President Joe Biden on Wednesday will make his first trip to the Pentagon since taking office and will speak to the significance of having the first African American in the nation's history serving as secretary of defense, according to the White House.
The trip comes as Biden forges ahead with his agenda while his predecessor former President Donald Trump faces an impeachment trial in the Senate.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior military and civilian leadership during the visit. The President and vice president will then deliver remarks to Department of Defense personnel and tour the African Americans in Service Corridor, according to the White House.
Austin is the first Black secretary of defense, and Harris is the first Black vice president, as well as the first woman and first South Asian to hold the position.
Biden on Wednesday will "pay special tribute to the rich history of Black service members," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, noting that the trip coincides with Black History Month.
More than 40% of active-duty forces are men and women of color, Psaki said. She said Biden will also thank service members for their role in protecting the nation. His visit comes as the Pentagon is grappling with racism and extremism in the services, an issue Austin has made a priority.
Biden is expected to reaffirm his commitment to the US armed forces but won't offer concrete details on his views on troop levels abroad or a drawdown plan in Afghanistan, a senior administration official told CNN. Those items may be discussed during his closed-door meeting at the Pentagon, but his is not expected to make any new announcements on those fronts.
Instead, the President will use his remarks to offer a broad-brush reiteration of his support for the military, similar to what he did last week at the State Department with diplomats.
The trip to the Defense Department will be Biden's second Cabinet agency visit, following a trip to the State Department. Last week he met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and delivered his first major foreign policy and national security remarks as President.
Biden will also touch on a few of the internal issues he's taken on, like lifting the Trump administration's ban on most transgender Americans serving and ordering a review of sexual assault in the military. He is also likely to address the Pentagon's role in vaccine distribution, the senior administration official said.
The President was enraged during the campaign when it emerged Trump had disparaged members of the military and wants to reassert support from the White House for the men and women who serve in uniform, according to the official.
"As the first president in 40 years with a child who served in the military, he has a personal connection to the important role of the work of the military, the men and women who serve," Psaki said during a White House briefing on Tuesday. Biden's late son, Beau Biden, was an Iraq War veteran. He died in 2015 from brain cancer at the age of 46.
The Senate voted to confirm Austin last month. In his first few days in the role, Austin has focused on internal issues within the military, including by announcing a staggered pause and review of domestic extremism within the ranks, known in the military as a stand down.
He also has directed the Pentagon to tackle sexual assault and to review the department's numerous advisory boards and committees.
Austin has described the coronavirus pandemic as the "greatest challenge to our country right now," and he has a meeting on Covid every day, according to a senior defense official.
Earlier this week, the Senate confirmed Kathleen Hicks to be deputy secretary of defense. She is the first woman to serve in the role.
Biden's trip Wednesday comes after the Pentagon said last month that the new administration would not commit to a full drawdown of troops from Afghanistan by May because the Taliban have not honored the commitments they made in their deal with the United States.
That agreement, which was negotiated under the Trump administration and signed in February 2020, calls for the Taliban to reduce violence and cut ties with terrorist organizations, among other demands. If the conditions of the deal were met, US forces would leave Afghanistan by May 2021. The US force level in Afghanistan went down to 2,500 troops just days before Trump left office.
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