QUESTION: Good morning to you, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, good morning. Good to be with you.
QUESTION: I want to start with some breaking news overnight out of Iran. They have abolished the morality police. This is after months of protests following the death of Mahsa Amini, who died because – she was taken into custody since her head wasn’t adequately covered. Does this stop the protests that have been raging?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s up to the Iranian people. This is about them; it’s not about us. And what we’ve seen since the killing of Mahsa Amini has been the extraordinary courage of Iranian young people, especially women, who’ve been leading these protests standing up for the right to be able to say what they want to say, wear what they want to wear. And so if the regime has now responded in some fashion to those protests, that could be a positive thing, but we have to see how it actually plays out in practice and what the Iranian people think. This is about them and it’s up to them.
QUESTION: We’ve also seen protests in China because of these COVID lockdown policies. They seem to have died out in recent days. Is that because the police state stopped them, or have they actually had an effect?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, we’ve seen, apparently, some easing of the COVID restrictions in recent days, but very hard for us to speak to that. There, again, we’ve been standing up for the basic principle that people should have the right to make their views known peacefully, to protest, as the case may be, to vent their frustrations.
QUESTION: Your deputy, Wendy Sherman, gave a speech here in Washington on Friday where she said, “I think war is potentially possible, because Xi Jinping now has absolute control in China.” You’re about to go to China. Do you agree with that assessment?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So, Margaret, we’re in an intense competition with China. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with competition itself as long as it’s basically fair and on a level playing field. And we’re working with countries around the world to build convergence on the approach to China, which I’ve seen get very strong in Europe, in Asia. And the President has a strong determination to ensure that the competition does not veer into conflict. That’s one of the reasons that he spent three hours with Xi Jinping in Indonesia on the margins of the G20. It’s one of the reasons that he asked me to go to China early next year, making sure that we’re talking, we’re communicating, we’re making clear what we’re about, what our intents are, what we’re doing. That’s vitally important. The world —
QUESTION: But “war is potentially possible” is what she said.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The determination that we have is to make sure that the competition does not veer into conflict, and this is also what the world expects of us. They expect us to responsibly manage the relationship with China. This is something that I hear from countries around the world. It’s exactly what President Biden is doing – standing up strongly for our interests and values, working with other countries who are similarly situated to advance them, making sure that we’re keeping the contacts open, keeping the dialogue open.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about Russia. President Biden says he has no plans to speak with Vladimir Putin, but he would if there was an indication he wanted to end the war. The President’s top military advisor, Mark Milley, has said that during this cold period combat will slow and there could be a window for diplomacy. You’re the top diplomat. Do you think there’s value in trying to start talks?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: There’s always value in diplomacy if the parties in question – in this case, Russia – are actually interested in meaningful diplomacy. And what we’ve seen, at least recently, is exactly the contrary. Even as President Zelenskyy from Ukraine came to the G20 countries, the leading economies in the world, and put out a proposal for how to move forward toward peace, what did Vladimir Putin do? He doubled and tripled down on everything he was doing, mobilizing more forces, annexing territory in Ukraine, and now trying to weaponize winter.
He’s been unable to win on the battlefield, so he’s taking – he’s basically turning his ire and his fire on Ukrainian civilians, going after the energy infrastructure, trying to turn off the lights, turn off the heat, turn off the electricity. That’s what’s going on. So unless and until Putin demonstrates that he’s actually interested in meaningful diplomacy, it’s unlikely to go anywhere.
QUESTION: The Biden administration did put an offer on the table when it comes to a prisoner swap with Russia. That was back in July.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: That’s right.
QUESTION: Two weeks ago you said Russia has a failure to seriously negotiate. Has that changed? Is Russia serious now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, as you know, we did put a significant proposal on the table many months ago. And since then, we’ve been engaged repeatedly in any way that we can to try to advance it and to look to see if there are different permutations that could achieve what we’re trying to achieve, which is to get our people home – Brittney Griner, Paul Whelan. We’re engaged in that on a regular basis, and it’s my determination that we bring our people home. We will not stop until we do.
QUESTION: But if these talks are now active and ongoing, as the White House said, that suggests you think there is some reason to believe they’re serious now. You said they weren’t serious a few weeks ago.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: As they say, Margaret, the proof will be in the pudding. We have to see if the engagements that we’ve had, the discussions that we have produce an actual result. That’s the most important thing. But we are not resting on the laurels of having put forward a proposal some months ago. We’ve been actively engaged over these many months to try to move things forward.
QUESTION: The offer, for our viewers, was to release convicted arms dealer, known as the merchant of death, Viktor Bout. There are two Americans being held. You named them right there – Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. Brittney has been in custody for less than a year. Whelan, a former Marine, has been in captivity since 2018. Russia wants a one-for-one swap. How do you decide which American gets left behind?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So I’m not going to get into the details of this. It would be counterproductive for me to get into the specifics of anything that we’re saying or that the Russians are saying and that we’re hearing. My determination is one way or another, as long as it takes, to get people home. My efforts, the efforts of the entire administration, are to bring both Paul and Brittney home.
QUESTION: To bring them both home, but Russia wants a one-for-one swap.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, I’m not going to get into the – into the details of where we are.
QUESTION: Well, that’s what Russian media has been reporting. So in your view, is it all or nothing?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, Russian media – Russian media reports a lot every day that I wouldn’t necessarily take at face value.
QUESTION: So that’s not what the Russians have told you?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, I’m not going to get into the details of it. Look, the other side gets a vote in this. It’s not just what we want; it’s what they’re prepared to do. And this is something that we’re working on almost every day.
QUESTION: Mm-hmm. And I know their families would love them home by Christmas, which is why I’m asking you.
I want to also, before I let you go, ask about Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, but he right now is trying to piece together an alliance to form a government. If he does, he’ll become prime minister again. I know you know this. But he’s been allying himself with figures who have spewed anti-Arab, anti-gay hate as well as discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews. One of them wants to cancel gay pride parades. At least two have called for mass deportations of Palestinians, including the man who may head Israel’s police force. Doesn’t this makeup really jeopardize your intention to have peace in the region?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Margaret, we have worked and will continue to work with Israeli governments of every kind, just as Israeli governments have worked with American administrations of every kind. And we’re determined to do that going forward. Our focus is less on personalities and more on policies. The important thing is what policies does the government pursue. The government, or the incoming government at least, knows our views on a number of these issues. But we have an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. That’s not going to change. And as we always have in the past, we’ll speak directly to each other; we’ll be very clear about what we think and what we believe with our Israeli allies. I’m sure they’ll do the same. And again, we’ll focus on the policies, not the personalities.
QUESTION: But these – this extreme-right-wing government, as it has been described, being put together does complicate your relationship, because then you also have to spend time talking about not canceling gay pride parades, not deporting people, all these policies here. That’s not what you want to focus on, which is settling peace, a two-state solution, which is being rejected by many of these figures.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think we can run and chew gum at the same time.
QUESTION: So you are not concerned about this?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Again, we’re going to focus on what the government does. And as we have with every past Israeli government, and as Israelis have with every past U.S. administration, we’ll work closely together.
QUESTION: Secretary Blinken, you’re a busy man. Thank you for your time this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Margaret. Great to be with you.