One day before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, four of his top national security Cabinet picks faced the Senate for their confirmation hearings.
Avril Haines spoke in front of the Intelligence Committee to become the next director of national intelligence. Alejandro Mayorkas answered questions from members of the Homeland Security Committee to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Antony Blinken handled queries from the Foreign Relations Committee to be the next secretary of state. And Lloyd Austin faced the Armed Services Committee in order to helm the Defense Department.
(Janet Yellen’s hearing for Treasury Secretary also happened on Tuesday, but a good chunk of it focused on the US economy and its recovery — though she said the US was prepared to fight China’s abusive trade practices.)
As expected, each nominee defended Biden’s overall worldview and did nothing to derail their confirmations. That’s good news for the incoming president, as he’s likely to get key members of his foreign policy and national security team in place.
Still, each of Biden’s picks made splashes in their own way.
Haines said the US rejoining the Iran nuclear deal was a “long ways” away and promised to declassify an intelligence report about the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi — two statements that might impact Biden’s Middle East policies. Mayorkas made clear the new administration wouldn’t immediately roll back Trump’s immigration policies.
Blinken spoke broadly about the need for US engagement abroad — including as a check on China. And Austin said he wants to see an end to the war in Afghanistan, but left the door open to a prolonged military campaign in the country. He also made sure to repeat that he was in support of civilian control of the military, as he only retired as an Army general five years ago.
A lot was said and promised, but if you didn’t slog through the many hours of hearings yourself, don’t worry. We got you covered. Here are the main takeaways.
Haines may have complicated Biden’s Iran and Saudi Arabia policy
As the person selected to lead all 18 US intelligence agencies, Haines received questions from senators about issues ranging from China to the politicization of intelligence to the CIA’s past use of torture.
But it was Haines’s answers to questions about key Middle East issues that most stood out during the nominee’s two and a half hour hearing.
Under questioning from Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) about her views on reentering the Iran nuclear deal, Haines reiterated Biden’s stated position that he would put the US back in the deal as long as Tehran gets back into compliance with its terms.
Many Democrats want to see that happen as soon as possible, and many Republicans want to delay that outcome. But when Haines elaborated, it was surely Republicans who were happier with her remarks.
“I think, frankly, we’re a long ways from that,” she said, indicating Biden may not push for swift reentry into the accord. Further, she said Biden and his team would “also have to look at the ballistic missile issues” and Iran’s other “destabilizing activities” before rejoining the nuclear agreement.
Iran is improving its missile arsenal that threatens US allies in Europe and the Middle East, and one of the main critiques of the Iran deal was that it did nothing to curtail that development. Haines, it seems, is making clear the Biden administration has taken those concerns to heart — meaning the Iran nuclear deal’s future viability isn’t guaranteed.
Later in the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) asked Haines if she’d declassify intelligence about the October 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident. Reports indicate the US intelligence community concluded Khashoggi was murdered in Turkey at the direction of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader.
That was an inconvenient fact for the Trump administration, which sought close ties to Riyadh, partly because Saudi Arabia is Iran’s main regional rival, and partly because the Kingdom likes to purchase US weapons. As a result, the Trump team refused to declassify the intelligence report despite bipartisan pressure to do so.
Haines, however, made clear that policy would soon change. “Yes, Senator,” she responded after Wyden asked if she would submit the report to Congress. That’s a big deal, and it could conceivably rupture ties between Washington and Riyadh, especially if the document openly exposes the crown prince as the ultimate culprit.
That might be fine with Biden, though, as he’s already said he doesn’t seek as close a partnership with Saudi Arabia as the Trump administration did.
Biden's Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines says, if confirmed, she will provide Congress with an unclassified report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. pic.twitter.com/ocPUsJUeti— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 19, 2021
Much of the rest of Haines’s testimony was routine and probably won’t cause the incoming team any headaches. But the Iran and Khashoggi statements could conceivably come back to haunt Haines — and even Biden.
Mayorkas urged patience as Biden reverses Trump’s legacy on the border
Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee for DHS secretary, sought to manage expectations Tuesday about how quickly the incoming administration will be able to transition away from Trump’s restrictionist immigration policies on the southern border.
He made clear that, while Biden recognizes the need to renew America’s commitment to offering asylum and humanitarian protections to anyone who qualifies under the law, his administration will not have the capacity to do so starting on day one.
“That cannot be accomplished with the flick of a switch,” Mayorkas told the Senate Homeland Security Committee. “It will take time to build the infrastructure and capacity so that we can enforce our laws as Congress intended.”
That means that migrants subject to Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols, who have been waiting for months in Mexico for a chance to apply for asylum in the US, as well as a caravan of migrants from Honduras currently en route to the border, may not receive immediate relief.
Mayorkas said they will have to be screened one by one — a time-consuming endeavor that could be sped up if Biden surges humanitarian resources, including asylum officers, to the border as he promised on the campaign trail.
Mayorkas also highlighted the long-term challenge of addressing the factors driving Central American migrants to flee their home countries, echoing Biden’s calls for a regional approach to migration. As vice president, Biden developed a $750 million program in tandem with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras aimed at improving economic development and curbing violence and corruption in the region, but the Trump administration halted that effort.
“When loving parents are willing to send their young child alone to traverse Mexico to reach the dangerous southern border ... because of the acute violence and the severe poverty and the fear of persecution, I think we need to address the push factor as the gravest challenge to irregular migration,” Mayorkas said.
But that doesn’t mean he intends to scale back immigration enforcement closer to home. He said that he would not, as some immigrant advocates have demanded, abolish US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or US Customs and Border Protection, arguing that the agencies “play critical roles” in the federal government.
Immigrant advocates have opposed ICE since its inception, arguing that it criminalizes and unjustly targets communities of color. Trump vastly increased the agency’s resources to enforce his hardline immigration policies, especially the separation of immigrant families that began in 2018.
Mayorkas nevertheless said he would not defund ICE and even left open the possibility of further increasing the agency’s resources.
Those commitments, however, were not enough for Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who announced Tuesday that he would object to a quick vote on Mayorkas’s confirmation on the basis that he did not provide sufficient assurances about securing the border.
Sen. Hawley says he’ll object to swift consideration of Biden’s DHS nominee, Alejandro Mayorkas. pic.twitter.com/Ew1HXDhOHs— Andrew Desiderio (@AndrewDesiderio) January 19, 2021
Hawley’s objection will likely delay, but not doom, Mayorkas’s confirmation, leaving Biden without a critical Cabinet official upon assuming the presidency.
In addition to overseeing the immigration agencies, Mayorkas would be tasked with leading DHS’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the rising threat of domestic terrorism in the wake of the recent violent insurrection at the US Capitol.
Tony Blinken managed to reassure both Republicans and progressives. (Plus, he made some news!)
Blinken’s confirmation hearing for secretary of state covered just about every foreign policy challenge the US faces, from Afghanistan to Russia to Venezuela. On the big-picture issues, Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to rebuilding and diversifying America’s diplomatic corps, and articulated the need for US leadership and engagement.
“The reality is the world doesn’t organize itself,” Blinken said. “When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happen: either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests or values. Or no one does, and then you get chaos. Either way, that does not serve the American people.”
Blinken also said he wanted to restore Congress’s role in US foreign policy, which reflected what Blinken described as a need to get the buy-in of the American people for the administration’s foreign policy decisions.
Biden's sec. of State nominee Blinken's priorities:— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 19, 2021
• "Reinvigorate the Dept. of State ... [Recruit] to look like the country we represent"
• "Revitalize American diplomacy ... We'll show up again"
• "We have to restore Congress' traditional role" in foreign policy making pic.twitter.com/7OL8daungN
China, of course, loomed large. Blinken tried to assure lawmakers — especially Republicans — that the Biden administration was clear-eyed about the threat China poses. “As we look at China, there is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state, to the United States, in terms of our interests, the interests of the American people,” Blinken said.
Blinken said the US needed to approach China from a position of “strength, not weakness,” which Blinken said required the US to work with allies, engage in international institutions, and for standing up for US values, such as condemning Beijing’s policies toward the Uighurs and Hong Kong. (Blinken also said he supported the State Department’s designation today that China was committing genocide against the Uighurs.
Biden has long said countering China would be among his top foreign policy priorities as president, though Trump and Republicans sought to portray Biden as far weaker on Beijing. Blinken reiterated Biden’s tougher stance to Republican lawmakers on the committee, and offered just enough credit to the Trump administration on things like normalization deals with Israel, known as the Abraham Accords — though tempered, to be sure — that he likely got the bipartisan backing that he doesn’t necessarily need, but is always good to have.
But Blinken may have also managed to reassure progressives, specifically by saying in response to a question from Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) that the Biden administration plans to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s (and the UAE’s) military intervention in Yemen has exacerbated the conflict and the humanitarian catastrophe there. Blinken told lawmakers that he believes the US should continue to defend Saudi Arabia from aggression; however, he said the Biden administration would review the relationship to make sure it aligned with the US’s interests and values.
Lots of Republicans kept trying to press Blinken to not reverse Trump administration policies, while pressing Blinken on what GOP lawmakers considered Obama administration failures, like the Iran deal and Libya intervention.
Democrats wanted to hear Blinken commit to reinvesting in diplomacy, including keep politics out of the State Department, and to working with allies and partners and standing up for human rights. But, for better or for worse, Blinken’s hearing was a reminder of how, on foreign policy, bipartisanship comes just a little bit easier than it does in other policy areas.
Which is the biggest takeaway from Blinken’s hearing: The Biden administration wants to try to be a good partner abroad, and they believe just “showing up” and “being in the room,” in Blinken’s words, is a good place to start.
Indeed, Blinken offered a hopeful example of that, telling lawmakers that Biden intends to join the Covax facility, the World Health Organization-affiliated initiative to help deliver and equitably distribute the Covid-19 vaccine to countries around the world. China, along with 170 other countries, has joined, with the US and Russia being the major outliers. This was the first confirmation from a top Biden official that the new US administration would join the program.
“We are committed to making sure that, to the best of our ability, the vaccine is distributed properly and equitably,” Blinken said, adding that the Biden administration believes strongly that it can “ensure that every American gets the vaccine, but also help make sure that others around the world who want it have access.”
Austin wants the war in Afghanistan to end but didn’t commit to a quick resolution
Many expected Lloyd Austin’s confirmation hearing to focus mainly on his need for a waiver to serve as secretary of defense. He retired from the Army as a four-star general in 2016, and current law won’t allow someone who left the military within the last seven years to serve as defense secretary.
Austin did field questions about this issue, and he argued that he should get the waiver to be the next Pentagon chief. But the most consequential portion of the Austin hearing was what he said about the 19-year war in Afghanistan — specifically, the fact that he didn’t call for it to end quickly.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked the defense secretary-designate how he thought the war should conclude. He said the war “needs to come to an end and we need to see an agreement reached” between the Afghan government and the Taliban. But then he finished by saying, “We want to see an Afghanistan in the future that does not present a threat to America.”
That’s key: If Afghanistan still has terrorist groups that wish to harm Americans — such as al Qaeda or ISIS — then Austin may not see the country as stable enough to leave. If that’s the case, then the roughly 2,500 US troops still in the country may not get to come home any time soon.
Of course, Austin doesn’t set policy; Biden does. Biden has said he aims to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by the end of his first term. Until then, they’ll proceed on a counterterrorism mission, which mostly means they’ll hunt and capture or kill terrorist targets in and around the country. In the meantime, the US hopes to get Kabul and the Taliban to sign a comprehensive peace agreement.
But Austin would be expected to provide military advice, and a defense secretary’s opinion historically weighs heavily on a president. If Austin believes there are still too many threats emanating from Afghanistan, he may tell Biden that withdrawing US troops from there is a bad idea. That, then, would mean America’s longest war would continue.
He later told Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) that, if confirmed, he plans to go to Afghanistan himself to see what the US and the international coalition it leads may require. It’s possible after going over he’ll decide that the US needs more than the troops it has there now and that current military leadership says is enough to do the job.
It’s why Austin’s comment — offered almost as an aside — is so important. If confirmed, he’ll be the key presidential aide overseeing the war. His views on when the US can leave matter deeply, and right now it doesn’t look like he’s ready to say “let’s get out” just yet.