Republicans paint Biden as soft on China as surveillance balloon soars over US

ByByLibby Cathey ABCNews logo
Friday, February 3, 2023
US may wait to shoot Chinese spy balloon down over the Atlantic
As the Chinese spy balloon appears to be heading toward North Carolina, the current thinking is to wait until it is over the Atlantic Ocean to then try to shoot it down and retriev

WASHINGTON -- As what U.S. officials call a massive surveillance balloon believed to be from China continued to fly over the continental United States, President Joe Biden faced growing pressure Friday to address the situation as Republicans said he needed to take stronger action against Beijing.

In his first chance to comment Friday, after touting the January jobs report, he instead told reporters he wouldn't answer questions on anything but the economy.

And when leaving the White House and Joint Base Andrews for Philadelphia to give a speech on infrastructure, again, Biden ignored reporters' shouted questions.

While Biden has, so far, decided against ordering military action, a U.S. official said late Thursday that the U.S. was closely monitoring the situation and "keeping all options open." It was left to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take the lead on the matter Friday when speaking at the State Department.

Blinken said he told his Chinese counterpart that morning, "in light of China's unacceptable action, I am postponing my planned travel this weekend in China."

Chinese balloon live updates: As it moves east, US 'reviewing options'

"We concluded that conditions were not conducive for a constructive visit at this time," Blinken told reporters. "I made clear that the presence of the surveillance balloon in U.S. airspace is a clear violation of US sovereignty and international law -- that it's an irresponsible act and that the PRC's decision to take this action on the eve of my planned visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have."

The comments come as a growing number of Republicans called on the administration to take more action. Pentagon officials confirmed in a briefing Friday that the balloon was maneuverable and changing course.

Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as interior secretary under former President Donald Trump, called for the balloon to be shot down, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., saying Trump would have done so already. But government officials have said they are concerned doing so would pose a risk to civilians below.

"We continue to assess and make appropriate decisions based on how we are going to address what we perceive as a potential threat," said Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder. "The safety and security of the American people is paramount. At this time we assess it does not pose a physical threat to people on the ground."

Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke, who served as interior secretary under former President Donald Trump, called for the balloon to be shot down.
Carolyn Kaster - U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan 3, 2023.

Still, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted Friday, "It was a mistake to not shoot down that Chinese spy balloon when it was over a sparsely populated area. This is not some hot air balloon, it has a large payload of sensors roughly the size of two city buses & the ability to maneuver independently."

Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton tweeted for Biden to "stop coddling and appeasing the Chinese communists." He also asked whether the ballon was detected over Alaskan airspace as questions swirl.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney added a warning against Tik Tok, too: "A big Chinese balloon in the sky and millions of Chinese TikTok balloons on our phones. Let's shut them all down."

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, has called for the congressional "Gang of Eight" top members to be briefed. Such a meeting would bring together the top House and Senate leaders and the heads of the intelligence committees in each chamber.

"China's brazen disregard for U.S. sovereignty is a destabilizing action that must be addressed, and President Biden cannot be silent," McCarthy tweeted.

Staff to the so-called "Gang of Eight" received a classified briefing on the balloon by the administration Thursday afternoon, according to multiple congressional officials.

In this screen grab from a video, a balloon is shown floating over Billings, Montana, on Feb. 1, 2023.
Chase Doak

The criticism comes as newly-empowered House Republicans have formed a House Select Committee on China to investigate threats from the foreign power as the GOP argues the administration has not done enough on its own.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said earlier Friday that the balloon is civilian in nature and used for scientific research, "mainly meteorological."

"The airship is from China," the foreign ministry said. "Affected by the Westerlies and with limited self-steering capability, the airship deviated far from its planned course. The Chinese side regrets the unintended entry of the airship into US airspace due to force majeure."

"Force majeure" refers to something that is done beyond the control of the government.

ABC News' Luis Martinez, Shannon Crawford, Gabe Ferris and Karson Yiu contributed to this report.