President-elect Joe Biden delivers a Thanksgiving address at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 25.
President-elect Joe Biden delivers a Thanksgiving address at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 25. Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden will enter the month of December tomorrow with a question still looming over one of the most critical decisions in his Cabinet: Who will he nominate as secretary of defense?

Three candidates are in final contention to lead the Department of Defense, people familiar with the matter tell CNN, with Michèle A. Flournoy, Jeh Johnson and Lloyd Austin all still being considered.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat and decorated combat veteran, is no longer getting a serious look, people familiar with the matter say, given Biden’s reluctance to create any vacancies in the Senate.

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 say, but her exclusion from a flurry of barrier-breaking selections in the first wave of Cabinet picks underscored the uncertainty surrounding her.

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.

The announcement is still expected soon – perhaps later this week or next – but the exact timing is contingent on a final decision that as of late Sunday evening had not been reached, people familiar with the matter say.

The Pentagon opening is not, of course, happening in a vacuum.

Biden is also still searching for someone to lead the Central Intelligence Agency – and Johnson is also believed to be at least under consideration for that post, people familiar with the matter say.

Sue Gordon, a former principal deputy Director of National Intelligence, is among the contenders to lead CIA, people familiar with the matter say, as is Vincent Stewart, a former leader of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Marine general. He, too, would require a congressional waiver to serve in the civilian post.

Tom Donilon, a former national security adviser to President Obama who had been among the top contenders to lead the CIA, is no longer under consideration for that post, CNN reported Sunday.

A transition official said the announcements for Pentagon and CIA would be made when Biden reaches his decisions, dismissing any suggestions of a delay. Yet both posts, in addition to others in the Cabinet, are expected in December.



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