Government

Secretary Antony J. Blinken At a Press Availability – United States Department of State

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good afternoon. Very good to see everyone, and very nice to be back in your room.

Let me start out, if I can, by just speaking a little bit about my visits to Canada and Mexico today. I had the opportunity to conduct my first foreign visits with our important allies in Mexico and Canada. And as you will have noticed, we didn’t actually leave the State Department. The good news is no jet lag; the bad news is no frequent flyer miles. But we did, I think, innovate something interesting, driven by the times of COVID, but also using technology to be able to actually connect us to our partners and to do what we would do on an actual visit.

So we had broad ranging discussions that were substantive on the agendas that we share with both countries. I want to particularly thank my counterparts and their teams for very constructive engagement today.

We’ve got a great team here in Washington, and our missions in Mexico, in Canada – they did a lot of work to try to bring this together for what was really a first-of-its-kind virtual visit. And I have to say that based on the conversations that I had following on conversations that the President’s had, particularly this week with Prime Minister Trudeau, that we have very, very strong partnerships to work with and to advance our interests and values in the hemisphere and around the world.

I had, first, some very productive meetings with the Mexican Foreign Secretary Ebrard, and then the Secretary of the Economy Clouthier this morning. We discussed a number of issues, including the importance of bilateral trade, the need for continued collaboration to address security issues that impact both of our countries, and, of course, climate change.

In Canada, we just had a great conversation with Prime Minister Trudeau, following up on an earlier meeting that he had this week with President Biden where they announced the Roadmap for a Renewed U.S.-Canada Partnership. Spent some time with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Garneau, and other cabinet members, and we got to go in more depth and detail on climate change, promoting democratic values in the Western Hemisphere and around the world, and bolstering our shared defense and security.

In all of these meetings, I spoke with my counterparts in Mexico and Canada about the pandemic, slowing the spread of the virus through coordinated action at our shared borders, and reinvigorating our economies so that we can build back better together.

In addition to these bilateral meetings, I also toured the port of entry between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and had a remarkable tour given to me by the head of the Customs and Border Patrol. I saw the very diligent work that our Department of Homeland Security colleagues are doing to ensure the safe, the orderly, and the humane processing at that crossing, and to facilitate the flow of individuals and commerce between our two countries.

Finally, I had a wonderful discussion in Canada just now with youth and Inuit leaders about climate change and about our shared priorities in the Arctic. In the conversation with this group and at the border crossing in Mexico, it was evident how interconnected we are today and for the future.

Today’s conversations represent the start of the next chapter of our bilateral partnerships. The United States has long-standing relationships with both Mexico and Canada. Today’s meetings were an opportunity to dive deeper into our shared priorities. We look forward to continuing conversations with our neighbors and friends in both countries to address shared challenges, to promote the prosperity of all of our people, and to promote a safe, secure, and prosperous hemisphere.

So with that, happy to take questions.

MR PRICE: We have a couple of our North American partners in the room, so we’ll start with Bricio Segovia Reche.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. MVS Radio from Mexico. I have two questions, if I may. The first one is regarding immigration. The administration has been saying that now it is not the time to come to the southern border. Is the United States currently accepting new asylum applications? And I’m not talking about the Remain in Mexico program. I’m talking about new applications.

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks very much. I think as you’ve heard President Biden say and other colleagues in the administration say, we’re working comprehensively to make sure that we have a safe, an orderly, a secure, and humane border, particularly when it comes to migration issues. And we’re working at this on a number of fronts, and we’re working on the question of migration on a number of fronts.

First, as I think you’ve heard the President discuss in the past, we have a real focus on trying to address some of the root causes of migration, particularly from the countries in the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. And that means working with those countries, working with Mexico, to over time deal with some of the drivers of migration, including insecurity, lack of opportunity, corruption, and other things that cause people to make that incredibly difficult decision to leave everything they know behind, to leave their families, to leave their friends, to leave their cultures, to leave their language, to leave their communities to try to make a very hazardous journey and come to a place where they may or may not be welcomed or accepted.

The way to really get at that challenge is to give people hope and opportunity to be able to have a secure and prosperous future in their own countries and to build the future of those countries. So the President is focused on that, and that will be reflected in a lot of the policies as well as some of the budget work that we’ll be doing.

Second, we are looking at ways to make the asylum process once again more rational and to make it once again something that is safe, secure, and humane. And so we have over time an effort to put in place the ability to once again process asylum applications in the United States, but it is going to take time to put that in place. And of course, we’re now – we now have health – COVID-related concerns that are of deep concern to everyone with regard to the border, and those are front and center. But over time, there will be a more rational asylum process that will allow us to deal with that. Now, there are people who are in the so-called protection protocols, which have been ended, and who were in that process who are now actually being processed, but that’s moving forward.

In addition, there are some other things that are very important. We are also looking at ways to make sure that we can look at applications for asylum in the countries that people are coming from. That’s important and we have some ability to do that. But the main thing is that all of these things take time to put in place, and now is not the time to try to come to the United States. If you’re in the Migrant Protection Protocol program and you are in that process, there is now a clear process for being reviewed and being considered; but if not, there – this is not the time to come, not the time to make a hazardous journey, because you will not be able to come into the United States.

QUESTION: But is it accepting – but you didn’t answer my question, I’m sorry. Is the U.S. accepting new applications at the moment at the border?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: So all of this process is being put into place. No, the asylum requests that are being considered are from people who are in the MPP program.

QUESTION: That’s it, right?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s it.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Adrian Morrow.

QUESTION: Thank you, Secretary. A couple of quick questions. On the case of the two Michaels in China, what specifically is the administration going to do to secure their release, whether it’s trying to tie some – their release to a DPA with Ms. Meng or some other action? What are the specific actions that you’re going to take there to help Canada get those guys released?

And then secondarily on Buy American, that’s one thing that a waiver or some guarantee that Canada won’t be subject to those tighter Buy American rules that the President is going to roll out. That’s one thing that Canada wants that would be sort of a quick win in terms of showing Canada that the new administration wants to sort of rekindle this bilateral alliance. Why not just make that commitment publicly that you’ll basically give Canada sort of the same thing that they received under the Obama administration?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. So let me take the second question first. With regard to Buy America, Buy American, these, of course, are longstanding things that have been on the books for many, many years, and we’re now looking at the executive order that the President issued. We’re – we’ll want to make sure as well that we’re consistent with our obligations, including under the WTO.

But beyond that I think is in our conversations with Canadian counterparts. I think we see tremendous opportunity working together both to build back better as we emerge from COVID-19 and to seize opportunities that we have together to do that, and as well, and particularly in something the President addressed both with Prime Minister Trudeau and also yesterday himself, and that is building more resilient supply chains. There is a lot of opportunity there between the United States and Canada that we intend to pursue.

So these questions specifically go to the question of government procurement and how we use the American taxpayers’ money, which, obviously, we’re very – we’re focused on. But my sense from the conversations between the two governments is that there is ample opportunity for us to work together and find ways to benefit each other in trade, in investment, and in the work that we’re doing, especially on things like supply chains.

With regard to the two Michaels, let me just say – and again, I think you heard President Biden address this – we stand in absolute solidarity with Canada in insisting on their immediate and unconditional release. Canada has taken, I think, a very important initiative that was inspired by the two Michaels but goes even beyond them, and that is to bring countries together to stand against the arbitrary detention of individuals for political purposes – a practice that we see in a number of countries, including China.

And there again, we are in strong support of this Canadian initiative. It has already brought dozens of countries together. I think and I hope that this can grow into something that establishes a new international norm against arbitrary detentions. This would be a very important contribution to international relations going forward, and this is something that the United States and Canada will work on together.

But we want to see the two Michaels return home. There are legal questions that are appropriately the province of our Department of Justice. They follow the law, they follow the facts, and I’d refer you to them for anything on the legal aspects of this case.

MR PRICE: Andrea Mitchell.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Given the fact that the CIA has concluded that Mohammed bin Salman personally approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, can you explain why he is not being punished in these decisions, and – especially since the President, when he was a candidate, told me during the debate that he would make Saudi Arabia a pariah state for what it had done?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well —

QUESTION: And could I just also ask about —

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Sure.

QUESTION: — Saudi Arabia’s reaction now? The foreign ministry is saying that they “reject the negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report.”

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Andrea, I think the report speaks for itself, and I think you’ve seen today a number of very important steps to recalibrate the relationship: first of all, the release of the report itself and the transparency that that provides. This is a report that, in a sense, is not fresh off the printing press. It’s been there. We released it. We were determined to bring transparency to this issue and to share with the American people what we know. And again, I think that report speaks for itself.

But beyond that you’ve seen a number, today, of very concrete steps that are both looking at past conduct but, as importantly, looking to the future to prevent future conduct. The Department of the Treasury is sanctioning former Saudi deputy head of general intelligence Ahmad al-Asiri for his direct role in the Istanbul operation that murdered Mr. Khashoggi. We’re also designating the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force as an entity under the Global Magnitsky Act for its participation in this murder.

We have taken action pursuant to what we’re calling the Khashoggi Ban to impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.

And importantly, we have introduced and announced a new policy that will apply the State Department’s ability to restrict and revoke visas to any individuals believed to be involved in extraterritorial activities targeting perceived dissidents or journalists – trying to harass them, surveil them, harm them or their families. Because this practice, this conduct, whether it’s by Saudi Arabia or anyone else, is totally unacceptable, and we now have a new tool to push back against that. More broadly, I would say the relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one. We have significant ongoing interests. We remain committed to the defense of the kingdom. But we also want to make sure – and this is what the President has said from the outset – that the relationship better reflects our interests and our values. And so what we’ve done by the actions that we’ve taken is really not to rupture the relationship, but to recalibrate it to be more in line with our interests and our values. And I think that we have to understand as well that this is bigger than any one person. This recalibration goes to the policies that Saudi Arabia is pursuing and the actions that it’s taken.

And I would just add and conclude with this: We are already seeing some results from this recalibration. We’re seeing results in our own efforts joined, I hope, by Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen. We’re seeing the new policy approach we’ve taken to arms transfers and getting back to regular order with Congress. And I think that overall we are doing what the President said we should do, which was to review the relationship in its totality and to make sure that it goes forward in a way that better reflects our interests and values.

MR PRICE: Humeyra, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hello, Mr. Secretary. I want to follow up on Andrea’s question. You talked about future – preventing future actions, and you have unveiled a new ban, Khashoggi Ban. But you have fallen short of punishing the very person that DNI has said is responsible for this. So how are you – because of this lack of accountability, how is that not counter to your actions to ensure accountability elsewhere in the future? Isn’t this counterproductive?

And also, on the arm sales, what is the U.S. thinking in light of this report to arms sales to Saudi Arabia? I know that there’s a review, but how can you justify going ahead with those arms sales after this report?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. First, with regard to arms sales, you’re exactly right. There’s an ongoing review. And there is a very important distinction between our commitment to not engage or not support offensive activities and operations in Yemen, including through the provision of offensive weapons, and the legitimate needs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in terms of its own defense, something, as I said, we remain committed to. So we’re reviewing these arms sales and we’re making sure that going forward, what we do provide goes to the defense of the kingdom, not its ability to prosecute offensive operations.

And the other thing that’s very important about this is that as we go forward, we’re going to do so in full consultation with Congress, something that had been – we’ve gotten away from in the past. And so we’re going to get back to regular order, not just with Saudi Arabia but with any country with whom we – we’re engaged and are selling arms to and providing security assistance to. So that I think is very important.

As to accountability, again, I think this report speaks for itself. And the fact that we have provided the transparency necessary to shine a bright light on what happened through the assessment, not just of the media, as important as you are, but the United States Government is, in and of itself, I think significant action. And beyond that, for Mr. Khashoggi not to have been murdered totally in vain, we now have in place a new policy that applies not just to Saudi Arabia, but across the board, and that gives us, I think, a greater ability to deter the kinds of egregious actions that were taken against him and against other dissidents, opponents, and others speaking out or their families going forward. And that I hope will be in some small measure an important legacy.

MR PRICE: Time for one final question. Michele, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. One quick thing on Mohammed bin Salman: Can the U.S. still do business with him? And then on Syria, what message do you hope Iran gets out of the U.S. strike on Syria yesterday?

SECRETARY BLINKEN: As I said earlier, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual. The President engaged, as you know, with King Salman. I’ve spoken to my counterpart, the foreign minister, and Secretary Austin has spoken to his counterpart, who happens to be Mohammed bin Salman.

With regard to the strike in Syria, we had on multiple occasions in the last 10 days or so attacks on our people, our position, our interests that took lives and injured others, and so we had both to respond to those attacks but also to an ongoing threat that was very clear. And so we took this action that I think was focused, proportionate, but also effective in degrading some of the capacity that the militia in question had to perpetrate new attacks – and also to be very clear, notably to Iran, that they cannot act with impunity against our people, our partners, our interests. And I think and expect that that message was clearly received. Thank you.

MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone.

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