Powell, who served as secretary of State during former President George W. Bush’s first term, died Monday at 84 from complications related to COVID-19, his family announced. He was fully vaccinated, but in recent years had been treated for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, longtime aide Peggy Cifrino told The Associated Press.
“Secretary Powell was beloved here at the State Department, at C Street, and at our embassies and consulates around the world,” Blinken said Monday. “He gave the State Department the very best of his leadership, his experience, his patriotism—he gave us his decency, and the State Department loved him for it.”
Blinken said under Powell’s leadership, the career workforce was “empowered.”
“Secretary Powell trusted the career workforce here. He empowered them,” Blinken recalled. “He didn’t bother with formalities and he wasn’t overly concerned with hierarchy, either. He wanted to hear from everyone. He walked around the building, dropping into offices unannounced, asking what people needed, making sure they knew he was counting on them.”
“Secretary Powell was simply and completely a leader, and he knew how to build a strong and united team,” Blinken continued. “He treated people the way he expected them to treat each other, and he made sure that they knew he would always have their back.”
He added: “The result was that his people would walk through walls for him.”
Blinken said that with Powell’s passing Monday morning, a “grateful nation observes the end of a distinguished career and celebrates 35 years of service and victory.”
“A victory for the military and political leaders who continue to elevate him based on their complete confidence and sheer respect,” Blinken said. “A victory for a nation well served and in a larger sense, a victory for the American dream, for the principle that in our nation, people can rise as far as their talent, their capacities, their dreams and their discipline will carry them.”
Blinken went on to detail Powell’s career, serving in the U.S. Army; being appointed as National Security Adviser; and then as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before his work at the State Department.
“As is probably evident by now, I was a huge admirer of Secretary Powell — I always will be,” Blinken said, adding that Powell was “very generous with me this past Fourth of July.”
Blinken said he and Powell “spent a few precious hours together talking about the State Department discussing all the challenges we’re confronting around the world.”
“Two things were clear—Secretary Powell’s depth of knowledge about world events was unmatched, and he loved the State Department and wanted it to thrive,” Blinken said.
Blinken said it is a “sad day for us” at the State Department, and sent thoughts to Powell’s family and “everyone who loved him.”
“Colin Powell dedicated his extraordinary life to public service because he never stopped believing in America, and we believe in America in no small part because it helped produce someone like Colin Powell,” Blinken said.
Powell, the first Black secretary of state, served in Bush’s Cabinet from 2001-2005, including during the tumultuous years following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The State Department described Powell, a Republican, as being “one of the foremost supporters” of taking “swift military action” against al Qaeda. Powell demanded “immediate” cooperation from Afghanistan and Pakistan in the U.S. effort to hunt down those responsible for the attacks.
By 2003, when the Bush administration’s focus had expanded to Iraq, Powell pushed for United Nations inspectors to investigate the claims that Saddam Hussein was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. Powell presented intelligence to the U.N. in February 2003 that supported the administration’s claim that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction and had the capabilities of producing more. In 2004, though, the State Department said some of the intelligence he presented was “found to be erroneous.” Powell, though, according to the State Department, felt military action should not begin “until a large coalition of allies and a long-term occupation plan were in place.” Despite his advice, the administration moved toward preemptive military action against Iraq.
While the majority of his term as secretary of state was focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, the State Department said Powell pursued other areas of U.S. foreign policy such as strengthening bilateral relationships with Russia and China—including his efforts to manage the U.S. withdrawal from the U.S.-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, and the signing of the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions in May 2002.
Powell also pushed for international cooperation for North Korea and Iran to halt their nuclear weapons program. Under his leadership, the Bush administration also achieved nonproliferation success in Libya, when it agreed to give up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, according to the State Department.
Powell, during his time at the State Department, also pushed the Bush administration to increase its commitment to the international fight against AIDS, and helped to secure additional funding for that effort.
Powell returned to his work with America’s Promise Alliance after stepping down from Bush’s cabinet in 2005. Powell, during his retirement, also served on the boards of directors for the Council on Foreign relations, the Eisenhower Fellowship Program, and the Powell Center at the City College of New York.
In 2020, Powell spoke at the Democratic National Convention, and offered a full endorsement of Joe Biden for president of the United States.
“Today, we are a country divided, and we have a president doing everything in his power to make it that way and keep us that way,” Powell said in a pre-taped speech for the convention in August 2020. “What a difference it will make to have a president who unites us, who restores our strength and our soul.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.