Interview: Secretary Antony J. Blinken with Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC




FEBRUARY 1, 2021

QUESTION:  We see the Russian people are out and protesting against Vladimir Putin.  There have been many arrests, thousands braving these sub-freezing temperatures.  Alexei Navalny’s wife was detained protesting against his arrest and, of course, previously his poisoning by Russian authorities.

You have condemned this, and the Russians have responded saying that this is gross interference, suggesting that we are behind it.  Can you respond to that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, Andrea, we are deeply disturbed by this violent crackdown against people exercising their rights to protest peacefully against their government, rights that are guaranteed to them in the Russian constitution.  The arrests, the violence used by police, is deeply disturbing.  And of course, the arrest of Mr. Navalny itself, which apparently triggered this, is also profoundly disturbing to us.

But I think the Russian Government makes a big mistake if it believes that this is about us.  It’s not.  It’s about them.  It’s about the government.  It’s about the frustration that the Russian people have with corruption, with kleptocracy.  And I think they need to look inward, not outward, and hopefully take into account what they’re hearing from their own people.  Mr. Navalny is giving expression to the voices of millions and millions of Russians, and that’s what this is about.

QUESTION:  Should the U.S. sanction the backers of Vladimir Putin as punishment for what has already happened to Navalny?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Andrea, we’re reviewing that.  Actually, we’re reviewing a series of Russian actions that are deeply, deeply disturbing.  The actions taken against Mr. Navalny, including the apparent use of a chemical weapon against him, but also interference in our elections, the use of cyber tools in the so-called SolarWinds attack that Russia appears to be responsible for getting into computer networks both public and private, and finally, we have the reported bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.  We’re looking into all of these things.  All of them are under review.  And depending on the findings of those reviews, we will take steps to stand up for our interests and stand against Russian aggressive actions.

QUESTION:  Those are all things that President Trump never raised with Vladimir Putin, and President Biden raised it in his very first —


QUESTION:  — very first telephone call.  So do the protestors in Russia and the rest of the world and does Vladimir Putin, most importantly, know that there is – that this is not just rhetoric from you and from President Biden, that there will be real action depending on what the evidence proves?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Andrea, the President could not have been clearer in his conversation with President Putin.  And we have to be able to do two things at the same time:  We have to be able to advance our interests, as we did in agreeing with Russia to extend the New START arms control agreement, which profoundly serves our own interests in keeping a cap on Russia’s core nuclear arsenal and also giving us a lot of inspection rights and visibility on what they’re doing; but also to stand up clearly for our interests when they are being threatened, attacked, or abused by Russia.  So I think President Biden was very clear in his conversation with President Putin.

QUESTION:  You’ve said that China is the most significant threat – you said that in your confirmation hearing – against American national interests.  Would you take steps if there is any action by China against Taiwan?  Do you see a military confrontation possibly in our future with China?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There’s no doubt that China poses the most significant challenge to us of any other country, but it’s a complicated one.  There are adversarial aspects to the relationship, there’s certainly competitive ones, and there’s still some cooperative ones, too.  But whether we’re dealing with any of those aspects of the relationship, we have to be able to approach China from a position of strength, not weakness.

And that strength, I think, comes from having strong alliances, something China does not have; actually engaging in the world and showing up in these international institutions, because we when pull back, China fills in and then they’re the ones writing the rules and setting the norms of these institutions; standing up for our values when China is challenging them, including in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs or democracy in Hong Kong; making sure that our military is postured so that it can deter Chinese aggression; and investing in our own people so that they can fully compete.

But the good news about each of these is that they’re fully within our control.  And in many ways, the challenge posed by China is as much about some of our own self-inflicted weaknesses as it is about China’s emerging strength.  But we can address those weaknesses.  We can actually build back better in this area too when it comes to stronger alliances, when it comes to engaging in the world, standing up for our values, investing in our people, making sure our military is properly postured.

QUESTION:  Well, with the economy weighing so heavily on many Americans, millions of Americans, should we be lifting the tariffs that were imposed by President Trump on China?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’re reviewing all of that.  We have to make sure that any time we act, the first question we ask ourselves is:  Is this advancing the interests of our own people?  Is it making them more prosperous?  Is it advancing their security?  Is it extending their values?  That’s the first question we have to ask.  And so when it comes to something like a tariff, is it doing more harm to us than it is to the country they’re being wielded against?  That’s the question we’re asking.

QUESTION:  President Trump and Secretary Pompeo referred to the coronavirus as the China virus, the Wuhan virus.  Do you think that China needs to be held accountable for not being open about the COVID-19 when it first hit?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There is no doubt that, especially when COVID-19 first hit but even today, China is falling far short of the mark when it comes to providing the information necessary to the international community, making sure that experts have access to China.  All of the – that lack of transparency, that lack of being forthcoming, is a profound problem and it’s one that continues.

And so as we’re thinking about both dealing with this pandemic but also making sure we’re in a position to prevent the next one, China has to step up and make sure that it is being transparent, that it is providing information and sharing information, that it is giving access to international experts and inspectors.  Its failure to do that is a real problem that we have to address.

QUESTION:  Should they pay some price for that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think the focus we have to have is both getting full understanding and accountability for what happened – and there’s an investigation that’s going on right now – but especially making sure we’re putting in place measures to prevent a recurrence.

QUESTION:  Should the U.S. join Britain in opening its doors to refugees fleeing the political repression in Hong Kong?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I believe we should.  We’ve seen China act egregiously to undermine the very commitments it made during the handover of Hong Kong to – from Britain.  And we see people who are, again, in Hong Kong standing up for their own rights, the rights that they felt were guaranteed to them.  And if they are being – if they’re the victims of repression from Chinese authorities, we should do something to give them haven.

QUESTION:  Our adversaries around the world are using the attack against the Capitol as a propaganda tool against us and against what American democracy really stands for.  What message would you send to the members of Congress who are still denying the reality of President Biden’s election?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I think there is no doubt that the attack on our own democracy on January 6th creates an even greater challenge for us to be carrying the banner of democracy and freedom and human rights around the world because, for sure, people in other countries are saying to us, “Well, why don’t you look at yourselves first?”

But I see this very much as a glass half full because we are, of course, imperfect.  And indeed, at the foundation of our own republic is the notion that we would always be striving to form a more perfect union.  We never attain that perfection.  And the difference, though, between us and so many other countries is that when we are challenged, including when we challenge ourselves, we’re doing it in full daylight, with full transparency.  We’re grappling with our problems in front of the entire world.  And the fact of the matter is that sends a powerful message to countries that are trying to sweep everything under the rug.  We don’t do that.  We take these – take on these problems head-on.

And when it comes to Congress itself, what’s so powerful is the members of Congress came back.  They came back to those buildings after that terrible and senseless aggression against them and against our democracy.  They came back and showed the world that our democracy is resilient, and that is a powerful, positive message for the United States to carry forward.

And ahead, more of my exclusive interview with Secretary of State Tony Blinken, what he says about a path forward with North Korea and how he plans to balance being a dad to young children with his new job.  Stay with us.  This is Andrea Mitchell Reports only on MSNBC.

QUESTION: And ahead, more of my exclusive interview with Secretary of State Tony Blinken, what he says about a path forward with North Korea and how he plans to balance being a dad to young children with his new job. Stay with us. This is Andrea Mitchell Reports only on MSNBC.


QUESTION: I want to ask you about Iran. Obviously, you were very involved in the Iran nuclear deal. Now, the President’s said we’ll re-enter it, but Iran is demanding that we lift the sanctions first, that we take some action first, make the first move. But now they are – by your own testimony, they may be a month away from being able to build a nuclear weapon, unlike what they were when they were constrained. Do we have time for the negotiations? You said that they’ll take time. But if they’re that close to building a bomb?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, there are two things, Andrea. Indeed, the time that it would take Iran – based on public reports, the time that it would take Iran to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon is down to, we think, a few months. And I have not seen the actual intelligence yet, but what’s been publicly reported says it’s down to a few months. The agreement, the infamous JCPOA, pushed that to beyond a year. So that’s a real problem, and it’s a problem that could get more acute, because if Iran continues to lift some of these restraints imposed by the agreement, that could get down to a matter of weeks.

Now, the fissile material is one thing. Having a weapon that they can actually detonate and use is another. And so there has – there’s a timeline that’s probably different for that. But the bottom line is they are getting closer to the point where they would be either a threshold nuclear power, or actually a nuclear power. And that is profoundly against our interests.

President Biden has been very clear on this. He’s said that if Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the agreement, we would do the same thing. But then we would use that with our allies and partners. We’d once again be on the same side with our allies and partners, who were very distressed at us pulling out of the agreement. We would work with them to get something that is longer and stronger, and also deal with some of the other challenges that Iran poses, whether it’s its missile program, whether it’s its destabilizing activities in the region.

QUESTION: Missiles, destabilizing activities have to be part of any new agreement?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: We have to – we have to deal with those. We have to – we have to make sure that whether it’s part of a new agreement, whether it’s in parallel with a new agreement, that we are contending with that challenge that Iran poses. And that’s a threat to international peace and security, it’s a threat to our allies and partners as much as it is to us.

QUESTION: What about the Americans who are still imprisoned in Iran? Should they be released as part of any deal?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Irrespective of any deal, those Americans need to be released, period. And I am determined, whether it is in Iran or anywhere else, that any American unjustly detained is able to come home. And we will be working on that issue wherever it may arise, every single day.

QUESTION: But should that be a condition for the U.S. to enter into a new deal?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’re going to focus on making sure that they come home one way or another, and we’re also going to focus at the same time, depending on what Iran does, in working on the nuclear matter. But of course, we’re a ways from that. Iran is well out of compliance with its obligations. If it decides to come back into the agreement, that may take some time, and then it’s going to take us some time to assess whether they in fact have made good on their obligations. So let’s see what they do.

QUESTION:  President Trump was the first sitting American president to step into North Korea but his historic summits with Kim Jong-un did not slow the regime’s buildup of its nuclear arsenal.  Now, the new president and his new secretary of state have to deal with the fallout.  Here’s more of my exclusive interview with Tony Blinken on North Korea and his plans to restore State Department morale.

And now, is it time to recognize North Korea as a nuclear power?  Is denuclearizing North Korea beyond any aspiration at this stage, especially because they have made so many advances in the last four years?  They now have what they are showing off to be a submarine-launched missile.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Andrea, this is a problem, a bad problem that has gotten worse over time.  And I would be the first to acknowledge that it’s a problem that’s gotten worse across administrations.  So the first thing the President had asked – has asked us to do is to review the policy to make sure that we’re using the most effective tools to advance the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and to deal with the problem, the growing problem, posed by North Korea’s arsenal.

QUESTION:  What does Kim Jong-un have to do to get a meeting with President Biden?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, the first thing we’re going to do is to review the policy across the board to look at what tools we have, including additional sanctions, including especially additional coordination and cooperation with allies and partners, but also to look at diplomatic incentives.  So once we do that, we’ll be able to tell you how we plan to move forward.

QUESTION:  If you had to guess, would you be landing in a plane in Iran or North Korea first in the next four years?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think I’d first be landing in a plane probably in Europe and in Asia with our closest allies and partners, and I hope that day comes soon.

QUESTION:  Let me do a lightning round.  Mohammed bin Salman has been judged by our intelligence agencies as having ordered the brutal murder of Khashoggi.  Can relations with Saudi Arabia be predicated on some responsibility?  How important is Khashoggi’s death to be part of it?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  The murder of Mr. Khashoggi was an outrageous act against a journalist, against someone resident in the United States.  It was abhorrent, and I think it shocked the conscience of the world.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for us in counterterrorism, in trying to advance regional stability and deal with regional aggression.  But we also have to make sure that that partnership is being conducted in a way that’s consistent with our interests and also with our values.  And so the President has asked that we review the relationship to make sure it is doing just that, and that’s exactly what’s happening now.

QUESTION:  Will you revoke the terror designation on Cuba?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So there were a series of actions that the outgoing administration took, including that one, that were – that it took it in the very last days of the administration, steps it could have taken presumably over four years that it took in the last basically four weeks.  We’re looking at all of them.

One of the ones we’re looking at that’s related to Saudi Arabia is the designation of the Houthis in Yemen as a foreign terrorist organization.  I have deep concerns about that because one of the things we have to focus on in this terrible war is – the President’s been – has said that we will stop our support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, but we also have to step up our ability to get humanitarian assistance to people in Yemen who are suffering terribly.  Eighty percent of them live under Houthi control.  We want to make sure that anything we do does not make it more difficult to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen.

QUESTION:  I know we’re running out of time, but finally, you are the first Secretary of State in decades, if not ever, to have young children.  You have family that’s rooted in this department.  Your wife worked here.  What is your vision for what you are hoping to accomplish, and how do you do that and be a father and a family man?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, having two very young children is actually an incredible source of inspiration because it really grounds what I’m trying to do, and especially what I’m trying to help the President do, in the reality that we are all here to try to make sure that life is better every single day for our fellow citizens and especially that what we’re doing is trying to leave a world that’s just a little bit safer, a little bit more prosperous, a little healthier to our kids and grandkids.  So seeing that every day, and also having in-laws at home to help with them, makes a big difference.

But look, we have a couple things that we have to do here.  The President has said that we are going to lead our foreign policy with diplomacy, and that means we really have to invest in this institution, in the State Department, in its men and women, with the tools, with the training, with the support to put them first.  They are an extraordinary group.  I’ve had the privilege of working with them in one way or another for the better part of almost 30 years now since I’ve been in Washington.  But we have to do right by them, so we’re going to make sure that we’re investing in them.

We’re also going to make sure that we have a department that actually looks like the country it represents.  Our greatest strength at home, but also abroad, is our diversity.  We’re dealing, Andrea, with an incredibly diverse world.  We would be doing that with two hands tied behind our back if our diplomats didn’t actually look like the country they represent.  And so I think you’re going to see over the next few years as well a real focus on making sure that we have a diverse workforce.  We’re going to recruit, we’re going to retain, and we’re going to be held accountable for that.

QUESTION:  Without political interference from the White House and with more career Foreign Service diplomats than political appointees?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  I am determined to put our career folks in positions of responsibility and leadership, and I am absolutely determined that politics are not going to come into this building.  I’ve worked with, as I said, the men and women of the Foreign Service, the Civil Service for more than couple of decades.  I couldn’t begin to tell you who’s a Republican, who’s a Democrat, who’s an independent.  They’re here every single day working for the American people pursuant to the Constitution to advance our interests.  That’s the kind of department we want.