the same brave servicemembers we’ve been asking to protect our Capitol and our Constitution these last two weeks would be unceremoniously ordered to vacate the building. I am demanding answers ASAP. They can use my office,” the Iraq War veteran said.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) also expressed outrage and offered her office.

“My office is available; the Guard is welcome to it. There is plenty of space in the US Capitol for the men and women keeping us safe,” she tweeted.

Large numbers and confusion: About 25,000 National Guard service members flooded the Capitol due to heightened security concerns around President Biden’s inauguration. The concerns stemmed from the Jan. 6 mob of pro-Trump supporters who breached the U.S. Capitol as Congress was meeting to certify the Electoral College vote.

The National Guard Bureau said in a statement Thursday that troop relocation was temporary because Congress was in session.

In a statement released Friday, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman said the agency “did not instruct the National Guard to vacate the Capitol building facilities.” 

“It was brought to our attention early today that facility management with the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Office Building reached out directly to the National Guard to offer use of its facilities,” Pittman said.

“As of this morning, all Guardsmen and women have been relocated to space within the Capitol Complex. The Department is also working with the Guard to reduce the need for sleeping accommodations by establishing shorter shifts, and will ensure they have access to the comfortable accommodations they absolutely deserve when the need arises,” Pittman added.



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Tags Antony Blinken Avril Haines D.C. National Guard defense secretary waiver Jack Reed James Mattis Janet Yellen Jill Biden Jim Inhofe Josh Hawley Lloyd Austin Mark Milley Max Rose Mike Lee Tammy Duckworth

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