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Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Between the lines: Biden's top advisers feel pressure to announce an African American to a prominent Cabinet role. Earlier this week, Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), a top ally, said he was disappointed more African Americans had not been included in Biden's early selections.

  • Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense in American history.
  • The former head of U.S. Central Command, Austin retired from the Army in 2016. He would need a congressional waiver to serve, just as President Trump's first defense secretary, James Mattis, required as a recent military retiree.
  • Flournoy was never a foregone conclusion for secretary despite some media reporting suggesting the job was already hers.
  • The president-elect does not have the same deep, long-term relationship with her as he does, for example, with Tony Blinken, Flournoy's former business partner and Biden's nominee for secretary of state.

But, but, but: Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official, remains in contention, as do Johnson, a former Homeland Security secretary, and Duckworth, an Illinois senator and combat veteran of the Iraq War.

  • Johnson, who served as the Pentagon's general counsel in the early years of the Obama administration, is also in contention for attorney general, sources tell Axios.
  • Biden had considered Duckworth as his running mate.

Behind the scenes: When the president-elect omitted a candidate for secretary of defense from his marquee national security rollout, it raised questions about whether there were problems with Flournoy's nomination or a late-blooming candidate had eclipsed her.

The big picture: The Biden team wants to elevate diplomacy and de-emphasize the military as an instrument of national power.

  • "So having DoD rollout front-and-center sends one message," said a source close to Biden. "Not doing so sends another message. There has always been the intent to signal from Day One that this is not an administration that is going to put the Pentagon at the center of things."
  • Biden said Tuesday: "This team meets this moment. They embody my core belief that America is strongest when it works with its allies."

Go deeper

Jan 26, 2021 - World

Biden sets his sights on China

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images  

The new administration's first few moves and statements on China suggest that President Biden may continue some of the Trump era's most assertive policies.

Why it matters: China's severe domestic repression, its dramatic rise as a technological superpower, and its increasingly aggressive actions around the globe mean that the world expects the American president to take action.

Biden signs order overturning Trump's transgender military ban

Photo: Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Biden signed an executive order on Monday overturning the Trump administration's ban on transgender Americans serving in the military.

Why it matters: The ban, which allowed the military to bar openly transgender recruits and discharge people for not living as their sex assigned at birth, affected up to 15,000 service members, according to tallies from the National Center for Transgender Equality and Transgender American Veterans Association.

Dave Lawler, author of World
Jan 26, 2021 - World

Biden holds first phone call with Putin, raises Navalny arrest

Putin takes a call in 2017. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

President Biden on Tuesday held his first call since taking office with Vladimir Putin, pressing the Russian president on the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the Russia-linked hack on U.S. government agencies.

The state of play: Biden also raised arms control, bounties allegedly placed on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, according to a White House readout. The statement said Biden and Putin agreed maintain "consistent communication," and that Biden stressed the U.S. would "act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies."