NOEL KING, HOST:
President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his secretary of defense. General Austin has a long resume, more than four decades of experience. And if he's confirmed, he would be the first Black American to lead the Pentagon. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following this one. Hey, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: What do you know about General Austin?
KING: Well, he's from Mobile, Ala., and he graduated from West Point. He rose to the military ranks, serving as the top commander in Iraq and eventually became the commander of the U.S. Central Command, which, of course, is in charge of all military operations in the Middle East. He was the first African American to do that as well. You know, he's credited with devising the plan to help defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. He's not the best-known candidate for the job, as he's largely remained out of the limelight. But he has testified before Congress a bunch of times. When Austin retired, then-President Obama said the general's, quote, "character and competence exemplify what America demands of its military leaders."
KING: His retirement is a sticky thing, as I understand it, because he retired four years ago in 2016. But those who serve as secretary of defense have usually been retired for longer than that, right?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, that is right. By law, it's actually supposed to be seven years before serving as defense secretary. He's been at about four. He's only one of less than a handful of potential nominees to fall out of that time frame. And he's going to need a waiver from Congress if he's going to get the job. Trump's first nominee, Jim Mattis, also had to do that.
KING: OK, so it could take some work to get him into the position. What do you know, then, about how Joe Biden came to this decision?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, a source familiar with the president-elect's reasoning told me that Biden came to trust General Austin during their time together in Situation Room briefings when Biden was vice president and Austin was head of Central Command. Biden, I was also told, appreciated that Austin knows, quote, "the human costs of war firsthand." And to be clear, Biden is also under a lot of pressure to make his cabinet diverse. And this is part of that. Biden said he wants his cabinet to look like America. And he's been pushed by groups like the NAACP and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to choose candidates from specific backgrounds. You know, for example, Biden also says he's nominating Xavier Becerra, the former California attorney general, a son of an immigrant from Mexico - that he's going to be his health and human services secretary if confirmed.
KING: General Austin's name just came out last night. Has there been any reaction so far?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it is early. General Austin, though, is very well-regarded among his colleagues. Former military officials have called him an extraordinary leader and a towering figure, but they're also expressing some concern that he's a general, and some would rather see some civilian control. And they don't want the congressional waiver to become the new norm. That could also be an issue for some members of Congress.
KING: That is really interesting. If he is confirmed, though, what are the biggest things that he's confronting right off the bat?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, the Trump administration has announced a major drawdown of U.S. troops, including in Afghanistan. It's certainly a different situation than it was during the Obama years, when troops surged to around 100,000 in Afghanistan. The numbers are expected to drop to about 2,500 by January. And, you know, as vice president, Joe Biden was reluctant to support some increases in troop levels. And frankly, we don't know where Austin will stand on this. What are his recommendations going to be on troop levels in Afghanistan? That is something that they are going to have to confront together.
KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Franco, thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.