Secretary Antony J. Blinken At a Press Availability
Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
MR PRICE: Good afternoon. Welcome back to the briefing room, to your briefing room. We’ll be spending quite a bit of time together starting very shortly, and I very much look forward to that. But today, first, I have the privilege of introducing for the first time to this room the 71st Secretary of State, Mr. Tony Blinken. So with no further ado, I turn it over to him.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Good afternoon. Let me start by saying that my first ambition is to be known as the man who brought Ned Price to the State Department briefing room. And that, at least, is mission accomplished.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, in all seriousness, thanks to everyone for joining me here today. This is my first full day on the job as Secretary of State, and to restate what I said before, it is a deep honor to be in this job, and I am gratified that the President’s seen fit to entrust me with this responsibility. And I am incredibly excited about the work ahead, especially working with the men and women of the State Department to try to serve the American people and represent our country to the world.
I want to spend a few minutes with all of you today to make it clear right from the start how important I see the work that each and every one of you does. Some of you may know that I started my career as a journalist. Obviously, I didn’t succeed, but it was something that I took tremendous pride and pleasure in, and something I have deep respect for as a result of my own experience being on both sides of the enterprise. You keep the American people and the world informed about what we do here. That’s key to our mission as well. And you hold us accountable, ask tough questions, and that really does make us better.
More broadly – and it is never more important to restate it – a free press is a cornerstone of our democracy. And this is a critical moment for protecting and defending democracy, including right here at home.
So here is what you can count on, coming from me and coming from us. We’re resuming the daily press briefing, starting next week.
MR PRICE: Tuesday.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: On Tuesday. That’s an essential part of the day, and we’re bringing it back. President Biden has said that he wants truth and transparency back in the White House briefing room. That fully applies in this room as well. And you’ll be seeing me with a little bit of frequency, too, including on our travels together when hopefully we can get back to those travels, just as you’ll have an opportunity to hear from many policy experts in this building.
I know we’re not always going to see eye-to-eye. That’s not the point of the enterprise. Sometimes we’ll be frustrating to you. I imagine there are a few times when you’ll be frustrating to us. But that’s to be expected. That’s exactly, in some ways, the point. But you can count on me, you can count on us, to treat all of you with the immense respect you deserve and to give you what you need to do the jobs that you’re doing that are so important to our country and to our democracy. And I will be forthright, whether it’s behind this podium, on the plane, or hopefully eventually some distant part of the world.
So it’s an adventure I am really, really glad that we’re in together. So welcome back to the press room. As Ned said, this is your press room. And with that, let me take a few questions.
MR PRICE: Start with the AP, Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Thank you. Welcome back, Mr. Secretary, to the building.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you for your kind words about our profession earlier. Trying to be as brief as possible: In the last couple months of the previous administration, several policies were rolled out and enacted that attracted a bunch of – they were contentious, to say the least, or attracted a bunch of criticism. I realize that a lot of – almost everything is under review right now as you’re less than 24 hours in, but among those things that were enacted in the last several months, which are your priorities to complete the review to possibly reverse, rescind, or roll back?
And similarly, within the building – apart from policy, but in terms of personnel – what exactly do you intend to change, if anything, about the approach the previous administration took to the Foreign Service and the people that work in this building?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks. Yes, you’re right; we are reviewing a number of steps that were taken late in the last administration. We want to make sure we understand in each case the basis for the decisions that were made.
I will tell you that I’m particularly focused on the question of sanctions on the Houthis. I think you all know very well that the Houthis committed an act of significant aggression in taking over Sana’a some years ago, moving through the country, committing acts of aggression against our partner, Saudi Arabia, committing human rights abuses and other atrocities, creating an environment in which we’ve seen extremist groups fill some of the vacuums that were created. But at the same time, we’ve seen a campaign led by Saudi Arabia that has also contributed to what is by many estimates the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, and that’s saying something.
And so it’s vitally important, even in the midst of this crisis, that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen who are in desperate need. And what we want to make sure is that any steps we are taking do not get in the way of providing that assistance.
The Houthis control territory that I believe contains about 80 percent of Yemen’s population, and so we want to make sure that any of these steps, including the designation, don’t make what is already an incredibly difficult task even more difficult – that is, the provision of humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen. So we’re taking a very urgent and very close look at that. We want to make sure that not only our American aid groups are able to do what they can to provide assistance, but so are aid groups around the world that are providing the bulk of that assistance and to make sure that nothing we are doing interferes with that, particularly if it doesn’t in any other way advance our policy and objective. So that’s the priority in my book.
MR PRICE: Andrea Mitchell.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. Congratulations, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good to see you, Andrea.
QUESTION: President Biden in his first phone call with President Putin yesterday outlined some areas of agreement such as the arms control agreement, the extension of New START, but at the same time areas of concern, many of which involve Russia. We’re talking about SolarWinds hack and Ukraine, of course, the investigation and the assessment of interference in the 2020 campaign, but also the safety of Alexey Navalny.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah.
QUESTION: And so I want to ask you, what are the redlines under which the United States will consider sanctioning Russia if there is any harm that comes to Mr. Navalny or to the protesters as they’re being arrested? How front and center is this issue to you of Russian crackdown on the opposition and on human rights?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thanks, Andrea. We’ve, as you know, already expressed our deep concern for the treatment of Mr. Navalny specifically and more generally with the human rights situation in Russia, and it remains striking to me how concerned and maybe even scared the Russian Government seems to be of one man, Mr. Navalny.
Across the board, as the President has said, we’re reviewing all of these actions that are of deep concern to us, whether it is the treatment of Mr. Navalny, and particularly the apparent use of a chemical weapon in an attempt to assassinate him. We’re looking very urgently as well at SolarWinds and its various implications. We’re looking at the reports of bounties placed by Russia on American forces in Afghanistan. And of course, we’re looking at these questions of election interference. So all of that, as the President and the White House have indicated, are under review. I don’t want to get ahead of where we are on those reviews.
But as I say, we have a deep concern for Mr. Navalny’s safety and security. And the larger point is that his voice is the voice of many, many, many Russians, and it should be heard, not muzzled.
QUESTION: And you’re not ruling out anything if there’s harm that comes to him?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Not ruling out anything. But we want to get this full review done and then we’ll take it from there.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to Shaun Tandon, AFP.
QUESTION: Thanks, Mr. Secretary. As head of the Correspondents Association here, thank you for coming out on your first day. It’s a powerful signal and it does go noticed by us.
Could I ask you, in your confirmation hearing you spoke in support of the so-called Abraham Accords under the previous administration. A couple of decisions that your administration could take I wanted to ask you about. I understand there’s a review going on right now about military sales, the F-35 sales to the United Arab Emirates and sales to Saudi Arabia. How do you see those going forward? Do you plan on the F-35s eventually going forward to the UAE? And with Morocco, does the United States still recognize, and as the previous administration said, Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Thanks very much. A couple things on that. First, as we’ve said, we very much support the Abraham Accords. We think that Israel normalizing relations with its neighbors and other countries in the region is a very positive development, and so we applauded them, and we hope that there may be an opportunity to build on them in the months and years ahead.
We’re also trying to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those agreements, and that’s something we’re – we’re looking at right now. Generally speaking when it comes to arms sales, it is typical at the start of an administration to review any – any pending sales, to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy. So that’s – that’s what we’re doing at this moment.
MODERATOR: We’ll go to John Hudson.
QUESTION: Thanks. In the review on Afghanistan, Mr. Secretary, what are you looking at and do you plan on retaining Ambassador Khalilzad as U.S. envoy?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: With regard to Afghanistan, one of the things that we need to understand is exactly what is in the agreements that were reached between the United States and the Taliban to make sure that we fully understand the commitments that the Taliban has made as well as any commitments that we’ve made. And so we are taking that up. And with regard to Ambassador Khalilzad, yes, we have – we have asked him to continue the vital work that he is performing.
MODERATOR: Nike Ching with VOA.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Good afternoon, Mr. Secretary. How are you?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, thank you.
QUESTION: If I may – good. If I may, on China, how – how do you cooperate with China in climate change when you say you agree that it’s engaged in genocide? And separately, Kurt Campbell has mentioned some confidence-building measures such as loosening up of journalistic visa restrictions and reversing the consular closing – closure. Is that happening? Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much. We’ve had some opportunity to talk about this in recent – recent weeks and recent months. And I think it’s – it’s not a secret that the relationship between the United States and China is arguably the most important relationship that we have in the world going forward. It’s going to shape a lot of the future that – that we all live, and increasingly that relationship has some adversarial aspects to it. It has competitive ones. And it also still has cooperative ones. And the cooperative ones are in areas where it’s in our mutual interest to try to work together, including, manifestly, on climate, where it’s in the interest of China and the interest of the United States and the interest of countries around the world to make concrete progress in combating global warming. And so I think and hope that we’ll be able to pursue that.
But that fits within the larger context of our foreign policy and of many issues of concern that we have with China, issues that we need to – need to work through. And so I think you’ll see us doing just that even as we pursue the climate agenda that is so important to our country and to the future of our planet.
MODERATOR: Time for a final question. Humeyra, Reuters.
QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Secretary. Humeyra Pamuk from Reuters. I want to ask you about Iran. They said they would like United States to lift all the sanctions first, while you said they need to come back in full compliance. So how do you plan to reconcile that and when should we expect to open the negotiations, and who would led them for the United States?
And if I may, on China, you talked about reviews. And with respect to Uyghurs in Xinjiang, in your confirmation hearing you endorsed the genocide determination, but today Linda Thomas‑Greenfield said the department is reviewing that determination. Is that only about the process or are there different views on this determination? And should we expect some more punitive action throughout this. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I haven’t actually seen what Ambassador Thomas‑Greenfield said, so I can’t – I can’t comment on it. But I – my judgment remains that genocide was committed against – against the Uyghurs and that – that hasn’t changed.
With regard to Iran, President Biden has been very clear in saying that if Iran comes back into full compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA, the United States would do the same thing and then we would use that as a platform to build, with our allies and partners, what we called a longer and stronger agreement and to deal with a number of other issues that are deeply problematic in the relationship with Iran.
But we are a long ways from that point. Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance in time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations. So we’re not – we’re not there yet to say the least.
And then with regards to how we would engage this issue if Iran decides to come back into compliance, I can tell you that we will – we will build a strong team of experts and we will bring to bear different perspectives on the issue.
We – this is something – I would say this across the board, by the way: One of the things that I feel very strongly about is that in any of the issues we’re engaged on, in any of the issues that we’re tackling and that our foreign policy has to confront, that we are constantly questioning our own assumptions and premises, that we do not engage in groupthink, that there is as much self-criticism and self-reflection as we get from, appropriately, the outside, whether it’s from you or whether it’s from people who disagree with the policies we’re pursuing.
So I think you can expect to see that as we move forward both with regard potentially to Iran and, for that matter, to just about any other issue we tackle. Thank you.
MR PRICE: (Inaudible) with Lara Jakes of The New York Times.
QUESTION: Thank you. Congratulations, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Lara, good to see you.
QUESTION: You too. You’ve talked a lot about restoring U.S. leadership in the world, but allies note that everything that you do could again be overturned in four years, and that this is a cycle that doesn’t instill confidence in the long term in the United States credibility. So how can any one administration, if it can be done, assure the world that the United States can be trusted to keep its commitments?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So one of the things I’ve done over the last 24 hours is I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone already with our – some of our closest allies and partners in various parts of the world, and that’s continuing. And I can – what I’ve picked up from those conversations already is a very, very strong desire for the United States to be back in the room, back at the table, working with them on the many, many common challenges we face, and that was almost palpable in the conversations I’ve had to date. And I expect to hear more of that in the days ahead.
One of the things, though, to your point, is that when it comes to virtually everything we’re doing – and the President has said this many times – when it comes to foreign policy, it is hard to have a sustainable foreign policy absent the informed consent of the American people. And that informed consent, I think, comes in a couple of ways. One is in a sense it comes from you, because many Americans are reading about, hearing about, listening to what we’re doing thanks to you. And that’s vitally important to make sure that they are fully informed and thinking about and ultimately providing their consent to what we’re doing.
But the place that, in our system, that informed consent is vitally important is with Congress. The members of Congress are the representatives of the American people. They provide advice and consent to our policies. And I think one of the things you’re going to see from our administration is working as closely as we possibly can with Congress on these issues from the takeoff, not just on the landing. Because ultimately, for these policies to be sustainable, we, I think, need to try to work them as much as we can up front, not at the back end.
There are going to be disagreements. There are going to be places where we’re just in a different place. But I think we stand a better chance in producing the kind of policies that will stand the test of time if we’re working closely up front with Congress. And we’ll see where we get, but I’m determined that we do that.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you all.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look forward to seeing you soon and often.
QUESTION: Will you see you on the plane anytime soon?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, well, really look forward to that, but not tomorrow.
QUESTION: We’ll keep you at your word on that.