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Biden Visits State Department, Discusses Envoy For Yemen

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden and Vice President Harris made a joint trip to the State Department today, vowing that the U.S. will lead through diplomacy.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: America is back. Diplomacy is back. You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it.

KELLY: Biden's aides say this was no accident that he chose to visit the State Department before other national security agencies. He wants to boost morale in an agency that Trump often dismissed as the, quote, "deep State Department."

NPR's Michele Kelemen is at the plain old State Department. She joins us now. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So a morale-boosting visit - that was the goal. How'd it go? How were they received?

KELEMEN: Well, because of the pandemic, there were very few State Department employees who were actually in the room to hear that pep talk. There were screens on the stage, though, of some of the new foreign service officers at home on their computers. And he definitely hit the right notes for a department that's been kind of sidelined and politicized by the Trump administration. He said he has their backs, he welcomes dissenting views, but he wasn't very specific until he went upstairs to the more ornate Ben Franklin Room to deliver an actual foreign policy speech, again, mostly to an empty hall.

KELLY: Well, he did make some news in that mostly empty hall. He called on the coup plotters in Myanmar to, quote, "relinquish power." He also had tough words for Russia. Tell us about that.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, the big theme is about reviving alliances and pursuing diplomacy with adversaries when possible. So when you talk about Russia, you know, already he's extended a key arms control agreement with Russia. But just take a listen at how he described his first phone call with Vladimir Putin.

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BIDEN: I made it clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions - interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens - are over. We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people.

KELEMEN: So he's hinting there, of course, at sanctions. He also threatened sanctions on Myanmar, where the military toppled the civilian government. And he said he's going to work with partners on that, too.

KELLY: Biden also made some news on Yemen. Let's listen to that a bit.

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BIDEN: This war has to end. And to underscore our commitment, we're ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.

KELLY: Michele, what does that mean, ending all American support?

KELEMEN: Well, he's talking about arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has been leading the fight against an Iranian-backed rebel group in Yemen. And this is a conflict that's often called the world's worst humanitarian disaster. Critics have complained that the U.S. arms sales and other support have fueled the conflict. Biden says he wants to focus on diplomacy. He's also going to have a career State Department official, Tim Lenderking, as the envoy on Yemen. Lenderking is someone with a lot of experience in the region.

KELLY: So fair to say a clear theme emerging already here of reversing Trump policies.

KELEMEN: In some areas, yes - for instance, on refugees. The Trump administration capped the number of refugees to 15,000 this year. That's an historic low. Biden says his goal is to get to 125,000. And he said he's going to start rebuilding the program at the State Department. He also says he wants U.S. diplomats to do more to promote LGBTQI rights around the world, and he signed a memorandum about that today.

KELLY: That is NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen at the State Department. Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.