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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

On-the-Record Press Gaggle by White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby

Via Teleconference

11:57 A.M. EST
 
MODERATOR:  Hello, everyone.  Thanks so much for joining today’s on-the-record news of day gaggle with White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby.  This call is on the record, and there’s no embargo. 
 
I’ll turn it over to Kirby now to kick us off, and then we’ll take your questions.
 
MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Eduardo.  Thanks, everybody. 
 
As you all know, tomorrow is the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  And as you all heard, the President marked that anniversary in a statement, and in remarks just now, as we mourn the many Ukrainian lives who have been lost in this terrible conflict and to express our resolve to continue to support the people of Ukraine as they defend themselves against this vicious and brutal war Russia started in Ukraine. 
 
As the President said, Vladimir Putin launched the invasion.  He thought he could easily bend the will and break the resolve of a free people and that he could just roll right into a sovereign nation and the world would roll right on over.
 
But two years later, it’s clear that Mr. Putin was absolutely wrong.  The Ukrainian people, with support from the United States and more than 50 other countries around the world as part of a global coalition that we actually built, have resisted Putin’s invasion.  They won the battles for Kyiv, for Kharkiv, for Kherson.  They retook more than 50 percent of the sovereign territory that Russia seized from them in 2022.  And they are continuing to fight bravely right on the battlefield there, from east to the south.
 
But they are being forced to ration ammunition and equipment because Congress has failed to act and provide them with resources that they need to continue this fight.
 
The President has talked about what’s at stake.  The American people and people around the world understand also what’s at stake.  We need the House of Representatives to act.  The President’s commitment to supporting Ukraine and holding Russia accountable is absolutely clear.
 
And at his direction, also today, the United States announced a significant set of new actions to hold Russia accountable for the death of Aleksey Navalny and to mark the two-year anniversary tomorrow of Russia’s unprovoked and unlawful invasion of Ukraine. 
 
We sanctioned over 500 targets to impose additional costs for Russia’s repression, for their human rights abuses, and, of course, for their aggression inside Ukraine.  These include a major cog in Russia’s financial infrastructure; more than two dozen third-country sanctions evaders in Europe, East Asia, Central Asia, and the Middle East; and hundreds of entities in Russia’s military industrial base and other key sectors to cut off funding for Putin’s war machine. 
 
The Department of State, I think as you all know, is also designating three Russian individuals who are connected to Navalny’s imprisonment and the Russian government’s harsh treatment of him.
 
You can expect more from the administration with respect to holding the Kremlin accountable for Mr. Navalny’s death.  Today was just the start. 
 
The Department of Commerce is, of course, also adding more than 90 companies to the entity list for their activities in support of Russia’s defense industrial base and war effort. 
 
So, all told, the Department of Treasury and the Department of State have designated now more than 4,000 entities and individuals pursuant to Russia’s related sanctions authorities over the last two years, the strongest set of sanctions ever imposed on a major economy.  With today’s actions, Commerce has now placed more than 900 parties on our entity list for their role in Putin’s war.  Our actions to ensure Mr. Putin pays an even steeper price for his aggression abroad and repression at home are actually having an impact.  And we will continue to act.
 
We urge, of course, the House Republicans to do the same.  They must come back from this recess, vote — because we know if they put it on the floor to vote, it will pass — vote on the supplemental funding so that we can get the artillery shells, we can get the small arms ammunition, we can get the air defense capabilities into the hands of Ukrainian battlefield commanders and soldiers on the front so that they can continue to defend their country.
 
And with that, I’ll take questions. 
 
MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Our first question will go to the line of Aamer Madhani.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Hi there, John and Eduardo.  Question on Israel.  Is the administration comfortable with the vision that Netanyahu has set out for post-war Gaza?  Does it meet the administration’s basic standards for setting the grounds for a viable long-term peace?
 
And then secondly, also on Israel, does the administration have any reaction to Israel’s plans to move forward with more than 3,000 settlement homes in the West Bank?  Thank you.
 
MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Aamer.  On the first question about the post-conflict plan for Gaza, we’ve seen the reports.  I’m going to defer to Israel to speak to the specificity of these plans. 
 
What I can speak to is our views, and we’ve been clear about what our views are.  We have had constructive discussions with the Israelis on all these issues over recent weeks, where we have, of course, continued to make clear positions, including where those views and our positions diverge from them.  Both Israelis and Palestinians have a right to be secure with equal measures of freedom and dignity. 
 
And again, let me just reiterate some of the top points here. 
 
We believe that whatever post-conflict Gaza looks like, the Palestinian people should have a voice and a vote in what that looks like, through a revitalized Palestinian Authority.  We don’t believe in any reduction of the size of Gaza.  We don’t believe and will continue to be very vocal about the fact that we don’t want to see any forcible displacement of Palestinians outside Gaza. 
 
And, of course, we don’t want to see Gaza dominated or rolled or governed over by Hamas. 
 
Those are very consistent positions.  We still hold to them.  And as I said earlier, we’ve made that consistently clear with our Israeli counterparts. 
 
On your question about settlements — again, seen those reports and, frankly, disappointed in the announcement.  It’s been longstanding U.S. policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations that new settlements are counterproductive to the cause of peace.  Frankly, they’re also inconsistent with international law.  And this administration maintains this firm opposition — our firm opposition to settlement expansion.
 
MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Our next question will go to the line of Barak Ravid.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Thank you, Eduardo.  Thanks, John.  I want to follow up on the previous question, your previous answer that you just said, as Secretary Blinken also said a few minutes ago, that the administration sees settlements as inconsistent with international law. 
 
The previous administration, and especially previous Secretary of State Pompeo, said that the U.S. position is that settlements are not illegal, per se, and a shift at U.S. policy from 1978.  Does your statement right now mean that the Biden administration has overturned this Pompeo doctrine and that it’s not valid and not U.S. policy anymore?
 
The second question: If you have any updates for us about the Paris summit and the hostage negotiations.  Thank you. 
 
MR. KIRBY:  Thanks, Barak.  Look, this isn’t about the previous administration.  We are simply reaffirming the fundamental conclusion that these settlements are inconsistent with international law. 
 
And as I said in my previous answer, I mean, that is a position that’s been consistent over a range of Republican and Democratic administrations.  If there’s an administration that is being inconsistent, it was the previous one. 
 
And then on your question, I don’t really have an update on the hostage deal negotiations and the talks that are happening in Paris, except to say we continue to work at this very, very hard.  We believe that the discussions and negotiations to date have been constructive.  Obviously, they have not been — they have not been conclusive because we don’t have a deal in place. 
 
But the fact that these negotiations are still ongoing and that people are, in fact, sitting together to try to hash it out is a good thing.  And we’re obviously very hopeful that we can come to closure on a deal that would allow for an extended pause; get all the hostages out over time, in stages; and then, of course, be able to increase humanitarian assistance. 
 
So I really don’t have much more to add to that.
 
MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Our next question will go to the line of Nandita Bose.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Thank you, Eduardo.  Appreciate it.  Couple of questions from me, just on the sanctions.  It does not look as if you used the December executive order to target foreign financial firms that helped Russia circumvent sanctions.  Can you explain the decision not to target these foreign financial firms in this action?  I mean, is this something that we should expect to see soon?
 
And then my second question is: Has the President been briefed by Brett McGurk yet?  Could you tell us a little bit more about what’s going on on his trip?  Thank you.
 
MR. KIRBY:  So, on your first question, I think it’s critical that we remember to put it in some perspective.  We would need additional legal authorities to be able to do that.  We continue to be supportive of having those domestic legislative authorities that would give us the flexibility as we continue to discuss with partners and allies how best to cease Russia’s aggression and to assure that Russia pays for the damage that it’s caused to Ukraine. 
 
It is something, as I think you heard from the Deputy Secretary of the Treasury today, that it’s something that we continue to be in touch with on the Hill and with our allies and partners.  There’s several key — several pieces of legislation that have been working their way through Congress; we’re watching that closely. 
 
And because the vast majority of the immobilized sovereign assets aren’t in the U.S., again, I want to stress it’s absolutely key that we take action in concert with our international partners.  And that’s our focus right now. 
 
And then, on a readout from Brett’s trip, as I’m sitting here talking to you, I’m not aware that Brett has provided a full readout of his meetings.  I know they’ve wrapped up.  As I said yesterday, he met with leaders in Egypt, particularly on the intel side, and, of course, with the war cabinet, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with Defense Minister Gallant, with Benny Gantz, and, of course, had a chance to meet with the families of American hostages in Israel yesterday.  But I’m not aware that we’ve received a full readout.
 
Obviously, we always appreciate the opportunity to have those in-person discussions with our counterparts in the region on a range of issues.  And first and foremost, Brett was over there really trying to make more progress on this hostage deal, but he also had a chance to talk to them about their plans and their thinking for operations down in the south near Rafah.
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question, we’ll go to the line of Patsy.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Thanks, Eduardo.  And thanks, Kirby.  I have two questions on Gaza.  I know that you said that Brett has not given a readout yet, but I wonder if the issue of the post-war plans from Netanyahu was discussed in their meetings.  And what do you make of the fact that it was released just as Brett was in the region?
 
And then, another one.  How does the administration feel about Netanyahu using Ramadan as a deadline for the Rafah offensive?  As you — sorry, I’m just running out of breath.  As you would understand, it is received by the Muslim world as inflammatory. 
 
And then, once you’re done with that, I have a question on China.
 
MR. KIRBY:  Okay, well, there’s an awful lot there. 
 
I mean, again, I don’t have more to say about Brett’s trip than what I’ve already told you.  I mean, I think we should wait to talk to Brett when he gets back and to get a fuller sense of his discussions.  There hasn’t been too many conversations we’ve had with the Israelis where we haven’t talked about post-conflict Gaza and what that looks like.  But again, I can’t go into more detail without having a chance to talk to Brett myself on that. 
 
I’ll let the Israelis speak to their plans and intentions to conduct military operations in Rafah.  Again, there’s been no plan presented to us that I’m tracking.  And as of yesterday, I think that that was still accurate based on the preliminary discussions we were able to have with Brett in the region. 
 
So no plan presented for us to look at that I’m aware of in terms of Rafah operations.  And so, therefore, I think, again, I would refer you to the Israelis to speak to whatever deadlines they’re setting here. 
 
I think it’s important to reiterate what I’ve said so many times and including yesterday: We still would not support operations in Rafah no matter what the timescale is.  We wouldn’t support those kinds of operations unless or until the Israelis had properly accounted for the safety and security of the more than 1 million people that are seeking refuge down there. 
 
And again, I’m certainly not aware of any plan that we’ve had a chance to look at and to peruse.  So, again, I put you back to the Israelis to speak to that. 
 
Q    Thank you.  And on China, there’s this Five Eyes report that shows that Chinese hackers are potentially already inside critical U.S. infrastructure.  I think we discussed this about the telecommunication outage yesterday — we discussed in your gaggle yesterday.  At this point, are you 100 percent confident that that outage was not part of a Chinese hacking operation or any other adversarial powers?  And does the administration have a plan should another incident like that — similar incident conducted by a foreign adversary?  Thanks.
 
MR. KIRBY:  The best we know right now, Patsy, is what we’re hearing from the network industry, particularly AT&T, and that they do not believe — they’ve said they don’t believe that this was the result of some sort of cybersecurity incident. 
 
That said, it’s still being investigated, so we need to let the investigators do their work.  We’ve obviously pledged support to that investigation as appropriate.  But right now, the initial indications coming from industry itself is that this was not a cybersecurity incident.
 
MODERATOR:  Next up, we’ll go to the line of Jake Epstein.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Hey, thanks for doing this.  I just want to ask a question about the Houthis.  The U.S. Navy preemptive strikes have really become a daily thing.  We’ve also seen a few interceptions of Iranian weaponry bound for Yemen.  Are you able to speak at all about how much of the Houthi capabilities remain and how often they’re being resupplied?  Is there any intelligence or indication of, you know, how long this might go on for?
 
MR. KIRBY:  Not a whole lot of information on the intelligence that I’m able to offer you here on that one.  And I certainly would, at the outset, point you to DOD to speak to what we call battle damage assessment.  And they give you a sense of what their assessment is of how much the capability has been degraded. 
 
That said, broadly speaking, we do know that the strikes that they have conducted inside Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen have had an impact on degrading capabilities. 
 
While it is certainly true that Houthi attacks continue, what you’re not seeing lately have been those major swarm attacks where, you know, multiple waves of drones and missiles are being shot at multiple ships.  Typically, what you’re seeing now are more one-off attacks, and they have continued to be largely ineffective in terms of stopping ships on their way to prior destinations. 
 
That doesn’t mean that they aren’t still dangerous.  It doesn’t mean that they haven’t scored a hit here now and then.  Of course, they did just the other day; they hit a ship that was ironically bound for Aden to bring grain to the people of Yemen.  And even that attack, which did score a hit on the ship, didn’t stop that ship from still pulling into Yemen and dropping off food for the Yemeni people. 
 
So they’re still dangerous, absolutely.  And we’re taking it seriously.  But we do believe that we have had an impact on not just the degradation of their capabilities, but the way in which they’re using the capabilities they have available to them.  They are not, again, conducting the major sort of drone swarm attacks that they were able to do in the past.
 
As for the flow, we still believe that they continue to be supported by the regime in Tehran, that materials, weapons systems are still being supplied. 
 
As you also know, we have been and continue to conduct interdiction operations at sea, and those continue.
 
So we’ll obviously do everything we can to try to limit and stem that flow, but the flow is ongoing — which is all the more reason why, again, that we need Congress to act and pass the supplemental funding. 
 
In that supplemental funding there’s about two and a half billion dollars for CENTCOM, deliberately set aside for U.S. Central Command, to restock its own inventory of weapons ammunition and to provide the kinds of funding that they need to support their many activities at sea and on the ground — frankly, in the air — in the regions.  And part of that would go a long way to helping us continue to stem these Houthi attacks.
 
MODERATOR:  Next up, we’ll go to the line of DJ Judd.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Hi, this is Priscilla on DJ’s phone.  So, two quick questions.  One on Ukraine.  The President said today in his remarks before governors that top U.S. ally — that he would have a call with top U.S. allies on Ukraine.  What assurances, if any, can he give them in trying — as he himself is trying to get that additional funding from Congress?
 
And then separately, on Israel, the Prime Minister sort of unveiled a plan for the day after in Gaza.  It didn’t appear to include the two-state solution.  So is it a nonstarter already for the White House?
 
MR. KIRBY:  I won’t get ahead of the President.  You heard him talk about this conversation he’s going to have with G7 leaders later today.  And we’ll certainly be able to share more of that with you when it occurs. 
 
He will absolutely make it clear that he’s going to continue to do everything he can to support Ukraine, and that that includes doing everything he can and our team can do to work with members of Congress to get that supplemental funding on the floor, get it voted, get it to his desk.  Because if it reaches his desk as it currently stands, as he said, he’ll sign it. 
 
He cannot control what the Speaker does or doesn’t do.  But we can certainly continue to do everything we can to make clear how important this is, as we’ve been doing just today, and continue to do everything we can to work with members of Congress to move it along.  And that will be his message to his G7 partners — how seriously we take the challenge, how much we know American leadership matters, and how far he’s working to get that supplemental bill passed and on his desk. 
 
On your second question, again, I would refer to the Israeli government to speak to those post-conflict Gaza plans.  All I can do is reiterate what I said before: We’ve been very clear, we’ve been very consistent with our Israeli counterparts about what we believe post-conflict Gaza needs to look like.  And those views haven’t changed.  I described them for you a little bit earlier in the gaggle; I won’t repeat that.  But those are all still valid, in our view. 
 
And we are not going to be bashful about holding to those views, and certainly not going to be bashful about expressing them continually with our Israeli counterparts on the things we agree on, which is Hamas cannot govern Gaza, and the things where we diverge. 
 
And the last thing I’ll say is: On the two-state solution — you’re right, they didn’t say anything — there wasn’t anything in the public rendering of that plan about the two-state solution.  But the President remains fully committed to the promise and the possibility of a two-state solution and how that can benefit the entire region, certainly with Israeli security guaranteed.
 
MODERATOR:  Thanks.  Next up, we’ll go to Jacqui Heinrich.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Thanks, guys.  On these sanctions, why not just go forward and designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism?
 
MR. KIRBY:  I don’t have anything to add in terms of what we haven’t done, Jacqui.  I’d ask you to take a look at what we have done — you know, over 4,000 entities sanctioned, more than 500 just today, and there’s more coming.  We’ll continue to hold Russia accountable. 
 
What we do is we make decisions based on what we think will actually have the right impact and an impact on their ability to continue to fund their war machine and work it.  And we know that it’s had an effect.  I mean, my goodness, Mr. Putin is reaching out to Iran now for potentially close-range ballistic missiles, and he’s been reaching out to North Korea for artillery shells and for ballistic missiles as well.  So we know that these sanctions have had an impact on his ability to conduct military operations. 
 
And what we’re focused on are tools and techniques that we believe actually will have an impact on his economy and on his ability to conduct a war, as well as making sure that whatever we do doesn’t unnecessarily make it hard for humanitarian purposes for the Russian people themselves.
 
MODERATOR:  Next up, we’ll go to the line of Halley Toosi.  You should be able to unmute yourself.
 
Q    Hi, John, everyone.  Thanks for doing this.  Listen, I’m just going to ask you to be very frank and maybe set aside your talking points for a minute on this Israel stuff. 
 
Why should the Israelis care about what the United States keeps saying?  They don’t really seem to be feeling the pressure from your rhetoric.  And I realize that you’re putting these sanctions and making some moves related to the West Bank, including this — you know, saying now that the settlements are illegal — but isn’t that, like, three years late under this administration?  I mean, extremist violence by settlers in the West Bank has been going on for a long time; settlements have been around for a long time. 
 
Why didn’t you guys do this three years ago?  And couldn’t that — if you had acted sooner, couldn’t that have maybe affected the dynamics between the administration and the Israeli government right now, maybe even affected the dynamics of Israeli politics right now to where you wouldn’t have far-right figures in the government to deal with who clearly have so much influence over the government?
 
So, I guess I’m just trying to figure out, like, if I’m Benjamin Netanyahu right now, why should I care what John Kirby or Secretary Blinken or President Biden keep saying to me?
 
MR. KIRBY:  I think — I guess I’m going to challenge the premise of the question just a little bit.  I think the Israeli people absolutely do care about the support of the United States.  I think they absolutely do care about the leadership President Biden has shown and a strong way that we —
 
Q    I’m talking about the Israeli government, not the Israeli people.
 
MR. KIRBY:  Listen, you asked a really long question, so you’re going to have to give me a little latitude to give you a really long answer.  You said you didn’t want to listen to my talking points, so I’m going to try to do the best I can here, but you got to let me finish. 
 
Q    Okay.
 
MR. KIRBY:  I think they do care.  I think they do care about what the United States thinks and does.  And I said it — I think they do care, and they value and they appreciate the leadership that President Biden and this administration have shown when it comes to supporting them in what is truly a right and a responsibility to rid themselves of the threat of Hamas. 
 
I think they also are smart enough to appreciate — and it goes to the government too — smart enough to appreciate that we’re not going to agree with them on every single thing.  We’ve been talking quite a bit here today about things we don’t agree with them on.  We don’t agree about the issue of settlements.  We clearly have differences on what the future of post-conflict Gaza needs to look like.  And, yes, there have been differences over the promise and the possibility of a two-state solution. 
 
But that doesn’t mean that you just clam up and stop talking about it.  It doesn’t mean you just put yourself in a shell and don’t engage with them in meaningful conversations. 
 
And this idea — and I’ve heard it time and time and time again since October 7th — that we’re being ignored or Israel is just walking all over us, or they’re not paying attention to anything that we’re having to say — and I’m telling you, that’s just not the truth.  It just ain’t so. 
 
Now, that doesn’t mean that every single bit of advice and every single perspective we share with them they act on in the way that we would want them to.  There are obvious ways where — we want to see, for instance, a much stronger, devoted effort to reduce civilian casualties.  There have been too many innocent people killed in this conflict.  And too many — obviously, the great majority of those innocents killed have been Palestinians.  And we have been very, very consistent about that. 
 
It doesn’t mean that we’re going to agree with the results.  But I can assure you that we do have the ability to share with them our perspectives and that they have in the past acted in ways consistent with how we have asked them to act — again, not in every way, not in every sense, and maybe not to the degree that we want, but they have.  And I think they appreciate the good faith in which, and the good intentions with which, our perspectives and our support is being shared with them. 
 
So I just push back on the premise that we’re talking to a brick wall.  We’re talking to a friend — a friend, as any friend, you can be honest with, who’s not going to agree with everything that we say.  But the President’s — we believe the President’s approach has had an impact, and we’re going to continue to do that in that way. 
 
Now, look, as to why now after three years, we thought that at this moment it was particularly important to reaffirm our commitment to a two-state solution.  And at this moment, we felt it was particularly important to reaffirm, again, our view of the inconsistency with international law that these settlements present. 
 
And again, we also think that, at this moment, it’s particularly important to work together to build a political horizon for both Israelis and for Palestinians.
 
MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’re coming up at time, so we’ve got time for one more.  We’ll go to the line of Tommy Christopher.  You should be able to unmute yourself
 
Q    Hey, thanks for doing this, Kirby.  The thing I wanted to ask about is this — I don’t know if you guys have seen it; I’m sure you have — seen this sort of stunning filing for detention for Alexander Smirnov.  And there’s a lot of really, like, crazy allegations in there that he had contact with the leader of an assassination squad.  Have you guys seen the filing?  And are you perusing it for — are you concerned about any of this stuff, any of the security risks?
 
MR. KIRBY:  I have not seen the filing.  I don’t know — I can’t speak for the rest of my NSC colleagues, Tommy.  How about if I take that question and we’ll have somebody from the team get back to you.  But I’m not in a position where I can speak intelligently to it.
 
MODERATOR:  Thanks all.  That’s all the time we have today.  We’ll do this again soon.  Enjoy the rest of your day.
 
12:28 P.M. EST

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/press-briefings/2024/02/23/on-the-record-press-gaggle-by-white-house-national-security-communications-advisor-john-kirby-3/

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