WASHINGTON — David Norquist will serve as acting secretary of defense for the start of the Biden administration, Defense News has learned.
The Biden team has decided that Norquist, the current deputy secretary of defense, is the best choice to keep the day-to-day operations of the Defense Department running while Lloyd Austin, the retired Army general who is President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to lead the department, awaits his confirmation from Congress.
Meanwhile, three current service officials will join Norquist in staying in the building; those officials serve in fiscal roles with their respective services:
• Thomas Harker, the Navy comptroller, will become acting Navy secretary.
• John Roth, the Air Force comptroller who has been serving as acting undersecretary for the service, will be acting Air Force secretary.
• John Whitley, the Army comptroller, will serve as acting Army secretary.
• Defense News previously reported that Stacy Cummings will become acting undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment (A&S), replacing Ellen Lord, the politically appointed A&S head.
It’s commonplace for incoming administrations not to retain the previous administration’s service secretaries or undersecretaries, and retaining financial management leaders appears to be a move to help Biden complete a revised Defense Department budget for fiscal 2022. Norquist himself started as comptroller in the Pentagon, before being tapped in 2019 as deputy secretary of defense.
Under Title 10 (the federal law governing the armed forces), a confirmed deputy secretary automatically assumes the duties, responsibilities and authorities of the defense secretary during a defense secretary’s absence; however, there was speculation that the Biden team may be uncomfortable keeping a Trump political appointee in place given the pressures surrounding the military since the Jan. 6 attack on Congress.
Asked directly on Monday whether he would stay on if asked, Norquist declined to comment. But he described his view of the transition as one in which his job is to set up the next administration for success, something he said the Obama team did for him when he came in as comptroller, particularly with regard to planning for the Defense Department’s first-ever audit.
“For those of us who are political, we’re stepping onto a relay track, and when we’re part of a team, and somebody runs behind you and hands you the baton and then you get on the track and you run. But you know, at the end of the day you’re going to hand it to somebody else,” Norquist said. “And you need to hand it off in a way that is effective and coherent.
“What I want to do is to do for them what they did for me, which was to leave in place all the tools necessary in a sensible structure.”
A Pentagon spokesperson referred all questions to the Biden transition team; a spokesperson for the transition team declined comment.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.