Held back out of fear of Trump, female generals finally get promoted to four-star commands by Biden

The Pentagon's most senior leaders reportedly worried that the women would be rejected by Trump

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published March 8, 2021 12:06PM (EST)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/The White House/Joe Biden Official Campaign)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/The White House/Joe Biden Official Campaign)

The Department of Defense announced over the weekend the nomination of two female generals for four-star command positions just months after Pentagon officials delayed their nominations for fear that Trump might reject the two women and replace them outright before leaving office. 

The Pentagon announced on Saturday that Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost will be promoted to Transportation Command, which oversees the U.S. military's transportation network. Van Ovost is the only active-duty, four-star female general officer in the country. She currently serves as the Air Mobility Command and has 4,200 hours of experience flying 30 different aircrafts.

President Biden also nominated Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson for a promotion from the commanding general of the U.S. Army North in Joint Base San Antonio to the head of Southern Command, which oversees American military operations in Latin America. Richardson was the first female officer in military history to serve as the commanding general of the U.S. Army North.

According to The New York Times, the two women's promotions had been delayed by former defense secretary Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley due to fears that Donald Trump might reject and replace Van Ovost and Richardson's nominations based on their gender.

"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 said in an interview with the Times last month. "This was not the case. They were the best qualified. We were doing the right thing."

Esper reportedly waited until after the election in November to suggest the promotions, concluding that the Biden administration would likely be more amenable to the two women's nominations. The delay created a bit of a stir amongst military experts and officials online, some of whom expressed concern over Esper and Milley quietly dodging the challenge of standing up to Trump.

"Upholding good order and discipline within the military does not mean dodging difficult debates with the commander in chief," argued Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, whose own promotion was infamously deterred by Trump after he testified at the former president's first impeachment trial. 

However, defenders of Esper and Milley argued that the delay was necessary for the women's promotions, especially when the relationship between Pentagon officials and the former president had been historically fraught. Last year, several military officials suggested that military bases named after Confederate Generals be renamed. Trump had flouted their suggestions and tweeted, "My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations." Esper added fuel to the fire last summer when he declared that active-duty members of the military should not be sent in to subdue Black Lives Matter protests. The statement was an open act of defiance against Trump's wishes. 

For his part, Lloyd J. Austin III, Biden's defense secretary, declined last to reveal any details about Esper and Milley's effort to delay the nominations. "I would just say that I've seen the records of both of these women," he said of Richardson and Van Ovost last month. "They are outstanding."

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik was a former staff writer at Salon.

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Donald Trump International Women's Day Joe Biden Military Pentagon