Department Press Briefing – February 12, 2021
2:36 p.m. EST
MR PRICE: Thank you very much and Happy Friday, everyone. We actually don’t have anything at the top. So, Operator, if you want to offer the instructions for indicating our participants have a question, we’ll move right to questions.
OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, press 1, 0 at this time on your telephone keypad. Once again, if you have a question, press 1, 0. We’ll wait just a moment for questions to queue up.
MR PRICE: All right. We’ll start with Matt Lee of the Associated Press.
QUESTION: Following up on the Secretary’s statement on Yemen and the Houthi de-listing, I wanted to revisit the question that I asked you yesterday at the briefing about the de-listing of the individual Houthi leaders. It doesn’t say this in the statement, but I just want to confirm that in fact, these three leaders were removed from being designated under 13224, Executive Order 13224, and that they – and that while they remain under EO 13611 designation, those sanctions are significantly less than the ones that would have come under the actual terrorism designation under 13224. That’s correct, right?
MR PRICE: Matt, what I would say is to reiterate what we talked about yesterday. From the start of this administration, we have been profoundly concerned with the broad, sweeping, and profound humanitarian implication that the designation, broadly speaking, of the Ansarallah movement brought about. As you’ve heard me say before, we in the first instance want to ensure that we are not doing anything that would compound the already extreme humanitarian plight of the Yemeni people, some 80 percent of whom reside within areas controlled by the Houthis.
So that is why you heard us say last Friday, a week ago today, that the Secretary had an intent to remove this broad designation of the movement. You heard us say in that same statement that it – that that intent, which we have now confirmed in the statement you referenced, has nothing to do with our view of the individual Houthi leaders and their reprehensible conduct, and we’ve talked about some of that: the kidnapping of American citizens, the ongoing attacks against Saudi Arabia, our partner. We, as you have heard us say, we’re committed to helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory and we are committing – committed to continuing to push back on the Houthis’ malign activities.
That is why you saw in the Secretary’s statement today that we will continue to support the implementation of UN sanctions imposed on members of Ansarallah and will continue to call attention to the group’s destabilizing activity and pressure the group to change its behavior.
You also saw in that statement – I would call your attention to the fact that the Secretary said we will continue to closely monitor the activities of Ansarallah and its leaders and are actively identifying additional targets for designation, especially those responsible for explosive boat attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea, and UAV and missile attacks into Saudi Arabia.
So the broad point remains that the impending revocation of the designation of the broad Houthi movement is an effort to alleviate, or at the very least not add to the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. We do have additional tools at our disposal to keep that pressure on individual Houthi leaders. And as I said yesterday, Ansarallah leaders Abdul Malik al-Houthi, Abd al-Khaliq Badr al-Din al-Houthi, Abdullah Yahya al Hakim, they all remain designated under the UN sanctions regime and are sanctioned under our own Executive Order 13611 related to acts that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen.
What you saw in the Secretary’s statement this morning is that not only will we not let up this pressure on the Houthi leadership; we are actively identifying additional means to put even more pressure on Houthi – individual Houthi leaders who would seek to threaten our interests, who would seek to attack Saudi Arabia, who would seek to extend the Houthis’ malign influence throughout the region.
We will go to Michele Kelemen, NPR.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) ask about – a question about Haiti. Given what you’ve seen in Haiti this week, do you still think President Moise should serve another year in office? And are you encouraging any sort of dialogue between him and the opposition? Can the U.S. kind of play a facilitating role there?
MR PRICE: Well, what I think we can say is that the United States, together with the OAS and other partners, we consistently urge the Government of Haiti to organize free and fair legislative elections so that parliament may resume its rightful role. The Haitian people deserve the opportunity to elect their leaders and restore Haiti’s democratic institutions. The remarkable lack of popular response to calls for mass protest in recent weeks – it indicates to us that the Haitian people are tired of endless lockdowns, squabbling over power.
We continue to maintain that the Haitian Government should exercise restraint in issuing decrees, only using that power to schedule legislative elections and for matters of immediate threats to life, health, security, until that parliament is restored and can resume its constitutional responsibilities. All parties should focus on restoring to the Haitian people the right to choose their lawmakers by organizing legislative elections as soon as possible.
Now when it comes to President Moise and his mandate, the Haitian constitution does not clearly address the situation, but President Moise was elected in November 2016 following the annulment of the initial presidential polls in October of the previous year. He was sworn into office on February 7th of 2017 for a five-year term, which is therefore scheduled to end on February 7th, 2022, next year.
We will go to Jennifer Hansler of CNN.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Ahead of the defense ministerial next week, I was wondering if the State Department has finished its review of the U.S.-Taliban agreement and what your assessment of it was. And are there any plans for Ambassador Khalilzad to travel to the region anytime soon?
MR PRICE: Well, thanks for the question. I – we’ll get back to you if there are any impending travel plans on the part of the – Ambassador Khalilzad.
I think what we can say when it comes to our broad review is that at this point, we are reviewing and continue to review what has been negotiated, including, as you referenced, the U.S.-Taliban agreement. That review will include assessing whether the Taliban are fulfilling their commitments relating to counterterrorism, reducing violence, engaging in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan Government and other stakeholders.
As that review is ongoing, of course, no decisions about a future force posture have been made. We’re committed to supporting the diplomatic process that is underway, the SRAR and his office. That is precisely what we are – what they are doing, and we’re committed to ensuring that Afghanistan is never used – never again used – by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.
As we undertake this review, as we engage in this diplomacy, we’ll continue to consult with Congress and to coordinate closely with allies and partners going forward.
We’ll go to Michael Lavers.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank so you much, Ned, for taking my question. My colleague just asked your counterpart at the White House about whether the President would confront Vladimir Putin on the situation in Chechnya with the two brothers who were sent back there last week. And I’m just wondering if you have any update to your statement that you issued earlier this week about (inaudible).
MR PRICE: Well, that’s – that’s right, Michael. And as you just referenced, I did issue a statement this week, and I did so and the department did so, in part, pursuant to what is for us a core value and priority. The President, then-candidate Biden committed on the campaign trail to prioritizing the protection and defense of LGBTQI rights around the world, and he made good on that promise early in the administration by issuing the presidential memorandum that you saw several days ago. It is now once again officially the policy of the United States, of the Biden-Harris administration, to stand up for and to defend the rights of LGBTQI people.
We firmly oppose abuses against LGBTQI persons and we urge governments to repeal laws that criminalize individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity. With the issuance of that presidential memorandum, there were instructions sent not only to the State Department, of course, but to departments and agencies across the government, making clear that that is where this administration stands and that is where the United States will stand in our conduct of foreign policy around the world.
Now when it comes to the Putin regime, you have heard me, you have heard others in the administration speak out forcefully about Russia’s abysmal human rights record. You’ve heard us do so recently in the context of the crackdowns on those brave Russians who have taken to the streets to protest the politically motivated detention of Aleksey Navalny. You have heard us do so in the context of the case of the two brothers that you mentioned. And we’ll continue to do so, whether it’s in Russia or elsewhere around the world, when universal rights, when human rights come under threat from regimes opposed to these universal values and universal principles.
As you know, Michael, there is a broad review of the appropriate policy response to what we have seen emanate from Russia. Part of that review has been tasked by President Biden to the Director of National Intelligence, and her cadre of analysts are now looking at a range of malign activities that the Russians have undertaken or reportedly undertaken in recent years, from election interference to Solar Winds breach to reported bounties on the heads of American soldiers in Afghanistan to the use of a chemical weapon in the case of Mr. Navalny.
But we are also looking very closely at the human rights abuses that I referred to, and I would suspect that you will hear us say more about the appropriate policy responses to this litany of abuses and offenses that we have seen emanate from Moscow and take place within Russian territory.
Why don’t we go to – let’s see here. We will go to Courtney Rozen of Bloomberg.
QUESTION: Thanks for taking my question. I wanted to follow up on President Biden’s executive order from a couple weeks ago outlining the administration’s strategy on climate change. And there’s information – or there’s a directive in there to the State Department about a climate finance plan and doing it with the Secretary of the Treasury. I wanted to see if there has been any movement so far on putting together a group to work on that, who inside the State Department will be kind of spearheading that issue? And yeah, I’m just looking for a status update since the directive was given out.
MR PRICE: Well, thanks, Courtney. I know that Secretary Kerry’s office, the special presidential envoy for climate, they’ve been working very concertedly on this broad challenge. The fact that during the transition then President-elect Biden not only elevated to the status of NSC principal for the first time a climate envoy, ensuring that in every conversation in the Situation Room climate would be on the agenda and represented at the table, but also did so in the form of a former secretary of state. And someone with the stature of Secretary Kerry, of course, speaks to the priority that President Biden and that his administration attach to this issue, which we, of course, do see as an existential threat.
When it comes to the order that you referenced, we’ll check in with Secretary Kerry’s office, and if there are more details to share on the status of that, I’m sure they’ll be able to let you know.
Let’s see. We’ll go to Hee Yang of Radio Free Asia. Do we have Hee Yang on the line?
MR PRICE: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. Thank you for taking my call – question. It seems like North Korea is not at the top of President Biden’s foreign policy, so but we are wondering while North Korea is enhancing its nuclear capability, when do we expect this new administration’s review of North Korea policy would come out and possibly whether current administration might be sending signals to North Korea behind the scenes.
MR PRICE: Sure. Well, let me just start off by saying I hope you don’t confuse a lack of direct engagement with North Korea as an indication that the challenge of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, to suggest that that’s not a priority. It, in fact, very much is.
As you have alluded to, the North Koreans have continued to make progress on those programs in recent years, which makes this an urgent priority for the United States and one that we are committed to addressing together with our allies and partners.
When it comes to our strategic goals, we’ll focus on reducing the threat to the United States and to our allies as well as to improving the lives of the North and South Korean people. And again, the central premise is that we remain committed to denuclearization of North Korea.
Now, I think you were alluding at the top to the fact that we haven’t engaged the North Koreans directly. That is, again, not a function of a lack of urgency. It is a function of us making sure that we have done the diplomatic legwork, that we have been in close contact and touch with our partners and allies, and in this case, critically, our treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific but also our partners throughout the region, including those who may come under threat from North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.
This is something that – and you’ve heard us say this before in other contexts, but regardless of the challenge, the United States, of course, remains the most powerful and strongest country in the world, but across every challenge we seek to bring along our allies and partners as force multipliers. And we know especially in the context of North Korea, where a coordinated diplomatic approach, a coordinated approach to sanctions enforcement, a coordinated messaging approach can position us to address this challenge from a position of strength, and that’s precisely what we’re seeking to do.
So I wouldn’t want to put a timeline on when you might see the next step in this process, but please know that that coordination is ongoing. It is very active. You’ve seen elements and indications of it not only in the 40-something calls that Secretary Blinken has conducted from here, but also in the foreign leader calls that the President of the United States has undertaken as well. So when we have more to say on that, we will certainly share it.
Let’s go to Robbie Gramer of Foreign Policy.
QUESTION: Hi, Ned, can you hear me?
MR PRICE: We can.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. I’m hoping for a response to reports that companies have continued laying pipelines on the Nord Stream 2 project from Russia to Germany, an apparent violation of sanctions passed by Congress shortly before Biden came into office. Does the U.S. plan to consider further sanctions pertaining to this project, and what’s your message to the German Government as it continues to support a project that President Biden has come out in opposition to? Thanks.
MR PRICE: Thanks for the question. Look, our position on Nord Stream 2 has been very clear and it remains unchanged. President Biden has made clear that Nord Stream 2 is a bad deal. It’s a bad deal because it divides Europe, it exposes Ukraine and Central Europe to Russian manipulation, it goes against Europe’s own stated energy and security goals.
We are continuing to monitor activity to complete or to certify the pipeline, and if such activity takes place, we’ll make a determination on the applicability of sanctions. But I would hasten to add that sanctions are only one of among many important tools. We’ll work closely with our allies and partners to reinforce European energy security and to safeguard against the sort of predatory behavior we have warned against.
We’ll go to Nadia Bilbassy of Al Arabiya.
QUESTION: Despite your statement, your message doesn’t seem to be getting across to the Houthis. Just now, Mohammed al-Houthi said that we expecting – I’m quoting him, “We expecting some decisions to counter the U.S. malign activity.” He seems to be emboldened by this. Why do you have so – why do you have faith in them that they will go back to the negotiation table? I mean, what basis do you have to make you believe that actually they want to negotiate?
MR PRICE: Well, what we believe – and just to tee off what you just said, I don’t think we are putting our trust in the Houthi leadership. Far from it, in fact. And you heard me both paraphrase what the Secretary said this morning and to repeat what we have said before about ensuring that as the Houthis’ provocations and attacks – including attacks against our partners in the region – continue, we will continue to add to the pressure and the rather forceful pressure that is already on them as individual leaders and the prospective pressure that may be yet to come.
Now, at the same time, it is true that we believe there is not a military solution to the conflict in Yemen. We believe that only through diplomacy can we bring peace, stability, and an easing of the humanitarian plight and the humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. And so that is why when the President of the United States spoke to the various policy changes that he announced the other week, one of the pillars, one of the core pillars he outlined, was an emphasis on that diplomacy. That is precisely why he elevated Tim Lenderking, a career Foreign Service officer, to serve as the special envoy for Yemen. It is precisely why we have said that we will work closely with the UN Envoy Martin Griffiths to do everything we can to support the diplomatic process. And it’s precisely why Tim Lenderking, Special Envoy Lenderking, is in the region this week.
That engagement is already underway. As we said I believe a couple days ago now, Special Envoy Lenderking has been hard at work meeting with Saudi officials, meeting with representatives of the Yemeni Government, meeting with our diplomats who are stationed – who are based in Riyadh.
So it’s not that we are putting our confidence or our faith or our trust in the Houthis. We are putting a priority on diplomacy broadly, knowing that there really is no alternative and there certainly is not a military alternative to the pressing imperatives that we face in Yemen – the security challenges, the humanitarian plight, and the interests of our partners in the region as well.
We’ll take a couple more questions. Lara Jakes.
MR PRICE: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Great. So just two quick follow-ups. One, I’m wondering when we might get a readout of Mr. Lenderking’s visits in Saudi and with Prince Faisal. I know that you released several between Prince – I’m sorry, Foreign Minister Faisal and Secretary Blinken in the last week. I’d like to know if we could get any insight on how the conversations with Special Envoy Lenderking have gone.
And then secondly, just to clarify what you and Matt were talking about, the sanctions against the Houthi leaders under 13611 stand and the UN sanctions stand, but the specially designated global terrorist has been revoked against those three, correct?
MR PRICE: The broad designation against the movement has – it will be revoked pursuant to the Secretary’s statement this morning, with all the caveats that apply, of course, about our plans to continue holding to account Houthi leaders for their attacks, provocations, and malign influence throughout the region.
When it comes to Mr. Lenderking, I think I mentioned this the other day, but we are hoping he will be able to join us on the podium on Tuesday, the next time we all see each other in person. I expect he’ll be able to offer some details from his travel at that time.
Let’s take a couple more. Francesco Fontemaggi of AFP.
QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?
MR PRICE: We can.
QUESTION: Yes. Hi, Ned. We’re now less than 10 days away from the day where Iran says it will stop implementing the additional protocols and the inspections. Many experts and diplomats, European diplomats say that it will be better for the administration to engage with Iran before that date and to find some kind of pre-agreement before that date. Is that the intent of the administration?
MR PRICE: Well, it’s the intent of the administration to follow through with what we have long talked about, and that is the need in the first instance to coordinate closely with our allies, with our partners, with members of Congress to ensure that when we are ready for the next step, that we are doing so from a position of strength and that we are doing so together with our allies and partners in tow. So we are not looking at any particular deadline. We are looking at the timing that will leave us and our partners and allies best positioned to take on this challenge. And again, it is a challenge we are taking on with urgency.
Just as I was saying to your colleague in the context of North Korea, observers shouldn’t mistake the lack of direct engagement with a lack of urgency on our part. We are acting with alacrity in those consultations across the world, across the globe, and here at home with members of Congress precisely because we recognize the challenge that Iran’s nuclear program poses. Iran, as you know, has taken a number of steps in recent months, in recent years to move away from the 2015 Iran deal. The President has outlined on any number of occasions the proposition that we would like to see fulfilled, namely Iran resumes full compliance with the Iran deal. The United States would do the same. We would seek to lengthen and to strengthen the provisions of that deal, using it in turn as a platform to negotiate follow-on agreements, to address other areas of concern, from – including Iran’s ballistic missile program. Obviously, we’re a long way from all of this, but we are moving swiftly and we are doing so strategically so that we will be able to ensure – see to it that our approach is effective and successful.
We will take perhaps the final question here. Nick Wadhams, do you want to go ahead?
QUESTION: Can you say – just to go back to the Nord Stream 2 issue, can you say whether the State Department intends to meet the congressionally mandated deadline of February 16th for delivering a report that identifies the entities that have been involved in constructing the pipeline? There were two senators today that asked that you commit to that deadline. Thanks.
MR PRICE: Well, thanks very much. Nick, as you’ve heard us say, our goal across the board is to return to regular order across each and every realm, and of course our relationship with Congress is an important realm. The Secretary during his confirmation hearings and more recently has spoken of the need for a productive and constructive relationship with members of Congress. He has consulted with members of Congress on any number of challenges and opportunities that face us. We certainly understand Congress’s legitimate interest in this issue, and we are committed to that engagement with them to ensure that they have the information they need in as timely a manner as we are able to provide.
I think we have gone on for some time, so knowing that it is also a Friday afternoon and knowing that for some of you, at least, it may be a long weekend, we will call it a day. We look forward to seeing you all back in person – some of you back in person on Tuesday. We will not brief on Monday given the Presidents Day holiday here in the United States, but, of course, our inboxes will be open in the meantime, and looking forward to speaking with you soon. Thanks very much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)