Blinken turns away from Trump-era approaches, starting with media relations

Blinken turns away from Trump-era approaches, starting with media relations

Secretary of State Antony Blinken tried to reset the U.S. government’s relationship with the news media on his first full day in office, calling an independent press essential to the country’s global image and a “cornerstone of our democracy.”

“You keep the American people and the world informed about what we do here. That’s key to our mission,” he said to reporters in the State Department briefing room Wednesday.

Blinken’s attempt to overhaul the combative relationship between State Department officials and the media is among the decisions he is facing about what to keep or discard from the Trump era as President Biden pledges to bring unity and transparency in U.S. governance.

In an early change, Blinken said he would resume the department’s daily news briefing starting next week — a practice that ended during the Trump administration as spokespeople feared contradicting the president’s rapidly shifting positions.

He also pledged to allow journalists access to him during trips abroad once the coronavirus pandemic subsides, something that secretaries of state Mike Pompeo and Rex Tillerson sharply curtailed during their tenures, bringing only a few reporters on trips.

“You can count on us to treat all of you with the utmost respect you deserve,” he said.

While the Biden administration has begun overturning several Trump-era actions, on foreign policy, Blinken has pledged not to throw out all of the previous policies, such as moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

On Wednesday, Blinken called China’s mass detention and sterilization of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang “genocide,” a point he was asked to clarify after Biden’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said a determination on the issue was under review.

On Afghanistan, Blinken said the United States is reviewing agreements the Trump administration made with the Taliban and would not say whether the new administration plans to make additional troop withdrawals there. Blinken confirmed that Biden was retaining the former president’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who spent years shuttling between Qatar and Afghanistan in the hopes of making a deal between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban. About 2,500 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, the lowest level since the war began nearly 20 years ago.

On Yemen, Blinken said he would move quickly to review the Trump administration’s decision to label the country’s Houthi rebels a terrorist organization, acknowledging concerns from aid groups that the designation would worsen what the United Nations considers the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

“What we want to make sure is, that any steps we’re taking do not get in the way of providing [humanitarian] assistance,” he said.

Blinken promised to restore U.S. alliances in the world and phoned foreign ministers from Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. He scored points with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian by conducting the Wednesday morning call in French, said a diplomat familiar with the discussion. Blinken, who moved to Paris at age 9 after his parents divorced, is fluent in the language.

At a welcoming ceremony in the State Department lobby Wednesday, Blinken pledged to improve agency morale, telling his new colleagues, “I will have your back” — a remark some viewed as a jab at his predecessor.

Pompeo was criticized by career diplomats for what they viewed as his politicization of the department and subservience to Trump, in particular, when he sought the firing of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine after a smear campaign by Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.

“I will insist that you speak up without fear or favor,” Blinken told colleagues.

Part of his effort to rebuild “morale and trust” is to invest in a more “diverse and inclusive State Department,” Blinken said.

The Foreign Service historically has faced criticism for being too “White, male and Yale,” a condition Blinken said he would try to address.

“We cannot do our job of advancing America’s interests, values and commitment to democracy without a State Department that is truly representative of the American people,” he said.

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