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House chairman endorses Flournoy to be Biden's Secretary of Defense nominee

Posted December 7, 2020 4:52 p.m. EST

— The Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, is backing Michele Flournoy to be President-elect Joe Biden's pick for Defense Secretary, saying Monday she is "hands down" the most qualified person for the job.

While Smith told reporters he has communicated that view directly to the Biden team, his public endorsement of Flournoy comes as her status as the presumed front-runner for the job has been called into question.

"I certainly communicated to the Biden people that I think Michele Flournoy is hands down the best qualified person for the job," Smith, a Democrat from Washington state, told reporters Monday, responding to a question from CNN. "That does not mean that she's the only person that could do the job."

"Michele is ... uniquely qualified," he added, citing her experience as undersecretary for policy and the work she has done since. "It takes a certain amount of understanding of bureaucracy and the Pentagon in order to make changes stick. Michelle has that. It's not to say there aren't other people {who} could fill the position. But I think we have a clear case where she is the most qualified at this point."

Biden said Monday that he plans to announce his nominee for Secretary of Defense on Friday.

Three candidates are in final contention to lead the Pentagon, people familiar with the matter previously told CNN, as Flournoy, Jeh Johnson and Lloyd Austin are all still being considered.

But Biden's delay in naming a nominee is giving space and time for critics to air their complaints -- and the corporate connections of all three candidates are giving progressive Democrats grounds to object.

Flournoy, a veteran Pentagon official, was once widely considered a lock for the position and is still very much in the mix, people familiar with the matter told CNN, but her exclusion from a flurry of barrier-breaking selections in Biden's first wave of Cabinet picks underscored an increasing uncertainty surrounding her candidacy.

Some progressive groups have mobilized in recent days to oppose Flournoy's nomination, though the delay may also be due to the complicated puzzle Biden is assembling as he tries to fulfill his promise of building a Cabinet that reflects the diversity of America -- a potential factor in the President-elect's delay in naming a CIA director as well.

The pick is an important one, as it represents Biden's first commander in chief decision in the new "post-war" era President Donald Trump leaves behind.

The candidates for defense secretary are also facing increased scrutiny over whether they have the political chops to cut defense spending, as some in Congress want, while still funding innovative future technology and prioritizing the challenges posed by Russia and China -- all while maintaining military deterrence against Iran, North Korea, and ISIS.

Flournoy's experience gives her the edge over other candidates for the job, according to Smith.

"It takes a certain amount of understanding of bureaucracy and the Pentagon in order to make changes stick. Michelle has that," he said.

Still, critics have raised concerns about Flournoy's potential conflicts of interest, questioning how her support for former President Barack Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan and the continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia aligns with the business interests of Booz Allen Hamilton, a Pentagon contractor where she served on the board of directors.

They have also pointed to Flournoy's role as co-founder of WestExec Advisers, whose primary business is helping US companies with global footprints navigate geopolitical risk, as a concern. Flounroy founded the consulting firm with Biden's pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken.

A spokesperson for Flournoy told CNN last week that "Michele's private sector experiences do not influence her policy views or work." The spokesperson also noted that Flournoy "has no involvement in contracting or business development with any client, including the US government" as a member of Booz Allen's board of directors.

While serving on the board of a defense contractor is considered a conflict and typically requires a cooling off period before anyone can be nominated as defense secretary, others in the position have had similar backgrounds.

Other candidates Biden is considering for the post also have ties to defense contractors.

Johnson is on the board of directors for defense giant Lockheed Martin Corp., while Austin is on the board of directors for another weapons contractor, Raytheon Technologies.

Johnson served as general counsel at the Pentagon, as well as secretary of Homeland Security.

Austin, a retired Army general who led Central Command during the Obama era, would need a congressional waiver to be confirmed for the civilian post because he retired from active-duty service only four years ago.

Johnson and Austin, who are African American, would be history-making nominees as the first Black secretary of defense. So, too, would Flournoy, as the first woman to run the Pentagon.

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