President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees to lead his national security team promised a turnabout from the Trump administration’s approach on the world stage, saying Tuesday they would keep partisan politics out of intelligence agencies, restore an emphasis on cooperating with international allies, and push for a stronger American leadership role.
Antony Blinken, Biden's choice to be secretary of state, pledged to repair damage done to the State Department and America's image abroad over the past four years while continuing a tougher approach to China. He said he planned to restore career officials to prominent positions in the department and strive to promote inclusivity in the ranks for the diplomatic corps.
"American leadership still matters,” he said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Biden’s nominee to lead the intelligence community, Avril Haines, promised to “speak truth to power” and keep politics out of intelligence agencies to ensure their work is trusted. Her remarks implied a departure from the Trump administration’s record of pressuring intelligence officials to shape their analysis to the president’s liking.
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“When it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics — ever,” she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Putting his national security team in place quickly is a high priority for Biden, not only because of his hopes for reversing or modifying Trump administration policy shifts but also because of diplomatic, military and intelligence problems around the world that may create challenges early in his tenure.
Biden's choice to head the Pentagon, Lloyd Austin, focused his opening statement on an entirely different issue — his status as a recently retired Army general, which would disqualify him from being secretary of defense without a congressional waiver of a law that prohibits a military officer from holding the job within seven years of leaving the service.
Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin, who served 41 years in the Army, vowed to surround himself with qualified civilians and include them in policy decisions. He said he has spent nearly his entire life committed to the principle of civilian control over the military.
“I know that being a member of the president’s Cabinet — a political appointee — requires a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform,” Austin said. “I would not be here, asking for your support, if I felt I was unable or unwilling to question people with whom I once served and operations I once led, or too afraid to speak my mind to you or to the president.”
Austin said he understands why some have questioned the wisdom of putting a recently retired general in charge of the Defense Department.
“The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil,” he said.
Austin pledged that the Pentagon will “work hand-in-glove” with the State Department, supporting the work of diplomats. Like Blinken, Austin said he views China as the leading international issue facing Biden's national security team.
Blinken, who previously served as deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, said that Iran also would be a primary focus. He said he believed that the nuclear deal Trump withdrew from in 2018 should be reinvigorated with an eye toward producing “a longer and stronger agreement.”
“Having said that,” he said, suggesting that Iran would not be an immediate priority, “we’re a long way from that.”
On China, Blinken said the Trump administration was right to take a tougher stance. But, he said it had approached the matter poorly by alienating U.S. allies and not fully standing up for human rights around the world.
“As we look at China, there is no doubt that it poses the greatest threat of any nation state to the United States,” he said.
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President-elect Joe Biden, who will be sworn in on Jan. 20, has started to choose people to fill top positions in his administration.
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Source: Staff reports
Blinken said America should lead with humility as well as confidence.
“Humility because we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad," he said. “And humility because most of the world’s problems are not about us, even as they affect us. Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone – even one as powerful as the U.S. But we’ll also act with confidence that America at its best still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good.”
The most controversial of Biden's nominees for national security Cabinet positions may be Austin, a former head of U.S. Central Command who would be the first Black secretary of defense. Austin will need not only a favorable confirmation vote in the Senate but also a waiver by both the House and the Senate because he has been out of uniform only four years.
The House majority leader, Rep. Steny Hoyer, indicated Tuesday that the full House would consider an Austin waiver bill on Thursday.
Republicans are expected to broadly support the Austin nomination, as are Democrats. Haines and Belkin encountered no significant resistance at their confirmation hearings.
Haines, a former CIA deputy director and former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, would be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence, or DNI — a role created after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
She was given a mostly positive reception by committee Republicans and Democrats, suggesting likely confirmation by the full Senate.
Also testifying Tuesday at his confirmation hearing was Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He would be the first Latino and first immigrant to lead the agency.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, said that he would block a procedural move to bypass full committee consideration of the Mayorkas nomination. The move means the nomination must go to the full Senate and there’s little chance he can be confirmed by Wednesday.
Several senators said it was important to quickly confirm a new head of Homeland Security given the threats facing the nation from the pandemic, the massive SolarWinds cyber-hack that authorities suspect was carried out by Russia, and the rising threat of domestic extremists.
Meanwhile, Janet Yellen, President-elect Joe Biden's choice as Treasury secretary, said Tuesday that the incoming administration would focus on winning quick passage of its $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan, rejecting Republican arguments that the measure is too big given the size of U.S. budget deficits.
“More must be done,” Yellen told the Senate Finance Committee during her confirmation hearing. “Without further action, we risk a longer, more painful recession now — and long-term scarring of the economy later.”
Yellen said that she and Biden were aware of the country's rising debt burden but felt fighting the pandemic-recession was more important currently.
“Right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big,” she said. “In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time.”
Associated Press writers Ben Fox, Eric Tucker and Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.