12:59 p.m. EDT
MS. PSAKI: Hi, everyone.
QUESTION: Hi there.
MS. PSAKI: I just have a couple of items for all of you at the top. Secretary Kerry continues his visit to Beijing for the sixth round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, and the fifth U.S.-China High-Level Consultation on People to People Exchanges. On July 9th, which is of course today, he opened the S&ED and reiterated our commitment to cooperate in areas of common interest and to constructively manage our differences.
As the Secretary said, we welcome the emergence of a peaceful, stable, prosperous China that contributes to the stability and the development of the region and plays a responsible role in world affairs. Secretary Kerry co-chaired the S&ED strategic track session and a special joint session on climate change and clean energy, where the two sides reviewed and strengthened efforts to tackle climate change. He also attended an event to highlight the importance of combating wildlife trafficking and to outline areas of cooperation to stop this transnational crime.
I just have a couple of other quick items at the top. As the Treasury Department announced this morning, I wanted to highlight that the United States took action to increase pressure on the Syrian regime by sanctioning three entities contributing to its repression of the Syrian people and literally fueling its war machine. Treasury designated the Pangates International Corporation for providing material support for and goods and services to the regime, including a Syrian state oil company already sanctioned by us. Pangates International is based in the U.A.E.
Treasury also designated two Syria-based front companies – the Expert Partners and Megatrade – for acting for or on behalf of the regime agency responsible for developing and producing nonconventional weapons and ballistic missiles, which we’ve also sanctioned. Today’s actions build on our robust multilateral sanctions coalition against the Assad regime. We’ve worked with more than 60 countries and international organizations to impose targeted sanctions against nearly 200 individuals and entities.
And just one more item, and then we’ll get to your questions.
You all may have seen the Secretary’s editorial piece this morning calling on the Senate to confirm our pending nominees. As he noted in this piece, the United States continues to operate without a complete diplomatic toolbox to exert our leadership, advance our security and economic interests, and address global crises because we are without ambassadors in nearly 40 countries while their nominations await Senate confirmation. Just to go through a couple of the numbers for all of you, 53 Department nominees are pending before the Senate, 35 of whom are noncontroversial career diplomats. Thirty-seven have been approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and could be confirmed immediately with a simple vote. Not only do the vacancies in so many world capitals send a dangerous message to allies and adversaries alike about America’s engagement, but the length and number of these vacancies compromises U.S. national and economic security.
And just to give you a few examples that were highlighted in the Secretary’s opinion piece: In the Middle East, it’s critical that we have leaders on the ground in a region where we have extensive economic and security interests. Countries like Qatar, Algeria, and Kuwait all are pending – all have nominees pending in the Senate. In Africa, nearly a full 25 percent of our total ambassadorial presence on the continent is pending before the Senate and has been for over eight months. Vital roles that ambassadors would play in coordination in the fight against Boko Haram and al-Qaida affiliates remain vacant. And to highlight something we’ve been talking about over the last week or so, we need ambassadors in the Western Hemisphere to help find ways to prevent the crush of unaccompanied minors along our southwestern border. Nominees for both Honduras and Guatemala await Senate action right now.
As noted in the piece, but just to highlight for all of you, the Secretary proposed a unique solution to combat the nominations backlog and prevent such a logjam in the future – that the Senate carve out State’s career nominees and expedite their confirmation, just as it does for military promotions. And just to not to put too fine a point on it, obviously for America to continue to play a strong role in the world, we need equal treatment for diplomats, we need to have ambassadors and our representatives on the front lines in these countries around the world.
So with that, let’s get to who’s first. I knew it would be you, Said. Go ahead.
MS. PSAKI: We certainly can.
QUESTION: -- fight over Gaza? Yesterday you took issue with my number. Today the Israelis acknowledged that they have waged, as of one o’clock this morning our time, they have waged 160 bombing runs over Gaza. Thirty-nine Palestinians have been killed, including a whole family, children and so on. Are you doing anything beyond just calling for restraint to actually bring about some sort of a de-escalation or a quiet?
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first – I’ll give you a brief update on the Secretary’s diplomatic engagement, as well as the Administration, I should say. Secretary Kerry spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu this morning and he plans to speak with President Abbas over the next 24 hours. There’s a bit of a time change challenge, as you all know, given he’s in China. White House coordinator Phil Gordon is in Jerusalem and the West Bank today and has been meeting with key decision makers on both sides. He met today with President Abbas. And the Secretary, as I noted yesterday, has been making calls over the past 24 hours to world leaders as we continue to evaluate the situation and look for ways to stop the rocket attacks.
As I mentioned yesterday, and I want to reiterate, certainly no country should be expected to stand by while rocket attacks from a terrorist organization are launching into their country and impacting innocent civilians. At the same time, in the Secretary’s conversations, in the conversations of all of our senior Administration officials, they’ve been encouraging all sides to de-escalate the situation and certainly we don’t want to see any civilian casualties. That is one of the prominent reasons why it’s so important to move forward and de-escalate the situation on the ground.
QUESTION: Okay. He also made very clear time and time again Israel’s right to self-defense. And I asked you about the Palestinians’ right to self-defense. Let me ask you this: The population in Gaza, is it largely Hamas operatives or largely innocent civilians? And if there are larger Hamas operatives, then an argument can be made that they could be targets. But if they are largely civilians, then they should have, certainly, the right to self-defense --
MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I would simply say there’s a --
QUESTION: -- or to protection.
MS. PSAKI: -- strong difference between attacks --
QUESTION: Right, I understand.
MS. PSAKI: -- rocket attacks launched by a terrorist organization that is based in Gaza and the right of Israel to defend itself. At the same time, as you know, we work closely with the Palestinians. We work closely with the Israelis. And it’s important at this point in time to see if all sides can take steps to de-escalate.
QUESTION: How could you follow or do you have any means of following what is going on on the ground in Gaza in terms of the humanitarian suffering, people that lack water, lack the – of medical care, lack of food, things of that nature. Do you have anyone --
MS. PSAKI: How do we --
QUESTION: Do you have anyone on the ground in Gaza that can monitor the situation?
MS. PSAKI: Said, I think we are concerned about any humanitarian suffering around the world. As you know, that isn’t about sides. That’s about what’s right morally. But I think – do you have any more questions on this issue?
QUESTION: But – yes, I do. Yeah.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: You also mentioned that Mr. Gordon – Phil Gordon said yesterday in a speech at the peace conference, he said that the current Israeli Government is not committed to peace. Those were his words. Do you agree?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s been clear that both sides haven’t taken the – made the difficult choices needed to continue the peace process. And when there’s an absence of peace or a peace process, there’s a vacuum left that, at times, is filled by violence. So that’s the circumstance we’re looking at right now.
QUESTION: But he didn’t say both sides. He said the current Israeli Government is not committed to peace, and he went on to say --
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to parse his words --
QUESTION: -- and he went on to say --
MS. PSAKI: -- but we’ve – let me finish. We’ve consistently said that both sides didn’t make the necessary choices needed to continue the process.
QUESTION: Do --
MS. PSAKI: I think we have one more for you and then we’ve got to move on.
QUESTION: Okay. One more, I promise, yeah. And he also said that Israel continues to deny the Palestinians sovereignty, security, and dignity. Do you agree with that assessment?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to parse his words. As you know, there are difficult issues with --
QUESTION: But he --
MS. PSAKI: -- let me finish, Said – with strong emotional feelings when it relates to these tough choices that need to be made around the peace process. Certainly, the Secretary, the President still believe, as is – as the President wrote in his op-ed, that that is the right path towards a stable and secure long-term Middle East. And that’s why we’re keeping the door open to a peace process in the future.
QUESTION: But you agree Mr. Gordon --
MS. PSAKI: I think we need to move on to other questions.
QUESTION: -- Mr. Gordon speaks on behalf of the Administration?
MS. PSAKI: Samir, go ahead.
QUESTION: Iraq – Iraq?
QUESTION: No, let’s stay with Palestinian – yeah.
MS. PSAKI: Well, let’s do this process.
QUESTION: No, this – the Palestinian.
MS. PSAKI: Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: One more.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead, Lucas.
QUESTION: Do you know who’s supplying Hamas with these rockets?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any information to share on that, Lucas.
QUESTION: Because a few weeks ago the United Nations said that Iran had been fingered in delivery of rockets to Gaza and Sudan, and I was wondering if you had a comment on that.
MS. PSAKI: That is true, and has – those reports have been around for some time, I believe, but I don’t have anything specific or any confirmation from here.
QUESTION: Is this being brought up on the side during the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna?
MS. PSAKI: Is the issue of --
QUESTION: Iran supplying Hamas with rockets?
MS. PSAKI: Not that I’m aware of. The focus is on the nuclear issue. There’s plenty to discuss on that particular issue.
QUESTION: And how do you discuss just nuclear issues with Iran when all this is going on, them supplying rockets to Hamas or Syria, and also possible destabilizing efforts in Iraq?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as we’ve long said, Lucas, obviously resolving the nuclear issue and preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is not the only issue we have with Iran. But it’s such an important issue and it’s one that’s vital to our national security interests and to the security of the region that we feel a focus on that at these discussions is absolutely appropriate.
QUESTION: But would cutting off the supply line help with the conflict currently going on in Gaza?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s clear, Lucas, that our concern and our condemnation of the rocket attacks has been consistent. And of course we’d be concerned about the suppliers, but I don’t have any more information to share on that.
Go ahead, Roz.
QUESTION: What specifically did the Secretary tell Prime Minister Netanyahu in his call?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they’ve been in close touch over the course of the last several days. They’ve been discussing the circumstances on the ground. Certainly, he commended him for his call for restraint this weekend when he was meeting with his cabinet, and they’re discussing a path forward. I think certainly Prime Minister Netanyahu is concerned about the threat that the rockets from Hamas pose to his own people. He’s spoken about that publicly. The Secretary is concerned as well, and so they’ve discussed that and they’ve had ongoing discussions.
QUESTION: Did the Secretary say to the prime minister that while it’s perfectly appropriate to defend against rocket attacks from Gaza, that any effort to launch an offensive is inflammatory?
MS. PSAKI: I wouldn’t put words in his mouth. What he’s conveyed is what I just said. And as you know, we’ve – we’re encouraging all sides to de-escalate the situation on the ground. But again, Israel has every right to defend themselves and take steps to defend themselves, as – and as we know, the aggression is currently coming from Hamas in Gaza.
QUESTION: Did the Secretary raise any concerns that the U.S. might have about Israel’s plans to call up 40,000 reservists? You don’t need 40,000 people to operate Iron Dome.
MS. PSAKI: Again, I don’t have anything more to read out from the call, so I think I’ll leave it at what I just said.
QUESTION: And then besides the time difference in trying to reach President Abbas, what would be the thrust of the Secretary’s message to him?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think it’s a similar discussion in terms of discussing the path forward and how to de-escalate the situation on the ground. Obviously, as you know, President Abbas has condemned a range of the attacks as well as the recent tragic events with the three Israeli teenagers. And the Secretary will simply have a discussion about the path forward.
QUESTION: President Abbas also noted today that this wasn’t just a matter of the Israeli Government engaged with Hamas, but that this was – and I’m paraphrasing here – an attack on the entire Palestinian people. Is that kind of language coming from Mr. Abbas appropriate?
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t see his specific comments, so I don’t have a comment on them.
Do we have more on this issue?
QUESTION: Yes, please. (Inaudible.)
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead. Go ahead in the back. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Regarding the Secretary Kerry contacts with the regional leaders, you said --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Yesterday, you didn’t give any details. Do you have something to say today?
MS. PSAKI: I can give you a list of the meetings or the engagements, and certainly it’s a discussion about the circumstances on the ground. He spoke with Qatari Foreign Minister al-Attiyah, he spoke with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. I mentioned his call with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Those are the calls that he’s had today and he’s looking to speak with President Abbas in the next 24 hours.
QUESTION: So you think that regional power or regional countries have a role to play in the escalation of this, or you just asking the two sides?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they – certainly regional countries have a stake in the stability of the region. And so the Secretary’s simply reaching out and having a discussion about the path forward with these regional leaders as well.
QUESTION: So either Prime Minister Netanyahu or Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority president, did they ask for other regional or did they ask their – your – what you call it – being in touch with leaders to be involved in this?
MS. PSAKI: I would point you to them to answer that question. I think the Secretary feels it’s only natural to have these discussions with countries in the region and their leaders.
QUESTION: So there is another thing. Related to the – just to check with you, it’s like – you said this morning he had a call with Netanyahu --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- Prime Minister Netanyahu. This is the third call in the last four days? I mean, you said before, I think it was Friday and Sunday?
MS. PSAKI: That’s correct. I believe at least three calls in the last several days. And during those calls, he certainly reiterated our concern about escalating tensions and our willingness to -- expressed our willingness to engage and helping to stop the rocket fire and restore the 2012 ceasefire as soon as possible. I mentioned the calls he’s had with foreign leaders.
Let me reiterate, just in response to Said’s earlier question, we are concerned about the safety and security of civilians on both sides and – whether that’s the residents of southern Israel who are forced to live under rocket fire in their homes and the civilians in Gaza. And that’s why we’ve called on both sides to do all they can to restore calm and to take steps to protect civilians, even as we’re working to resolve the circumstances here.
QUESTION: Yes, please. My last question: Regarding the rocket attacks, in the last two days, the – in relation to Iron Dome statistics, almost that – just 20 percent of those rockets were intercepted. Did Israel ask U.S. for more help to – regarding the rocket attacks?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not aware of any additional requests. As you know, we are – we provide a significant amount of security assistance and provisions to the Israelis.
Go ahead, Samir. Can we go to Samir just since he hasn’t had one? Go ahead, Samir.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, okay. Sorry. Go ahead, Said. Let’s do one more on this. You don’t – okay, okay. Go ahead, Samir.
QUESTION: Yes. Prime Minister Maliki in a TV address today, he accused the Kurdistan Regional Government of allowing Erbil to become a base for the ISIS and the al-Qaida and terrorists. And he also kind of confirmed that he will not allow them to take over disputed areas like Kirkuk. Do you have any reaction to this kind of a --
MS. PSAKI: Well, without seeing the full context of his comments, let me just reiterate that our view is that the focus in Iraq right now should be on taking steps to urgently move forward with government formation. There have been – there’s a long history here of a lack of inclusivity, and at this pivotal point in time, it’s important for all leaders, including Prime Minister Maliki, to act in a way that welcomes in and unites leaders in the country instead of dividing.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that Erbil might become a hotbed for extremists?
MS. PSAKI: Erbil?
MS. PSAKI: I think we’re concerned about any threat that ISIL poses to citizens and communities in Iraq.
QUESTION: Okay. And let me just follow up on the advisors on the ground. Their first assessment last week was that the Iraqis may be able to defend Baghdad but are unable to sort of retake territory already conquered by the Islamic State. Has there been any update to the situation? Are they doing anything other than assessment and perhaps talking to --
MS. PSAKI: Well, assessing is certainly a part of --
MS. PSAKI: -- what their mandate is. But I would refer you to DOD for any updates on their work on the ground.
QUESTION: Okay. But the fact that al-Baghdadi so boldly goes to a mosque that is a well-known mosque in Mosul and within – knowing exactly where he is, his location was well known and so on, is the United States or would the United States be willing to engage militarily to ensure that, like they did back in 2004 and ’05 and ’06 when they targeted Zawahiri, that they would actually target al-Baghdadi?
MS. PSAKI: You’re familiar with the options that we always have and the President always has at his disposal, but as has consistently been the case, our focus is on the political process and encouraging that to move forward. And again, we have 300 advisors on the ground. They’re in the process of assessing, but I would refer you to DOD for any more specifics on their work.
QUESTION: How realistic to – is it to assume that if Prime Minister Maliki started acting in a more inclusive way and if the Sunnis and Kurds bought into this inclusive policy of governance, that this would neutralize the threat from the Islamic State group. How realistic is this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, I think I’m not going to speculate on that. I think there’s no question in anyone’s mind that a unified Iraq and one that – where the leaders are moving forward toward a government formation would strengthen Iraq and strengthen the case and the fight against ISIL and the threat it poses.
Do we have more on --
QUESTION: But does that mean – I mean, it just seems as if the Administration has been creating this impression that if the political climate will change, then magically this threat from the Islamic State group will just --
MS. PSAKI: I don’t think --
QUESTION: -- will just be eradicated. And it seems as if, given --
MS. PSAKI: That’s not at all – let me stop you there. That’s not at all the impression we’re sending or we’re intending to send, or I don’t think anyone thinks we’re sending. We’re – our focus here is on the reality on the ground, which is that this is – there’s a grave security situation on the ground. There’s a threat that’s being posed to all Iraqi people, as well as to leaders in the region, and right now the focus should not be on political disagreements. It should be on unifying against the threat that they all face. And so what we’re talking about is how to strengthen the Iraqi leadership, Iraqi security forces, in order to take on the threat they face. And I think there’s no question that in order to work towards a long-term sustainable Iraq, that that is an essential step toward that process.
QUESTION: But given the widespread criticism of Maliki’s leadership in the past eight years, it’s going to take time to build trust among Sunnis and among Kurds. And so it just seems as if it’s going to take a while to get that political structure right-sized. In the meantime, Islamic State is going to be doing what it’s doing.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Roz, they’re meeting – let me disagree with you. They’re meeting on Sunday, as you know, to move forward with the political process. We’re encouraging them to do that rapidly. It’s up to the Iraqi people to determine who their future leadership will be, but there’s no question they have it in their capacity to move forward. And once they’ve put a new parliament – speaker of the parliament, a new president, a new prime minister in place, that will begin the path, or – be an important step on the path towards unity and towards strengthening their fight on the ground.
More on Iraq? Samir, go ahead.
QUESTION: Is Assistant Secretary McGurk still in Iraq?
MS. PSAKI: He is. Deputy assistant secretary. Yes, he’s still in Iraq.
QUESTION: He’s deputy secretary.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: What is he doing?
MS. PSAKI: He’s been working closely with a range of Iraqi leaders. He’s been working closely with Ambassador Beecroft, and they’re working to see how they can assist in moving this political process forward.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on Iraq?
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Now, the Iraqis claim that they have deployed the Sukhoi fighters that they have received from the Russians. If they can deploy these Sukhois that were apparently purchased, paid for, delivered, and deployed in the last month, why is it so difficult for them, at a time when they have been – or being trained for the past 10 years or so on to fly American fighter jets, why is it so difficult for them to receive those jets?
MS. PSAKI: Well, first let me say there’ve been a range of reports about what’s happening on the ground and whether they’re Russian-made aircraft, whether they’re – what country they’re coming from, and I don’t have any confirmation of those specifics. We’ve seen all the reports. We’re aware there are Iranian operatives inside Iraq, that Iran has provided some supplies for Iraq’s armed forces.
But again, we take steps as the United States Government to ensure that any country – Iraq included, of course – is prepared to and equipped to accept and utilize the equipment that we’re providing. And that’s a natural part of the process, and one certainly, I think, that’s supported broadly by the United States Congress.
QUESTION: So do you suspect that Iran may be conducting these aerial bombardments?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to speculate on that, Said. I don’t have any confirmation of those I can offer from here.
Do we have any more on Iraq?
QUESTION: Yes, one more.
MS. PSAKI: Okay. Go ahead, Goyal.
QUESTION: Thank you, madam. Madam, my question is that – do you consider – I mean, U.S. – does U.S. consider Abu Baghdadi the next or similar to Usama bin Ladin, as he claims himself? And he has put a number of countries on alert, including U.S., India, and western countries, among others.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Goyal, I certainly spoke extensively to this the other day, but let me just reiterate. We’ve seen these type of videos and messages from ISIL and terrorist groups like ISIL in the past, and the goal here is to divide along sectarian lines the people of Iraq and to control people through terrorist means based in repressive ideology. And certainly, we have great concern about that and we have – that’s why it’s so important to express the fact that these are ruthless – this is a ruthless terrorist organization that’s only serving to divide. I’m not going to make any comparisons other than to say that you certainly know where we stand on ISIL and the fact that it is a ruthless terrorist organization, and I think that speaks to how we feel about one of its leaders.
QUESTION: And finally, on Saudi, one more quickly. One, where are they getting all this financial help to get all these weapons and all these threats? I’m sure somebody big must be behind them. And second, finally, can you confirm if there is a $10 million or more reward on him or his organization?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any details on their financial backing. I would point you to the Iraqis for that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MS. PSAKI: Oh, sorry, Lucas. On Iraq or --
MS. PSAKI: Uh-huh. Go ahead. Okay, we’ll go to you next. Sorry about that. Go ahead, Lucas.
QUESTION: Okay, no problem.
QUESTION: Have you seen reports that ISIS has issued its own passports?
MS. PSAKI: I’ve not seen those reports.
QUESTION: Is there a plan from the State Department and U.S. Government to counter ISIS’ social media presence?
MS. PSAKI: To counter ISIS’ social media presence?
QUESTION: Social media. Mm-hmm.
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think first one of the – we use every tool in our toolbox to communicate what’s accurate, and that’s something the Iraqi Government does and we work with them to do as well. And obviously, speaking from the podium and the Secretary speaking out about the circumstances on the ground, the President speaking out, sends a powerful message to people in Iraq and people in the region.
QUESTION: Would it just be working with the Iraqi Government, because the Islamic State now covers a broad swath of territory?
MS. PSAKI: Well, no. Obviously, it’s working with countries in the region, and it’s vitally important to make sure that we continue to communicate and countries in the region continue to communicate that ISIL is a terrorist organization, that they are – their goal is to divide the Iraqi people, divide people in the region among sectarian lines. There’s a long history of fighting against that and uniting against that, and that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so engaged in encouraging countries in the region and their leadership to send that message as well.
QUESTION: And would the U.S. Government recognize an ISIL passport should someone come to the airport?
MS. PSAKI: I think that’s highly unlikely, Lucas.
QUESTION: It has been about a month now there are 49 Turkish consulate staff and diplomats still being held hostage by the ISIS. Do you have any update on any of those?
MS. PSAKI: I do not have an update. We remain in regular touch through our team on the ground with Turkish officials, and of course, we remain concerned about those who are being held, as we do about Americans who have been held, as we do about any international citizens who are being held by ISIL.
QUESTION: Have Turkish officials asked you any kind of help to --
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any update to offer for you on this case.
QUESTION: Last time you said that a door is – door remains open if there is any need by Ankara. The door is still open?
MS. PSAKI: Certainly. And we are engaged in continued discussions.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have that information in front of me. I’m sure we can check. I believe there are some for some of these officials, but we can get that around to all of you and it’s available on our website as well, of course.
QUESTION: Right, okay. And if it hasn’t been done, can you let us know whether it’s being considered?
MS. PSAKI: We certainly don’t get into what’s being considered or isn’t being considered. But if there’s publicly available information on our website, we will pull that together and send that to all of you about anyone who has a Rewards for Justice – is linked to the program.
Go ahead, Scott.
QUESTION: On China?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
MS. PSAKI: I have some information on this and some of it we’re still gathering, Scott. But we are concerned – there were two Chinese recipients of the Secretary’s International Women of Courage Awards who were invited to a private dinner focused on women’s issues. We are concerned that Tsering Woeser was placed under house arrest and prevented from attending – I believe the other recipient as well – and we’re looking into the matter to determine more details about what happened here and, of course, the reasons.
QUESTION: Has that been communicated with Chinese officials at the highest level, since some of the highest levels are in Beijing right now?
MS. PSAKI: I would have to check and see if this is an issue that came up in the dialogue in those discussions. And why don’t I do that, and we’ll let you know.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t – there have not been new, additional calls today, no.
QUESTION: So what is the assessment of the situation in Afghanistan right now? Do you believe that the two candidates are heading towards any kind of reconciliation?
MS. PSAKI: Well, in all of the discussions, whether it’s the Secretary or Ambassador Cunningham or Ambassador Dobbins, in all of the conversations we’re continuing to urge both candidates and their campaigns to refrain from statements and actions that could jeopardize the electoral process. As we’ve said, we expect allegations of fraud to be reported and investigated by the relevant commissions. And so we continue to talk to the parties involved and deliver our message that both sides need to remain engaged with the electoral institutions to avoid violence or threats of violence, and to avoid any move towards or call for extra-constitutional measures, and also to engage with each other. So these are messages that we’re consistently sending through our senior leadership on the ground, and I expect that will continue in the coming days.
QUESTION: So what kind of action do you plan to take if they go ahead with the extra-constitutional measures which they have announced --
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t --
QUESTION: -- like announcing a cabinet or --
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. I don’t want to speculate on that, other than to say it certainly is not our preference. Our preference is to continue providing the type of support and assistance that we have been to Afghanistan. Our preference is to continue to move forward, and we fully expect we can with the planned presence that the President announced just a few weeks ago.
I stated this yesterday, but we have – we remain confident – and I spoke with our team this morning about this – that the audit process can be completed in time to allow the inauguration of the next president. And in the meantime, the fact is that there have been reports – really, not new this morning but over the last couple of days – of plans to declare victory or create a parallel government. And those are steps that we don’t think would be productive or beneficial to the Afghan people or the future of Afghanistan. And we won’t be able to provide the type of support that we would like to if things continue down that path. But that’s certainly not our preference.
QUESTION: And finally, given the current situation right now that Afghanistan is in, is the Administration considering it to review the policies that it has in Afghanistan regarding post-2014 presence, number of troops that you’re planning to draw?
MS. PSAKI: As I noted, we have every confidence that an audit process can be concluded in plenty of time for the presidential inauguration that’s scheduled for August 2nd. And as you know, both candidates have committed to signing the BSA, so we’ll look forward to hopefully moving this process forward.
QUESTION: And one more. If the U.S. is in talks with the regional countries like India, Pakistan, possibly Iran, too, on bringing the situation under control in Afghanistan.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any contacts along those lines to read out for you. I’m happy to check and see if I think – if we’re in – if we’ve been in touch on the ground with India and Pakistan about these issues. Not that I’m aware of at this point in time.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) aid message? At first blush, it looks like a threat: If you don’t do this the right way, the U.S. is not going to provide aid. But I’m wondering whether there are – what the legal restrictions are on providing foreign aid when there is a disputed election and there are questions about what is the legitimate government in country X.
MS. PSAKI: It’s not a threat. I wasn’t trying to make a legal point. I think the fact is that if they’re not abiding by their constitution, it makes it difficult for us to continue to provide the kind of support that we have been and we would like to. But that certainly is not our preference and not what our focus is on at this point in time.
QUESTION: How does it make – what is it that makes it difficult? Is it U.S. law that a government has to be properly constituted in order for the U.S. to provide foreign aid?
MS. PSAKI: It’s our policy, Roz. But if there’s a legal component, I’m happy to check on that as well for all of you.
QUESTION: So this is not a threat. This is soft warning kind of thing?
MS. PSAKI: It’s neither. It’s a statement of fact.
QUESTION: All right. (Inaudible.)
MS. PSAKI: Afghanistan?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Madam, just quickly. Just – is Secretary planning to visit the region, including Afghanistan, any time soon?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any travel to outline for or announce for all of you today.
QUESTION: Thank you, ma’am.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Ambassador Dobbins is still doing his special envoy message or is --
MS. PSAKI: He is. We expect he’ll be here until about the end of the month, and Dan Feldman will be transitioning in over the course of that time.
MS. PSAKI: Do we have any more on Afghanistan? Okay, Bahrain.
MS. PSAKI: Who’s criticizing?
QUESTION: It’s in the newspapers and there are editorials.
MS. PSAKI: Do you have any specific names or just --
QUESTION: The Washington Post today had --
MS. PSAKI: -- unnamed sources?
QUESTION: No, the Washington Post today was – had an editorial that is not quite complimentary to the way you handled the issue.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I think we were very clear that we found some of the requests issued by the Government of Bahrain to be inappropriate and contravening international diplomatic norms and conventions. We also have an important relationship with the Government of Bahrain. We’ve made our concerns known. We’ve voiced those both publicly and privately, and so I would point you to that.
MS. PSAKI: And I can also confirm for all of you that we registered a formal complaint with the Embassy of the Kingdom of Bahrain in D.C. in the last 24 hours. We’ll have probably more of an update on that later today.
QUESTION: If you were to counteraction, so to speak – if you take a counteraction, what would you do in this case? I mean, Bahrain is a small country that the United States protects in many ways. You have a major fleet out there to protect the country from any imagined aggression or possible aggression. So why do you think Bahrain has done this?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re considering our response to the government’s decision and I’m not going to speculate on that further.
Do we have more on Bahrain or a new topic?
Go ahead, Lucas.
QUESTION: Just going back to the Secretary’s editorial piece, I was wondering, out of the 53 nominees that are awaiting confirmation, does one of them include a nominee to be the new special ambassador for international religious freedom?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think you’re familiar with the publicly announced nominations and who has made it through the committee and made it onto the Senate floor. And as you know, that position is a priority for the Administration and one that we intend to fill soon.
QUESTION: But Jen, you’ve said that a number of times. The President asked for it during the prayer breakfast in February. How long does it take just to make a nomination? I assume it’s a few phone calls.
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me first assure you that we have a team of people who work on issues of international religious freedom. Certainly, having an ambassador in place is always our preference, as is evidenced by the Secretary’s op-ed. But we have a team working every day on these issues. We raise them at the highest level every day. But we’re looking, as with any position, to find the right person for the job. And I think in the meantime, as the Secretary’s op-ed said, the Senate can move forward with confirming dozens of nominees who are sitting and waiting.
QUESTION: But the Secretary said he wanted those positions filled, the ambassador post, because it’s a critical time and it sends a bad message when you don’t fill the positions. If this is a position that’s maybe largely ceremonial, what message is that sending? Is it saying that the United States doesn’t care about religion?
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t state that at all. In fact, the United States cares deeply about human rights issues, including freedom of religion, and that’s one of the reasons that we’re working hard to find the right person and fill it with the right person for the job.
QUESTION: Yes, please. This editorial piece by the Secretary --
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: -- in Politico.
MS. PSAKI: Yes.
QUESTION: You mentioned that nearly 40 countries, they don’t have ambassadors, and then you mentioned too that it’s – although some of them were even approved by the Committee for Foreign Relation, yet the Senate didn’t approve them – I mean, or at least confirm them. And we know that the Senate is majority Democratic. So how do you explain? Because the Secretary just highlight an issue, but he didn’t explain why these people are approved or not approved and what is this process not going on?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re dealing with a logjam Congress, logjam Senate and House right now, and a big part of that is that there is opposition to moving forward with anything, whether it is legislation or the approval of nominees, and one party can’t do it on their own. So in this case, there are options that the Senate has at their disposal, and that includes a voice vote on dozens of noncontroversial nominees. These are officials who have served their country as Foreign Service officers for decades, many of them. There’s nothing controversial about them. They have decades of experience and they would play vital roles on the ground. And that’s why it’s – we’re pushing this so strongly. They can voice vote them through. And many of them receive approval of 93 to1 or 97 to1 anyway, while at the same time they’re waiting. Of the 37 floor nominees, they’ve waited an average of 245 days. That’s over eight months to be confirmed while there’s no ambassador in many of these pivotal countries.
The other option that’s mentioned in the op-ed is expediting confirmations for career employees, as it does – I mentioned that a little bit – for military – that happens with the military as well. So there are a range of options that the Senate can move forward with and we’re urging them to do so.
QUESTION: So the other question related – because this was – this issue was raised over the last – many times and – whether it was the case with having an ambassador in Moscow or whether in India or in Egypt for months. And the answer was coming from this podium, there are a lot of capable people and they are doing – we don’t need the – I mean, it’s not – we didn’t – you didn’t say you don’t need, but it’s like whether the ambassador is there or not, the job is done. What happened in the last few weeks or months that change your --
MS. PSAKI: The two are not contradictory, and I would go back to Lucas’s question. We have capable mid to senior-level employees and staff, whether they’re career staff or Foreign Service officers or political staff, serving at our posts and embassies around the world. But there is no question that it would be helpful and it’s vitally important to have ambassadors and leaders at the helm in some of these important countries around the world where they’re facing some of the biggest global challenges we face. And so we’re looking to move things forward quickly.
QUESTION: Somehow related to this issue is the issue of perception, which is always either, like, appreciated or ignored here. Because it’s how others are looking to United States, especially with – regarding the ambassadors. Do you think this perception is right, when people – they don’t have ambassadors – U.S. ambassadors there, they feel that it is not – somehow their issues are not handled enough?
MS. PSAKI: Are – sorry, can you --
QUESTION: I mean, are you considering that it’s an issue, the impression that if U.S. doesn’t have an ambassador, as Ambassador Kerry – Secretary Kerry was raising the issue, the necessity of having the leadership role, so the presence of ambassadors are important or not?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely, vitally important to have the individual at the helm of any post or embassy in these countries around the world. And when you have dozens that are vacant, that leaves a void of leadership at the top that we think needs to be avoided, because there’s a real national security issue at stake here.
QUESTION: A follow-up on that question?
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Is this the reason why the Administration has not announced a new – nomination for new ambassador to India?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as you know, the last ambassador just left her post and served there for the last – over a year. And obviously, it’s a vitally important position, and with many you just have to work through the process and find the right person for the position. What I’m talking about here is slightly different, which is individuals who have been nominated who have waited an average of 245 days, over 8 months, to be confirmed. So there are people who have been sitting waiting to go to these countries to serve proudly in these countries who haven’t been confirmed on the Senate floor.
QUESTION: So even if you nominate an ambassador to India now, it would take – it will be early next year that you have a new ambassador --
MS. PSAKI: Well, we certainly hope not.
QUESTION: You’re concerned even by these --
MS. PSAKI: And that’s a great example. I think everybody agrees that we should have an ambassador to India in place. And as soon as one is nominated, we’re hopeful that the Senate will move forward as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Is that, Madam, since India has now a new prime minister, a new government, it’s taking time because it had to find the right person for India, the U.S’s next ambassador?
MS. PSAKI: No, it – not at all. It’s not taking a great deal of time at all. We’re – we have to work through the process of finding the right person for these pivotal positions.
QUESTION: But sometime it’s consultations between the two governments, right?
MS. PSAKI: Certainly, that’s a part of any process.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Going back to the Senate, Senate Democrats have been putting the blame on Senate Republicans for holding up these nominations, but you have Senate Republicans saying look, Senator Reid, who’s a Democrat, controls the schedule on these votes and he’s been prioritizing judicial nominees over State Department nominees, perhaps because that’s the Administration’s priority. Do you feel that the White House is prioritizing State Department nominees and that Senate Democrats are as well?
MS. PSAKI: Well, a couple of important points here. One is there has been a logjam in the Senate on the Senate floor about nominations and legislation long before Senator – Majority Leader Reid moved forward with the nuclear option several months ago. That was put in place because there was a complete deadlock on getting anything done in the Senate at all. And I think the point you raised is an important one and that there – all you need for a voice vote is unanimous consent. And when you’re talking about a vote that could be 97 to 1 or 90 to 1 or 80 to 1 or 80 to 5, whatever it may be, there’s no reason they shouldn’t have a voice vote for the majority of these nominees. That’s an easy thing that the Senate can do on the Senate floor, and we encourage them to do that.
QUESTION: And then going back to what the Secretary said in this op-ed and what you actually just said earlier from the podium, he said that the length and number of these vacancies compromise national security, citing a few examples, as you did, of places where maybe greater capacity or presence would strengthen the partnership or help maintain the partnership in these countries.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: But are there specific cases where the State Department feels U.S. national security has been compromised by a nomination being held up in the Senate?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think in any case there are nominations – and I think I listed a bunch of the specific examples of individuals who have been waiting for months, if not longer. I don’t want to parse it further than what the Secretary did in his op-ed.
Go ahead. Scott? Oh. Scott.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
MS. PSAKI: Certainly. One, there’s nothing out of the norm about this at all. We – let me just get a quick update and see where we are on this. It’s customary practice, diplomatic practice, to put in place a charge when we do not have ambassadors at the mission. This is not a new practice. There was an acting charge there previously, and Lee McClenny’s arrival is part of a routine personnel rotation.
QUESTION: Well, it might not be unusual logistically, but relations between the United States and Venezuela are unusual.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So I mean, what about the circumstances between the United States and Venezuela, as reflected by this move?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it doesn’t change the fact that there are a range of reasons why we have a diplomatic presence in countries, even where we don’t agree on every issue. And certainly, in this case, as I mentioned the other day, the Venezuelan Government has tried repeatedly over the last couple of months to shift focus from its mistakes and Venezuela’s problems to the bilateral relationship. But again, it’s still, in our view, productive to have a presence where we can. There are American citizens that we can provide services to, we can voice concerns where we have them, and those are some of the important tools that our diplomatic embassies and posts serve as well.
QUESTION: Can we go to Syria real quick?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
MS. PSAKI: The Secretary looks forward to congratulating him. He hasn’t had a chance to do that yet. As you know, it’s the middle of night in China.
QUESTION: Right. Okay. Who is the point person that is conducting affairs with the Syrian opposition at the present time? I mean, it was – in the past it was Ambassador Ford, then it was --
MS. PSAKI: Daniel Rubinstein?
MS. PSAKI: Continues to be.
QUESTION: He continues to be?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Are there any – what is the latest on their – whatever negotiations or talks? What is the likelihood of having a Geneva III or anything like that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I think you’re familiar with the range of steps we’ve taken over the course of the last several weeks, even. The President announced additional assistance and additional funding to the moderate opposition. We remain in close touch with the opposition, obviously, working to elect new leadership at this time. And obviously, there are specific restrictions on how many consecutive terms that leaders can serve in the SOC is an important part of what took place in this case. They elected, in addition to the new president – and let me just note this – they also elected three new vice presidents and a new secretary general. And we understand the new president is planning a press conference later today, so I’d point you to that for any specific update.
But again, this is a group that has given – the coalition has given a voice to all Syrians who have been oppressed by the regime for decades. We remain committed to supporting them, and obviously, the President’s announcement from a few weeks ago is evidence of that. And we remain – continue – committed to continuing to support them in their effort to work on behalf of the Syrian people. So there are a range of steps we take every day to work toward that.
QUESTION: The Syrian air force bombarded bases or convoys of ISIL right at the border, the Syria and Iraq border. And do you welcome that kind of activity?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any confirmation of those specifics, Said.
Do we have any more on Syria? Go ahead.
QUESTION: Can you confirm reports that the UN Secretary-General is going to appoint today Ambassador de Mistura as a – to replace Brahimi as an envoy to Syria?
MS. PSAKI: I’ve seen those reports. I would point you to the UN to – for confirmation.
Do we have a few in the back? Go ahead. Oh, go ahead. In the front, in the middle. Go ahead.
QUESTION: North Korea?
MS. PSAKI: North Korea, sure.
MS. PSAKI: The United States is concerned by reports of yet another round of North Korean launches, the fourth in less than two weeks. As we have emphasized, such provocative actions unilaterally heighten tensions in the region, and they will not provide North Korea with the prosperity and security it claims to seek. We once again note with concern North Korea’s apparent failure to provide prior notification to merchant ships, fishing vessels, and passenger and cargo aircraft in the vicinity, despite international provisions to do so. And we once again urge North Korea to refrain from taking provocative actions, and instead fulfill its international obligations and commitment.
QUESTION: A follow-up question?
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Yeah. Pentagon has just confirmed that these missiles were Scud ballistic missiles and this launch is a violation of a number of UN Security Council resolutions. Do you have any plan to take action against the North at the Security Council? Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any confirmation of those specific details or reports when I came down here. I can circle back with our team. Obviously, we take any violation seriously and have in the past certainly encouraged the UN Security Council to move forward with steps.
QUESTION: Do you believe Hollywood movies are to blame for the North Korean launch, Scud launches?
MS. PSAKI: I think they’ve been around long before this – recent Hollywood movies about these issues.
QUESTION: Jen, is it related to the S&ED held in Beijing?
MS. PSAKI: Are the launches related to?
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MS. PSAKI: I can’t speculate or make a prediction of what the cause of their launches are. As you know, this is the fourth in less than two weeks, and so it’s merely provocative actions that they’re taking from their end. Certainly, we’re concerned, as are countries in the region concerned about these steps.
QUESTION: And a follow-up. But the fact that they did choose to fire this missile during this meeting, S&ED, does it affect in any way the U.S. and China interacting in Beijing?
MS. PSAKI: Well, the – certainly, North Korea and the threat from North Korea is a part of the agenda at the S&ED and has long been planned to be a part of the agenda. And I know that they discussed and will continue to discuss these issues over the next remaining day of the meetings there.
QUESTION: What is the U.S. view --
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: What is the U.S. view on Japanese Government still are going to keep contacting with North Korea on the abduction issue, and they are going to carefully watch the procedure of the discussion?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Well, we have spoken to this a bit in the past, but I’m happy to reiterate what our statements have been on this.
We continue to support Japanese efforts to resolve the abductions issues in a transparent manner. We are closely coordinating with our allies and partners, including Japan, taking – in an effort to take appropriate measures to address the threat to global security posed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs, but would refer you to the Government of Japan for any additional information about these discussions.
Go ahead, Scott.
QUESTION: But is it right for the Japanese to include the possibility of unilaterally lifting some of their sanctions as part of these negotiations, given what you have termed these provocative actions by North Korea?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as far as I’m last aware, I don’t believe there’s been any public announcements in that regard. There have been a range of reports and rumors, but I’m not going to speculate on proposals that haven’t been announced.
Great. Thanks, everyone.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:53 p.m.)