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Biden says 'right moment' for Pentagon nominee Austin, amid concerns over recent Army service

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) -President-elect Joe Biden said it was the “right moment” in U.S. history for his defense secretary nominee, retired Army General Lloyd Austin, despite concerns about the recently out-of-uniform soldier taking on a role reserved by law for civilians.

The choice of Austin, who if confirmed would be the first Black U.S. secretary of defense, requires both houses of Congress to waive a law requiring the military’s top brass to have been out of the armed forces for at least seven years before running the Pentagon. Austin, 67, retired in 2016.

In announcing his pick in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden called Austin “the right person for this job at the right moment.”

“I would not be asking for this exception if I did not believe this moment in our history didn’t call for it - does call for it - and if I didn’t have the faith I have in Lloyd Austin,” the Democrat said.

Biden has pledged to name a Cabinet that reflects America’s diversity and his nominees so far have included several firsts, including Janet Yellen, who would be the nation’s first woman Treasury secretary, and Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first immigrant to run the Department of Homeland Security.

A handful of Democratic senators say they would oppose giving Austin the waiver, which was last issued for President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, retired Marine General Jim Mattis.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told reporters on Wednesday she looked forward to meeting Austin but that the required waiver was a big concern. “My view is that civilian control of the military is part of our constitutional principles,” she said.

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The Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, said that while he also had concerns, he did not reject Biden’s choice.

Austin in Wilmington said: “I come to this new role as a civilian leader – with military experience to be sure – but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military.”

An intensely private man, Austin avoided the spotlight during a distinguished four-decade career in uniform, including a stint as head of the military’s Central Command, which oversees U.S. troops across the Middle East.

His nomination follows a year of reckoning in the United States over systemic racism and injustice after a series of police killings of Black Americans, and as many call for greater diversity in the leadership of the armed forces, whose top tier has been largely white.

CABINET FALLING INTO PLACE

Biden is more than halfway through the nominees for his Cabinet ahead of his Jan. 20 inauguration and has settled on several more names that are still to be announced.

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Katherine Tai, the House Ways and Means Committee’s chief trade lawyer, has been picked to serve as U.S. trade representative, four sources familiar with the decision said on Wednesday.

Tai, 45, played a key role in negotiating stronger labor provisions with the Trump administration in the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade deal, and has the support of labor and business circles.

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack will be nominated as agriculture secretary, according to two sources familiar with the decision. Vilsack held the same role during the Obama administration, in which Biden was vice president.

Biden also plans to nominate Marcia Fudge, a Black congresswoman from Ohio, as his housing and urban development secretary, according to news reports.

Biden is likely to spend much of his first few months focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the struggling economy. He vowed on Tuesday to distribute 100 million coronavirus vaccines in his first 100 days and to make reopening schools a “national priority.” The virus has killed more than 287,000 people in the United States and cost millions of jobs.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer met four members of Biden’s economic team, including Yellen and Office of Management and Budget director nominee Neera Tanden, on Wednesday and said he wanted to see commitment from them to more COVID-19 relief.

“We need a large, bold program to stimulate the economy, help people out of the conditions they’re in, but keep the economy going for a long period of time,” Schumer said, according to a transcript.

The other nominees at the meeting were Wally Adeyemo for deputy Treasury secretary and Celia Rouse, who would chair the Council of Economic Advisers.

Biden’s son Hunter, a focus of attacks from Trump and his Republican allies during the campaign, said in a statement on Wednesday that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware is investigating his tax affairs but he was confident he “handled my affairs legally and appropriately.”

CNN reported investigators were examining multiple financial issues, including whether Hunter Biden and his associates violated tax and money-laundering laws in business dealings in foreign countries, principally China, according to two people briefed on the probe.

Trump has not conceded the Nov. 3 election, claiming contrary to evidence that there was widespread electoral fraud.

The state of Texas has filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the election outcome in four other states, a lawsuit that legal experts said had little chance of success. Trump and 17 U.S. states on Wednesday threw their support behind Texas’ bid.

Reporting by Simon Lewis in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey and Patricia Zengerle, Phil Stewart, Jarrett Renshaw and David Morgan in Washington; Writing by Sonya Hepinstall and John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney

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