White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was vague Friday on whether President Biden — after an initial call with Vladimir Putin on election interference, hacking into the U.S. government and possible bounties on U.S. troops — would similarly confront him on anti-LGBTQ human rights abuses in Russia.
Psaki made the comments in response to a question from the Washington Blade in the aftermath of a report this week that Russia arrested and detained two men perceived as gay and forcibly returned them to Chechnya, where they face persecution.
“Well, the president is not afraid to make clear to President Putin the areas where he has disagreement, areas where he is concerned,” Psaki said, without elaborating on whether that includes anti-LGBTQ abuses.
The incident in Russia was the latest report of the Kremlin essentially giving a wink and nod to Chechnya over anti-LGBTQ human rights abuses at the hands of the government in the semi-autonomous Republic, including reports of concentration camps for gay men. Russia and Chechnya have denied any abuses.
Psaki pointed out Biden’s call with Putin had occurred weeks ago, so “the next contacts with the Russians would be at a lower level either at the State Department or other officials” and deferred to them “for a more up-to-date response on our engagement.”
Asked whether sanctions would be appropriate for anti-LGBTQ abuses in Russia or elsewhere, Psaki declined to comment and cited an ongoing review of Russia’s adverse actions on the world stage.
“There’s a review that’s ongoing about a range of problematic actions that have been taken by the Russians,” Psaki said. “And I’m not going to get ahead of that process.”
That’s consistent with Psaki in the past several weeks citing an ongoing review within the Biden administration, including the poisoning and arrest of Putin rival Alexei Navalny, when asked about possible consequences or sanctions for Russia.
During the Trump administration, the White House response was virtually non-existent at the height of reports of anti-LGBTQ abuses in Chechnya in 2017. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she didn’t know whether the issue came up in a meeting between former President Trump and the Russian ambassador, nor whether Trump had been briefed on the reported atrocities.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price, who previously said the Biden administration was “troubled” by the account in Russia, had no updates when asked by the Blade during the Friday teleconference, saying “you’ve heard me, you’ve heard others speak out forcibly about Russia’s abysmal human rights record.”
Price did note, however, Biden’s presidential memorandum that commits the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad.
“The president, then-candidate Biden committed on the campaign trail to prioritizing the protection and defense of LGBTQI rights around the world, and he made good on that promise early in the administration by issuing the presidential memorandum that you saw several days ago,” he said in response to the Blade’s question. “It is now once again officially the policy of the United States, of the Biden-Harris administration, to stand up for and to defend the rights of LGBTQI people.”
Michael K. Lavers contributed to this story.