Biden takes deliberate approach to foreign calls amid transition

▶ Watch Video: Former White House chief of staff says delayed transition could “put American lives at risk”

President-elect Joe Biden and his team have been extremely cautious about his contact with foreign governments since the election, continuing the careful approach his campaign took. 

Because the Trump State Department has refused to facilitate official contact with the president-elect’s team, foreign governments wishing to place congratulatory calls to Mr. Biden have been reaching out directly to adviser Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, and his team to arrange the phone conversations. The calls are taking place over unsecured telephone lines and without the usual assistance of an official translator or the State Department operations center.

Blinken, who sometimes remains on the line, according to a person familiar with the calls, is widely considered to be a front runner for the position of either secretary of state or national security adviser. 

The requests to offer Mr. Biden a congratulatory call frequently come from ambassadors to the U.S. and are scheduled by a former deputy assistant secretary of state, Amanda Sloat. For some countries the requests are coming from official offices like the United Kingdom’s 10 Downing Street, a person familiar with the calls told CBS News.  

Other requests from smaller nations and less-connected embassies sometimes require multiple emails before they reach a recipient on the transition team who can make the connection to Mr. Biden, this person added.  

Three diplomatic sources have told CBS News that while the Biden team is allowing those congratulatory calls to take place, substance is kept to a minimal level. Any other contact between incoming administration advisers and the foreign governments is being heavily restricted. That means that even allies that the U.S. is treaty-bound to protect are being kept at an arm’s length. 

“The president-elect firmly believes in the principle that there must be only one president at a time guiding our country’s foreign policy and national security,” a transition official told CBS News. 

President Trump has previously accused Democrats of violating the rarely-enforced Logan Act, which bars unauthorized private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. For instance, he has accused former Secretary of State John Kerry of having “many meetings and many phone calls with Iran in violation of the Logan Act.” Kerry has defended the conversations he’s had Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during the Trump administration by saying that it’s common for secretaries of state to continue to meet with foreign counterparts after their tenure has ended.  

This cautiousness in Mr. Biden’s calls contrasts with Mr. Trump’s transition process.  

The Biden team is mindful of what happened at the tail end of the Obama administration in December 2016, when the Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asked Trump son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner and incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn to lobby foreign governments on Israel’s behalf and in contravention of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. Flynn tried and failed to get Russia to delay a vote at the United Nations that was perceived to be damaging to Israel. Flynn and Kushner unsuccessfully lobbied other governments on the issue, too. 

A number of foreign governments who would normally have reached out by now to arrange a congratulatory call have also chosen to keep their distance this time until inauguration or until Mr. Trump concedes. 

In his first four days as president-elect, Mr. Biden has spoken with nine foreign leaders, according to readouts of the calls.  

The president-elect’s latest call came from Pope Francis on Thursday before Mr. Biden, who will be the second-ever Catholic president, traveled to his Delaware beach house. The readout of the call said Biden spoke with His Holiness about “caring for the marginalized and the poor, addressing the crisis of climate change, and welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into our communities.”  

Before he was elected, Mr. Biden previewed his approach to global issues. “Folks, American foreign policy, I think has to be purposeful and inspiring —based on clear goals, driven by sound strategies — not by Twitter tantrum,” he said in Iowa.  

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