WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has nominated two female generals to elite, four-star commands, the Defense Department announced, months after their Pentagon bosses had agreed on their promotions but held them back out of fears that former President Donald Trump would reject the officers because they were women.
The nominations of Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force to head the Transportation Command, which oversees the military’s sprawling global transportation network, and of Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army to head the Southern Command, which oversees military activities in Latin America, now advance to the Senate, where they are expected to be approved.
The unusual strategy to delay the officers’ promotions — intended to protect their accomplished careers — was devised last fall by Mark Esper, the defense secretary at the time, and Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
They both thought the two generals were exceptional officers deserving of the commands. But under Trump, they worried that any candidates other than white men for jobs mostly held by white men might run into resistance once their nominations reached the White House.
Esper and Milley feared that if they even broached the women’s names, Trump and some of his top aides would replace them with their own candidates before leaving office.
So the Pentagon officials delayed their recommendations until after the election in November, betting that if Biden won, then he and his aides would be more supportive of the picks than Trump, who had feuded with Esper and Milley and had a history of disparaging women. They stuck to the plan even after Trump fired Esper six days after the election.
“They were chosen because they were the best officers for the jobs, and I didn’t want their promotions derailed because someone in the Trump White House saw that I recommended them or thought DOD was playing politics,” Esper, referring to the Department of Defense, said in an interview with The New York Times, which first reported the strategy last month.
“This was not the case,” Esper added. “They were the best qualified. We were doing the right thing.”
The strategy paid off Saturday, when the Pentagon announced in separate afternoon statements and in Twitter messages from its press secretary, John Kirby, that Biden had endorsed the generals’ promotions and that the White House was formally submitting them to the Senate for approval.
The disclosure last month that the Pentagon senior leadership had held back the nominations to protect the careers of the two officers from Trump prompted a lively debate in military journals and on social media.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who left the military last summer after his own entanglement with the White House, argued in the national security blog Lawfare that Esper and Milley should have fought it out with Trump.
“Upholding good order and discipline within the military does not mean dodging difficult debates with the commander in chief,” Vindman wrote.
But defenders of Esper and Milley’s strategy say that Vindman’s argument ignores the civil-military crisis between Trump and the senior Pentagon leaders in the fall. Trump, furious that they had stood up to him when he wanted to use active-duty troops to battle Black Lives Matter protesters, was openly disparaging of Esper to his aides and to the public.
Trump was also countermanding the Pentagon at seemingly every turn, especially on social issues.
When Milley and senior Army officials sought to set up a commission to look into renaming bases that were named after Confederate generals, Trump took to Twitter, vowing that “my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
Lloyd J. Austin III, the new defense secretary, declined last month to comment on the lengths to which Esper and Milley went to ensure that Van Ovost and Richardson received their command assignments. “I would just say that I’ve seen the records of both of these women,” he said. “They are outstanding.”
Promotions for the military’s top generals and admirals are decided months before they take over their new positions. So the delay in formally submitting the two officers’ promotions should not affect when they start their new jobs, most likely this summer, Pentagon and congressional officials said.
Van Ovost is a four-star officer, leading the Air Force’s Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Of the 43 four-star generals and admirals in the U.S. military, she is the only woman.
Richardson is the three-star commander of the Army component of the Pentagon’s Northern Command, based in San Antonio, which is playing an important role in providing military assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coronavirus vaccination program.