SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon. It looks like we have a pretty full house today. Must be Monday. Good to see everyone.
Earlier today, I sent a letter to all members of the Senate expressing my serious concern regarding the significant delays in confirming State Department nominees. As I made clear in the letter, these delays are undermining our national security and they are weakening our ability to deliver for the American people.
Let me just start with the numbers.
At present, the State Department has more than 60 nominees with the Senate. Thirty-eight have completed all the other steps and are on the Senate floor awaiting confirmation. Of those 38, 35 are career Foreign Service officers.
Now, that number is going to keep going up, as more sitting ambassadors complete their tours, more nominees come forward. By the end of the summer, we expect Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon will all be without confirmed U.S. ambassadors. Eight nominees are awaiting confirmation for posts in African countries. And it’s not just the Middle East and Africa where we’ve got this problem: Ambassadorships are open in Asia, in Europe, in Latin America, as nominees await confirmation. So are key issue-focused positions, like, for example, our counterterrorism coordinator.
During the current Congress, only five nominees have been confirmed.
In previous administrations, the overwhelming majority of career nominees received swift support to advance through the Senate by unanimous consent. Today, for reasons that have nothing to do with the nominees’ qualifications or abilities, they are being forced to proceed through individual floor votes.
Over a third of those nominees have been waiting approximately a year or more – some longer than 18 months.
These nonpartisan public servants have served for decades across Republican and Democratic administrations. They represent our most skilled, our most seasoned diplomats. Their talents are the products of generations of investment by American taxpayers.
To defend U.S. national security, to sustain and strengthen our alliances and partnerships around the world, to ensure that our foreign policy is advancing the interests of the American people – we need our best possible team on the field. By failing to confirm these nominees, a handful of senators are keeping our best players on the sidelines.
Now, I worked in the Senate for years. So, of course, did President Biden. I respect and value its critical oversight role; it’s crucial to ensuring that we have highly qualified individuals representing the United States around the world.
But that’s not what is happening here. No one has questioned the qualifications of these career diplomats. They are being blocked for leverage on other unrelated issues. It’s irresponsible. And it’s doing harm to our national security.
Confirming these nominees matters. As every member of Congress knows, our ambassadors are the face of the United States in the countries where they serve – our leading advocates for and with foreign governments and citizens.
We have extraordinarily dedicated and qualified career officers who are serving as chargés in these countries where the positions are left open – and I’m immensely grateful for their service. But all of them would tell you the same thing: There is a difference between a chargé and a confirmed ambassador.
Foreign governments know that ambassadors carry the full weight of the President of the United States and the United States Senate. As a result, ambassadors often have greater access and influence, where they – which they can use to advance the interests of our country.
Here’s who loses out when we don’t have a U.S. ambassador in place in a given country: American companies, investors, and entrepreneurs who want to do business there. American citizens who live in that country or experience an emergency while they’re overseas. American students who study there, American tourists who visit. And the citizens of those countries, who yearn for – and benefit from – deeper ties with the United States and with our people.
Our department and the entire U.S. government lose out as well.
Not having a confirmed ambassador in a given country makes us less effective at advancing every one of our policy priorities – from getting more countries to serve as temporary hubs for SIV processing, to bringing on more partners for global coalitions like the one we just announced to combat fentanyl, to support competitive bids for U.S. companies to build 5‑ and 6G networks and other critical infrastructure projects around the world.
We also lose sight to the insights into countries that our ambassadors uniquely can develop through the unique relationships that they have at the highest levels of government, business, civil society.
Now, here’s who benefits from failing to fill these essential positions: America’s adversaries. Only our adversaries, who are constantly looking to exploit any weakness or any opening to their advantage.
The refusal of the Senate to approve these career public servants also undermines the credibility of our democracy. People abroad see it as a sign of dysfunction, ineffectiveness – inability to put national interests over political ones.
These unnecessary delays also weaken the State Department as an institution – something I am charged with upholding and defending. They discourage highly qualified senior officers from pursuing ambassadorships because they don’t want to put themselves or their families through this limbo – with their careers and their lives put on hold, as well as the lives of their spouses and their children.
These delays also discourage rising officers, who see the pinnacle of a career in the Foreign Service increasingly closed off to them.
It strains credulity that some of the members of Congress calling most loudly for outcompeting our rivals are at the same time tying our hands behind our back.
We cannot – and we must not – let this become the new normal.
These men and women yearn to serve – to do the jobs that they’ve been preparing for their entire careers. My message to the Senate today is: Let them serve. Put our best team out in the field. Stop harming our national security through unjustified delay and unprecedented obstruction. Let these nominees advance the interests of our nation, advance the interests of the American people.
Thank you. Happy to take some questions.
MR MILLER: Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: Yeah. So just a couple things on this, Mr. Secretary. And welcome back, by the way —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good to see you.
QUESTION: — from a long around-the-world trip.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: (Laughter.) Yeah.
QUESTION: Just on the Senate, who is being the most obstructionist here in terms of this? And then secondly on this, you have more than 60 nominees. Right?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: But the Pentagon has got four times as many who are also being held up. Now, they’re not ambassadorial appointments; some of them are just promotions. But why should – if you’re going to complain, couldn’t the Senate Democratic leadership devote floor time to getting through these holds?
And then on something completely different, I’m just wondering, since the Black Sea Grain Initiative appeared to die today, I’m just wondering if you think that the Russians have any argument at all —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No.
QUESTION: — that – okay. (Laughter.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: But I’m happy to come back to that.
Look. First, on the nominations, so Senator Paul has a blanket hold on our nominees, and there are additional holds that we’re working through. But we have been working extensively with Senator Paul. We’ve provided documents and other information that he’s requested. But unfortunately, he continues to block all of our nominees. And again, the vast majority are career officers. There are other holds out there. I can’t speak to their specifics, but I can tell you we’re working directly with the offices concerned to try to work through them.
You’re right. There are 62 nominees in the process right now. Of those, as I said, 38 are on the floor; of those, 35 are career officers. Now, we managed to get five people through, and of the five people we got through, four we got through as a result of Senator Schumer moving them through the process and taking a huge amount of time, of Senate business, to get folks confirmed with votes.
That is not the way it’s been done in the past, it’s not the way it should be done now, going forward, it ties up too much of the Senate’s time, and there is absolutely no justification for it. I’m grateful to Senator Schumer – Leader Schumer – for doing this, but that’s not the way it should happen. And at the rate we’re going, even if you decided to give floor time to every single one, there is not enough floor time to get through all of these nominees, never mind doing the other business of the nation.
And of course, we’re in very close contact with our colleagues in DOD, working through this, and certainly there’s been a lot of focus on their nominees or promotion lists. And that, too, is absolutely detrimental to our national security.
QUESTION: Is this – sorry, just one other thing. You mentioned that Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon won’t have – for —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: By the end of this summer. That’s right, it’s the rotation time.
QUESTION: But I wasn’t aware that the – has the White House nominated a replacement for Ambassador Nides?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We’ll – I’ll come back to you with all of the folks that we’ve nominated or are about to be nominated, depending on —
QUESTION: All right. And just on the Black Sea.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, look. First, it’s really important to put this in perspective. Of course, it never should have been necessary in the first place. The only reason it became necessary is because Russia invaded Ukraine and then decided to blockade the ports and prevent Ukraine from sending grain around the world, as it’s done for years. It’s been the breadbasket of the world.
So as a result of that, Türkiye, the United Nations, as you know – the secretary-general – negotiated this arrangement, the Black Sea Grain Initiative, to at least allow the grain and other food products to get out of Ukraine and on to world markets. And that’s had a tremendously positive benefit. Something like 32 million tons of food products have gotten out. It’s the equivalent of 18 billion – 18 billion – loaves of bread in the roughly one year that the grain initiative has been in effect. And that’s done two things. It’s actually gotten food onto people’s plates; but even when the food wasn’t going directly to certain countries or certain people, it also was helping to keep prices low because it’s a global market.
So the result of Russia’s action today – weaponizing food, using it as a tool, as a weapon in its war against Ukraine – will be to make food harder to come by in places that desperately need it, and have prices rise. We’re already seeing the market react to this as prices are going up.
The bottom line is it’s unconscionable. It should not happen. This should be restored as quickly as possible. And I hope that every country is watching this very closely. They will see that Russia is responsible for denying food to people who desperately need it around the world, and to contribute to rising prices at a time when many countries continue to experience very difficult inflation.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR MILLER: Will.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. Just following up on the – Matt’s Black Sea question, if I may. Is it – would it be possible for Türkiye, the U.S., or some other partner countries to provide any other sort of guarantee, formal or informal, that would help get grain bulk carriers from the Ukrainian coast through the Bosporus? And is there any broad effort underway to ensure freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, which is what the U.S. insists upon, and many of the other seas around the world? And linked to that is the Kerch Bridge question. There was a bombing of the Kerch Bridge. I’m just wondering if the – Russia says naval drones were responsible. Were those from Ukraine, and does the U.S. support that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So Will, back on the Black Sea Grain issue first, look, the Ukrainians and we, others will look at whether there are any other options, but the challenge is this: If Russia is ending this initiative and sending a message that grain cannot and other food products cannot leave Ukraine unimpeded, even if there are other options, I think it will likely have a profound chilling effect on the ability to pursue them as other countries, companies, shippers, et cetera will be very concerned about what happens to their ships and to their personnel if Russia is opposing the – any export of food products from Ukraine. The whole point of this was to have a voluntary agreement that involved all of the relevant parties that was endorsed by the United Nations to make sure that there was safety, security, predictability in moving food out of Ukraine and to places that were desperately in need of it.
So in the absence of that, I think, yes, we’ll look at – to see what else can be done to find other ways to get Ukrainian food products on the world market, including, again, what we’ve – as we’ve – as Ukraine has already been doing, moving things out through rail and by road. But in terms of the volumes necessary, it’s really hard to replace what’s now being lost as a result of Russia weaponizing food.
On the Kerch Bridge, this is a situation that we’re monitoring, and I don’t really have anything in particular to offer on that. Just I can say as a general proposition, of course, Ukraine has to decide how it conducts this war in defense of its territory, its people, its freedom.
MR MILLER: And finally the back of the room, Michelle.
QUESTION: Yeah, thanks. I have just a question on China, because China is already raising concerns about a future stop by the Taiwanese vice president. I wonder if you’re worried at all that that’s going to undermine the progress that you feel you’ve made putting a floor under that relationship. And real quickly on passports, because that’s a common concern that you’re hearing from members of Congress and Americans, what’s it going to take to speed up the process?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Second part first, I was just – I guess about three weeks ago – visiting our passport office in New York, the largest passport office that we have, and saw the operation firsthand and saw people working overtime, double time, triple time to get blue books into people’s hands. The demand for passports is greater than it’s ever been.
As you know, we’ve basically had to build back up from zero because when COVID hit, the bottom dropped out of the entire program to issue passports here in the United States or to issue visas to those seeking to visit the United States. And so we have been working very hard to build back – build that back up, to bring people in, to train them, to make sure that we were dedicating the resources to it.
We will issue more passports this year than in any previous year, but that’s just a reflection of the fact that demand is higher than it’s ever been. And we’re throwing everything we can at this, trying to make sure that people have those blue books, that they’re able to travel. And it’s something that comes up repeatedly with members of Congress, with folks that I come across. So what I can tell you is – and we can get you the actual numbers, but there’s unprecedented demand, there’s an unprecedented effort, and we’re trying to do our best at getting people their passports.
On the potential transit of Vice President Lai of Taiwan, we expect that he will transit the United States on both the incoming and outgoing legs of a trip that he plans to take to Paraguay for the inauguration in Paraguay. This is very routine given the distances traveled to have a transit point. And it is fully consistent and common practice. If you go back, ten vice presidents from Taiwan have transited over the past couple of decades. This will be the 11th and actually the second for Vice President Lai.
There is no reason for the PRC to use this transit as a pretext for provocative action. We are committed to preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. It’s critical to regional and for that matter global security as well as prosperity. And as I’ve been able to share repeatedly with – now with our Chinese counterparts, including just last week when I met with Wang Yi, the senior foreign policy official, we have no desire to change the status quo on the Taiwan Straits. Our policy hasn’t changed. We fully expect that neither side will unilaterally change the status quo. We fully expect that everyone involved will resolve any differences peacefully. And, again, this transit is fully consistent with that policy.
MR MILLER: Thank you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: And now the main act. (Laughter).
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