Joe Biden

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

March 28, 2024

Via Teleconference

11:03 A.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining. Kirby has a few words at the top, and then as always, we'll get through as many questions as we can. Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Hey, everybody. Good morning. I just wanted to -- I got a couple of things here at the top.

First, I want to just take a moment to respond to the --both the nonsense and the propaganda that we've been seeing coming from the Kremlin and the Russian government over the past few days about the ISIS terrorist attack on the concert hall, which sadly took the lives of more than 140 people.

Contrary to public statements by President Putin, Federal Security Service Director Bortnikov, Russian government spokespeople, and others who have sought to deflect blame onto Ukraine, the United States, and everyone else who suits their political narratives, it's abundantly clear that ISIS was solely responsible for the horrific terrorist attack in Moscow last week.

In fact, the United States tried to help prevent this terrorist attack, and the Kremlin knows this. In advance of the March 22nd attack, the United States government provided clear, detailed information to Russian authorities regarding the terrorist threat against large gatherings and concerts in Moscow.

On March the 7th, at 11:15 in the morning, Moscow time, following normal procedures and through established channels that have been employed many times previously, the United States government passed a warning in writing to Russian security services. In addition, we released a public advisory on the 8th of March, the next day, warning American citizens to avoid large gatherings and concerts in Moscow.

Now, we provided this information to Russia because the United States takes very seriously our "duty to warn." We never want to see innocent lives lost in terrorist attacks. And this warning was one of many that the United States government has passed to Russia since September 2023 about various threats.

Now, while our embassy's public advisory may have deterred the attackers from attacking on the 8th of March, our warning led -- I'm sorry, our warning to the Russian government and the general public accurately identified the terrorist threat posed to concerts in Moscow. ISIS bears full responsibility for this attack.

The United States will continue to stay vigilant and alert governments around the world whenever we learn of terror plots, regardless of our relationship with them.

It reminds me of something my uncle used to say. He had a small farm and raised a few cattle in a place near Ocala, Florida. He used to say that the best manure salesmen often carried their samples in their mouths. Russian officials seem to be pretty good manure salesmen.

Speaking of Russia, Russia today vetoed in the U.N. Security Council the routine renewal of a U.N. panel that monitors sanctions on the DPRK. Russia has been violating these sanctions, of course, for some time, including through importing arms for use in its illegal war against Ukraine.

The reckless action today further undermines critical sanctions that the United Sta- -- or the U.N. Security Council has imposed in response to North Korea's multiple nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches.

As Secretary Blinken has said, deepening DPRK and Russian military cooperation should be of great concern to anyone interested in maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. And that includes the PRC, China, which chose to abstain in their vote today.

The international community should resolutely uphold the global non-proliferation regime and support the people of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and independence against Russia's brutal aggression.

And with that, I'll take some questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will go to Patsy with VOA.

Q: Hey. Thanks, Sam. So, I have a question on Somalia. The Somali government on Thursday said its soldiers, backed by international partners and local clan militias, have killed at least 80 al-Shabaab militants and wounded dozens more in different operations in the country's south and central regions.

I was wondering what the administration knows about this. Did you take part at all in any of these operations? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Patsy, I don't have any information on that today. I'd refer you to the DOD. That's really the best place to go for some context on that.

Q: Okay. And just on the latest on Gaza, John, if you can brief us. What is the latest on the building of the pier? I understand from yesterday's briefing at the DOD, it's still happening. But will it meet the target timeline?

And then one question about that also. Once that's all set up, will the Israelis also be checking for the convoys in Cyprus as well? And would that also create a bottleneck, the same way that it has in Gaza? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm going to refer you to DOD for the particulars on this, Patsy. As I understand it, the components of that temporary pier are still making their way across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean. I don't know what the arrival date of that material is going to be. DOD will have a better sense of it.

But we'll -- obviously, we've got the expertise to construct that temporary pier. And as I also understand it, we are still talking to our Israeli counterparts and other partners in the region about the actual process through which maritime material is going to be transported to the pier and then from the pier into Gaza.

So there's -- DOD has already talked about this; I'd refer you to them. But as far as I understand it, they're still working out all the particulars on that.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Ed with Fox.

Q: Thanks, Sam. Thanks, Admiral, for doing this. I wanted to ask you quickly: Just any national security concerns about American CEOs meeting with Chinese officials this past week, including with President Xi, given China's hacking of U.S. infrastructure, as well as the other illicit activities -- stealing technology and so forth?

MR. KIRBY: Hey, Ed. I think I'll let those CEOs talk about their discussions and what they intend to speak to with President Xi.

All I can tell you is we've been very clear about putting fences around certain American technology going to China because of national security concerns. You saw that at the G20. We've also been working with industry quite closely and consistently on making sure we share those national security concerns we have about certain technologies. As Jake Sullivan and the President have both said very clearly, we're not trying to decouple but we are trying to de-risk some of the economic relationships we have with China. And we'll keep moving in that vein.

Q: And just a quick follow-up. Do you have any, then, warnings then for American companies doing business in China?

MR. KIRBY: Again, we've had a consistent, clear conversation with American companies, particularly in the tech sector, Ed, and those conversations are going to continue. Believe me, they understand what our concerns are. We've been very plain with them about that.

But if you're asking me, you know, are we issuing some sort of broadside warning to these particular CEOs as they get ready to go over there, I don't know of any such specific warning. We have simply been very, very clear over the course of now many months with American companies about the potential risks.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Seung Min with the AP.

Q: Hi all. Thanks so much for holding the call. Two questions, if I may. The first: I wanted to know the U.S. government's reaction to the new Palestinian Authority cabinet and whether this is the type of cabinet that the administration believes can deliver on those credible and far-reaching reforms like it called for a couple of weeks ago.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, so I would just tell you that we've long urged the Palestinian Authority to form a reform -- to form a reform cabinet with new leadership. And so, we're just seeing these reports, we're going to take a look, and we'll be looking for this new government to deliver on policies and to implement those credible and far-reaching reforms.

And we've long talked about a revitalized Palestinian Authority and how important that's going to be to eventually delivering results for the Palestinian people and to help establish the conditions for stability, both in the West Bank and in Gaza.

This is about meeting the aspirations of the Palestinian people. We believe that a reformed and revitalized PA can do that.

And again, too soon to make any broad judgments about this particular new government. We're going to reserve that to when we have a chance to get a better sense of what their intentions are moving forward.

Q: Okay. And my second question: Has the U.S. and Israel agreed on a rescheduled date for that meeting on Rafah? And can you just walk us through a little bit just how the talks kind of suddenly went back on after being called off in such a dramatic fashion earlier this week?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I'm not going to get into the sausage-making here one way or the other. I'll just tell you that we are currently discussing rescheduling that meeting on Rafah with the Prime Minister's office and our Israeli counterparts.

We're working right now to kind of finalize a date, circling something on the calendar. And as soon as we get that and we're confident in it, we'll keep you posted.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Haley with Scripps.

Q: Hey, thanks for doing this. I wanted to follow up to that question. When it comes to a future meeting with the Israeli delegation, can you describe kind of the tones of these discussions as you're rescheduling the meeting? Is the intent still for an in-person meeting, or are you looking at alternative options?

And then also, just a status check on the discussions for a hostage and ceasefire deal. Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: On the second question, I don't have an update for you. We're still involved in active negotiations and conversations to try to get that deal in place. But nothing -- no updates.

On the first question, look, the tone throughout here has been businesslike and has been professional, and we expect that it's going to stay that way. We're hoping that this meeting can be scheduled in person, here in Washington, as was the original plan. That's the plan that we're still working on now. But again, no final date. And when we get that, we'll let you know.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to James with the Financial Times.

Q: Thanks so much, Sam. Two questions. The first is: There was a report in Bloomberg this morning saying that the U.S. and the UK were reviewing $20 billion crypto transactions. That may be, like, one of the biggest sanctions violations when it comes to Russia. And could you confirm?

And the second question is on whether the White House is open to structuring aid to Ukraine as a loan rather than direct assistance as a sort of last resort, if it doesn't get through Congress as direct aid.

MR. KIRBY: On your first question, I'm going to refer you to the Treasury Department. They're really the best place to go for something like that.

On the second question, we are still urging Congress, particularly the House, obviously, to move on the national security supplemental request that the President submitted. We believe that is the best way to provide the support that Ukraine needs over the coming months, especially now as the Russians continue to try to take advantage of some pressure coming west out of Avdiivka.

We would, of course, rather than a new package that would have to also pass the Senate, again, the House should just pass the supplemental. And we know that it would pass if Speaker Johnson put it up on the floor.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Barak with Axios.

Q: Hi, thanks for doing this. One question about the Israeli delegation. I heard from several sources that they're planning to be in Washington on Monday and that that's likely the date of when they're going to be in the White House. Can you confirm that?

And second, after the visit of the Israeli Minister of Defense, do you have anything to tell us about your impressions on where the operation in Rafah is and whether you feel that you managed to get the Israelis to rethink their plans for such an operation?

MR. KIRBY: Hey, Barak. On your first question: No.

On your second question: We did have the opportunity in the discussions with Minister Gallant to broach the issue of Rafah operations, but those discussions were not meant to replace what we hope to be able to do in a more comprehensive way with the Israeli delegation coming to D.C., or hopefully coming to D.C. That's really where we hope to get a better sense of their thinking on Rafah, you know, in more specific terms, and also have an opportunity to share with them some of our thoughts about viable alternatives to major ground operations.

And so I think, you know, we just need to let that conversation happen and take it from there.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Franco with NPR.

Q: Hey, Kirby. Thanks so much for doing this. Just to follow up on that: In the past, you have mentioned -- or, pardon me, Jake has mentioned that the expectation is that there would be no ground invasion until after this meeting would happen. Is that still the expectation?

MR. KIRBY: Yes.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Nick with PBS.

Q: Thanks, John. Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of Evan Gershkovich's detention. Can you confirm that the U.S. -- I know you won't give any details -- but can you confirm the U.S. is still trying to find some kind of prisoner swap with Moscow?

And then on Haiti, it looks like as of last night there was some progress with the transitional council. They released a statement. Do you believe that we are close to the point where the council can actually begin and that would lead to Henry's resignation? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, so on your first question: Yes.

On your second question: Again, we're obviously watching things in Haiti very, very closely. We certainly welcome yesterday's statement by members of that transitional presidential council, that we're vowing to restore order and democratic governance. So that was certainly, again, a welcome statement.

We certainly look forward to the TPC now finalizing and announcing its members, which I understand they are still working their way through.

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

Q: Thanks. I just want to go back to the Rafah issue. Can you just explain, John, again, please, that the U.S. insisted that there is no Israeli military operation in Rafah unless there is a viable plan to evacuate 1.4 million civilians? And also, there are some reports that Israel has accepted some alternative plans, including going after Hamas's four battalion in Rafah.

So can you just explain again the U.S. position vis-à-vis what exactly is required now, considering the fact that many, many people, probably including the White House, believe there's actually no such plan? Because, practically, you cannot evacuate one and a half million people.

MR. KIRBY: Again, I'm happy to restate what we've said many, many times before: We don't support a major ground operation in Rafah. We think it would be a mistake given the, you know, million and a half folks that are seeking refuge down there. And, you know, we recognize that it's a tight piece of geography. There's not a whole lot of geographic space to relocate people in a safe and secure way. That would be a difficult chore for any modern military.

So we don't support a major ground operation. We want to have the opportunity to talk to our Israeli counterparts about some viable alternatives. And, my goodness, that's what we're hoping to get on the calendar here in coming days.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Aurelia with AFP.

Q: Hi, thanks for taking my question. I wanted to ask you about the situation at the Lebanese border. So, yesterday, 16 people were left dead after a day of crossfire between Israel and Hezbollah. How concerned are you about this? Are you still confident that Hezbollah won't get fully involved, or more involved that it already is, in the conflict?

MR. KIRBY: Again, we're watching closely the hostilities along that blue line. And we've also been very, very clear we do not support a war in Lebanon. We don't want to see that happen. We've been crystal clear about that throughout the --since the very beginning of this.

Restoring calm along that border remains a top priority for President Biden and for the administration. And it has to be of the utmost importance, we believe, as well for both Lebanon and Israel.

So we're going to continue to work towards a diplomatic resolution that will allow both Israeli and Lebanese citizens to return to their homes in a safe and secure way and be able to stay there.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Laura Rozen.

Q: Thank you for taking me. An expert at a think-tank event yesterday said that he understood there was a second indirect U.S.-Iran meeting in Oman in March. Is that the case? And was it also on de-escalation, like the January meeting?

MR. KIRBY: I'm sorry, can you repeat the second half of your question?

Q: And if it took place, was it also like the January meeting about de-escalation in the Red Sea and the region? Or what was the purpose of the meeting?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I am not aware of any such meeting, Laura. And frankly, I don't believe there was one. But I'm happy to take the question and check on that and make sure. But I'm not aware of one. And frankly, I don't think there actually was one.

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

Q: Thanks. Going back to the delegation, is the fact that this is now scheduled once again, or about to be scheduled, does this mean that whatever tensions there were regarding the U.N. Security Council vote and the cancellation of the visit are resolved? Has the air been cleared? You spoke about the administration being confused and perplexed. Is all this behind us right now?

MR. KIRBY: We're focused on making sure we have this conversation with our Israeli counterparts. Again, we really welcome the opportunity to get a better sense from them what their thinking is and to share some of our thinking about viable alternatives here to a ground operation. And that's where our heads are.

I don't want to re-litigate nor do I think anybody needs to re-litigate our abstention in the U.N. Security Council. We were very, very clear about why we took that stance, and we're focused on moving forward here. And a big part of moving forward is making sure we can have a robust conversation with our Israeli counterparts about what the future looks like for Rafah.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Jihan with The National.

Q: Thank you, Sam. Thank you, Admiral, for doing this. I have a question about the U.N. Security Council vote. If the United States supports broadly what the resolution was going to do, why not just support it? Why take this sort of wishy-washy sta- -- what seems to be a wishy-washy stance of just abstaining on it?

MR. KIRBY: Well, I guess I'm just going to have to challenge the premise of the question just a wee bit there. I don't think it's wishy-washy at all. And as I said right after the vote, and as so did our U.N. Ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, we abstained because we couldn't support the text, because the text didn't condemn Hamas. But we didn't veto it because, in broad terms, it did reflect what has been our policy, which is linking a hostage deal to a ceasefire. I don't know how much more simple I can make it.

Q: Yeah, I mean, after multiple vetoing, why not, you know, either -- what seems previously was very, kind of, strong stances on resolutions, and so why suddenly this, you know, abstention, which can sort of be interpreted in either way, actually?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, again, I really don't want to re-litigate this, but I'm happy to take one more stab at it.

The reason we vetoed resolutions in the past was because they called for general ceasefires with no linkage to hostage deals, no mention of getting the hostages out. It was just this, "Yeah, we call for a ceasefire." And number two, the resolutions that we vetoed before didn't condemn Hamas and what they did on the 7th of October. And it's just mind-boggling to me that anybody, no matter where you sit, no matter how you vote at the U.N., could not be willing to condemn Hamas for the slaughter of 1,200 innocent Israelis. That's just mind-boggling. And so, that's why we vetoed those.

We put one forward last week -- I think you saw that -- that got vetoed by Russia and China, that did those things -- linked a hostage deal to a ceasefire and condemned Hamas. Now, this last one did do the linkage, which was good, but didn't condemn Hamas. So we abstained.

I'm not -- again, I just don't understand what's so complicated to understand about that.

Q: Finally, on the airdrops, we've seen reports that 12 people drowned trying to reach aid in the water. I wanted to ask specifically: Given that these ready meals are not particularly nutritious or edible, particularly for children, what is the value of continuing to do them given how dangerous they are to civilians? Again, like, how do we weigh their benefit -- their nutritional benefits for people who are already starving? I don't believe that they are edible for children, let alone nutritious. Why keep doing them?

MR. KIRBY: What are you basing your assumption on that they're not edible for kids?

Q: I mean, they're not -- they don't have any nutritious value. I mean, we've seen videos of the contents of these food. They're packets that they're -- I mean, for infants, anyway -- babies, children who are most at risk of starvation and malnutrition. I mean, how do we justify? I mean, are there any studies about how nutritious they are to infants?

MR. KIRBY: They're not designed for infants, in fact.

Q: Yeah, exactly. So why keep doing that?

MR. KIRBY: Because infants and babies aren't the only people that are hungry. There's a lot of grownups and kids that are hungry too.

And let me tell you something. I mean, I've been downrange a bit in my time, and I've had to eat those MREs, and they are -- there is a nutritional aspect to them. I'd refer you to DOD, but those things are designed to provide significant caloric intake and nutrients to troops in the field. That's what they're for. And I can personally attest to the fact that they meet that need. But, no, they're not designed for infants. The whole purpose for MREs, Meals Ready to Eat, is for troops. So they're not designed for infants. That's number one.

Number two, nobody said -- never -- never did we say that our airdrops of Meals Ready to Eat were going to be a sufficient supplement for the kinds of humanitarian assistance -- food and water and medicine -- that can come in by trucks. And by coming in trucks, there is -- we are trying to make sure that there is ample supply of nutrients for infants and toddlers through that way.

But the United States military does not create MREs to feed infants and toddlers. Just not the purpose of it.

Now, the other thing is, you know -- so, two more thoughts. Number one, obviously, our thoughts are with all those who may have lost their lives in trying to recover some of the material dropped by airdrops. As I said when we first announced doing this, it is not a risk-free operation to conduct airdrops. And we have gone to great lengths to try to do them in places where there's a minimal risk to people on the ground. And it's obviously very sad that some people have been hurt or, in fact, lost their lives trying to recover some of this material, but that doesn't mean that it isn't still a worthy endeavor to try to supplement the needs of people on the ground.

I mean, before we started doing airdrops, we were being asked, "Why aren't you doing airdrops? You know, because you clearly aren't doing enough to help feed the people of Gaza." And now you're telling us that we shouldn't do airdrops because infants can't eat MREs. I just find that logic completely baffling.

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

Q: So, John, the IDF released recently just a video from interrogation of one of the October 7th terrorists admitting to rape. This comes after the firsthand testimony of the released hostage, Amit Soussana, on her sexual assault in captivity. Is there any comment on this? I remember President Biden was very clear about this issue. He had a statement about this when we saw the details that are coming and the testimonies. I'm wondering if there's anything to say now when we saw her interview in the New York Times.

MR. KIRBY: I don't know that I can comment specifically on this particular testimony or that judicial process, except to say, you're right, President Biden was very clear that we saw credible evidence that sexual violence was a part of the horrific attacks that Hamas perpetrated on the Israeli people on the 7th of October. And it just underscores the evil that Hamas represents and the truly -- as I've said before -- the truly genocidal intent of this group towards the Israeli people and the Israeli state.

And that is why we're going to continue to work with our Israeli partners to make sure that they have what they need to go after that threat and, frankly, to share with them our lessons learned and our perspectives on how to do that in the most effective way possible, without causing additional civilian casualties on the Palestinian side.

But again, without speaking to that specific case, it certainly is totally in keeping with the information that we saw early on of what Hamas not only was capable of but proved that they were capable of doing to innocent Israeli people.

Q: Okay. And also, another question also about the delegation, the fact that there are talks for it to arrive as soon as Monday. Can you say we're either at the end of this crisis or that the tensions are de-escalating? Because it seems now that what we are hearing is very different from what it was just a few days ago.

MR. KIRBY: I kind of got this question a few minutes ago. Our focus is on moving ahead here, you know? And we're glad to be in talks with the Israelis about rescheduling this meeting. We think it's an important discussion to have. And that's where our heads are. We're looking ahead. We're not looking at -- we're not looking aft.

And as I said many, many times, we haven't and we're probably not going to agree with the Israelis on every single thing when it comes to their military operations, but we both agree on the main, important thing, and that is that we can't allow Hamas to be able to conduct another attack like they did on the 7th of October.

MODERATOR: Thank you. And thanks, everyone, for joining us today. I think that's all the time we have. And as always, if we didn't get to your question, feel free to email the NSC press distro and we'll get back to you soonest. Thanks

11:35 A.M. EDT

Joseph R. Biden, On-the-Record Press Gaggle by White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/371027

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