Biden's pick for secretary of state commits to diplomacy, diversity, alliances in confirmation hearing

Biden's longtime aide, Anthony Blinken, will now be in the hot seat.

January 19, 2021, 6:02 AM

After serving for decades at Joe Biden's side, Antony Blinken will step into the driver's seat on Tuesday as the president-elect's choice to be the next secretary of state faces his Senate confirmation hearing.

Like his boss did during the 2020 presidential campaign, Blinken is expected to commit the incoming administration to repairing U.S. alliances and the State Department itself, according to prepared remarks obtained by ABC News.

The former second-in-command at the agency is a longtime aide to Biden -- a close personal relationship that will be key to effectively speaking on behalf of the president while overseas. Blinken served as national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden and the top staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when then-senator Biden was its chair.

Blinken will be on the other side of that committee on Tuesday, sitting across from many of the same senators he once worked with to face tough questions on a world in disarray and what America's role should be in it.

He will try to draw a stark contrast with President Donald Trump's "America First" vision by emphasizing how relying on U.S. alliances and international institutions can help the U.S. lead the world out of the coronavirus pandemic, through a rising wave of nationalism and authoritarian states and other threats to global stability.

"Working across government and with partners around the world, we will revitalize American diplomacy to take on the most pressing challenges of our time. We'll show up again, day-in, day-out whenever and wherever the safety and well-being of Americans is at stake," his prepared testimony reads. "America, at its best, still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good."

PHOTO: FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo President-elect Joe Biden listens as his Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.
FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo President-elect Joe Biden listens as his Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del. President-elect Joe Biden’s national security Cabinet may be bare on Day One of his presidency. His nominees to head the State Department, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence community are facing a series of confirmation hearings starting on inauguration eve.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

To that end, Blinken's prepared testimony emphasizes "investing" in the agency's "greatest asset: the foreign service officers, civil servants, and locally employed staff who animate American diplomacy around the world" and especially "building a diplomatic corps that fully represents America in all its talent and diversity."

From hiring freezes to political retaliation, the Trump administration has been accused of deeply damaging morale and hollowing out the agency’s workforce, which Secretary Mike Pompeo denied again Monday, while diversity has been an issue the department has long failed to adequately address.

Blinken will likely face tough questions from Republicans, especially on China and how Biden intends to confront its regional aggression, domestic repression, and unfair economic practices. In the waning days of the Trump administration, Pompeo has unleashed a last-minute slate of sanctions, arms sales, and policy changes designed to keep a hardline against Beijing.

"We can outcompete China -- and remind the world that a government of the people, by the people, can deliver for its people," Blinken's prepared testimony reads, calling the U.S.-Chinese relationship a "growing rivalry."

Nearly every Democratic member of the Senate panel has already voiced support for Blinken's nomination, with Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who is expected to serve as chair when Democrats take control of the Senate, calling him "well-versed in the intricacies and importance of the State Department -- as well as the most significant national security issues this nation has faced in a generation."

But Blinken could also face tough questions from the left, particularly about his support during the Obama administration for the U.S. interventions in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, where he advocated for even stronger involvement.

There will also likely be questions about his personal finances. According to his financial disclosure form filed with the Office of Government Ethics in December, Blinken earned nearly $1.2 million last year at WestExec Advisors, the consulting firm that he co-founded after the Obama administration ended and that doesn't disclose its clients. He entered an agreement that month to divest from the firm within 90 days of his confirmation, according to OGE.

In preparation, Blinken has spoken to nearly every living secretary of state, according to a transition spokesperson, including Pompeo, who he met with on Jan. 8 -- more than six weeks after he was first announced as Biden's choice. A senior State Department official described the meeting as "very productive," with the transition between Pompeo's and Biden's teams largely running smoothly.

But one day before Biden is sworn in, Blinken will be one of several Biden nominees who will just now have confirmation hearings -- meaning most likely none of them will be in place on Jan. 20 at 12:01 PM when Biden becomes president. The Republican chairs of the key Senate committees delayed scheduling hearings, unlike in past years when several cabinet chiefs were able to be confirmed by the full Senate on day one.

For example, on Trump's Inauguration Day, the Senate confirmed both John Kelly as Homeland Security Secretary and James Mattis as Defense Secretary, while 11 more Trump nominees had already had their confirmation hearing. President Barack Obama had seven cabinet chiefs confirmed on Inauguration Day, while six more had confirmation hearings by then -- and his Defense Secretary Bob Gates stayed on from the Bush administration.

Rounding out Blinken's team are several former senior officials from the Obama administration. Wendy Sherman, who served as Under Secretary for political affairs and was a top negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, will be nominated to be Blinken's deputy. Another longtime Biden aide, Brian McKeon, has been tapped to be the agency's second deputy, for management and resources, a position first filled under the Obama administration and left vacant by the Trump administration.

Bonnie Jenkins, a senior arms control envoy under the Obama administration, will be nominated for the top role as Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Affairs. A career Foreign Service officer who served as the top diplomat for Europe, Victoria Nuland will return as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, while Uzra Zeya, another career diplomat who also left the agency under Trump, is Biden's pick for Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights -- another role that went unfilled throughout Trump's term.

Many in the Foreign Service have applauded these picks, especially four women in senior roles and two women of color. But there has also been some concern among career Foreign Service officers because so far, the Biden team has not picked any current officers to serve in top roles -- including Under Secretary for Political Affairs, which is traditionally reserved for top career diplomats. While Nuland and Zeya were in the Foreign Service, they retired and would rejoin the department as political appointees.

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