Politics

In a second Trump or Biden term, who’d be the next defense secretary?



POLITICO took a look at some of the top contenders, which emerged out of conversations with DOD and White House insiders, as well as former officials in Trump’s circle. They all were granted anonymity to speak candidly about decisions still very early in the making.

Kathleen Hicks

If Biden does want another glass-shattering pick, he could look no further than Austin’s deputy. Hicks is the first woman to be confirmed by the Senate for DOD’s No. 2 job, and led the Biden transition effort at the department.

Hicks has mostly worked behind the scenes in her current position, focusing on the day-to-day management of the building. But her announcement of the new Replicator initiative — an ambitious, two-year plan to develop thousands of drones on the cheap — has
caused confusion
among industry due to complaints about a lack of detail.

One potential hurdle for Hicks is the bad press from an interview with Jon Stewart in April. The comedian ripped military spending as “f***ing corruption” and Hicks came off
looking defensive

Christine Wormuth

Another barrier-busting pick for Pentagon chief would be Wormuth, the first woman to lead the Army and also a member of Biden’s DOD transition team.

Wormuth is well-liked inside and outside the Pentagon. She’s focused on Army challenges such as boosting low recruitment numbers, and she has not shied away from making headlines,
publicly criticizing
Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s monthslong hold on senior military promotions.

Michèle Flournoy

Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, was widely thought to be the shoo-in for Biden’s Pentagon chief in his first term. But Austin’s connection to Biden’s late son, Beau, as well as his top-notch credentials in the Army, put him over the top.

It’s not clear the president would ultimately choose Flournoy this time around, especially since she and Biden have previously clashed over policy issues. During the Obama administration, Flournoy
reportedly
sided with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in their push to surge troops into Afghanistan, a move Biden opposed. It’s also not a given that Flournoy would accept the job, if offered, after the president so publicly spurned her in favor of Austin.

Christopher Miller

On the other hand, if Trump wins a second term, insiders say he has a few options to lead the Pentagon. At the top of the list is Miller, the former Green Beret and acting defense secretary for the last two months of Trump’s first term. Trump himself
singled out Miller
in a recent conversation with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt about who he might pick to lead the Pentagon should he return to the White House.

“Trump loves Miller,” said one former Trump official.

Miller, who was previously Trump’s director of the National Counterterrorism Center, served as acting Pentagon chief until Trump left office on Jan. 20, 2021. His tenure was short but eventful: he oversaw Trump’s order to draw down from Afghanistan and Iraq, and came under fire for his response to the storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters on Jan. 6, 2021.

Sen. Tom Cotton

The Arkansas Republican was a contender for Trump’s first defense secretary, before the former president picked retired Gen. Jim Mattis, who resigned in 2019. A former Army infantry officer and Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, Cotton was an ardent Trump supporter early on and
endorsed him
on Wednesday.

Cotton reportedly fell out of favor with Trump, however, when he voted to certify the 2020 election — and he may be too valuable to the GOP from his perch on Senate Armed Services Committee to move to the Pentagon. Still,
he’s seen as
a potential pick.

Mike Pompeo

The former secretary of State and Army officer
acted like a defense secretary
even from his post at State, wielding an extraordinary amount of influence with Trump.

Pompeo
took a swipe
at his former boss early last year, amid rumors that he might make a run for the GOP nomination himself. But insiders say that if he starts ingratiating himself with Trump now, he might have a shot at the top Pentagon job.

Wild cards

For Trump, former national security adviser Robert O’Brien might be a good fit, but former officials say he’d prefer to lead the State Department, or even serve as national security adviser again. Other possibilities include: Florida Rep. Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret; John Ratcliffe, Trump’s former director of national intelligence; and Ric Grenell, Trump’s former U.S. ambassador to Germany.

An earlier version of this report first appeared in Morning Defense. Sign up for the
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