1:45 p.m. EDT
MR PATEL: Good afternoon, everybody. Happy Wednesday. I don’t have anything off the top. Matt, do you want to kick us off?
QUESTION: No? You don’t want to recap the Secretary’s —
MR PATEL: Well, you all —
QUESTION: — comments about World Press Freedom Day this morning?
MR PATEL: I know you all tuned in very closely.
QUESTION: Yes, we did.
MR PATEL: And we’ll echo what the Secretary said as well. The – we strongly believe the importance of a free press. It’s a – we believe a bedrock of democracy. It’s why – one of the many reasons why we travel with all of you, we do this daily press briefing. I think engagement with the media is critically, critically important for both of us to do our jobs.
MR PATEL: But Matt.
QUESTION: So then can I ask you, as was raised perhaps a bit abruptly at the very beginning of his comments this morning, whether or not the State Department regards Julian Assange as a journalist who is – who would be covered by the ideas embodied in World Press Freedom Day?
MR PATEL: Matt —
QUESTION: I’m not asking for the DOJ point of view. I’m asking for what the State Department thinks.
MR PATEL: The State Department thinks that Mr. Assange has been charged with serious criminal conduct in the United States, in connection with his alleged role in one of the largest compromises of classified information in our nation’s history. His actions risked serious harm to U.S. national security to the benefit of our adversaries. It put named human sources to grave and imminent risk and risk of serious physical harm and arbitrary detention. So, it does not matter how we categorize any person, but this is – we view this as a – as something he’s been charged with serious criminal conduct.
QUESTION: Well, but it does matter actually, and that’s my question. Do you believe that he is a journalist or not?
MR PATEL: Matt, I’m just not going to offer a prescriptive assessment from here. Our view on Mr. Assange —
QUESTION: How about a non-prescriptive assessment?
MR PATEL: Our view on Mr. Assange is that he’s been charged with serious criminal conduct in the United States.
QUESTION: Yeah, but anyone can be charged with anything. Evan Gershkovich has been charged with a serious criminal offense in Russia, and you say that he is a journalist, and he is obviously. And I just want to know whether or not you, the State Department – regardless of any charges that he faces – believe that he is a journalist, or he is something else.
MR PATEL: Well, first, I would say, Matt, that these two cases are very, very different.
QUESTION: Of course, they’re completely different, but —
MR PATEL: The United States doesn’t go around arbitrarily detaining people, and the judicial oversight and checks and balances that we have in our system versus the Russian system are a little bit different. But again, I’m not here to offer a specific assessment. What I will say is that he’s been charged with a serious crime, with serious criminal conduct in the United States that has seriously put and seriously put in harm’s way U.S. national security, and that continues to be the case.
QUESTION: Okay. So, basically, the bottom line is that you don’t have an answer. You won’t say whether you think he is a journalist or not.
MR PATEL: I think I’ve sufficiently answered your question, Matt. As I’ve said, we believe that he has been charged with a serious – with serious criminal conduct in the United Sates.
QUESTION: Okay. You only answered the question for yourself, but I – but not from me. Okay. All right. Thank you.
MR PATEL: All right.
MR PATEL: Anything else?
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on —
MR PATEL: Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: On Freedom Press Day – I mean, it’s been almost a year since Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by the Israeli army. And yesterday apparently a call by Senator Chris Van Hollen to you guys that there was a new report by the security coordinator that was sent to Secretary Blinken. First of all, can you share any information with that – about that with us, if there is any? And is there anything new in this report, or is there any reason why it should not be released?
MR PATEL: Said, let me say a couple of things. First, you’ve heard us say this before: We condemn the tragic killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, and our hearts remain with her family. As you know, Secretary Blinken has had the opportunity to speak to her family before and continue to extend our personal sympathies to them. As you all know, Shireen was not only a U.S. citizen but a reporter who had earned the respect of audiences around the world, including many – almost all, I assume, in this room.
As it relates to this reporting, Said, I have seen it. I don’t have any additional assessment to offer. I have not seen this report. My understanding is that the U.S. Security Coordinator has not changed the same conclusion that was released last summer that we released when we put out a statement about this, which is that IDF gunfire was likely the reason – unintentionally. But, again, I don’t have any additional updates or assessments to offer on this report.
QUESTION: So, no one was ever held accountable, and I don’t believe that – do you expect anyone to be held accountable?
MR PATEL: Said, we – the – as we – we noted in our statement about this last summer was that our findings, that are consistent with the U.S. Security Coordinator’s, is that this was unintentional and due to incredibly tragic circumstances. And so, what we continue to raise with our Israeli partners and with others around the world is ensuring what we can do to take appropriate steps to ensure that when it comes to rules of engagement, that civilians, reporters, members of the media just trying to do their job, are not placed in harm’s way.
QUESTION: Just – just for the record, there are today, as we speak, there are 16 Palestinian journalists that are in prison without any charges. Do you call on the Israelis to let them go, so they can go about doing their jobs?
MR PATEL: Said, we have been very clear about the need for journalists to not be arbitrarily detained and to be able to do their job. I’m not – I’m not aware of these specific cases or reports, but we have been clear and consistent about this.
QUESTION: Follow-up —
QUESTION: Vedant, just on that. Based on the answer that you’re giving to Said, you’re saying this wasn’t intentional, our investigation found – and you’re saying we’re engaging with our Israeli partners about rules of engagement. That almost sounds like you’re saying you’re sorry for what happened to Shireen, but you’re moving on – and you’re engaging with Israeli partners so that this wouldn’t happen again. I had not heard anything about U.S. pursuing accountability for her. Can you tell me if I’m wrong, or can you elaborate?
MR PATEL: Humeyra, we have been very clear and consistent about first, condemning the tragic killing of Shireen, but also when both the U.S.’s report, as well as the IDS report last summer went public, we have spoken consistently about the need and the call for accountability in this case. And we continue to do so. However, as is consistent from the IDF’s finding as well as the finding of the U.S. security coordinator, is that this was not intentional. It was a tragic – due to very tragic circumstances.
So yes, we continue to seek accountability for Shireen —
QUESTION: So how – how –
MR PATEL: — let me finish – and that is the – one of the ways in which we are doing so, ensuring that when it comes to rules of engagement, we’re working on those issues in concert and in partnership with our Israeli counterparts to ensure that civilians and journalists and members of the media are not put in harm’s way. These are all things that we have said before consistently.
QUESTION: Yes, these are things you’ve said before. So, I’m wondering if you’re doing anything actively to seek accountability from the Israeli side for Shireen’s killing – like, not for – “rules of engagement” sounds like it’s something to deter and prevent this happening again. But I mean, are you able to say, is there an active effort of U.S. seeking accountability from Israel on their case?
MR PATEL: There is – there is an active effort. And since Shireen’s —
QUESTION: What is that?
MR PATEL: Since Shireen’s tragic death, we have continued to press Israel to closely review its policies and practices on rules of engagements and consider additional steps to mitigate risk of civilian harm and protect journalists. The Department of Defense in the immediate following of – not immediate, but in the months following Shireen’s death, underscored the need to improve its own assessments and practices to ensure civilian harm mitigation.
So, this is something that we continue to pursue and push directly with our counterparts in Israel, but also in other parts of the world where journalists often are found in harm’s way.
QUESTION: I’ve got a couple of things on China, but I’ll let others to —
MR PATEL: Okay. Alex, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. One more question on press freedom. In light of the Press Freedom Day, did the embassy in Moscow today attempt to meet with Evan in jail?
MR PATEL: Alex, we have continuously, since Evan’s detention, called for the Russian Federation to offer consistent consular access, consistent and regular consular access that is in line with the Russian Federation’s consular convention with us. And that continues to be the case, and we’ll continue to raise that directly.
QUESTION: Including today, have you guys reached out to Russian officials?
MR PATEL: I don’t have a specific – I’m not going to offer specific engagements. But consular access continues to be one of the things we continue to push for not just in Evan’s case, but also the case for Paul Whelan. We continue to call for both of them to be released, and that continues to be our operating procedure on this.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. Government thinking about some legal action against Russian foreign ministry for rejecting the rights of —
MR PATEL: Alex, we continue to have a number of tools at our disposal to hold the Russian Federation accountable, as you saw us last week take action in designating the FSB and the IRGC-IO in relation to their arbitrary and wrongful detention of American citizens. So, specifically, through the auspices of the Levinson Act and through the executive order that President Biden signed, we continue to have tools at our disposal. But I’m not going to speculate or preview potential actions from here.
QUESTION: Thank you. (Inaudible) move to South Caucasus.
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room a little, Alex. I’ve got a couple —
QUESTION: Please come back to me later.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MR PATEL: Camilla, go ahead.
QUESTION: So, Press Freedom Day. I know you mentioned Austin Tice yesterday. Wall Street Journal is reporting that there are U.S. negotiators who have been in touch with Syrian Government officials and couched this as a renewed effort to engage with Syrian officials on trying to secure his release. Do you have anything further to add from what you said yesterday?
MR PATEL: I’m certainly not going to get into the specifics, Camilla. But I will reiterate what you heard President Biden speak and talk about pretty clearly on Saturday night, which is that we are engaging extensively to try and get Austin home. Because of Austin’s work as a journalist and his immense efforts to uncover and show the world the truth of what war can look like, he has been locked up in Syria for more than 11 years now. We have pursued every channel we can to seek his safe return to his family, and will continue to do so, and that includes discussing the case with a number of countries in the region. And we will continue working this until we’re able to get his safe return to the United States.
Nick, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you have anything more on the reporting of a drone strike on the Kremlin? The Secretary said anything coming out of the Kremlin should be taken with a “shaker of salt.” I was wondering if you had any more fidelity on what did or didn’t happen.
MR PATEL: Well, I would echo what the – what Secretary Blinken said this morning. We are aware of these reports but unable to confirm the authenticity of this. But also, as the Secretary said, I would take anything coming from the Kremlin and the Russian Federation with a shaker of salt. But throughout this, it’s important to remember a couple things, Nick. First, Russia invaded Ukraine. It did so unprovoked. They started this war, and they could end it today if they pulled their troops out.
Number two, Russia continues to fire missiles and drones at Ukraine every week. And they have done so and targeted scores of Ukrainians, including children, and they have been – targeted places like hospitals, apartment buildings. And we have been very clear that we’re going to continue to support Ukraine, as it defends itself from Russia’s invasion on this.
Kylie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that specifically. You said that the U.S. has been unable to confirm the authenticity of these reports. Do you believe that the U.S. will be in a position over the course of the coming days to say what the U.S. believes happened here?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speculate or get ahead of the process here, Kylie. What I will say, though, is that we’re continuing to assess this and confirm the authenticity, and when we have more to update or if we’re in a place to, we shall.
QUESTION: And then we heard from President Zelenskyy this morning in response to this alleged attack saying, “We don’t attack Putin or Moscow.” How significantly should we weigh President Putin’s denial that Ukraine was involved here?
MR PATEL: You mean President Zelenskyy’s?
QUESTION: President Zelenskyy, sorry.
MR PATEL: That is for President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainians to speak to. I will let them speak to their own battlefield assessments and decisions; that’s not something that we have ever spoken to from here.
QUESTION: And then just a final question.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: From the White House podium earlier this – earlier, like a few minutes ago, we heard the press secretary talk about the U.S. not providing capabilities for the Ukrainians to strike inside Ukraine or encouraging the Ukrainians to strike inside Ukraine. So, going forward, if there are further Ukrainians strikes inside of Russia, should we expect that that could somehow impact continued U.S. support for Ukraine?
MR PATEL: What I will say, Kylie, is that we have been pretty clear and consistent throughout this that we will continue to support our Ukrainian partners for as long as it takes. In fact, we as recently as last week announced another presidential drawdown, and we will continue to do so. But that being said, I think it’s also really important to take a step back. I don’t want to speculate about the authenticity of this. But we also have been clear and consistent, as you said, that – about not encouraging or enabling the Ukrainians to strike beyond its borders.
QUESTION: On Afghanistan. Vedant, do you have a readout from the Doha Conference?
MR PATEL: So, as you know, Gitta, the UN convened this meeting in Doha for key international stakeholders to reinvigorate international engagements around common objectives within Afghanistan, and how to best support the Afghan people. The U.S. and other stakeholders continue to be deeply concerned about the deteriorating human rights conditions in Afghanistan, especially as it relates to women and girls. And the UN Security Council unanimously adopted last week a resolution that sends a clear signal that the international community is united in condemning the Taliban for its egregious repression of Afghan women and girls.
QUESTION: So, any decisions on how to go forward, to bring the Taliban in line, and —
MR PATEL: Well, the envoys representing their various capitals discussed a variety of shared concerns – specifically, the presence of terrorist organizations; the lack of inclusivity which, importantly, includes human rights; the sheer concern that when more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s population is being left out of participating in the economy, left out of participating in education, that it is tough to see a credible path forward for the country.
So, this is something that, of course, this department and key leaders within this department are going to continue to remain deeply engaged on.
Raquel? Welcome to the briefing room, by the way.
QUESTION: Hello. Thank you so much. It’s good to be here, Vedant. So, the federal police in Brazil raided this morning former President Bolsonaro home. They are investigating if Bolsonaro used fake vaccination card to travel to the United States. So, can you tell us if the former president had to present any kind of vaccination proof in the U.S., while he was not on a official visit?
MR PATEL: What I will say, Raquel, is that visa records are confidential. So, I’m just not going to get into discussing specific cases. What I can say is that at that time in history, there was a requirement of being vaccinated to enter the United States in addition to whatever appropriate paperwork and documentation is needed to enter the United States, but I won’t say anything more than that, and, of course, the CDC can speak to you about the various cadences of vaccination requirements that have existed in relation to entering the country.
QUESTION: Could you say if the American authorities will work or are helping the Brazilian police in this investigation in – that is in concern that Bolsonaro committed a crime here, if he was not vaccinated and showing around when he was here for 90 days his fake vaccination card?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to speculate or get into the specifics of an investigation that’s ongoing in another country, and I don’t have anything to – additional to add on that.
QUESTION: Did the Brazilians ask for help in this investigation?
MR PATEL: Again, not that I’m aware of or anything that I can speak to from here, but if we have anything additional to offer, we’ll let you know.
Leon, go ahead.
QUESTION: I want to pursue that, but I don’t think it’ll (inaudible) very much. I want to speak about Haiti. The UN rights chief today, Volker Turk, warned of – said Haiti is basically dangling over an abyss. The secretary-general also recently had comments basically saying Haiti is going to pieces. As you know, talk about potential force or doing things, but we haven’t seen really any movement whatsoever since last fall. What – what are you specifically doing now and with whom to potentially do something about the situation in Haiti?
MR PATEL: Leon, we remain deeply concerned about the spiraling violence and its impact in all aspects of life in Port-au-Prince. We have made it clear that we believe the security and humanitarian situation in Haiti is worsening and the conditions on the ground will not improve without armed security assistance from international partners. And any decision about a security force would be done in consultation with the United Nations and the Haitian Government. And those discussions continue to be ongoing, and we remain in coordination with partners on next steps on the force and other actions to address the security situation in Haiti, including the needs to support the Haitian National Police.
I’ll also remind you, Leon, that when – we have not hesitated to take action to not just support the Haitian National Police, but also support the Haitian people. Since July of 2021, our INL Bureau has allocated $92 million to support security in Haiti. In – as of April 2023, INL has donated 40 patrol vehicles to the Haitian National Police, and we’ve delivered approximately a thousand sets of protective equipment, 36,000 MREs – and you’ll recall, Leon, last fall, in close coordination with our Canadian partners, we facilitated the delivery of vital security-related equipment to Port-au-Prince. So, this is something that we’ve continued to engage on directly, and we – it’s something we continue to work towards in coordination through multilateral auspices as well.
QUESTION: Okay, I understand that, but as you said, these —
STAFF: Down in front. Down in front.
QUESTION: Excuse me?
MR PATEL: You’re good. Someone was standing. Please continue.
QUESTION: These negotiations – you said the discussions are ongoing. So, with whom, exactly, and what is the sticking point? Because – or several sticking points, because these conversations have been ongoing since at least last fall – last October, I recall – with the sense of urgency at the time, and now we’re eight months later.
MR PATEL: Leon, I’m not going to get into the specifics of diplomatic negotiations and engagements, but these engagements continue to be ongoing. We have continued to done – do so through the UN. We have done so with partners in Haiti. You saw both President Biden and Secretary Blinken speak about this during their travels to Canada recently, as well. So, we continue to engage with this through appropriate allies and partners, through appropriate multilateral mechanisms, and that continues to be the case.
QUESTION: I understand that very well, but since there hasn’t been any real progress, what are the sticking points? What are the issues that you’re (inaudible)?
MR PATEL: Again, Leon, I’m just not going to get into our specific engagement.
QUESTION: Why not?
MR PATEL: We have never read out specific diplomatic engagements from here, as it relates to very sensitive conversations that we’re having with partners in Haiti, partners in – in this specific case partners in Haiti, partners through the UN, and other allies and partners as well. That’s just not something I’m going to start doing from here.
QUESTION: Yeah, on Syria, Vedant.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you have – first, do you have any comments on the Iranian president visit to Damascus today?
MR PATEL: What I would say is that the Iranian regime and the Assad regime continuing to deepen their ties should be of great concern to not just our allies and partners and countries in the region, but also the world broadly. These are two regimes that have continued to partake in malign, destabilizing activities – not just in their immediate countries but also in the region broadly. We continue to believe, Michel, that we will not normalize relations with the Assad regime. And we do not support others normalizing with Damascus either, and we’ve made this abundantly clear to our partners. The U.S. believes that a political solution that is outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is the only viable solution to this conflict in Syria.
QUESTION: And was that your reaction to the statement made by Arab countries regarding a peaceful solution in Syria?
MR PATEL: We have conveyed our concerns about the May 1 meeting in Jordan to Jordan, and others, and although we don’t agree with – that the Assad regime merited this kind of statement, we note that Jordan and others have incorporated some of the United States’s key priorities in this process. What I will reiterate again: we don’t support normalization with Damascus, and we do not support others normalizing this as well.
QUESTION: Could I just – a Syria refugee question. It’s been reported that Syrians in Lebanon are going into hiding, have gone into hiding because of an anti-refugee campaign; now Lebanon has to endure a great deal of the refugee issues and it has its own problems to contend with. So, do you feel that maybe the time has come for the refugees to begin going home? I mean, would you facilitate with the – with Syrian refugees going back to their villages and towns and so on? The government, the Syrian government, says that the refugees are welcome to come back.
MR PATEL: Said, we are still looking into these specific reports, but what I will note is that all refugees and all deplaced – displaced persons should be treated humanely, and anyone detained should be afforded all applicable legal protections. And any refugee returns to Syria should be voluntary, they should be safe, they should be dignified. The conditions in Syria today do not allow for such returns, and we have been very clear about this with our foreign partners, including our partners in Lebanon.
QUESTION: Sorry, can I just – 2254?
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: What year was that passed?
MR PATEL: I will have to double-check the exact year.
QUESTION: Well, I’ll tell you. It was 2015.
MR PATEL: That’s what I was going to – yes.
QUESTION: Which is like, what, eight years ago. (Inaudible.) Okay.
MR PATEL: Is there – is there a question?
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, my question was what year was it passed?
MR PATEL: 2015. (Laughter.) Is there a question beyond that?
QUESTION: No. No. I think —
MR PATEL: All right. Again, always – always here for the Matt Lee history lessons.
QUESTION: Thank you, Vedant. On press freedoms, the – as you know, Bangladesh is struggling for freedom of expression. As British media Guardian reported yesterday, media in fear PM’s people enemy attacks. And the government today, the senior minister, they told the – as UN, the United Nations (inaudible) urging for revoking the DSA, Digital Security Act, and they are not willing to revoking this draconian act. So, what is your comment about the press freedom situation in Bangladesh? Bangladesh is in the last position in the South Asia.
MR PATEL: So, we have spoken a great deal previously about our concerns with this legislation. I don’t have any new assessment to offer and would refer you to our previous comments on this.
Go ahead, in the back. Yeah, you.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. So, Deputy Secretary Sherman will meet Japanese association of family of victims kidnapped by DPRK in this afternoon. What do you think the families (inaudible) and they are still visiting the United States for the first in (inaudible) years?
MR PATEL: I’m sorry, I didn’t hear the first part of your question, if you could speak up.
QUESTION: So, the Sherman – Deputy Secretary Sherman, she is going to meet Japanese association of families of victims kidnapped by DPRK this afternoon.
MR PATEL: Understood. So, I don’t have any specific readout to offer on this meeting, as it’s – my understanding is that it’s not taken place yet. But what I will note is that the entirety of this department, including Deputy Secretary Sherman, continue to be deeply concerned about the human rights atrocities and violations that the DPRK partakes in, including the arbitrary detention and kidnapping of citizens. And so, this is something that we’ll continue to work in close concert with our allies and partners with, especially in the Indo-Pacific region continue to work closely with the Republic of Korea and Japan itself. Deputy Secretary Sherman had the opportunity to engage with her counterparts from those two countries just a number of months ago, and so it’s something that she will bring important perspective to.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR PATEL: Go ahead.
QUESTION: The seizure of a second oil tanker in a week on Wednesday in the Gulf waters by Iran – any comment on that?
MR PATEL: So, this was reported earlier this morning, and the Department of Defense reported this as well, that the IRGC navy seized a Panama-flagged oil tanker, the Niovi, while it was transiting the Strait of Hormuz. This is the second time in the past week that Iran has seized a foreign-flagged oil tanker while it transits international waters. This seizure follows Iran’s seizure of the Advantage Sweet, flagged in the Marshall Islands. And candidly, Iran’s harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights in regional and international waters are contrary to international law and disruptive to regional stability and security. We join the international community in calling the Iranian Government and the Iranian navy to immediately release the ship and its crew.
Go ahead, Hib —
QUESTION: Follow up on this.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Because the first tanker was coming – heading to the U.S., and we saw many attack against U.S. troops. Vedant, do you think that the U.S. response to what Iran is doing in the region is equivalent to what they are doing? I mean, is it efficient?
MR PATEL: Well, let me – Hiba, let me say a couple of things. We continue to have a number of tools at our disposal to hold the Iranian regime accountable. And, as recently as last week, we have not hesitated to use those tools, and we will continue to take action. When it comes to holding the – the malign Iranian regime accountable, we’ll continue to take steps to do whatever we can to protect the security of our allies and partners in the region, protect the security of the United States and its service members, and we continue to have a number of tools at our disposal.
Go ahead in the back.
QUESTION: Thank you. Two questions, one about the Armenian-Azerbaijani dialogue happening these days in Washington.
MR PATEL: Sure.
QUESTION: Or in Arlington, Virginia, actually. Do you have any more updates on this?
And the second quick question about Türkiye shutting down its airspace for Armenian airplanes. This creates major issues for Armenia’s economy and freedom of movement. Because Armenia is already a landlocked country, it suffers double (inaudible), actually, from Türkiye and (inaudible), so airspace is very important.
MR PATEL: Okay, let me take your first question first. I don’t have any additional updates to offer on the engagements happening between Armenia and Azerbaijan at the Foreign Service Institute. What I will reiterate again is that we remain committed to promoting a peaceful future for the South Caucasus region. We believe that direct dialogue is key to reaching a lasting peace, and we believe that that is possible between these two countries. As I said, Secretary Blinken had the opportunity to join the opening plenary session, as well as welcome the foreign ministers for a dinner the evening before. Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations Lou Bono continues to be deeply engaged on this process, but I don’t want to pre – get ahead of the process as it’s ongoing.
On your second question, the U.S. strongly supports Armenia-Türkiye normalization, which we believe would be important for not just these two countries but helpful for stability across the region. We note with disappointment Türkiye’s announcement that it would suspend Armenian airline overflight permissions. An agreement that had previously been reached between these two countries to resume air connections had been a very important confidence-building measure – not just between these two countries, but, again, for regional stability broadly. And it’s our sincere hope that Türkiye and Armenia can continue to rebuild economic ties and open transportation links as well.
Kylie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Can I ask about something that Ambassador Burns said yesterday on China? He said we are ready to talk with China pretty clearly, but then he also went on to say that he’s told his counterparts that Blinken will visit China when conditions are appropriate. So I’m just a little confused. Is the U.S. ready to talk with China now, or do things need to change for conditions to be appropriate? And what are those conditions that need to change?
MR PATEL: So, I’m not going to be prescriptive about these said conditions. This is something that the Secretary has spoken about quite clearly in the immediate aftermath of his trip getting rescheduled. We continue to believe that we want this trip to get rescheduled when conditions allow, and that continues to be the case.
And we do have open lines of communication with the PRC, and we continue to engage on those. As you all are quite familiar, the Secretary had the opportunity to have a direct engagement with one of his counterparts on the margins of the Munich Security Conference, and we continue to – Munich Security Conference, I apologize – and we continue to engage appropriately with the PRC.
The important thing to remember is that this is a relationship that the international community expects us to manage responsibly. There are a number of issues between the bilateral relationship of the United States and the PRC that are of immense importance to the entire world, whether that be addressing the challenges of the climate crisis, whether that be economic issues as the sheer amount of trade volume that flows between the Taiwan Strait. So, the demand signal from the world is that this relationship be managed responsibly, and the United States is continuing to do that. And we’ll continue to have those open lines of communication through Ambassador Burns, through the Secretary, and through many others.
QUESTION: So just to be clear, at this point the conditions do not allow still for the Secretary to visit China?
MR PATEL: I don’t have a trip to announce, Kylie. I’m not going to offer a moment-in-time metric or assessment.
QUESTION: Okay. And then —
MR PATEL: We continue to work towards rescheduling this trip when conditions allow.
QUESTION: Got it. And then just one more question on U.S.-China relations – Ambassador Burns also said there haven’t been substantive talks with China on the issue of fentanyl. I’m wondering about another issue, Americans wrongfully detained in China. Have there been substantive talks between the U.S. and China on that topic in recent months?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to specifically read out the conversations that have taken place between U.S. and PRC officials through our bilateral relationship, but what I will say is that Secretary Blinken and others at this department have no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens abroad, especially those who are wrongfully detained. And it’s something that we engage in and raise with countries directly around the world, including the PRC.
QUESTION: It’s Press Freedom Day, and you’re going back to the same reporters —
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, is there —
QUESTION: — over again and ignoring other reporters. You realize that, right?
MR PATEL: Your colleague has a question. Humeyra, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, can I just ask, on Kylie’s question —
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is there a proposal from the U.S. side that is on the table with the Chinese about the detained American?
MR PATEL: I’m just not going to get into specifics of how we engage on releasing wrongfully detained Americans or the specifics of our diplomatic engagements.
QUESTION: Right, but you guys do talk about – you guys do say that there is a proposal with Russia on Paul Whelan. So, I’m just wondering if there is any active talks, active communication with the Chinese, because, I mean, the families were very hopeful about Secretary Blinken’s trip, and then that got cancelled. We don’t know when it’s going to be rescheduled. He made some comments about this today. We’re just trying to get an understanding of where all of that left the effort, the U.S. effort with China on the topic of detained Americans there. So, are there active talks with them?
MR PATEL: Let me say a couple of things. First, just because we talk about one case – in the case of Paul Whelan, we’ve been very clear about there being an offer on the table with the Russian Federation, and the Russian Federation should take it – that does not color or influence or is any indicator of where things stand with other cases. Each wrongfully detained American citizen is of utmost importance to us, and it’s something that this administration is pursuing tirelessly, from President Biden, from Secretary Blinken, from Ambassador Carstens, and others. So, I don’t have a specific update or assessment to offer you. We have raised the case of wrongfully detained Americans as often and as frequently as we can, including in our dialogue with the PRC.
QUESTION: And the final thing is they’re actually in town, the campaign with the families. They’re in town and doing certain events. And there was a meeting at State yesterday, but why hasn’t the Secretary met with them?
MR PATEL: The secretary engages with the families of wrongfully detained American citizens regularly. He does so from – with wrongfully detained citizen – families of citizens who are wrongfully detained all across the world. I don’t have a specifics to offer on the Secretary’s schedule. I know he had the opportunity to briefly connect with some of these families, but it is something that we also do so regularly, at regular intervals. This is something that is the utmost importance to Secretary Blinken.
QUESTION: Thank you. There was a media report that the U.S. Government today asked JP Morgan to process 40 payments related to Russia’s grain. Can you confirm that?
MR PATEL: That is a question for our colleagues at the Treasury Department. I don’t have anything to offer on that.
Go ahead, Sam.
QUESTION: Thanks so much. You refer to WikiLeaks allegedly damaging U.S. national security. People might remember that WikiLeaks came to prominence because they released the Collateral Murder video. And what that showed was U.S. military mowing down Reuters reporters – workers in Iraq. Reuters repeatedly asked the U.S. Government to disclose such information about those killings, and U.S. Government repeatedly refused to do so. Only then did we know what happened, that the U.S. helicopter gunship mowed down these Reuters workers, through the Collateral Murder video? Are you saying that disclosure of such criminality by the U.S. government impinges U.S. national security?
MR PATEL: I was answering a question about Mr. Assange.
MR PATEL: I was not offering an assessment on anything else.
QUESTION: But you said that he – that WikiLeaks damaged U.S. national security. Did it do so by exposing U.S. criminality?
MR PATEL: I’m not going to parse or get into specifics. What I will just reiterate again is that Mr. Assange has been charged with criminal conduct for his role in the compromise of – the largest compromise of classified information in our nation’s history. That compromise has seriously harmed U.S. national security to the benefit of our adversaries.
QUESTION: But you can’t be specific as to —
MR PATEL: I don’t have anything else to add on this.
QUESTION: Just another dimension to this is that of course you’re going after – sorry, the U.S. Government, the DOJ is going after Assange because of the disclosures pertaining to Iraq and Cablegate and so on. This is separate from the whole Russia-gate situation. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a recent report by James Bamford in The Nation. He’s coming out with a book. He’s a cyber security expert, written book all about the NSA. Piece is entitled: Trump’s Campaign’s Collusion with Israel, subtitle: while U.S. media fixated on Russian interference in the 2016 election, an Israeli secret agent’s campaign to influence the outcome went unreported. What Bamford is alleging is that Israel was actually the conduit to the Trump administration, that their unit, eight – 8200 went —
MR PATEL: I’m just going to stop you right there. I don’t —
QUESTION: No, no, no —
MR PATEL: I don’t – I don’t think that’s true. I also don’t have anything else to offer on this.
QUESTION: Yeah, I’d like to know if the State Department has any assessment on this, because what this means is that this – that we – everybody was obsessed over Russia and this collusion with Trump for years, and what Bamford is reporting through his sources – and he’s a very serious NSA reporter; he wrote a book about the NSA, and he’s just come out with another book on espionage – is that Israel was actually the conduit to the Trump administration. Does the State Department have any —
MR PATEL: I don’t have anything to offer on that other than —
QUESTION: Could I get something in writing?
MR PATEL: I don’t have anything to offer on that other than in the United States, people can write and publish whatever they want. One of the benefits of the —
QUESTION: I’d like to know if the State Department has an assessment —
MR PATEL: One of the benefits of the First Amendment.
QUESTION: I mean, it should be in the interest —
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room now. Your colleagues have their hands up.
QUESTION: I’d really like to know the State Department assessment on that.
MR PATEL: Nick, you had your hand up recently. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’d be happy to get an email. Thank you.
MR PATEL: Nick, go ahead. You had your hand up patiently.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) a letter from the Hill this morning from Senators Grassley and Johnson asking Secretary Blinken to preserve and provide records he may have on Hunter Biden business dealings, including anything sent from his personal emails. I was just wondering if you’re familiar with the letter, if the Secretary had received it, and whether or not he’s planning to comply with their May 15th deadline.
MR PATEL: Thanks for your question, Nick. So, we have received this inquiry. We are reviewing it appropriately. What I will say, though, is that I would be – I would hesitate to take everything that the Hill says at face value. There has been a clear track record of – in many instances of transcripts being intentionally taken out of context, being intentionally misrepresented. And so, we don’t know what exactly the intent or what’s going on here. But as I said, we have seen the inquiry and we will review it appropriately.
Alex, go ahead.
QUESTION: Back to the South Caucasus. I actually have a question about Georgia, but before that, just a follow-up on what you just told my colleague on Armenia-Azerbaijan. Other than the fact that the meeting is ongoing third day in a row, are there any grounds for optimism?
MR PATEL: Alex, I’m just not going to – you keep on trying to ask me the same question every day, so I got to give you credit for your endurance, I suppose. But I’m just not going to get ahead of these talks or these processes. What I will note is that – and this is not something you’re disfamiliar with, because it’s something that the Secretary has been deeply engaged on – is that we believe that peace between these two countries is possible.
We believe that there is not a military solution to this; we believe that direct dialogue through diplomacy is an integral path forward. And that’s why we’re very pleased to host these two foreign ministers at the Foreign Service Institute to participate and take on these very important discussions. As I said, the Secretary and others across the department have been deeply engaged on this, and we’ll look forward to watching the process closely.
Camilla, go ahead.
QUESTION: Do they have one more day to go or two more days to go —
MR PATEL: I don’t have the exact schedule in front of me, Alex, but we can follow-up on that.
QUESTION: And moving to Georgia, if you don’t mind, I have (inaudible).
MR PATEL: Okay. And then we’ll come thank you, Camilla. I promise.
QUESTION: Appreciate that. Georgia has pulled out of a key NATO exercise called DEFENDER 23. Does the U.S. have any reaction to that?
MR PATEL: That is a question for Georgia and for NATO. I don’t have any assessment to offer from here. I would also let our Pentagon colleagues speak to its impact on any exercises or operations that the United States might be conducting, and I don’t have an assessment to offer from here.
QUESTION: Is it going to impact the U.S.-Georgia relationship?
MR PATEL: I’m going to work the room, Alex. You’ve gotten three questions in already. Camilla, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, Vedant. Super quickly, the former interim president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, has an event in D.C. this Friday. I have a feeling you’re not going to give anything on this, but any plans for him to meet with State Department officials?
MR PATEL: I’m not aware of any plans.
Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Quick Sudan question.
MR PATEL: Yeah.
QUESTION: Yesterday, Olga Sarrado, the spokesman for the United Nations, said that about 100,000 Sudanese refugees crossed borders into other countries, while close to 330,000 were dislocated internally. I know that the Secretary spoke with his Egyptian counterpart yesterday. There’s also – this comes amid talks that Egypt is imposing very, very strict entry into its – or through its borders. Was that something that was discussed?
MR PATEL: I don’t have anything additional to add, Said, beyond what was in the readout with the Secretary’s call. But what I will say is that we are deeply concerned about the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Sudan as it relates to – as a result of this violence. That’s why we have been so clear and consistent about calling for the need for a ceasefire, for a ceasefire to continue to be extended, and for a – us that – for that to get to a cessation of hostilities, for the free flow of humanitarian necessities as well.
Also, our regional partners have played a really important role in taking on many of these displaced individuals, whose country right now is in the midst of a civil war. But I don’t have any other assessments to provide.
QUESTION: You don’t have new figures on —
MR PATEL: I don’t.
QUESTION: — whether internally displaced —
MR PATEL: I have no other assessments to offer.
Okay. Final question.
QUESTION: On – I’m asking this question for one of my colleague on Ethiopia. So, what action U.S. – what steps United States are taking to mitigate the ongoing civil war?
MR PATEL: So, the United States has been deeply engaged in the implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement. We have welcomed the progress of implementing the key elements of the November cessation of hostilities. This is something that the Secretary personally was deeply engaged on. As you know, we traveled to Ethiopia earlier this year; it’s something that the Secretary discussed directly with his foreign minister counterpart as well as Prime Minister Abiy as well.
All right. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:33 p.m.)