Joe Biden

On-the-Record Press Gaggle by NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby

December 18, 2023

Via Teleconference

12:34 P.M. EST

MR. KIRBY: Hey, everybody. First, to Israel. I think you know, on Friday, before Jake left Israel, he was told by the government of Israel that they had made the decision to open its border crossing at Kerem Shalom for direct delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza.

This is a significant step and something, again, that we've been asking Israel to do. On Sunday, the crossing opened, and for the first time since the 7th of October, assistance flowed directly from Israel to Gaza. Yesterday, almost 80 trucks went through Kerem Shalom. So, in total, between that and what went through out of Rafah, nearly 200 trucks entered Gaza yesterday.

Since the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. has been working to get humanitarian aid into Gaza to alleviate the suffering of innocent Palestinians. And those efforts obviously will continue.

At the same time, of course we continue to urge Israel to do everything possible to prevent civilian casualties and to conduct their operations as surgically and as precisely as possible. This is something that we have and will continue to engage with them on. You probably saw that Secretary Austin was in the region -- in Tel Aviv today, and delivered that same message to Defense Minister Gallant and to other Israeli officials that he met with. And, of course, he made that clear in his press conference afterward.

If I could just briefly go to Russia-Ukraine. If you hadn't seen it, we can get you -- point you to a notification done by the Defense Department's Comptroller, Mike McCord, who told Congress today that we have allocated the remaining funding that's available to restock U.S. supplies and to replace what we're sending to Ukraine. That account, which is known as replenishment authority, that's the process by which the Department of Defense buys new weapons and equipment from American manufacturers.

As the President spoke about in his Oval Office address last month, the Biden administration has used this replenishment authority that Congress has authorized in prior Ukraine supplementals to jumpstart and to expand production lines in dozens of states across the country where weapons and equipment of all manner and type can be produced, and, of course, for American stocks to replenish and replace what we are sending to Ukraine. And that all, of course, supports good-paying American jobs in the process. It also is helping strengthen the production lines and strengthen our relationship with the defense industry across the country.

We are still planning one more aid package to Ukraine later this month. However, when that one is done, as the Comptroller, Mr. McCord, made clear in his note to Congress today, we will have no more replenishment authority available to us. And we're going to need Congress to act without delay, as we have been saying. As Mr. McCord wrote, quote, "Doing so is in our clear national interest, and our assistance is vitally needed so Ukraine can continue its fight for freedom."

So, all of this, we need to keep in mind too, is happening in the context of what Mr. Putin continues to do. I mean, just over the last 24 hours, launching dozens of drones and at least one cruise missile at Ukrainian cities in basically what's become a nightly barrage. And, of course, it's all happening in the context of Russian troops trying to put together a ground offensive in eastern Ukraine. Now, they have not been enormously successful in doing that offensive, and one of the reasons is because the Ukrainians are well-armed and well-resourced and are able to defend against these offensive moves.

Ukraine still needs our help. And it's well past time for Congress to act to stand up for freedom and democracy in defense of our own national security interests, which are very much at play here.

With that, let me take some questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will go to Zeke with the AP.

Q: Thank you for doing this, John. I was hoping you could give us an update on Bill Burns's conversations in Warsaw. And what is the U.S. pushing for in terms of another pause in fighting in order to secure another hostage release?

And then separately, after the incident last week with Israeli soldiers killing three hostages, does the U.S. have any concerns about Israeli rules of engagement on the ground in Gaza? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Zeke. I will refer you to our colleagues at the CIA to speak about the director's travel. I made a strong rule not to talk about his travel or meetings that he might be having, so I'll refer you to them.

On the -- another hostage deal, we continue to work really hard to try to get another deal in place, which would, of course, be accompanied by another humanitarian pause and hopefully some additional humanitarian assistance. But we aren't -- I can't say that we are at a point where another deal is imminent. We are working literally every day on this, on the ground and back here in Washington. In fact, one of the things that Jake talked about when he was in the region just in the last few days was exactly this: trying to see that -- test out the possibilities for how close we could be.

Now, we understand that the negotiators are -- not us, but the negotiators that are in question here have had some conversations in the last couple of days. We hope that that becomes a fruitful discussion. But I can't promise you a date certain where we could get another one in place; just that we're continuing to work it really, really hard.

And then, on your ROE question, I would say a couple of things. First of all, I won't talk about Israeli ROE any more than I would talk about American ROE.

That said, the IDF admitted that they made a mistake very, very soon after they made the mistake. And I have no doubt that they will do the forensics on this to learn what happened and how to avoid it happening again. It's tragic. It's sad. And you can't imagine that those IDF soldiers who pulled that trigger and killed those hostages feel very good about what they did. Of course not. It's a traumatic event.

And they'll -- like I said, they'll have to do the forensics on this to figure out what happened.

I -- the last thing I'll say on this, Zeke, is that sometimes an event like this, a tactical event, does require you to take a look at your rules of engagement and maybe make adjustments. Sometimes not. Sometimes the issue isn't the rules of engagement. Sometimes it's just the way they're enforced or the interpretation of it by a unit on the ground or by an individual soldier. And that's why doing the forensics on this is going to be so important for them to kind of figure out is there a systemic issue, i.e. the rules, or was this an individual issue -- misunderstanding, miscalculation, fog of war. I mean, we just don't know. We don't have the details.

But I think it would -- I think we should be careful at this early stage, and certainly from here, from Washington, to point the fingers at the exact rules of engagement.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Steve with Reuters.

Q: Hey, John. Could you update us on the negotiations to try to get a border deal that would unlock the Ukraine and Israel aid? They had some talks over the weekend. Do you see any progress being made?

MR. KIRBY: I want to be careful that I'm not negotiating this in public, but there have -- there were active discussions over the weekend, and we here at the White House are involved in those discussions. And as the President has said, it's important to move this forward, and he is willing to negotiate in good faith, and he is willing to make compromises both on the policy front and on the border security front.

But I think, really, Steve, I probably need to leave it there lest I negotiate this in public, and I don't want to say anything that would put those discussions at any risk or peril.

Q: And could you just also tell us about efforts to build this maritime coalition against the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, our work is continuing to strengthen and bolster that -- it's called the Combined Maritime Forces. It's an existing maritime force under the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. And what we're trying to do is strengthen, bolster it, and operationalize it in ways that perhaps it hadn't been operationalized prior to these Houthi attacks.

Secretary Austin will be having meetings in the region, tomorrow, on this very topic. And I highly suspect that you guys will all hear a little bit more from him tomorrow about what direction this has taken, and he'll probably be able to provide a few more specifics. But obviously, those meetings and those discussions have to occur first before he can do that, and I certainly don't want to get ahead of him.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Hiba Nasr.

Q: Thank you, Sam. Thank you, John. John, I want to ask you about the northern borders with Lebanon. I know now you are negotiating maybe a truce. But on the long run, on the long term, how do you foresee the situation there? Is there a return to October 6? What's the America -- what are you suggesting to have in place on Lebanon?

MR. KIRBY: Well, first I'd say: The continued attacks across that border are of concern to us. We don't want to see the conflict widened. We don't want to see a northern front opened up. We want to keep this -- we want to keep this conflict focused, as it rightly should be, on Hamas in the wake of October 7th.

And so we're in active discussions with our Israeli counterparts about the activities going on up there at the northern border.

And again, obviously, Israel has a right to self-defense, of course. But we don't want to see -- what we don't want to see is a full-on conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. And of course, the attacks that have occurred on the Lebanese Armed Forces are also deeply concerning since the Lebanese Armed Forces are not part and parcel of this conflict, nor do they want to be.

So, again, we're watching it real closely, and we're in active discussions. And I think I probably just need to leave it at that.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Nathan with KAN.

Q: Thanks so much for taking my question. I'd like to know if, at this point after the conversations of Jake Sullivan and Secretary Austin in Israel, does the U.S. have a better understanding of how to overcome the impasse regarding the day after, with Netanyahu reiterating again over the weekend that he does not see any role for the Palestinian Authority in the future governing of Gaza?

MR. KIRBY: Do we have an answer for the day after? Is that what you asked?

Q: Yes. Or any idea how to overcome Israel's reluctance to have the PA participate in it.

MR. KIRBY: Well, look, the prime minister can speak for himself, as he has. All I can do is tell you where we are. And nothing has changed about our view that the Palestinian people deserve a vote and a voice in their future, that they deserve competent, accessible, transparent governance that actually makes an effort to meet their needs and to help them achieve their aspirations for peace and security and justice.

We believe that the ultimate answer to that is a two-state solution. We know that that's not something that's going to get turned on here anytime soon. But we do believe in the interim, post-conflict Gaza, that the Palestinian Authority, revamped and revitalized, should and could have a significant role in determining what governance in Gaza looks like and being a part of those discussions. And as a matter of fact, that's one of the reasons why Jake went to Ramallah and met with Mahmoud Abbas on that very topic, to talk about what the possibilities are for that.

We haven't changed our mind on that. Again, I can't -- I won't speak to the Israeli view of this. I can just tell you President Biden's view. We still believe that that's the right way forward, not just for the Palestinian people but for the Israeli people as well. And we're going to continue to have those conversations and continue to work towards those goals.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Gabe with NBC.

Q: Hey, thank you. I know you previously said that you didn't want to get into every single incident that happens, but I bring this one up just because of the worldwide condemnation, also now from Pope Francis. What's the U.S.'s response to this deadly church shooting where a mother and daughter were killed allegedly by Israeli sniper?

That question first, and then I have a follow-up on Ukraine.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, obviously, we've been closely following these alarming reports coming out of the church compound this weekend.

Let me just, right off the bat, as I've said before: Every civilian death is a tragedy. We've been very clear that we believe every effort possible must be made to prevent civilian casualties. Unfortunately, it appears that, in this case, a mother and a daughter lost their lives. And our hearts go out to the families who are grieving their loved ones.

We have raised our concerns about this particular incident with the Israeli government and about the need for those who have injuries or have been wounded to be able to be safely evacuated so they can receive appropriate medical treatment.

More broadly, of course, we are in touch and will stay in touch with the U.N. and our Israeli authorities about the need for deconfliction channels, if you will, that can be respected so that when Israel is conducting military operations against Hamas, that it does not, in the process of prosecuting those targets, endanger civilians that are trying to shelter themselves or humanitarian workers.

So the need for better deconfliction, quite frankly, has also been a topic of our discussion in multiple channels, including between the President and the Prime Minister. And it was absolutely something that Jake raised when he was out there on the ground. And I fully anticipate that it was also part of Secretary Austin's conversations as well.

Q: And a follow-up on that, John. Is it fair to say that the U.S. is frustrated with the deconfliction methods so far that Israel has had?

MR. KIRBY: I think we believe, as I said earlier, Gabe, that more can be done. Deconfliction, we've seen it for ourselves in places where we try to find and use deconfliction channels. It can be very useful in reducing miscalculation, reducing misunderstanding, reducing mistakes. And so we're going to continue to urge them to do more in that vein, in the deconfliction vein.

Q: And finally, just one point of clarification. You mentioned Ukraine. At first, you started to say that -- it sounded like -- that the U.S. was going to run out of money for Ukraine. Then you said you expected one more aid package later this month. To be clear, how much money is left for Ukraine?

MR. KIRBY: I would refer you to DOD for an exact figure, Gabe, but we believe we've got enough, in terms of replenishment authority, for one more aid package before the end of this month. And I don't know what that -- you know, again, I'd refer you to DOD. I don't think -- quite frankly, Gabe, I doubt they're going to give you a heads-up, exclusive look about what's going to be in that package.

But, I mean -- but we've got enough for one good aid package. And what -- exactly what's in it and the total sum, I couldn't tell you right now. I have not seen a draft of that package, but we think we've got one more left in us.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to MJ

with CNN.

Q: Thank you. Could you give us a sense of where things stand with the efforts to restart the hostages talks, particularly with the CIA director meeting with the Qatari prime minister and the head of the Mossad? Just, what is the aim there? We reported last week that Hamas was being unresponsive to the recent overtures to bring Hamas back to the negotiating table, and I wondered whether you can say whether that has changed in recent days too.

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm not going to talk about the CIA director's travel one way or the other. I'm not going to confirm or deny anything when it comes to his travel or meetings.

I would just tell you: Jake clearly brought this up in the region and in all his meetings, talking not only to the Israelis but to other partners. I know Brett McGurk and David Satterfield continue to work this almost by the hour to see if we can't get another pause in place and another hostage deal executed.

But as I said at the top here of the gaggle, I can't report to you a date certain or tell you in good faith that there is another deal that's imminent. All I can do is assure you that we continue to work this very, very hard and literally every day, and that includes, of course, the discussions that Jake had when he was out in the region.

Q: I mean, is there concern that, you know, time is sort of running out? We have the deaths of the three Israeli hostages. There's the testing of -- you know, flooding of Hamas tunnels. You know, and the President himself said you can't say with certainty that some of these tunnels wouldn't have American hostages. And obviously, you know, there's the fact that you're learning more and more about what these hostages are enduring while in captivity.

MR. KIRBY: Of course, we're concerned about the tyranny of the clock. I mean, every minute that passes is a minute that they shouldn't be held hostage, is a minute that they're in harm's way, a minute that they could be tortured, raped, beaten, or denied basic medical care. I mean, we have to assume that these people are being held in horrific conditions.

And so, that's why when I say we're working it hour by hour, that's not hyperbole. That's true. There's not an hour of the day that goes by where -- that our team is not trying to see if we can get the two sides back at the table to negotiate another pause.

Again, I won't and I absolutely refuse to negotiate in public and talk about the parameters of that discussion lest I say something that torpedoes the chances. But we are absolutely mindful of the sense of urgency here to get these people back with their families where they belong, sort of in the aggregate, but also get them out of these horrific conditions so that they can get the medical care that they're clearly going to need after being held hostage now for more than two months.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Vivian with the Wall Street Journal.

Q: Hey, guys. Thanks so much for doing this. I wanted to go back to something you said, John, a couple of days ago, where you talked about -- there was a question about violations of international law by the Israelis in Gaza. And you said that, as far as the U.S. has seen, there's not -- you haven't seen evidence yet of violations of international law, and so you cannot make any assessments about those violations.

But a moment ago, you just talked about the sniper attack on the mother and daughter in a church, and there have been other incidents not to -- you know, not also to mention the fact that there was an issue with regard to rules of engagement with the hostages and things like that.

And so, I was just wondering if you can talk us through a little bit what kind of evidence you're looking for. I mean, flashback to a year and a half ago in the early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the administration was quite forward-leaning about accusing Russia of violations of international law.

I know that you'll probably make some distinctions between the Russians invading Ukraine and this, but I'm hoping you can actually talk us through it, because it doesn't -- it's hard to see the distinctions from our side of things and understand why certain incidents are not at this point raising concerns, at least -- instead of you saying there's no evidence, at least to talk about any concerns that the administration might have about violations of international law. Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: What I said was we're not going to adjudicate each and every tactical event, and we're not going to start doing that now, in terms of being judge and jury over each and every individual event.

And I think the question you're referring to is one I got about the death of journalists. And I said we had no indication that they had been deliberately targeted by the Israeli military.

But I think Ukraine -- and what Putin is doing is not an apt comparison here. Torture, rape, slaughter of civilians, the destruction of civilian infrastructure, terrorizing an entire population -- all of that is baked into Putin's war plan, because he knows. And the ground -- what's going on on the ground bears it out, that he can't defeat Ukraine purely from a conventional military perspective because Ukraine is better armed, better command and control, better resourced. So what's he do? He bombs energy infrastructure and tries to kill innocent civilians and try to break the will of the Ukrainian population. And it's -- we're helping the Ukrainians document these war crimes by Russian soldiers on Ukrainian soil.

And it's blatant. It's actually -- it's deliberate and it's just baked into their psyche on how to try to win this war, taking the fight right to innocent people with rape, torture, and slaughter.

And that is exactly the same approach that Hamas has chosen to execute when they violated a ceasefire that was in place on the 6th of October and paraglided into a concert and started slaughtering innocent people that were there to listen to some music, and murdering parents in front of their kids and vice versa. That was deliberate --

Q: But, John, I understand -- sorry to interrupt here.

MR. KIRBY: No, no, let me -- nope, let me --

Q: I understand there's no question about -- there's no question about Hamas's actions. But we're talking about Israel now, and you yourself just talked about an attack on a woman and a daughter in a church. And so I'm just sort of wondering: At some point, you know, is there any condemnation of the Israeli military for its (inaudible), instead of just talking about an unfortunate occurrence that has happened?

MR. KIRBY: The Israelis are not making the slaughter, torture, and rape of civilians in Gaza a war aim. It's not baked into their plans. They're not deliberately trying to kill civilians.

Now, again, I've said it before, I'll say it a hundred times again: The right number of civilian casualties is zero. We don't want to see a single innocent person hurt or killed as a result of this conflict.

And as I said in my opening statement, and Secretary Austin said today, we continue to urge the Israelis to be as careful, deliberate, surgical, and cautious as possible when it comes to minimizing civilian casualties. We don't want to see them, as Secretary Austin has said, find themselves maybe with a tactical victory but a strategic defeat because of the way they have gone about prosecuting their operations.

As I've also said, with respect to this church issue, we are deeply concerned about it; we have raised specific concerns about it with our Israeli counterparts, and we'll continue to do so. But we haven't seen any evidence that the Israelis are making it an aim of war and a tactical, operational necessity to go out and slaughter innocent people.

Now, it is happening that people are being killed, people are being wounded. We recognize that. But it's a far cry from saying it's a part of the war aims as it was for Putin, as it was for Hamas. And that was my main point.

Q: Okay. I'm sorry, I don't want to -- I don't want to keep on pushing you. I just -- intent is not necessarily necessary for a violation of international law. And that's the point I'm getting at -- is, you know, at some point, is the administration going to raise this as a concern, not just in terms of its tac- -- its -- you know, its tactics, but in terms of something even bigger than that?

MR. KIRBY: Vivian, we have raised our concerns about civilian casualties. I mean, every single time we talk about it, we talk about our conversations with the Israelis and urging them to be more careful. And as I've said in this issue with the church, we raised that specific incident with them as well. And I mentioned it -- you know, it was in my topper today.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Yuna with Israel 12.

Q: Hi. Thank you for this. Hamas just released in the last, actually, few minutes a new video of three elderly hostages pleading for their release. You probably haven't seen it yet. But in general, any comment about the tactic -- this kind of psychological terror that they're using?

MR. KIRBY: I haven't seen that video, so I can't validate it. And I want to be careful that I don't comment on something I haven't seen and we haven't been able to prove in terms of the veracity of it.

This is an organization that has a reputation for being brutal when it comes to people it captures and certainly people that they hold hostage.

If this bears out to be true, it's just another example of their depravity and their brutality against innocent life and completely unacceptable. And it's another indication of why, you know, as a democracy, Israel is and we will continue to urge them to abide by the law of armed conflict, but they're up against an organization which is both a terrorist organization and a military organization that doesn't even pretend to abide by the law of armed conflict.

But again, I can't prove the veracity of the video.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to JJ with Bloomberg.

Q: Hi there. Is there any reaction you can share to Japan's Nippon Steel buying U.S. Steel?

MR. KIRBY: Hey, I've seen those reports, JJ, but I'm just not going to be able to comment on a private sector action.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Niels with Roll Call.

Q: Thanks for doing the call. I just wanted to see -- a bit of a logistics question -- whether or not there's any update on when the President is going to sign the NDAA and if there's anything we should be looking for in terms of a signing statement about concerns about areas where it may impede his powers as Commander-in-Chief.

MR. KIRBY: I would just tell you to stay tuned on that. I don't have any announcements to make. Certainly won't get ahead of the President. But, you know, just stay tuned.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Anita with VOA.

Q: Thank you so much for doing this, John. I've got a domestic question today. Does the White House see words like "poisoning the blood of our country" as a national security threat for the 45 million foreign-born people who live in this country? And what are you doing to reassure and protect these people against these possibly dangerous words? And then, how is that playing into the immigration discussions that are happening right now?

MR. KIRBY: I think you hopefully will forgive me for not weighing into comments about campaign rhetoric. That wouldn't be appropriate for us here at the National Security Council.

All I can tell you is that we're in good-faith negotiations with members of Congress about border security and, of course, funding for Ukraine and for Israel as a part of that. And the President, you know, again, on day one, issued an immigration reform proposal that Congress has not acted on. He is willing, as he has said he is, to engage in negotiations and compromises on both the policy, policies of immigration, as well as actual security measures. He understands the complexities of the issue and, again, is willing to engage folks on the other side of the aisle on those issues. And that's where his focus is going to be. We're not going to react to every comment made on the campaign trail.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Suzanne with The Cipher Brief.

Q: Hi, thank you so much for doing this. I'm wondering, given the political complications when it comes to U.S. aid to Ukraine, is there a plan B for Ukraine? In other words, are there ways to speed up aid that has already been approved? And what about the role of the private sector here? Does the administration see the private sector as a force multiplier? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: We have, as I said, one more aid package left in us here before our replenishment authority dries up. And we think we would have one more here by the end of the month. And we need the supplemental funding to be able to continue to support Ukraine. And as we've said, you know, by the end of the month, that dedicated funding for Ukraine is not going to be there.

And on your second question, I mean, the short answer is yes. I mean, the defense industry has been, and we anticipate will be, a significant partner, not only assuming we can get the supplemental funding in supporting Ukraine, but in supporting our own defense industrial health and improving our own national security by keeping production lines open, advancing the development of systems and the development of new systems. That will not only increase our ability to help Ukraine defend itself and beat back the Russians on Ukrainian soil, but also help our own national security by replenishing the shelves in our warehouses with better and more advanced capabilities and systems.

So they are very much a partner in this effort. And Secretary Austin and the Deputy Secretary, Kat Hicks, has been -- they've been working very, very hard on that exact issue, which is shoring up our relationships with the defense industry and, I would also add, participating in the meetings over at Commerce a week or so ago, when -- with Ukrainians, which was all about not only helping our defense industrial base get a better grip on what the needs are going to be going forward, but how they can work in partnership with Ukraine's defense industry so that post-conflict Ukraine can have as much -- have as resilient and as vibrant a defense industrial base as possible.

So, it's a long-winded answer, but yes, we absolutely see our defense industry as a partner here.

MODERATOR: Thank you all. I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. But as always, if we weren't able to get to you, feel free to reach out to the NSC Press distro, and we will get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks.

1:08 P.M. EST

Joseph R. Biden, On-the-Record Press Gaggle by NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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