Biden Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg found himself in the hot seat across from CNN’s Jake Tapper this past Sunday concerning the controversial handling of the Chinese spy balloon carried out by the administration as the balloon went across the U.S. over the course of a number of days.
Buttigieg issued the statements as part of an interview that aired during CNN’s “State of the Union.” Tapper asked for an explanation as to why the spy balloon had not been taken down close to two weeks prior when it was first found in the air above Alaska.
The response from Buttigieg was to claim that it was just an issue with safety.
“Is it acceptable that there were eight days that the spy balloon was over the United States, then Canada, then again over the United States, from Idaho, Montana, all the way through the Carolinas for day after day?” questioned Tapper.
Buttigieg answered, “In terms of how to handle it, that’s something that was done based on assessment of the risks, making sure that there was no risks that outweighed the risks in terms of any damage that would come, and it was handled appropriately.”
Tapper highlighted that the spy balloon could have been able to acquire intelligence as it made its flight across a large number of both nuclear ballistic missile fields and U.S. military bases.
“When did the Biden administration first learn about this balloon, this spy balloon, entering U.S. airspace?” questioned Tapper again. “We’re told it first did so, it first entered U.S. airspace over Alaska two Saturdays ago. Is that when the Biden administration learned about it?”
Buttigieg did not offer up any sort of answer to the question posed, instead saying, “I really can’t speak to that.”
PETE BUTTIGIEG, U.S. TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY: Glad to be with you.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So, the — this suspected Chinese spy alone entered U.S. airspace eight days ago, two Saturdays ago, in Alaska. Once it became clear that this was not an accident, why did the U.S. not shoot it down then?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, again, the president gave instructions to have it handled, to have it shot down in a way that was safe.
As, you may have seen, there’s reporting now that the debris field that was created by this balloon when it was shot down was about seven miles’ long. And so any time the military is considering an operation like that, they have to consider the safety of the American people.
The president called for this to be dealt with in a way that balanced all of the different risks. That’s exactly what happened. The military did a terrific job. From our perspective in the DOT, of course, our main concern is the safety of the national airspace.
This thing was above where flight operations happen, and so any debris would have passed through that national airspace. Look, the FAA works very closely with the Pentagon, in this case, had to do ground stops on those airports on the Eastern Seaboard, close off some of the airspace to make sure that everything was safe and secure during the operation.
And, as you know, the operation took place without any damage or injury to any American lives or property.
TAPPER: Obviously, that’s great that there were no Americans hurt by this.
But is it acceptable that there were eight days that the spy sat — spy balloon was over the United States, then Canada, then again over the United States, from Idaho, Montana, all the way through the Carolinas for day after day?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, as the U.S. has communicated, it’s not acceptable at all that China sent this object into our airspace.
But in terms of how to handle it, that’s something that was done based on assessment of the risks, making sure that there was no risks that outweighed the risks in terms of any damage that would come, and it was handled appropriately.
TAPPER: So, you say there was a seven-mile debris field over the Atlantic Ocean where it was shot down.
Can you tell us what, if anything, has been able to be recovered? Obviously, there’s a lot of interest in getting the material, getting the debris and being able to conduct intelligence operations of our own, of the United States’ own, against the Chinese for this balloon.
BUTTIGIEG: I really can’t. And anything on the tactics and the timing and the manner of it ultimately, of course, comes to the Pentagon.
I’m just glad that there was no damage or threat to U.S. aviation operations, and that this operation took place, was done in a very effective, excellent way, as you would expect from the American military, without any consequences for Americans on the ground.
TAPPER: So, obviously, there are a lot of concerns being expressed by senators and governors. The balloon may have flown and gathered intelligence over sensitive parts of the United States’ infrastructure.
There’s Malmstrom Air Force Base and nuclear ballistic missile fields in Montana, if you look at the map there, Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Is the assumption that the balloon was able to gather sensitive information and transmit it back to the Chinese government?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, the U.S. has stated that steps were taken to prevent any problems in terms of intelligence collection.
Remember, we are talking about a country that has a space program. So, I don’t know all the ins and outs of what this balloon was doing or what its capabilities were. I do know that, when the president gave the order to have this handled, the military gauged the different risks and the different benefits of different approaches, made the decisions that they did, brought this thing down without incident.
But the presumption has got to be that the Chinese were able to gather intelligence hovering over the United States for day after day, especially over some of these sensitive sites.
BUTTIGIEG: I’m sure there’s a similar presumption about what spy satellites do. That is well outside of my lane. I’m just glad that nobody was hurt as this thing came down.
TAPPER: When did the Biden administration first learn about this balloon, this spy balloon, entering U.S. airspace?
We’re told it first did so, it first entered U.S. airspace over Alaska two Saturdays ago. Is that when the Biden administration learned about it?
BUTTIGIEG: I really can’t speak to that.
What I can speak to is the great cooperation we have between the FAA and the Pentagon to make sure that, when you have a special military operation like what it took to bring down this balloon, that it happens without any threat to American luxury property.
TAPPER: Lastly, on this topic, will there be consequences beyond shooting it down? Will the Chinese government be — sanctions — or sanctioned or penalized in any way?
BUTTIGIEG: Well, the U.S. has made clear this is an unacceptable intrusion into American sovereignty.
And I think you can expect that any further developments will be in — appropriate in response to what happened.
TAPPER: So, President Biden is going to be delivering the State of the Union address on Tuesday. He’s going to have a new person sitting behind him, the new Republican House speaker, Kevin McCarthy.
Anything President Biden wants to get done over the next two years, other than the executive actions, will have to go through Kevin McCarthy. Should we expect the president to lay out a long list of things that are never going to happen under a House Republican leadership, or is it going to be about ways and places where Republicans and Democrats can work together, areas where there are common interests?
BUTTIGIEG: I’m really looking forward to the State of the Union, because, first of all, there are so many accomplishments to talk about. And many of those accomplishments happened on a bipartisan basis.
You remember, there was a lot of almost snickering when the president took office saying that it would be possible to deliver historic infrastructure legislation, historic economic legislation, and do it on a bipartisan basis. But that’s what happened.
And so I think the hand continues to be outstretched to anyone, including anyone across the aisle, who’s prepared to work with us to get things done. But let’s talk about what we have to show for that even just in the two years that the administration has been here, we just saw the latest round of job numbers that came out, record low unemployment, the lowest we have had in more than 50 years.
And, usually, when unemployment is that low, inflation is going up. Right now, inflation is going down, along with unemployment. We’re talking about the most jobs created under any president in this period, matter of fact, the president creating more jobs in two years than you have seen typically in four, and coupled with things that Republicans often say that is very important to them, like deficit reduction, historic reduction of the deficit, to the tune of $1.7 trillion under this president.
You look at what’s been done in two years, and I think the president is going to be going into the State of the Union speech with a context of extraordinary, historic accomplishment.
And with that, I think, is a wind at our back, even with a House that is now, of course, in the hands of the opposite party, to say, OK, what else can we get done for the benefit of the American people, first and foremost, to keep this extraordinary economic growth going, and then to deal with other priorities that matter to people, whether they are in red blue or purple areas?
TAPPER: So, just a few days ago, the chief of staff, Ron Klain, left the White House.
And in his farewell remarks, he referred to President Biden running for reelection in 2024. He will be 81 on Election Day in 2024. Republicans such as Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are already seeming to make a generational argument. Whether that’s aimed at Biden or Trump, it doesn’t really matter. They’re both in advanced years.
You made a similar generational argument when you were running against Joe Biden for president yourself. Are you worried that it could work in 2024?
BUTTIGIEG: Generational arguments can be powerful. As you said, I have used them myself.
The most powerful argument of all is results. And you can’t argue — at least, I would say you can’t argue with a straight face that it isn’t a good thing that we have had 12 million jobs created under this president. And, by the way, a lot of the jobs are in manufacturing.
As somebody who grew up in the Industrial Midwest, it’s been so moving to see hundreds of thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs being created, including in rural areas, small towns in places like Tennessee and Louisiana, and Georgia and Indiana, the kind of growth that benefits the entire American people.
And I think, when you look at that, when you look at what America was up against when President Biden took office, and what has been delivered, again, just in these first two years of this administration, let alone what’s possible as we actually start entering more and more, for example, of the construction phase on the infrastructure law, I think those results are going to continue to accumulate and people will toss whatever argument they can into the mix that they think is going to benefit them the most.
But, at the end of the day, you can’t argue with the extraordinary accomplishments, more than almost any other modern president, that President Biden has achieved, again, under the toughest of circumstances.
TAPPER: Speaking of the Industrial Midwest, you recently moved from a Republican-leaning Industrial Midwest state, Indiana, to a Democratic- leaning Industrial Midwest state, Michigan.
Senator Debbie Stabenow announced that she is not going to be running for reelection. You and your husband and two kids have residence in Michigan. Are you going to be seeking that Senate seat?
BUTTIGIEG: No. But I really…
TAPPER: No, you’re not, period?
BUTTIGIEG: I’m planning to vote in that election as a resident of Michigan.
But, look, the job that I have is, first of all, I think the best job in the federal government. It can be really tough and demanding, with all of the problems that the transportation system has confronted, but also incredibly rewarding.
And I’m proud to be part of an administration that is doing more on transportation than has happened in my lifetime, and then some. Not since the Eisenhower administration have we had this much going on in terms of fixing roads and bridges in this country. Not since Amtrak was created have we done more to improve rail service in this country.
This job is taking 110 percent of my time. And, obviously, I serve at the pleasure of the president. But as long as he is willing to have me continue doing this work, I’m proud to be part of this team.
TAPPER: All right, Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanks for being here this morning.
BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.