While Smith told reporters he had communicated his support for Flournoy directly to the Biden team, the President-elect reached out to Austin and offered the post over the weekend, a source familiar with the pick told CNN.
“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.”
Before CNN and other outlets reported that he had selected Austin, Biden said earlier Monday that he plans to announce his nominee on Friday.
Along with Austin and Flournoy, Jeh Johnson was among the final three candidates in contention to lead the Pentagon, people familiar with the matter previously told CNN.
And while Flournoy was at one point the presumed front-runner for the job, Biden’s delay in naming a nominee gave 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 was still very much in the mix until the end, 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 had also mobilized in recent days to oppose Flournoy’s nomination, though the delay may have been a result of 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 also faced 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 gave 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 had 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.
Austin, who would be the first Black man to lead the Department of Defense if confirmed by the Senate, is on the board of directors for weapons contractor Raytheon Technologies.
He will need a congressional waiver to be confirmed for the civilian post because he retired from active-duty service only four years ago.