Department Press Briefing – December 17, 2021
2:02 p.m. EST
MS PORTER: Good afternoon, and happy Friday, everyone. Thank you so much for joining today’s press briefing. I have a couple of rounds of updates at the top, and then I will resume with taking your questions.
Secretary Blinken is back in Washington today after a very productive trip to the United Kingdom, Indonesia, and Malaysia. The Secretary decided to return to Washington early out of an abundance of caution after a member of the traveling party tested positive for COVID-19.
While still in the region, the Secretary spoke with Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai to express his regret for not being able to visit Bangkok this week. The Secretary invited the deputy prime minister to visit Washington and looks forward to traveling to Thailand as soon as possible to further strengthen the U.S.-Thai alliance.
In Jakarta, the Secretary delivered remarks on the significance of the Indo-Pacific, outlining our shared vision for the region and how we will work with our allies and partners to make this vision a reality. As the Secretary noted in his address, the United States has long been, is, and always will be an Indo-Pacific nation. And what happens in the Indo-Pacific, more than any other region, will shape the trajectory of the world in the 21st century.
In Indonesia, the Secretary also met with President Joko Widodo, his good friend Foreign Minister Retno, and ministers who deal with education and technology, maritime and investment, as well as trade. Underscoring the importance of the U.S.-Indonesia Strategic Partnership, he also signed three separate memoranda of understanding to strengthen our bilateral cooperation on maritime issues, education, and renew the Peace Corps program. While the Secretary was on the ground in Jakarta, the United States delivered another batch of vaccines to the country, bringing our total donations to Indonesia to more than 25 million.
In Malaysia, the Secretary met with Prime Minister Sabri, Foreign Minister Saifuddin, and Energy Minister Takiyuddin. In all of his engagements, he reinforced the United States commitment to strengthening our important political, economic, and cultural ties with Malaysia.
One of the Secretary’s main goals for this trip was to reinforce ASEAN centrality in the regional architecture by building on the success of the October U.S.-ASEAN Summit. The Secretary also announced that the U.S. will host another ASEAN leaders’ summit early next year, and the details are still being worked on.
Next, we welcome the news that the remaining 12 individuals, including 11 U.S. citizens, kidnapped on October 16th in Haiti are free, and we thank our partners in the Haitian National Police, international organizations, as well as the U.S. interagency who worked tirelessly for their release.
To address the security, political, and economic challenges in Haiti, this morning the United States convened a senior-level virtual international partners meeting chaired by Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols, with participation from Assistant Secretary Todd Robinson of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as well as USAID’s acting administrator – excuse me, Acting Assistant Administrator for Latin America and Caribbean Bureau Peter Natiello. This meeting also included the Haitian foreign minister, Jean Geneus, as well as a broad group of governments and international organizations with experience in supporting Haiti. We hope this meeting will bring the international community closer to a unified approach to assist Haiti in restoring its democratic institutions.
And finally, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Dr. Karen Donfried returns today from her trip to Kyiv, Moscow, and Brussels. This trip was productive and an important opportunity to reaffirm our commitments to Ukraine, encourage Russia to de-escalate and pursue the diplomatic path, and to closely coordinate with our NATO Allies and EU partners.
While in Kyiv, Assistant Secretary Donfried met with the Head of Presidential Office Andriy Yermak, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, and Deputy Head of Delegation for Ukraine in the Trilateral Contact Group Andriy Kostin. Dr. Donfried reaffirmed the United States’ support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and she also reconfirmed President Biden’s commitment to the principle of no decisions or discussions about Ukraine without Ukraine.
In Moscow, Dr. Donfried met with Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak and Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. During these meetings, she had a frank and straightforward discussion with Russian counterparts. She expressed strong concern regarding Russia’s military buildup, reinforced our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and also emphasized that any further Russian aggression against Ukraine would result in severe consequences. She underscored President Biden’s commitment to finding a diplomatic path to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, including through implementation of the Minsk agreements and support of the Normandy format.
Finally, Assistant Secretary Donfried concluded the trip in Brussels, where she consulted with our NATO Allies and EU partners. She provided a readout of her meetings, consulted with them on next steps, and also reaffirmed our commitment to close coordination. She noted that our unity with allies and partners is our greatest strength and that we will not make any decisions related to their security without them.
And I’m just going to give it a few minutes before I start taking your questions.
OPERATOR: And ladies, again – ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you do have a question on today’s call, you may press 1 and then 0.
MS PORTER: Let’s start things off with Shaun Tandon, please.
QUESTION: Poland. The Polish parliament today went ahead and voted in a media ownership law that is widely seen as silencing TVN24, an independent news channel. I know there’s a reaction at the – from the embassy there. Was wondering a little bit in terms of U.S. diplomacy on this, how you see this affecting the relationship with Poland, what are you looking for Poland to do now, how much will this factor into the relationship.
And if I could ask you something completely different, in – at the UN, the current ambassador from Afghanistan has resigned. I know the United States doesn’t want the Taliban to take the seat, but the current arrangement was predicated on the current ambassador staying there, if I understand it correctly. What’s the U.S. looking at for now in terms of the seat of Afghanistan in the United Nations? Do you – are you looking for somebody to fill it? What’s your stance in terms of what should be done with that seat now? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks for your questions, Shaun. I’ll start with your first question on Poland. We are certainly aware of these reports, and I can say that the United States is troubled by the passage in Poland today of a law that would gravely weaken media freedom in that country. We also encourage President Duda to reaffirm his past statements in support of freedom of expression, the sanctity of contracts, and the shared values that underpin our relationship. We also strongly encourage him to act on these values in regards to this legislation that, if it does become law in its current form, could severely impact media freedom as well as the foreign investment climate.
To your second question on the UN role, this is something that we are looking into, but I don’t have anything further to announce at this point for you.
Let’s go to Said Arikat, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) my question. I have a couple quick ones on the Palestinian issue. First on the consulate, the opening of the consulate in Jerusalem, there seems to be a great deal of confusion. It’s on, it’s off; the Israeli press is claiming that it’s been shelved. Even the Palestinian press is claiming that. So could you clarify this? I mean, I know you don’t have a date for reopening, but at least could you clarify the commitment to reopening the consulate? That’s one.
Second, the Israeli police have busted very brutally, very forcefully a demonstration in solidarity with the Salem family in Sheikh Jarrah who are slated to be evicted by the end of the month. Will you state – will you issue a statement or anything, call on the Israelis not to evict the Salem family? Thank you, Jalina.
MS PORTER: Thank you, Said. So we are closely following the Sheikh Jarrah case and all of its complexity, and we remain concerned about potential eviction of Palestinian families, of course, we know many of whom have lived in those homes for generations.
On your first question about the consulate, we don’t have anything new to announce at this time.
Let’s go to Abigail Williams, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) report that came out earlier today that there are 60,000 Afghan SIV applicants that still remain in Afghanistan and that there are 33,000 Afghans who’ve already been vetted and are eligible for immediate evacuation. Do you have any update on the Americans that still wish to be evacuated that remain? And can you provide total numbers on who has been evacuated thus far?
MS PORTER: Thanks, Abigail. I want to pull apart your two questions and start off with the figure that you just shared. The Department doesn’t have any comment on that specific reporting. And I just have to refer you to the media note that we released on Monday for the latest on Afghan resettlement, as well as our relocation efforts. As you know, our CARE team, which is our Coordinator for Afghan Relocation team, engages in periodic public and congressional updates. And of course, when we have something further, we will be sure to share it with you.
And then the second part of your question was asking about American citizens remaining. Right now we’re working with fewer than a dozen U.S. citizens as well as their families who we’ve identified as prepared to depart and have the necessary travel documents. Of course, that number continues to fluctuate daily, because people’s plans change as they continue to assess their personal situations moving forward. But I would just say and then kind of underscore that, since the end of August, that the United States has directly assisted 479 American citizens and 450 lawful permanent residents to depart Afghanistan, to relocate to the U.S., and of course, where we continue to be in touch with U.S. citizens who want to leave and obviously are prepared to do so. Thank you.
Let’s go to Michael Schneider, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) me?
MS PORTER: Hello?
QUESTION: Hi. Hi. Can you hear me. If I may —
MS PORTER: Yes, we can.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for this opportunity to ask a question. I would like to follow up on the question regarding the new Polish media law. If I could kindly ask you please to elaborate perhaps a little bit more regarding what kind of options are on the table. What comes next? Should this bill become a law? Should the Polish president sign it? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Well, thank you for your question. I mean, it’s not for me from here to dictate what comes next. But I will say that the United States definitely stands in support of media freedoms. And of course, I’ll continue to underscore that we’re deeply troubled by the passage of this law if it were to take place. It remains clear that we continue to encourage President Duda to reaffirm his statements that are also in support of media freedoms, including freedom of expression as well as the sanctity of contracts, and also the shared values that underpin our relationship.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thank you. Let’s go to the line of Laura Kelly, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) taking my question. A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday sent a letter to Secretary Blinken about the economic crisis in Afghanistan and outlined five actions that they would support the administration taking. Did you receive this letter, and do you have a response to them?
MS PORTER: Thanks for your question, Laura. I’ll just say from here that we don’t – we’re not going to comment on congressional correspondence from here.
Let’s go to Daphne Psaledakis, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) he was due to come back on Wednesday from visits to the UAE and Turkey. Could you give us a readout of his meetings and how they went, what was discussed? And additionally, on Iran, do you have any expectation that talks will resume before the end of the year? Thanks so much.
MS PORTER: If I can keep you on the line, the first part of your question was cut out. Can I have you repeat that please?
QUESTION: Oh, sorry. Can you still hear me?
MS PORTER: Yes, I can still hear you. Thank you.
QUESTION: Okay, great. It – I was asking about Special Envoy Feltman’s travel to the UAE and Turkey. I think he was due back on Wednesday. Can you give a readout on how the visits went, what was discussed, who he met with?
MS PORTER: Thanks. Thank you. We don’t have a readout at this time. But we’ll certainly share when we do have one. And then you had a second question, I believe.
MS PORTER: Well, the end of the year is quite near, as we know of, but what I can say is that the seventh round of talks in Vienna did pause today, and Special Envoy Malley and his interagency delegations will return to Washington over the weekend. But yet, I can’t preview when they will resume, but what I can say is that our priority remains the constructive resumption of talks with all parties seeking to reach and implement a rapid mutual return to full compliance with the JCPOA. And again, it’s too soon to tell whether Iran has returned with a more constructive approach.
Let’s go to Jennifer Hansler, please.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MS PORTER: Hey, yes, I can hear you.
QUESTION: Hey, thanks, Jalina. Could you tell us whether anyone else from the Secretary’s trip has tested positive from COVID beyond the one member of the traveling press? Is the Secretary quarantining right now given that this was likely a close contact? And then separately, the Venezuelan government is suggesting the U.S. was behind a quote/unquote “attack” on their electoral system, and I was wondering if you have any response to that.
MS PORTER: Thank, Jenny. We’re going to take your second question back because I don’t have a response for you at this time.
To your first question, as you know, of course the health and safety of the State Department traveling party, including the Secretary, the Department staff, as well as the press corps, is a top priority. Of course, to that end, we’ve had very stringent protocols during travel that far exceeded what was recommended by the CDC.
We’ve taken extensive measures to identify any positive cases, and I’ll just share with you what some of those measures are. Of course, every member of the State traveling party, including the press, took a pre-travel PCR test.
Of course, every member of the traveling party was required to take at least eight COVID tests over the span of the seven-day trip. Every member of the traveling party, whether they were deemed a close contact or not, is requested to take part in a post-travel PCR test.
And of course, we require all travelers to be fully masked during all flights, and that includes specifically with N-95 masks.
Of course, there was limitation of in-flight food service on flights after the identification of a positive case.
And of course, with identification of this case, we conducted rapid and thorough contact tracing, notifying close contacts of their exposure within hours. We’ve also provided additional vehicles and limited movements so as to be able to increase social distancing following the identification of the positive case.
Regarding the disclosure, as is standard with contact tracing in accordance with the CDC guidelines, we inform close contacts of positive cases. Upon informing members of the media that they were deemed to be close contacts, they requested a reputable public statement, and that’s something that we have provided. However, throughout the trip we far exceeded CDC guidelines in terms of our testing and mitigation measures. And that’s all I can provide from here. Thank you.
Let’s go to Marcin Wrona.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for calling on me. I wanted to follow the questions by Shaun and Michael about the new media law in Poland. This media law will effectively push Discovery, Inc., out of Poland, and Discovery is the largest American investment in Poland, worth $1 billion, and it’s the owner of numerous news channels and other cable channels and a broadcast channel. And it looks like the authorities in Poland are basically ignoring statements coming from the United States. There was a strong statement by Secretary Blinken in August, and they seem to be ignoring everything. So what do you have on the table? What are you planning to do now? What steps are you planning to take?
MS PORTER: Thanks for your question. And I hope I pronounced your name correctly. I used to have a colleague by the name of Marcin Gortat you may know. But back to your questions. Again, I’ll just underscore that we will continue to encourage President Duda to reaffirm his past statements in support of freedom of expression as well as the sanctity of contracts and the shared values that underpin our relationship. Anything beyond that I’m not able to preview, but just generally speaking, I mean, the Biden administration has been very firm on putting human rights at the center of foreign policy. And of course, at the crux of that means freedom of expression. It means media freedom. It means, of course, valuing our Fourth Estate. And so we will continue to stand by that and we will continue to encourage President Duda to do the same.
Let’s go to Eunjung Cho, please.
QUESTION: Thank you, Jalina, for taking my question. I have two questions on North Korea today.
So today marks 10 years since Kim Jong-un assumed power in North Korea. Does the State Department have any comment on this occasion?
And the second question is: What is the State Department’s reaction to the UN General Assembly’s adopting of the North Korean human rights resolution for the seventh straight year yesterday? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks, Eunjung. We don’t have any comment to your first question, and the second question we’re going to have to take back to the team.
Let’s go to Nicole Gauoette.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MS PORTER: Hi, Nicole. I can hear you.
QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Just to follow up on Jenny’s question, did anyone else on the Secretary’s trip test positive for COVID apart from the member of the press?
MS PORTER: Thanks, Nicole. We have nothing further to announce at this time.
Let’s go to Christina Anderson.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you for taking my question. I’m wondering if during the Secretary’s travel did any – during the conversations that he had with allies, was there any mention perhaps of trade with Taiwan or exchange of scientific information, these kinds of partnerships that can happen and the benefits from them that are there when people work together across – allies work together across their – across these different institutions within their economies and their scientific and educational institutions? Thank you.
MS PORTER: Thanks for your question, Christina. The Secretary had several meetings during his trip, but I’d have to refer you back to our statement online for your question.
We’ll take the final question from Nadia Bilbassy.
QUESTION: Hi, Jalina. Thank you for taking my question and happy Friday.
I’m wondering if the administration is detecting any quarrel or disagreements or conflicts between Iran and the Houthis considering the report that emerged talking about the Houthis wanted the Iranian ambassador out of Yemen, and whether this will present an opportunity perhaps for inviting the Houthis to come back to the negotiation table. Thank you.
MS PORTER: Hi, Nadia. I wouldn’t have anything to say about any potential quarrel or disagreement between Iran and the Houthis. But again, what I can underscore from here is that our priority is constructive resumption of the talks with all parties seeking to reach and implement a rapid mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA.
Thank you for joining today’s daily press briefing. I hope you have a good weekend and a good holiday season ahead.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:30 p.m.)