Days before the inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team criticized recent Trump administration policy announcements, suggesting that a series of recent statements “begin to feel like sabotage.”
In the last week, the State Department announced significant policies on Yemen, Cuba, Taiwan and Iran that senior Trump administration officials insist they have been pushing for months, if not years, but that critics label as motivated more by politics than policy.
The administration’s most controversial recent announcement is the designation of Houthi rebels in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, over the objections of humanitarians, who say the designation reduces the ability to provide assistance to Yemeni civilians already caught in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
Up until now, Biden transition officials had shied away from publicly criticizing recent policy changes, but in an exclusive conversation with the PBS NewsHour, a transition official detailed a number of issues with the outgoing administration’s approach, singling out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in particular.
“We will manage this, but it does start, at some point, to feel like sabotage. Not only do they know we don’t want to implement some of these approaches; they don’t even want to implement them,” a transition official said. “Which is why they’re doing them now, rather than at any other point in the previous four years.”
The Houthis, who the UN and U.S. intelligence officials say receive support from Iran, seized Yemen’s capital in 2014 and have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition in a grinding war that has killed hundreds of thousands. Pompeo labeled them a Foreign Terrorist Organization on Sunday night, after a long internal debate.
“Secretary of State Pompeo is literally risking hundreds of thousands of lives,” the Biden transition official told PBS NewsHour. “Most of Yemen is at risk of starvation so that Mike Pompeo can feed his own domestic political ambitions. This is not about any special affinity we have for the Houthis. But the Trump administration’s actions are only further harming the people of Yemen, who have already suffered unimaginably. This is childish and silly, and we’re not going to let it box us in.”
Senior Trump administration officials reject the criticism, saying Houthi actions — including an attack last month on the Aden airport that killed more than two dozen — made it clear the nature of their movement. “We’re designating the Houthis as terrorists for a simple reason: They’re terrorists,” a senior administration official said in response to the criticism. “Over the past several years, the Houthis have launched Iranian-supplied weapons at airports, energy infrastructure, and other civilian targets … The Houthis, and no one else, are responsible for the humanitarian crisis Yemen faces.”
Trump administration officials also reiterate the U.S. is the largest donor of humanitarian aid to Yemen, and that they are trying to ensure that aid continues to flow thanks to licenses and guidance to aid groups.
But on Jan. 14, David Beasley, the director of the World Food Program and the former Republican governor of South Carolina, criticized the designation during a Security Council briefing. “It is going to be catastrophic. It is literally going to be a death sentence to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in Yemen,” said Beasley, who remains close to senior Trump administration officials. “It needs to be reevaluated, and it needs to be reversed.”
On Cuba, the Trump administration has spent much of the last four years reversing President Barack Obama’s 2016 decision to normalize relations, leading up to an announcement on Jan. 11 that Cuba was once again designated a state sponsor of terrorism. The State Department’s designation accused Cuba of harboring U.S. and Colombian fugitives, including members of the National Liberation Army (ELN), which the U.S. calls a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. It also highlighted Cuba’s support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. “With this action, we will once again hold Cuba’s government accountable and send a clear message: the Castro regime must end its support for international terrorism and subversion of U.S. justice,” the declaration read. Independent experts say it will be complicated for the Biden team to undo the designation legally, because the designation triggers automatic penalties. It may also be difficult, politically, because any reversal would give opponents to normalization with Cuba an issue around which to rally.
The Biden transition official declined to comment on the designation, but former Trump administration officials questioned the timing. Juan Cruz, the Trump administration’s former senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the national security council staff, told the NewsHour the announcement would hinder Biden’s likely efforts to improve relations with Cuba. “This is absolutely a spoiler. Somebody peed in the punch bowl,” Cruz said. “The determination to put them on the list probably made it easier to frame the facts to build that case.”
On China, the State Department last week declared “null and void” previous restrictions on its bilateral meetings with Taiwan and the status of its diplomats who work on Taiwan. For decades, the executive branch implemented the restrictions using a carefully calibrated policy born out of the 1979 normalization with Beijing and subsequent communiques about Taiwan. Those restrictions include everything from where American diplomats who work on Taiwan can be based, to where Taiwanese diplomats can meet American officials, to the seniority of Americans who can visit Taiwan.
The Trump administration had already been breaking those boundaries, and in 2018, the Taiwan Travel Act became law, calling on high-level U.S. officials to visit Taiwan. Senior administration officials say they tried to rewrite the restrictions last year, only to have that plan canceled at the last minute inside the State Department. Instead, Pompeo effectively blew up the restrictions immediately before Inauguration Day, allowing individual government agencies to chart their own course–and possibly allowing Pompeo to criticize the Biden team after the inauguration as soft on China.
Senior Biden officials have said previously they respect the historic calibration on who can meet whom related to Taiwan, even as individual members of the Biden team have promised to confront Beijing and support Taiwan. Taiwanese officials, as well as senior Trump administration officials who have helped lead the effort to confront Beijing, were especially encouraged by the naming of Kurt Campbell as the incoming national security staff’s top Asia official, with the title “coordinator” for the India-Pacific region. Campbell was the architect of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, and is seen as wanting to continue confronting Beijing.
The Biden transition official declined to respond specifically to Pompeo’s Taiwan statement or any other China policies, but said, “This is very much in the category of an area where we’re going to need to run a rigorous, principled process, and assess these approaches based on whether they improve the lives of Americans and are consistent with our values.”
The PBS NewsHour’s Ali Rogin contributed reporting for this story.