11:51 a.m. EDT
MR PATEL: Hey, everybody. Good afternoon. Just some housekeeping. I do have a bit of a hard out today, so I ask that you keep your follow ups limited so we can make sure to work the room and keep your questions concise.
So first and foremost, I want to welcome a special group of visitors to the briefing room: 21 journalists from around the world are observing the briefing today as part of the department’s International Visitor Leadership Program, a three-week professional exchange program for current and emerging foreign leaders. Throughout their stay, these journalists will visit a variety of U.S. communities to examine the essential role of independent media in fostering and protecting freedom of expression and democracy, a core value for us here at the State Department and, of course, throughout the administration.
Shaun, if you want to kick us off.
QUESTION: Thanks. Can I start with Taiwan?
MR PATEL: You can start with whatever you’d like.
QUESTION: Sure. The – I mean, first of all, I guess the Chinese reaction to the meeting yesterday between Speaker McCarthy and President Tsai. There were some warships sent to Taiwan Strait. Do you have any assessment or any comment on what China has done in explicit reaction to this?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple things, Shaun. First, without getting into the specifics, we have many channels to communicate with PRC counterparts, and we remain committed to maintaining open channels of communication as to prevent the risk of any kind of miscalculation.
But broadly speaking, our channels remain open, and we have always consistently urged restraint in that message. The U.S. and the PRC have differences when it comes to Taiwan, but we’ve managed those differences for over 40 years. Peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait are not only longstanding U.S. interests, but they are also global interests and interests of global concern. We share with other countries an abiding interest in peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, but also broadly in the Indo-Pacific region as well. And we continue to urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful diplomacy. There’s no reason to turn this transit, which is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy, into something that it’s not or use it as a pretext to overreact.
QUESTION: I’ll take your advice and not ask you too many follow ups today, but the – when you say that you’re urging Beijing not to use military, diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, in this context do you think that’s what’s been happening? Is – are you specifically criticizing what happened —
MR PATEL: I’m not going to characterize the PRC reaction one way or the other. But again, what I want to be very clear about that – and you’ve heard myself and also the Secretary speak to this as recently as yesterday in Brussels – that this is longstanding. There is precedent here, and there’s no reason to turn something that is consistent with U.S. policy, consistent with our “one China” policy into something that it’s not.
Iain, go ahead.
QUESTION: We haven’t seen too much reaction from China compared to the military exercises and the response that we saw when Pelosi visited – former House Speaker Pelosi visited Taiwan. Is the U.S. in any way reassured that China doesn’t seem to be doing that sort of overreacting that the White House has been warning about?
MR PATEL: I think broadly what I would just say, Iain, is that we have channels to communicate with our PRC counterparts and we remain open to those channels of communications, as to prevent any risk or miscalculation. And you’ll know, Iain, that this is something the Secretary has raised consistently in every engagement, interaction that he’s had with his counterparts in the PRC, but also we’ve done so at other levels as well.
QUESTION: Thank you. McCarthy yesterday after the meeting said they had discussed how to speed up weapons deliveries to Taiwan and Representative Gallagher said he’d like to look for ways to get Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Taiwan ahead of the schedule to go to Saudi Arabia. Is that something that the administration is considering or would consider? And are you looking at ways to speed up these weapons deliveries?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple things. First, the U.S. Government is actively reviewing our policies and processes to ensure that we move arm sales as quickly as possible, particularly for Taiwan. Consistent with the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. makes available to Taiwan defense articles and services necessary to enable and maintain a sufficient self-defense capability. But I’m not going to just get ahead of any specific processes just yet.
QUESTION: Thank you. Just to clarify, you – this department has said that when the conditions are right Secretary Blinken’s trip to Beijing can be rescheduled.
MR PATEL: That continues to be the case.
QUESTION: And so when you say that the – you have channels to talk to PRC, this meeting again between McCarthy and the Taiwanese president no way is a factor at determining the timing or when that trip might be rescheduled? You don’t see it as a —
MR PATEL: It’s certainly not a factor on our end. Again, we maintain these open lines of communication. We have been quite clear since a couple months ago, when the trip got rescheduled, that we intend to put it back on the calendar when conditions allow. It’s something the Secretary had the opportunity to mention to his counterpart State Councilor Wang Yi, and it’s something that we continue to be very clear about as well.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. I want to talk about the Palestinian issue.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on PRC issues.
MR PATEL: Can I do PRC and I’ll come back to you, Said?
QUESTION: Sure. Yeah, go ahead.
MR PATEL: Janne, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Regarding the Department of State’s integrated national strategy, what new policies, if any? And if China has to pressure North Korea, what tool will the United States use?
MR PATEL: What tools will the United States use to —
MR PATEL: — encourage the PRC to —
QUESTION: Yes. Pressure towards North Korea.
MR PATEL: — influence the DPRK? Is that – I’m understanding your question correctly? Janne, we have been very consistent that countries that have influence and relationships with the DPRK have a responsibility to engage with them and to encourage them to cease their dangerous, reckless, and destabilizing activities that have the potential to impact not just across the Indo-Pacific but the region more broadly. We believe that needs to be a case through the auspices of the UN Security Council, as there are a number of UN Security Council sanctions in place as it relates to the DPRK, and so that’s going to be – continue to be our viewpoint on this.
QUESTION: They have —
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room, Janne, because I do need to —
QUESTION: One more – quickly.
MR PATEL: Okay.
QUESTION: Do you think China can stop North Korea’s seventh nuclear test?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get into hypotheticals or be prescriptive about what a country can or can’t do. Coming back to Said.
QUESTION: Can I just do one more on China.
QUESTION: I promise to be quick.
MR PATEL: Let’s wrap it up.
QUESTION: Just to see if you have any reaction on Macron’s – President Macron’s visit to China and his call on – with China regarding the Ukraine conflict?
MR PATEL: Sure. So Shaun, President Biden spoke with President Macron on April 4th in advance of his trip, and during that call they discussed President Macron’s travels and reiterated the – both of our countries, the United States and France’s steadfast support for Ukraine.
The United States and France share concerns regarding the challenge the PRC poses to the rules‑based international order, including through Beijing’s ongoing support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. I will let our French allies speak at greater length about their engagements with the PRC, but that’s where we’re at right now.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: On al-Aqsa storming by the Israeli police and Israeli troops over the past two nights. Do you have any comment on that? I mean, isn’t it – it seems to have been unprovoked.
MR PATEL: Look, Said, we are concerned by the scenes out of Jerusalem, and it is our viewpoint that it is absolutely vital that the sanctity of holy sites be preserved. We emphasize the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem, and any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo to us is unacceptable. And we call for restraint, coordination, and calm during the holiday season.
QUESTION: Have you called the Israelis? Has anyone called the prime minister’s officer or the ministerial for —
MR PATEL: I don’t have any specific calls to read out, Said, but you —
QUESTION: — to urge them not to do this again?
MR PATEL: You know —
QUESTION: Because obviously – I mean, the writing is the wall. They will keep doing this all throughout the month of Ramadan.
MR PATEL: Said —
QUESTION: And that can only – as we have seen today, that will only provoke counter violence.
MR PATEL: Said, I don’t have any specific calls or engagements to read out to you, but we are in constant and regular touch with our Israeli partners as well as the Palestinian Authority about these issues, and so we’ll continue to raise them directly.
QUESTION: Right. But it was – it has been all along the position of the – this Secretary of State and this administration that to calm down in Ramadan.
MR PATEL: That continues —
QUESTION: But we have seen exactly the opposite. I mean, the – it seems like the – maybe the Israeli Government, maybe the prime minister himself thinks that by exploiting his —
MR PATEL: Said, the —
QUESTION: — this crisis into the al-Aqsa maybe that would help him?
MR PATEL: Said, from this very podium, you have seen myself, you’ve seen Ned Price and other administration officials emphasize the importance of upholding the historic status quo of these historic holy sites in Jerusalem, and we continue to say, quite forcefully, that any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo is unacceptable and that continues to be our posture on this.
QUESTION: I have a couple more questions.
MR PATEL: Said, I really want to make sure that I work the room before I have to go upstairs.
QUESTION: About a U.S. citizen who has been incarcerated —
MR PATEL: Okay. Briefly.
QUESTION: — by the Israelis. He’s an elderly man. He’s a U.S. citizen. He’s a well-known businessman from Youngstown, Ohio. He’s under administrative detention. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PATEL: Said —
QUESTION: Are you aware of this situation?
MR PATEL: Said, you’ve covered the State Department long enough to know that when privacy considerations are at play, we have a limit to what we can offer from up here. And so what I would say is that we are aware of these reports of the detention of a U.S. citizen in Israel, and broadly we take our very important role in assisting U.S. citizens abroad seriously and are continuing to monitor the situation.
QUESTION: Can I follow up?
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Change of topic.
MR PATEL: Yes. Go ahead.
QUESTION: To Haiti.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) please?
MR PATEL: Can I do Michel? I’ll come back to you. Go ahead, Michel.
QUESTION: You have any comment on the escalation of tension between Israel and Lebanon and rockets attack?
MR PATEL: Michel, we condemn the launch of rockets from Lebanon and Gaza at Israel. Our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad, and we recognize Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself against all forms of aggression.
QUESTION: Vedant —
MR PATEL: Can I come back to you?
MR PATEL: I’m going to – we’ll – I’ll come back to you, if I can, Camilla. Kathleen’s had her hand up for some time.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Haiti. Yesterday, the administration sanctioned and designated Gary Bodeau, who seems to be one of the more senior political figures that you’ve done that to, in a long list of corruption allegations. But I wanted to know if you have any evidence that he has financed the gangs or imported weapons for the gangs? And this then leads to the perennial question of is there any progress on forming any kind of a international peacekeeping or security force for Haiti? And then finally, the Montana Accord, what is the administration’s position on them? And do you envision them as being part of any future transitional government? Thanks.
MR PATEL: So on your second question, we’re going to have to follow up with you. We’ll check with the team and see if we have any updates to offer.
But on the designation that we made yesterday, look, I’m not going to get into the specifics of what we read out. But we were very clear in the Secretary’s statement that during his tenure, Bodeau perpetrated significant corruption in Haiti by using his official position to solicit and facilitate bribery schemes designated to influence the outcome of political appointments. Such acts like these contributed to ongoing violence, instability, and absence of the rule of law in Haiti, and that’s why you saw the State Department and Treasury take very serious action yesterday.
QUESTION: Also, on —
MR PATEL: Before – hold on. There’s some commotion on this side of the room.
QUESTION: In talking with Michel, you mentioned that you condemn any rocket fire, you said, from Israel, Gaza, Lebanon. There’s reporting that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told its ambassadors to tell his countries that Israel will retaliate to Lebanon’s rocket fire. Does that mean you condemn that, or are you going to issue a statement when that happens?
MR PATEL: Well, Camilla, what you just heard me say is that we have a very clear viewpoint on this, which is that Israel has legitimate security concerns and it has every right to defend itself from these legitimate security concerns. I don’t have any specific diplomatic communications to read out or offer a perspective on, but the – Israel has legitimate security concerns and has every right to defend itself.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. So on Georgia.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: We saw the press release yesterday. Four supreme court judges in Georgia have been designated by the U.S. State Department due to the involvement in significant corruption and for undermining the rule of law in Georgia, Georgia’s judicial system. So this sent shock waves through Tbilisi, and very jittery leaders of the ruling Georgian Dream Party unleashed a full-blown attack against the U.S. department, State Department, and promised a re-evaluation of the diplomatic relations.
Georgian foreign minister this morning sent a open letter to the Secretary Blinken, and it said that it was unacceptable and that he hopes that U.S. would either present the evidence or reconsider its decision. What would be your response?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things. First, from the very beginning, the American people have stood in solidarity with the people of Georgia and their desire to be a free and sovereign country within its internationally recognized borders. And over the last 30 years, we have become strategic partners working toward our shared vision of Georgia – fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic family of nations and part of Europe, whole, free, and at peace.
Specifically, on the designations that we announced yesterday, we have credible information that these individuals were involved in significant corruption related to their current and former judicial positions. This corruption undermined the rule of law in Georgia. It undermined Georgia’s democratic processes. It damaged the public’s faith in Georgia’s democratic institutions and officials.
As we’ve previously said, information is gathered from a variety of sources, including open source, and we have very credible information to believe that there was significant involvement in this corruption.
MR PATEL: Alex.
MR PATEL: I’m going to – I’m going to work —
MR PATEL: Okay. Let me do one follow-up, Alex, and I’ll come back to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: What are the exact actions of these judges that led you to believe that they are engaged in corruption? If you have those facts, will you send it to the Georgian officials for further investigation?
And one more question, please. Do you think that it is timely to impose sanctions on the judges? Don’t you think that it might be a – light a big fire and bring more polarization between Georgian political parties and interfere with Georgia’s integration inside the European continent?
MR PATEL: I’m going to stop you right there. The sanctions and designations were just announced yesterday, so I don’t think that it is time to lift them, if that was your question.
Number one, as I said previously, the State Department has gathered this information from a variety of sources, including open sources. Credible information was obtained that these individuals abused their public positions by participating in corrupt activity. And I’m just not going to get into further specifics from up here.
Alex, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on that. We have seen Georgian Dream government taking punitive actions against Tbilisi protest participants. Are sanctions such that we should expect more from this government?
MR PATEL: The U.S. will continue to have a number of tools at its disposal to hold these kinds of individuals accountable, Alex. I’m not going to be prescriptive from here.
QUESTION: Sure. Moving into Russia.
MR PATEL: Sure. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Russian court will hear from reporter Evan on April 18th. Just to be clear, the charges against him are trumped up. Do you agree with that assessment?
MR PATEL: So, Alex, I would point you no further than what Secretary Blinken said about this yesterday in Brussels in that he was very clear that it had – he had no doubt in his mind that Mr. Gershkovich was in fact being wrongfully detained. The – which is – and you saw me speak to this last week, that there – we believe that there’s no reason to believe any of these charges.
We are working through the formal determination process and the policy process in which those work out. I don’t have any update to offer on that beyond what Secretary Blinken said yesterday.
But broadly, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens around the world, including those that are being detained, wrongfully detained, or being held hostage.
QUESTION: Can you just walk us through the process? Without naming a name or this particular case, what does it look like? Does it also include Secretary talking to Lavrov and some other —
MR PATEL: Well, the Secretary spoke to Lavrov. He spoke to Lavrov on Sunday. And he was very clear that the United States found this detention unacceptable, and he called for his release. And he also called for the release of wrongfully detained American citizen Paul Whelan as well.
QUESTION: My question is why is it taking this long? Is it taking —
MR PATEL: Alex, this is a – this is a very deliberate process, a process bound in important policy and law, and we want to make sure that that process happens in a way that does justice to this process.
QUESTION: Yes. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied today any trafficking of fentanyl or fentanyl precursors from China to Mexico. This happens, as you know, after the Mexican president said there is no production of fentanyl in Mexico and asked China for help. What does the U.S. has to do – has to say about this?
MR PATEL: I’ve spoken about this a little bit broadly. The Secretary views the threat of – that fentanyl poses – is an important priority of his. And a specific piece of that, of course, is fentanyl precursors originating from China and other parts of the world. But I’m not just – I don’t have anything new to update or offer on that.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Vedant. On Bangladesh.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Recent investigative documented by German-based news organization Deutsche Welle and Sweden-based Netra News have jointly revealed that Bangladesh allied force Rapid Action Battalion has been involved in extrajudicial and political killings. For the first time, two insiders-turned-whistleblowers have now spoken out about the inner working of the death squad and said without the approval of the prime minister it is very unlikely that the home minister would give an order like this.
In light of these revelations – in light of this, which suggests series of human rights violation, abuse of power by the Bangladeshi Government, we would like to know if the U.S. Government is considering extending or imposing sanction on Ministry of Home Affairs for this.
MR PATEL: I’m not going to preview any actions from up here. But we will examine the allegations in this article and video very carefully, and we hope the Bangladeshi Government will do the same. Broadly, but – perpetrators of human rights should be held accountable.
Samira, you had your hand up.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. It’s about Toomaj Salehi. He is singer and a political prisoner in Iran. It’s been reported that he needs immediate medical assistance. Do you have any comment on that?
MR PATEL: So we’re aware of these reports of authorities torturing Toomaj Salehi and his need for urgent medical attention. The Iranian regime’s treatment of Toomaj would unfortunately be only the latest in a long line of human rights abuses perpetuated by the regime. We call on Iran’s leadership to release Toomaj now, release all political prisoners now, and provide Mr. Salehi with the needed medical attention.
Iran’s harsh treatment of political prisoners is meant to intimidate people and suppress dissent, and it simply underscores just how much Iran’s leadership fears its own people, particularly young people like Toomaj.
Michele, you had your hand up?
QUESTION: I have one Iran-related.
MR PATEL: Okay, let me do one Iran question from Guita, and then Michele, I’ll come to you. You had your hand up.
Go ahead, Guita.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you, Vedant. It’s about a re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration has always said it supports any initiative to bring calm, peace and calm to the region. How does the administration see this development between those two countries?
MR PATEL: Are you talking about a specific meeting or engagement?
QUESTION: Well, right now in China the two foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia have met.
MR PATEL: Right, right. That’s what I was trying to get at. So look, Guita, a meeting of Iranian and Saudi foreign ministers is an expected step in the dialogue process. And as we’ve said before, we’ve long encouraged direct dialogue and diplomacy, including between Iran and its neighboring regional government to help reduce tensions and risk conflict. If this dialogue leads to concrete actions by Iran to curb its destabilizing activities in the region, including the proliferation of dangerous weapons, then of course we would welcome that.
Guita, the one thing that you have to remember is that in the kingdom we have almost 80,000 American citizens residing in Saudi Arabia. If steps are being taken by Iran and its neighbors – in this case Saudi Arabia – that will help curb destabilizing actions, that helps keep these Americans safer and less susceptible to things like attacks, that would certainly be a welcome thing.
QUESTION: Do you think Saudi Arabia has the weight to make that a (inaudible)?
MR PATEL: I didn’t hear the first part.
QUESTION: Do you think Saudi Arabia has the weight and the influence to —
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to hypothesize or theorize on the process from here.
Michele, you had your hand up.
QUESTION: I just had a question about Afghanistan, given that the Taliban are banning UN women from working. I wonder if you still think that the Taliban has any interest in what their reputation is abroad.
MR PATEL: So Michele, we are extremely concerned that yet another reprehensible Taliban decision banning Afghan women from working with the UN – the Secretary put out a brief message last night sharing the – sharing the UNAMA’s statement and noting that we urge the Taliban to put Afghans first and reverse this decision. Other administration officials have spoken to this as well, as has the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – they’ve very publicly stated their concern.
Women are central to humanitarian and civil society operations around the world. In Afghanistan in particular, only women are able to reach some of the most vulnerable, in part because many of the most vulnerable households are woman-headed and male aid workers cannot enter. So this is something that we’re continuing to pay very close to —
MR PATEL: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: Sorry. So if UN closes its office Afghanistan, what will be the future of the aids in Afghanistan? And second, Taliban claims that they are fighting ISIS-K in Afghanistan. Is the U.S. satisfied with – satisfied with the fight against ISIS-K by the Taliban, and is there any official or unofficial relation between Taliban and U.S.?
MR PATEL: I think we have been very clear that we do not recognize the so-called Taliban government in Afghanistan. Broadly, the United States continues to be the single largest aid provider to Afghanistan, and we have ways and mechanisms to do that to ensure that the aid reaches the people that it needs and not in the hands of the Taliban. So I don’t have anything additional or new to preview, but that’s the latest that I’d have to offer.
Go ahead. And then I’ll come to Camilla and then we – we’ll end. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: As you know, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, on behalf people of Kurdistan, reach an agreement with Iraqi central government in Baghdad that will allow the KRG to resume exporting oil after the ruling by the International Court of Arbitration. The U.S. was closely involved in reaching the agreement between Erbil and Baghdad, as I understand. Why was it important to you? What effect do you think it will have?
MR PATEL: So we welcome the agreement between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government on the export of oil through the Iraq-Türkiye pipeline. This outcome is a result of the hard work of Iraqi leaders for putting the needs of the Iraqi citizens first.
Elizabeth, I’m sorry, you had your hand up patiently. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Oh, thanks. The IDF is now saying that Hamas was behind the rocket fire from Lebanon. Is that the U.S. assessment? And what is your understanding of Hizballah’s potential role? And just to be clear, to follow up, if Israel does decide to retaliate over the rockets from Lebanon, would the U.S. support such an action?
MR PATEL: So I’m just first hearing of this reporting from up here. But – so I would probably refer you to the Government of Israel and the IDF to speak to this assessment. But I will just reiterate again that our commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad, as well as recognizing that Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself against all forms of aggression.
Last question, Camilla.
QUESTION: Just quickly, do you have an update, Vedant, on the after-action report on Afghanistan following Secretary Blinken’s promise that it would get – it would be delivered to the hill by mid-April? Is there any movement at all?
MR PATEL: Well, the Secretary did say that, and today is April 6th, so I have no doubt that it will be shared through the appropriate mechanisms in no time.
Thanks so much.
QUESTION: Hold on, can —
MR PATEL: Thanks so much, everybody.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Thanks.
(The briefing was concluded at 12:19 p.m.)