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Marathon confirmation hearings begin for Biden’s nominees

There were major confirmation hearings on Tuesday in the Senate for President-elect Biden's nominees for three top national security posts as well as Treasury secretary. The hearings come a day before Biden's inauguration and at a time when his new administration will face historic challenges on multiple fronts. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, all of these preparations come, as we have been saying, president-elect Biden prepares to focus on other major crises, the COVID pandemic that has claimed 400,000 lives in this country and continues to inflict major damage to the economy.

    Those concerns were the primary focus of a separate confirmation hearing today, this one for Janet Yellen, Mr. Biden's choice for Treasury secretary. The former chair of the Federal Reserve told some skeptical Republican senators why she believes it is important to act now and pass a $1.9 trillion economic package.

  • Janet Yellen:

    We're going to need more aid to distribute the vaccine, to reopen schools, to help states keep firefighters and teachers on the job.

    With interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big. In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Meantime, the top three security officials nominated by president-elect Biden had their hearings today, too.

    For this, I want to bring in our Nick Schifrin.

    Lloyd Austin, Nick, is the secretary of defense-designate. First of all, tell us how fears of extremism that we heard Amna reporting on just a moment ago, extremism in the military, come up during his Senate session.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Judy, Lloyd Austin addressed that right at the top of his opening statement.

    Remember that Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense. He was the first Black officer to command a division in combat and a theater of war. And, today, he said he would fight not only right-wing extremism, but also discrimination.

  • Gen. Lloyd Austin:

    We also owe our people a working environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment.

    And, if confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, and to rid our ranks of racist and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity.

    The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies, but we can't do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Austin told the story of when he was a lieutenant colonel. His unit found somebody that was an extremist.

    And he said that: The signs were there all along. We just didn't know what to look at.

    He said, Judy, today that he would apply the lessons he learned at that point to today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, we know Lloyd Austin was a four-star general, until he retired in 2016.

    He would need — would need a waiver in order to serve as a civilian secretary of defense. How did he address that today?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Judy, as you know, Democrats in both the House and the Senate opposed the last waiver to retire General James Mattis.

    To assuage those fears, Austin today said that he would work hand in glove with the State Department and also appoint civilians to senior roles and empower them to make decisions.

  • Gen. Lloyd Austin:

    The safety and security of our democracy demands competent civilian control of our armed forces, the subordination of military power to the civil.

    I intend to surround myself with and empower experienced, capable civilian leaders who will enable healthy civil-military relations grounded in meaning oversight.

    And so I think the people in the room, when — and contributing to the decision-making, it makes all the difference in the world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And many Democrats who voted against the last waiver, Judy, have already indicated that they will vote for this waiver in both the House and the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, another important confirmation hearing today for national — high national security official is for Avril Haines, nominated to be director of national intelligence.

    Tell us how that came down.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Haines emphasized an almost centrist, traditional approach to intelligence, as evidenced by who she had introduce her, the former Director of National Intelligence and former Republican Senator Dan Coats.

    Haines is a lawyer. She's a former senior official in the Obama administration. And she said that intelligence had been politicized under the Trump administration and she would turn that around.

  • Avril Haines:

    And that we provide objective analysis, that we don't let politics play a role in our work is critical.

    And it has been my experience that that is what the institution is designed to do and intended to do. And it's fundamental to good policy decision-making, because if policy-makers like yourself and others throughout the government don't have that unvarnished analysis, they don't have sufficient information, they don't have the best information that we can provide them in order for them to make the decisions that they need to make in order to protect the country and pursue our interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Haines said, while it wasn't the intelligence community's primary job, she would assist the FBI and the DHS in assessing the threat posed by QAnon.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, a third important hearing today, and this one for the nominee to be secretary of state, Tony Blinken. Tell us what was emphasized there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Blinken emphasized rebuilding alliances, as he put it. And he's channeling his boss there.

    Blinken has been with Biden for decades in the Senate and White House before Blinken became the deputy secretary of state. And, today, he reiterated their plan to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, so long as Iran follows through on its promises to reverse recent nuclear decisions.

  • Tony Blinken:

    The president-elect believes that, if Iran comes back into compliance, we would, too. But we would use that as a platform, with our allies and partners, who would once again be on the same side with us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement, and also, as you and the chairman have rightly pointed out, to capture these other issues, particularly with regard to missiles and Iran's destabilizing activities.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Experts tell me that's going to be extremely difficult, Judy.

    On other topics, he actually praised the Trump administration, especially the principle of confronting Beijing, as he reiterated with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham:

    Secretary Pompeo designated the Chinese party as having engaged in genocide regarding the Uyghur Muslim population. Do you agree with that designation?

  • Tony Blinken:

    That would be my judgment as well.

  • Lindsey Graham:

    You do agree?

    Yes. That's a — we're on a good start here.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lindsey Graham:

    So, this — really, I just very much appreciate that.

    Do you believe that the Chinese Communist Party misled the world about the coronavirus?

  • Tony Blinken:

    I do.

  • Lindsey Graham:

    What price, if any, should they pay?

  • Tony Blinken:

    They did not give access when it mattered most, in the early days of this virus. Had they done so, it's possible that the course of the virus would have been different and we could have dealt with it sooner and more effectively.

    My sense, Senator, going forward is that what we should be focusing on — I know people talk about the punitive — I'm — I would be very focused on the preventative.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On that first topic, the State Department today designated that Beijing had committed genocide and crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs. That is a Muslim minority in Western China.

    And earlier today, I got to talk to current State Department Ambassador-at-Large for global issues Kelley Currie.

    I started by asking her whether the State Department could prove Beijing's acts constituted genocide, but also the legally required intent to destroy the Uyghurs.

  • Kelley Currie:

    We have seen what they do when they — when they're trying to destroy a group.

    And this is something a little bit different, because it does not involve the kind of mass killings that you would see in, say, Rwanda or Srebrenica. This is true. But we are seeing an ability — we are seeing an intention to destroy a group.

    We have seen the Chinese Communist Party's officials talk about the Uyghurs and these other groups as tumors, malignant tumors that have to be removed to make statements about how you can't just pluck all the weeds from the field one by one. You have to use chemicals to kill them all when talking about Uyghurs within the Chinese state.

    And so the language from the Chinese Communist Party's leadership has been pretty explicit on some of these fronts. When you put that together with the acts that they have committed, specifically the forced sterilization, the forced abortion, the forced birth control of Uyghur women and the efforts, the systematic efforts that they have taken to ensure compliance with these coercive population control measures that have been in place for the past three years, then we were — the secretary came to the conclusion that genocide was the appropriate designation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What do you believe are the practical implications of using these terms, genocide, crimes against humanity, after, as you said, there's been so much documentation of what's been happening in Xinjiang?

  • Kelley Currie:

    Well, while there is tremendous documentation — and most of it is in open source material — but what we have not seen is what we believe is the appropriate response on the part of the international community.

    The United States has leveled sanctions against perpetrators in this context. We have sanctioned individual Communist Party members. We have sanctioned entities, such as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corporation, which we believe support the architecture of repression in China.

    And we have also taken actions such as the recent withhold release order, which essentially bans the import of cotton and tomato products into the United States that originate in Xinjiang.

    And we believe that, by making these determinations, and the secretary believes that, by making these determinations, we can help to get the world's attention and get them to respond in similar ways to what we have done here in the United States.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why today, of all days? If the goal is to galvanize international community, as you just pointed out, aren't you worried that making this announcement literally 24 hours before inauguration could lead some people to say this is more about politics and policy?

  • Kelley Currie:

    We have really worked hard to keep these decisions above politics and outside of politics by focusing on the facts and on the information.

    Unfortunately, these are lengthy and exhaustive processes. And we have been able to complete them in relatively recent days and take tee up for the secretary.

    And, believe me, if we could have made these decisions sooner, we would have. I think that we have also — we also believe that this is an issue that has strong bipartisan support. And so we believe that this is an issue that will continue to resonate and should resonate outside of politics.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you believe that ,by doing this the day before inauguration, you are boxing the Biden administration in or helping them galvanize international opinion?

  • Kelley Currie:

    Well, it's up to the Biden administration how they take this determination and what they do with it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Has the State Department concluded that today's designation imposes any legal requirements on the U.S. government moving forward?

  • Kelley Currie:

    Again, these are not legal decisions.

    Last week, if you — if the Department of Homeland Security wanted to exclude someone that they believed was guilty of genocide, they had the legal authority to do that, whether it was in this context or any other. The same with the Department of Justice. If they wanted to bring up charges under U.S. statutes, they're able to do that.

    What this does do is give us an additional tool to use in the implementation of our foreign policy objectives and the ability to advance those objectives, particularly with our partners around the world, who we continue to work with to try to build out the coalition of countries that have recognized the gravity of the situation in Xinjiang and are moving to act.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Currie, thank you very much.

  • Kelley Currie:

    Thank you, Nick.

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