Jul 25, 2023

Department of State Daily Press Briefing 7/24/23 Transcript

Department of State Daily Press Briefing 7/24/23 Transcript
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Department of State Daily Press Briefing 7/24/23. Read the transcript here.

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Matt (00:02):

Afternoon, everyone. Happy Monday.

No one is as happy about Monday as I am, I guess. Let me start with a few comments. Following its callous suspension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Russia is now subjecting the citizens of a Odessa to their most intense series of barrages since the start of this war. Excuse me. Missile and drone strikes that began last week after Russia withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, have killed and injured scores of civilians, devastated UNESCO listed heritage sites, including the historic Orthodox transfiguration cathedral, and destroyed port infrastructure and grain stockpiles that could have fed hundreds of thousands around the world. Over the weekend, we saw appalling images of burning churches and flattened residential buildings. Today, Russia attacked grain warehouses on the Danube River. Now a vital export route for grain since Russia has effectively blocked Black Sea ports. The United States strongly condemns Russia’s escalatory attacks.

The consequences for the rest of the world of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have never been more clear. These vicious strikes further illustrate Russia’s willingness to use food as a weapon in its illegal war against Ukraine. The Kremlin wants to deprive Ukraine’s economy of a major source of income without regard for needy people across the globe who will feel the consequences and be forced to pay higher prices for food. The United States and our allies and partners will not waiver in our support for Ukraine as it defends itself and fights to reclaim its sovereign territory. We will continue to support Ukrainians as they work to recover and rebuild, as you saw from the nearly $1 billion in assistance announced during administrator powers travel to Odessa and Kyiv last week.

While we seek to help Ukraine rebuild and find alternate ways to continue its grain exports to the world, the Kremlin remains determined to cause destruction. Until Russia withdraws its forces and demonstrates that it has an interest in peace, it is our shared responsibility to demand that the Kremlin ceases its attacks on Ukraine and its people to help Ukraine, defend its territory and protect its people, and to hold Russia to account for the suffering it chooses to inflict on so many. Matt?

Matt (02:22):

Oh, I thought you said you had a couple.

Matt (02:23):

Couple comments, not a couple of sets of comments.

Matt (02:25):

Okay. All right. Well listen, I’m sure we’ll get back to Ukraine in a second, but I just want to start to see if we can clear up what’s going on with Private Travis in North Korea. Has there been any contact between either the US or the UN command and North Korea about his situation?

Matt (02:46):

Let me take them maybe in reverse order of the way you asked them. I saw the reports about contact between the UN command and North Korea. It is my understanding that there have been no new communications since last week, communications that happened in the early days. I think the reports may have resulted from a misinterpretation of the UN command’s original statement, but I will leave it to them to discuss the details of that. But I’m not aware of any new communications other than those that happened in the very early hours or early days after he went across the border.

Matt (03:18):

Okay, and just on that, and those were all one way, right? Those were from the UN command or the US to the North Koreans. In other words, there has been, you’re not aware of any response to anyone.

Matt (03:33):

On the UN side, my understanding is that the North Koreans acknowledge they received the message. I’ll let you decide whether that constitutes an actual response or not. They acknowledged that they received the message. On our side, as I said, last week, we have a number of channels through which we’re able to send messages to them. We’ve delivered the messages to North Korea, but we have, as yet, not received a response.

Matt (03:55):

And is that just the civilian side or is that also, your understanding, of the military?

Matt (04:01):

My understanding is both sides, we haven’t received any response.

Matt (04:05):

All right.

Matt (04:07):

Janet, go ahead.

Janet (04:07):

Thank you. After that and those Korean issues, between Union Command and North Korea conversations, can you tell what did North Korea demand from the US in return to repatriations, Private Keane?

Matt (04:27):

We have not had any substantive communications with North Korea. We have made outreach to North Korea to let them know that we wanted to ascertain the whereabouts of Private Keane. We wanted information about his safety, but we have not received any response from them at all.

Janet (04:44):

Do US pay North Korea for Keane if he come back home.

Matt (04:49):

I don’t have any updates. I think it would be irresponsible for me to speculate about what might happen down the road when we have not yet even learned of his whereabouts, of his status, of his safety, or heard really any substantive response from the North Korean side.

Janet (05:05):

[inaudible 00:05:06] Last weekend, North Korea fired the cruise missile capable of carrying a tactical nuclear one had. Also, another ballistic missile fire that was this morning. How do you respond to North Korea’s series of provocations on the seventieth anniversary of amnesty?

Matt (05:25):

We would, once again, urge the DPRK to refrain from escalatory actions. We remain committed to diplomacy and reiterate our interest in dialogue with North Korea without preconditions, but as is the case in our communications. With respect to Private Keane, we have made our position clear and have not received any kind of substantive response from North Korea.

Janet (05:53):

Thank you.

Matt (05:54):

Thank you.

Speaker 2 (05:55):

Thank you. Can we stay in North Korea? So earlier today, North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the sea of its east coast. Do you have anything on that?

Matt (06:05):

Yeah, I’ve seen the reports. I will say that, once again, as happened as we said with respect to previous ballistic missile launches by North Korea, those launches are in violation of multiple UN security council resolutions, and we condemned them and would urge North Korea to refrain from such escalatory actions.

Speaker 2 (06:24):

Can you provide more detail on the upcoming US Japan South Korea Leaders Summit next month?

Matt (06:31):

I do not have any announcements in that regard.

Speaker 2 (06:34):

Secretary Scherman spoke to her counterparts on the [inaudible 00:06:39] partnership and then, in the readout that you issued earlier today, you said that those officials will all come meet in Summit. Is it going to be held next month, August 18 in Kent, [inaudible 00:06:56]?

Matt (06:55):

I’m just not in a position to make any announcements around details at this point.

Janet (07:00):

You said that you didn’t take care of these issues, North Korea’s missile violations, but UN doesn’t do anything since from long time. They just give up because of China and Russia use veto actions. So how did you expect to even security council take care of these issues?

Matt (07:27):

You were right about the makeup of the UN Security Council. All I will say is that we will continue to work with our partners in the region as we have with South Korea and Japan. We will continue to urge the DPRK to refrain from escalatory action. We would certainly welcome China participating as a positive force in this regard. We’ve not seen that for some time. We would welcome a change of heart on their mind, and in the meantime, we’ll continue to make our policy clear and urge the DPRK to refrain from escalatory actions.

Janet (07:56):

Matt is… Sorry.

Matt (07:58):

People aren’t raising their hands anymore? Go ahead. Last one, then I’m going to move on.

Speaker 2 (08:03):

Is this still yours estimation that North Korea will conduct it’s seventh nuclear test soon, and how concerned is the United States?

Matt (08:13):

We would obviously be concerned with any nuclear test, but I don’t want to make any assessments from here. Alex, go ahead. Welcome back, Alex.

Alex (08:19):

Thanks so much. I assume that means I deserve multiple questions.

Matt (08:22):

You asked multiple questions whether you deserve them or not, so I don’t know if there’s much I can do about it.

Alex (08:27):

Thanks so much. The readout of the secretary’s call to Romanian colleague did not mention overnight Russia’s strike near Romania, which happened to be the first one near the territory since the war began. What is your level of concern? And what steps are you guys going to take to post up the security in the region?

Matt (08:50):

Well, I will say that, since the outset of this conflict, we have made clear one principle with respect to our NATO partners and we’ll continue to reiterate and that is that we will defend every inch of NATO territory. The secretary made that clear in his call with the Romanian foreign minister today. The president has made that clear on a number of occasions and it continues to be one of our fundamental bedrock principles.

Alex (09:12):

Thank you. I want to shift to something else we discussed two Wednesdays ago offsite with you, which about American companies operating in Russia. You did come up with sanctions last week, but you’re still lacking with business advisory to America companies. There are more than, well, the president, 600 companies left, but because, contradicts against what we have heard from this podium in February, that a thousand companies have left. There’re compelling reports indicating that most of them have changed their promises and stayed there. They profited about 40 million in Russia and pay taxes, aka supported Putin’s brutal war efforts. What’s [inaudible 00:09:59] going to take to prevent this from happening?

Matt (10:01):

I won’t preview any steps that we may or may not take down the road. That’s true with respect to all of our sanctions actions or enforcement actions, but I will make clear as we have that we would oppose any company, any individual that helps the Russian Federation profit off of this war or takes actions that would benefit the Russian government’s prosecution of this war. We even posed a number of sanctions in that regard. We continue to impose new sanctions, as you’ve said, as recently as last week, and we’ll continue to look for ways to tighten the enforcement of those sanctions.

Alex (10:34):

Matt, today marks 17 months of this brutal war. You have no problem that there are still American companies are operating in Russia, earning money and funding Putin’s war efforts.

Matt (10:45):

I don’t have anything to add other than what I just said.

Alex (10:48):

Please come back to me later, I want to be respectful to my colleagues.

Speaker 1 (10:52):

Staying on Russia and Ukraine, I wanted just to come back to the call, the secretary’s call with his Romanian counterpart.

Speaker 1 (11:00):

Did they kind of agree or just have any specific discussions about these attacks on the Danube? You know this is not just on the issue of Article 5, as you said, but this is obviously very close to the border. And as you said, is it potentially interrupting grain export routes from Ukraine? So is there a specific message that the secretary and the Romanian counterpart agreed and that you want to sort of convey to the Russians?

Matt (11:34):

They did discuss the issue as well as the… excuse me, getting broader and black together… the broader Black Sea Grain Initiative. And the secretary made clear that he would welcome Romania’s support, as he would welcome the support of all of our allies and partners in the region, in finding ways to restart the Black Sea Grain Initiative. As you know, President Erdogan said on Friday that he looked to have further discussions with President Putin to urge him to rejoin the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

We obviously would be hopeful that there would be some success out of those discussions, but we’re also mindful of the series of events since last week, when Russia pulled out of the initiative that I outlined in my opening comments. Four or five days of repeated attacks on Odesa, Russia staging, or I should say, Russia holding a practice assault on a mock ship in the Black Sea last week. We’ve had information to suggest that they may be preparing a false flag operation. We believe they may be preparing a false flag operation. Their threatening of ships operating in international waters. And then just today, this attack on the Danube.

So we will continue to consult with our partners in the region on how we might find alternative ways to get grain out of Ukraine. But recognizing that there is no perfect solution that would allow Ukraine to ship the same amount of grain as it did under the Black Sea Grain Initiative without the reopening of those sea lanes. There just simply isn’t a way to get enough grain out through the Danube ports or over land or any other means.

Speaker 1 (13:08):

Right. So a separate… Sorry.

Speaker 3 (13:10):

Well, I just… Are you suggesting that these attacks on the Danube were a false flag operation?

Matt (13:15):

No, no, that’s not what I… No, no, no. I was going through, we believe there may be a false flag operation, but that’s not what this was, this was an attack.

Speaker 3 (13:21):

Have there been any?

Matt (13:22):

No. No. There have been attacks by Russians. I’m discussing attacks.

Speaker 3 (13:26):

Are you aware of there being any false flag attacks?

Matt (13:29):

No. We have information that leads us to believe Russia may conduct a false flag attack that they blame on the Ukrainians.

Speaker 3 (13:37):

No, they had a long exchange with your predecessor in Europe about [inaudible 00:13:41].

Matt (13:40):

I remember that well.

Speaker 3 (13:41):

Have you seen any evidence that they have done?

Matt (13:43):

They have not. We’re concerned they may in the future.

Speaker 3 (13:47):

Okay. Well, you could be concerned about a lot of things.

Matt (13:52):

We are, like we…

Speaker 3 (13:54):

Can you explain why you’re concerned that there might be such a… I’m not saying there won’t be, I just have to know why.

Matt (14:01):

We have information that leads us to believe they may, and I’m not at liberty to say any more than that. I am unable to get further into the information for reasons I think you understand. We have declassified certain intelligence and made it public. I will say, I understand, I really don’t want to re-litigate things from a year ago.

Speaker 3 (14:20):

No, I don’t want to do that either-

Matt (14:21):

But I will say our…

Speaker 3 (14:22):

… but you keep saying this. I mean this is by my count, at least the fourth or fifth time since this whole thing began, or even before it began, that you guys say that the Russians are going to do these false flag attacks.

Matt (14:35):

We did see false flag attacks in the opening… There were some in the opening days of the war, going back a year, that we predicted and it did come true. I think our track record of declassifying information about what Russia might do has been pretty good.

Speaker 3 (14:48):

I’m not trying to defend Russia or anything. I’m just trying to figure out why you guys keep coming out and saying this stuff and then it doesn’t even happen.

Matt (14:56):

I think a number of… First of all, a number of things that we have said would happen, Russia in fact did do. If you go back and look at the secretary’s remarks to the-

Speaker 3 (15:04):

Well, the invasion of Ukraine was not a false flag agenda. And [inaudible 00:15:07].

Matt (15:06):

No. But there were… Again, we are re-litigating, and it’s not ancient history, it’s a year ago.

Speaker 3 (15:14):

No, we’re not. We’re not. I mean that’s not a false flag attack.

Speaker 1 (15:15):

It was an attack on a vehicle in Donetsk.

Matt (15:17):

Donetsk, yeah, that’s what I was referring to. There were false flag attacks that we predicted that did happen in the opening days of the war.

Speaker 1 (15:25):

Sorry, just the other aspects of Russia that I wanted to ask you about. There’s some reporting by Politico about the Chinese providing some drones, I think, and some ballistic armor, lots of material. But I’m wondering whether, to the Russians, as you guys have been warning against it, but I guess you’ve seen that, does that amount to what you’ve been warning them not to do?

Matt (15:51):

A few things about that. Number one, we have focused our sanctions on lethal assistance. We do continue to monitor whether there are additional sanctions that we ought to impose, as well as whether there are companies that are violating our sanctions.

I’m not going to comment with respect to the specific report in Politico because the only information I have is what’s contained in the article, which isn’t to say I doubt it, but we would obviously have to conduct our own assessment before making any kind of determination about whether an activity was a sanctions violation or whether we needed to impose additional sanctions in response to some activity that we’ve seen.

I will say, one of the things that we made clear, that Secretary Blinken made clear, to Chinese government officials when we were in Beijing was that, one, we were monitoring the issue closely and would very much oppose any action on the government side, the Chinese government transferring lethal assistance to Russia. And that number two, on the private sector side, it was an issue where we also had serious concerns. We had seen companies providing assistance to Russia in the past and had sanctioned those companies and that we would continue to monitor it closely and take actions against private Chinese companies when we saw such sanctional activity.

Speaker 1 (17:05):

And from the government perspective, it’s still the case that you haven’t seen anything that sort of oversteps that line?

Matt (17:11):

That’s correct. That’s correct. Yeah, go ahead.

Speaker 4 (17:13):

Thank you, Matt. CENTCOM chief, General Michael Kurilla, just had a meeting with Pakistani army chief and the press release says that the US recognized continued efforts and stability in the region. So I just have three questions, small one related to this. Was the trip planned or did it just happen? Second is that, Pakistan is not getting any… has Pakistan gotten any payments since Afghan withdrawal for any defense related cooperation? And lastly, did the CENTCOM chief go to smoothen up things with regard to Mr. Donald Lu?

Matt (17:55):

I would say…

Speaker 4 (17:55):

Please don’t start with Donald Lu, just start with the first.

Matt (17:57):

Yeah, I wondered if you would get there. You always do that. I would refer you, with respect to all three of those questions, to my colleagues at the Pentagon. That obviously involves a trip by a senior US military official. They have a daily briefing over there. And I would encourage you to ask those questions to them.

Speaker 4 (18:20):

I’m asking you because you are part in the story, that Matthew Miller had earlier last week mentioned, that urged the Afghan authorities to not use their land for security. So I was just wondering, is the State Department aware of the trip or no?

Matt (18:35):

We’re aware of the trip, but for any detailed comment, I would refer you to the Pentagon.

Speaker 4 (18:37):

Just last question. I know we both are sick of the same thing, but it’s just both of our job is such that. So today the former foreign minister of Pakistan, while speaking to media after a month of detention and back and forth, he also came out and he said the cipher was reality. The US officials was giving a demarche. So now you have a former prime minister, the military chiefs was sitting. So is the responsibility going on President Biden wanting to change the regime in Pakistan or the secretary? I mean, somebody has to take at least…

Matt (19:14):

I feel like I need to bring just a sign that I can hold up in response to this question to say that that allegation is not true. I don’t know how many times I can say it. I will say, as I’ve said before, that the United States does not have a position on one political candidate or party versus another in Pakistan or in any other country. Go ahead.

Speaker 5 (19:33):

Thank you. Last week, you sanctioned 14 Iraqi bankers over money laundering but you haven’t announced that this sanctions on Iraq and there are some media, Iraqi media, says that the US is going to impose more sanctions on Iraqi banks. Could you speak more on this new sanctions on Iraq?

Matt (19:52):

No, I would never preview any sanctions actions, whether they’re going to happen or not from here.

Speaker 5 (19:57):

What about last week’s sanction on Iraq? You sanctioned 14th banks in Iraq, but you haven’t announced it yet?

Matt (20:03):

I don’t have any further comment.

Speaker 5 (20:05):

Okay. One question. Last Friday, Minister Safeen Dizayee, head of department of Foreign Relations of the Kurdistan region was here. He met some people at the State Department, but he didn’t met with Secretary Blinken, and we haven’t seen any Kurdish leaders in Washington for a long time. Could you speak about your current relation with the Kurdistan region and have you put the Kurds into the backseat in your foreign policy?

Matt (20:27):

Absolutely not. It continues to be an issue on which we are very much engaged. We’ve had a number of conversations, both with Kurdish leaders and with other leaders in the region, about it. And it is something we’ll continue to stay focused on.

Speaker 5 (20:39):

And last question. One last question. The Kurdistan region, currently faced a big challenge with providing and with paying the monthly salary to their public servants. And this is due to the KRG oil stoppage and also disputes with revenue sharing with Baghdad. How does the US views this disputes between Erbil and Baghdad?

Matt (20:57):

Yeah, I’ll have to take that one back. Go on.

Speaker 6 (20:59):

On Israel, just to get your reaction quickly to the Knesset’s vote today. And secondly, also in Israel, but slightly different. Could you explain why under the US waiver, MOU, with Israel that Gazan Americans have been excluded?

Matt (21:15):

Let me take that one first. I will say that it is our understanding and our expectation that the visa waiver program will apply to all Americans, including Americans in Gaza. We believe that Israel is going to update its policies, that the regulations that they rolled out last month, or last week I should say, will be updated in the coming weeks. And it is our expectation that it’ll apply to all Americans.

Now, there may be slightly different procedures for Americans who live in Gaza because of the different security situation that exists there, but we expect the program to apply to all Americans and we’ll be monitoring Israel’s compliance with that quite closely.

With respect to the vote in the Knesset today, as we’ve said before, as a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden

Matt (22:00):

Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that major changes in a democracy, if they’re going to be enduring, must have as broad a consensus as possible. It was unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority. We understand talks are ongoing and likely to continue over the coming weeks and months to forge a broader compromise even with the Knesset in recess. And we will continue to support the efforts of President Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue.

Speaker 7 (22:31):

Israel follow up.

Matt (22:32):

Go ahead. But I will say I do always appreciate the yelling the question before I’ve called on you is more likely to have me call on someone else, but go ahead for today.

Speaker 7 (22:42):

Okay. Well anyway. While the State Department has indeed called on the Palestinian authority to stop payments for murder of Jews in accordance with the Taylor Force Act, why will the State Department not demand that the Palestinian Authority repeal the law? And further here, will they not demand that the Palestinian authority repeal the law that mandates a salary for life for anyone who murders a Jew and not making repeal this law a condition for renewed USAID to the Palestinian authority. And I have a followup.

Matt (23:15):

I will say that we have made very clear that we oppose escalatory actions, that we oppose violence against anyone, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian. Israel has a right to defend itself.

Speaker 7 (23:28):

Okay. The Jerusalem Post reports on July 15th of this year that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is seeking to form a unity government with Hamas. Being that Hamas is a genocidal terrorist organization, what is your elaborated response to the Palestinian Arab leadership that wants to embrace Hamas?

Matt (23:44):

We have made quite clear our feelings about Hamas as a designated terrorist organization. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that any further. Go ahead.

Speaker 8 (23:51):

Thank you Matt. On Cambodian election, you say Sunday is neither free nor fair, and you impose visa’s restrictions. So would you please little bit elaborate that who will be under this visa restriction? Obviously it was not in election, it is sort of selection.

Matt (24:08):

Obviously the visa, I didn’t understand that?

Speaker 8 (24:09):

So you [inaudible 00:24:12]-

Matt (24:12):

I heard the first part, yeah, I just didn’t catch the last sentence.

Speaker 8 (24:16):

… on Cambodia, so who will be the under this visa restriction, the Cambodian current regime leadership?

Matt (24:22):

We do not make those designations public. We make public that we have have designated officials, but we do not make the names public as a matter of policy.

Speaker 8 (24:30):

Okay. On Bangladesh, if I may. Countrywide messy protest going on in Bangladesh, regime is attacking on opposition peaceful rallies where tens of thousands of people demanding ruling Prime Minister resignation. Internet shut down in opposition rallies including cellphone checking, arrest and filing thousands cases against opposition leaders and workers, even deceased opposition leaders are not spared by the recurrent regime. So will US imply the visa restriction, those who are undermining democratic process and human rights in Bangladesh?

Matt (25:04):

So as a policy, we don’t preview visa restrictions any more than we preview any other sanctions actions, as I’ve said in response to questions about other sanction authorities previously in this briefing. But as Secretary Blinken made clear when he issued the policy on May 24th, these visa restrictions would apply to anyone who undermines the democratic election process in Bangladesh. Actions that constitute undermining the democratic election process include vote rigging, voter intimidation, the use of violence to prevent people from exercising their rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and the use of measures designed to prevent political parties, voters, civil society or the media from disseminating their views.

Speaker 8 (25:41):

Yeah. In Bangladesh human rights defenders are being subject to threats, harassment, and prosecution from state and non-state actors. According to recent reports of the Center for Governance Studies, 86% human rights defenders face various obstructions, obstacles. Funds control is another weapon in government hands as the regulatory body, NG affairs [inaudible 00:26:04] under prime Minister’s office. So many international aid recipients organization have been affected. Right? Workers are not getting their paychecks, as I heard from the ground. Do you think it is concerning for the US as the largest development partner of Bangladesh?

Matt (26:19):

I would say that we as a general rule, support everyone’s ability to freely exercise their role in a democratic society. We oppose any restrictions on human rights and I don’t have any further specific comment than that. Yeah, go ahead.

Speaker 1 (26:33):

Yeah. Just to follow up on the Cambodia statement that you put out yesterday. You said there’s a pause on certain foreign assistance programs. Can you specify which programs or at least what kind of areas they’re in?

Matt (26:46):

I can’t detail the specific programs. We have communicated that directly to the Cambodian government, but I can say the amount total is $18 million in this fiscal year and the restrictions will extend into future fiscal years as well.

Speaker 1 (27:00):

18, 1-8?

Matt (27:01):

1-8. Yes. It’s a serious amount of money both this year and in coming fiscal years.

Speaker 1 (27:05):

And any particular areas there… Obviously there’s like different humanitarian assistance, assistance that you give to NGOs and those kind of things. Are there any specific sectors?

Matt (27:19):

I don’t have any further details about them, but we can follow up afterwards. Maybe USAID can provide further details.

Speaker 1 (27:24):

Sure. And another follow up. Since you’ve sort of said these elections were neither free or fair, Prime Minister Hun Sen has said his son Hun Manet is likely to take power in coming or coming weeks I think. Do you have a specific response to that potential development?

Matt (27:42):

Only that we were troubled that the elections themselves were neither free or fair, as we’ve said. That Cambodian authorities engage in a pattern of threats and harassment against the political opposition throughout the electoral process. Denied the Cambodian people a voice and choice in determining their future of the country. I don’t have anything further than that.

Speaker 1 (28:01):

Yeah, it is a little bit backward looking, but Han Manet is actually a West Point grad under a DOD slash State Department program that brings in cadets to West Point. I wonder if there’s any way that the fact that he might become the leader of a country through clearly undemocratic means would prompt you to review that program allowing the son of the Prime Minister to come and study at the elite military institution in this country. Is that something that you would want to try and avoid happening in the future?

Matt (28:41):

I’m not aware of any reviews of the program that we will be undertaking. Yeah, go ahead.

Janet (28:46):

Thanks Matt. I wanted to ask about reporting that the United States is weighing a possible deal with China on fentanyl, that the administration is considering lifting sanctions on a police forensics institute around human rights abuses in exchange for Beijing’s cooperation, combating the fentanyl crisis. I was wondering if you could speak to that and what the administration, if not this, what else they’re doing on fentanyl?

Matt (29:13):

We have not had any such discussions with Beijing. In fact, we have made quite clear to the Chinese government that we do not believe that the sanctions are in place, prevent the defense minister from meeting with our Secretary of Defense. And we have made it clear that we think it is irresponsible to continue to not conduct military to military cooperation. It’s a position that not just the State Department has made clear, but of course the Defense Department and the White House have made clear as well. On fentanyl, the secretary made clear both in his trip to Beijing and in his recent meeting with Wang Yi, that we should establish a working group. Chinese officials did give us some positive signals that they would move in that direction. It’s yet to be finalized, but we do believe we should formalize a working group between our two countries to work on stopping the flow of precursor chemicals from China to Mexico, where they’re then turned into fentanyl that has killed millions and millions of Americans and continues to kill Americans to this day.

Janet (30:08):

So just to clarify, the lifting of human rights abuses related sanctions related to fentanyl cooperation, that’s not something that’s been on the table?

Matt (30:17):

It’s not something we’ve discussed with the Chinese government. No.

Janet (30:20):

And then just another question on Israel and the reaction to the judicial changes. What if any kind of consequences in reaction to this, the US has been outspoken against it, could this result in potential negative repercussions between the US and Israel over this?

Matt (30:44):

I would say that we have a longstanding friendship with the government of Israel that really transcends any one issue. And it is because of our friendship with the government of Israel and our friendship with the people of Israel that the President and other members of this administration felt the responsibility to speak out about this measure and this measure and express our concern. So we will continue to engage with the government of Israel about the other pending legislation in the coming weeks. But rather than think about this in terms of consequences to our relationship, we think of our relationship as one, in which we have areas where we disagree and we cooperate, and areas where we do not hesitate to express concerns.

Janet (31:25):

Are you concerned about the backsliding of democracy that this could indicate as the relationship between two Democratic countries?

Matt (31:32):

I will just say that we believe it is unfortunate that the vote took place today with the slimmest possible majority. As the President made clear, we believe changes of this magnitude made with really the broadest consensus possible, and that did not happen here. Go ahead Geeta.

Speaker 9 (31:48):

Thank you. I have multiple questions on Iran, I’m warning you.

Matt (31:53):

Duly warned.

Speaker 9 (31:54):

Yeah. All right. Iran seems to be happy with the waivers that the US has issued for Iraq to pay its debt to their country. Today, your Iranian counterpart named Oman and Qatar as the third party country that where the money is going to be sent under last weeks waiver. Can you confirm that it’s going to Oman?

Matt (32:18):

I can confirm that that Oman has indicated a willingness to receive a portion of these funds and we expect that to happen. We believe that is an important step. As we’ve said, for some time, we thought it was important to get this money out of Iraq because it is a source of leverage that Iran uses uses against its neighbor. So this money will be held in a fund or an account in Iraq, but will then still be subject to the same restrictions that were in place.

Speaker 9 (32:48):

You mean Oman?

Matt (32:48):

Oman, excuse me, in Oman, but will still be subject to the same restrictions as when the money was held in accounts in Iraq. Meaning that the money can only be used for non- sanctionable activities,

Matt (33:00):

… such as humanitarian assistance and that all the transactions need to be approved by the United States Treasury Department in advance.

Speaker 9 (33:06):

Okay. On the prisoner exchange issue, again, your Iranian counterpart blamed the US for elongation of this process. What has been and is the main obstacle in getting this process finalized, getting the detainees back home?

Matt (33:23):

I’m not going to speak to the details of this process as I have never been willing to do, just because we think it’s important to keep those details private. It’s obviously a very sensitive matter with respect to these detainees, but I will say there is certainly nothing that we would like more than to get those detainees home as soon as possible. We are working as expeditiously as we can to make that happen. We want it to happen more quickly, not less quickly. And beyond that, I wouldn’t want to talk about any of the underlying details.

Speaker 9 (33:55):

And the last one, today there’s this e-commerce company in Iran called Digikala. It was shut down yesterday because some pictures of women without the mandatory scarf or head covering was released online. Any comments? And the company’s been referred to the judicial system.

Matt (34:19):

Yeah, we’ve seen the reports that Iranian authorities have closed the offices of Digikala over photographs of employees purportedly not wearing a mandatory hijab. We believe the targeting of Digikala sends a clear message to the young people of Iran. The regime will stop at nothing to control the women and girls of Iran. The regime is even willing to suffocate its own local startup companies to that end. Behavior such as that has an incredibly negative effect on the outlook for Iran’s aspiring entrepreneurs. And it is no wonder that so many young people in Iran are calling for change or leaving the country.

Speaker 9 (34:54):

All right, thank you.

Matt (34:54):

Is that all? I thought there were going to be more. You said multiple.

Speaker 9 (34:56):

Well, three, multiple.

Matt (34:57):

Yeah, go ahead.

Speaker 2 (34:58):

Oh, thank you. How concerned is the US with Lukashenko’s comments about Wagner forces wanting to invade Poland?

Matt (35:06):

I will say it is another in a series of irresponsible comments by Lukashenko. And the only thing I will reiterate, as I said about another matter earlier in this briefing, the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory. Yeah.

Speaker 10 (35:25):

Because not just Lukashenko made comments about Poland, but also Putin who warned that attack on Belarus from Poland somehow would be an attack on Russia. And also he made some comments about how Poland’s western lands are a gift from Stalin. So do you see this as some kind of orchestrated plan? How do you see those comments? Should we be worried?

Matt (35:59):

I don’t know how much you should read into them. I would say that there is only one country in the region that has demonstrated not only the intent, but the willingness to invade its neighbors. And that’s Russia. Not Poland, not any other in any other country in the region. And so I would just reiterate that our alliance with Poland is strong. Poland is a NATO member, of course. And we will defend, if necessary, every inch of NATO territory on Ukraine. Yeah.

Speaker 11 (36:27):

So yesterday, Secretary of States that Russia has already lost war in Ukraine and Kyiv has already retaken about 50% of the territories by Russia. He also maintained that the Ukraine counter-offensive is still in its relatively early days. But on the same day, Russian president asserted that Ukraine’s counter-offensive failed. How successful do you think Ukraine’s counter-offensive has been so far in terms of regaining territory from the Russian forces?

Matt (37:02):

Let me step back and say, without respect to this counter-offensive, that’s right. It depends if you include Crimea, Ukraine has regained somewhere around 45% of its territory. If you look at the post 2014, not including Crimea, it’s somewhere around 61% of its territory since the launch of the full-scale invasion. So Ukraine has already been incredibly successful in regaining territory that Russia had temporarily occupied.

With respect to the counter-offensive, I’m not going to provide commentary about it from this podium. As I’ve said in the past, we’ll leave that to the Ukrainian military. I will reiterate from our perspective that Ukraine has everything it needs to conduct this counter-offensive. We have supplied them with an enormous amount of military equipment, as have our allies and partners, both in Europe and around the world. And we will continue to do so. You can expect further announcements of military assistance in the coming days. We’ll continue to stand strong with NATO as it conducts this counter-offensive. Go ahead.

Speaker 12 (38:09):

I would like to go North Korea quickly. How long would you like to wait if there is no response from North Korea on private care?

Matt (38:19):

What do you mean? How long would we have to wait? We would obviously love to get a response as soon as possible.

Speaker 12 (38:24):

Do you have any other options except to wait to hear from North Korea?

Matt (38:29):

I don’t want to say anything other than that we will continue to make our position clear to North Korea. We do have a variety of channels through which we can send them messages. I’m not going to talk about all those details because they’re sensitive in a case like this. But we are concerned about his safety, his wellbeing. We want him to be returned as soon as possible. So we’ll continue to work this case.

Speaker 12 (38:49):

And this week is going to be the 70th anniversary of Korean armistice. How are you going to mark this anniversary? Are you going to take this opportunity to send North Korea any message?

Matt (39:01):

I don’t want to comment on what we might do in the coming days.

Speaker 8 (39:04):

Thank you so much, Matt. After a long time, I was trying [inaudible 00:39:08]. In 2018-

Matt (39:10):

There’s a lot of people in the room today.

Speaker 8 (39:12):

The Canadian Federal Court dismissed the asylum petition of an activist associated with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP, branding it as a terrorist organization. It’s also noting that the political observer in Bangladesh say that the BNP has a history of engaging in political violence, particularly in the national election in 2014. At that time, the BNP demanded an election under the caretaker government, which was earlier ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. As Bangladesh approaching its next national election, the ruling party has accused the BNP of attempting to [inaudible 00:39:53] violence by advocating for the reinstatement of the unconstitutional election time government. What are your observations?

Matt (40:03):

My observations are that, number one, we do not take a position with respect to any political party in Bangladesh or in other countries, but that we believe that Bangladesh and all countries throughout the world should have free and fair elections. All right.

Speaker 8 (40:15):

I have [inaudible 00:40:16]-

Matt (40:15):

Go ahead with the follow-up.

Speaker 8 (40:17):

Very short.

Matt (40:17):


Speaker 8 (40:17):

In Bangladesh, media expert believe that the United States uses human rights issues as a tool of exert pressure on specific countries to further its own interest. They also argue that the US often turns a blind eye to human rights violation in countries like India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other parts of the world. What is your perspective on this matter?

Matt (40:40):

I would note some tension in between the two questions. I would note that I would say that we raise human rights concerns when we have human rights concerns, when we see human rights violations,. And we raise those concerns not with respect to countries with which we have strong partnerships and with countries where the partnerships are much more, shall we say, challenging. All right.

Speaker 8 (41:00):

Thank you.

Matt (41:00):

Alex. Go ahead. Then Michel. Michel next, and we’ll finish up.

Alex (41:04):

On human rights on Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan arrested another opposition leader yesterday, Gubad Ibadoghlu. They came up with some trumped-up charges against him. But what we do know is that he was a vocal critic of the government economic policy, corruption, and was singled out by the president while he was teaching here in New Jersey. Do you have any comment on that? Have you heard about the case?

Matt (41:22):

Yeah. We are closely following the arrest of Gubad Ibadoghlu. The United States remains strongly committed to advancing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. We urge Azerbaijan to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including Gubad Ibadoghlu, consistent with a Azerbaijan’s own constitution and international obligations and commitments.

Alex (41:44):

Thank you. And one more on Georgia, if you don’t mind. A group of former US ambassadors, five ambassadors to Georgia issued a statement last week, urging the Georgian government to allow the President Saakashvili to obtain lifesaving medical treatment. Do you support those calls?

Matt (42:02):

I’ll just say we are monitoring Mr. Saakashvili’s case closely. We are very concerned about his health. As we have said publicly and privately to the Georgian government many times, it is the government’s responsibility to provide the medical care he needs to ensure his human rights are respected. And we will continue to monitor this case very closely.

Alex (42:21):

Thank you.

Matt (42:21):

All right, Michel, this will be the last one.

Michel (42:22):

Thank you. Do you have any updates on the passports backlog? Do you have any figures on the applications? And what’s your reaction to the critics at the Capitol that the State Department is not doing enough in this regard?

Matt (42:37):

I will say we are working on this. We saw a record number of passport applications this year. We have surged resources to try and bring down the backlog. We are seeing some positive indications that that will happen. It was of course going to take some time to resolve. We had, as I said, an extensive number of applications. It is a high priority for everyone in this administration or in this department from the senior leadership on down. And we remain determined to get those wait times down as soon as we possibly can.

Michel (43:06):

Do you have any numbers on the applications?

Matt (43:08):

I don’t, but I’ll be happy to follow up with you.

Michel (43:10):

Thank you.

Matt (43:11):

Thanks, everyone.

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