NSC's John Kirby Holds On-the-Record Press Gaggle

The White House

Via Teleconference

11:06 A.M. EST

MODERATOR: Hey, everyone. Thanks for joining us. Sorry for the delay. Kirby has a few words here at the top, and then we'll take some questions.

MR. KIRBY: Thank you. In the interest of time — and I know everybody wants to get postured and ready for the President's remarks, so I'll just very, very quickly just draw your attention to the letter written jointly this morning by nine of our ambassadors to countries across the Indo-Pacific, to include Japan, China, India, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea — a letter that they sent to Congress urging them to act quickly to pass the President's national security supplemental funding request, including the funding that it contains for the Indo-Pacific, as well as, of course, for Ukraine and for Israel.

The ambassadors wrote about how, quote, "Many countries in the Indo-Pacific are intently focused on the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East."

Again, with Russia's growing strategic partnership with the People's Republic of China and with military support from Iran and North Korea, our support for Ukraine — or the potential termination of that support at such a decisive moment here in these winter months — will fundamentally affect not just Ukraine, but other strategic theaters as well, obviously to include the Indo-Pacific theater.

And then, just before I close out, I'm sure many of you saw the statement that I issued yesterday, correcting what I had said Friday night about pre-notification to Iraqi officials on Friday night before the strikes that we took on facilities related to the Iran-backed militia groups. And I deeply apologize for the error, and I regret any confusion that it caused. It was based on information we had or that was provided to me in those early hours after the strikes. Turns out that information was incorrect. And I certainly regret the error.

And I hope that you'll understand there was no ill-intent behind it, no deliberate intent to deceive or to be wrong. I take those responsibilities very, very seriously. And I deeply regret the mistake that I made.

And with that, we can take some questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our first question will go to Steve with Reuters.

Q John, could you just give us a little readout of what you're expecting Biden to talk about with the German Chancellor on Friday? Is it Ukraine assistance? Is it the attempt to use Russian assets to pay for Ukraine assistance? What are you expecting on Friday?

MR. KIRBY: Well, just broad-brush, Steve — there's no question that they're going to talk about the war in Ukraine and how we can work together to push back on Putin's continued aggression. I have no doubt that they'll have an opportunity to discuss what things look like along that battlefront.

I have no doubt that they'll discuss the work on the Senate side that Republicans and Democrats have worked so hard to get a bill put forward, which would allow for funding for Ukraine to continue. And the President, I'm sure, will share his views on that, as he will share his views on that with the American people here shortly.

And I think that they will also have an opportunity to talk about what's going on in the Middle East writ large, I mean, just in terms of the scope of activity that's being supported by Iran throughout the region, but also more critically, the fight between Israel and Hamas, and share our steadfast support for Israel's right to defend itself, as well as our mutual obligations to try to do what we can to increase humanitarian assistance and to decrease the number of civilians that are being harmed in Gaza.

And then lastly, I think, Steve, they'll have an opportunity to touch on the NATO Summit coming up in Washington soon — later this year, and just sort of check signals on the approach that we want to take and the things that we want to get done at the NATO summit.

Q And lastly, John, do you know — as far as you know, has Hamas responded to the U.S.-Qatar proposal to release hostages in exchange for a pause?

MR. KIRBY: I would say that the negotiating effort is still ongoing, Steve; that we aren't at a place where we have finality on it and that we're about in — about to be in imminent execution. So we're still working on it.

I'd rather not talk about sort of where folks are on the particulars and where they are in terms of final approval. But we don't have a deal at this point, as you and I are talking. And we're hoping that we can get closure on it very, very soon.

Q Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Aamer with the AP.

Q Thank you, John and Sam. Following on Steve's question on the Scholz visit, what can President Biden tell him to assure Germany and the rest of Europe that they won't be alone in helping Ukraine, particularly considering where things are with Congress?

And is the President and the U.S. now in sort of a place where we have diminished credibility in these conversations?

MR. KIRBY: To some degree — I don't want to get ahead of the President here today; you're going to hear from him soon, Aamer — and I think the answer to your first question will be, I think, part of the President's arguments today. So I want to be careful I don't get ahead of him.

But I think he will make clear to Chancellor Scholz how much he personally wants to continue to support Ukraine, how hard Senate negotiators worked on both sides of the aisle to get at this final bill. I think he'll stress that if that bill reaches his desk, that he'll sign it.

And I think he'll also, you know, remind the Chancellor that there is strong bipartisan support, actually in both chambers. And I recognize what we're hearing out of the Speaker. I get that. But if you talk to the leaders in the House, certainly the leadership of the national security-related committees, all of them will tell you they want to continue to support Ukraine. And that's not an insignificant fact. And I think he'll be willing to, you know, remind the Chancellor of that.

Again, up on Capitol Hill, for all the dysfunction that we tend to see, particularly regarding on the House side, that there is strong bipartisan leadership support for Ukraine and that the President is going to stay committed to the task.

And on your second question: As I've said before, American leadership matters. What we say matters. What we do matters. And it's American leadership that has really spearheaded and helped make the contributions to Ukraine's security so tangible and so operational. People look to us to lead in that effort, as we have, through the Ukraine Defense Contact Group and other initiatives.

And so, it's important — there are a lot of eyes on us right now, certainly in our allies and partners and some adversaries as well. So it's really important that this deal that was reached in the Senate find its way through the process, of course, but find its way to the President's desk so he can sign it so we can continue to do what we have to do to support Ukraine.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Neria with Israel Channel 13.

Q Hey, Kirby. Thank you so much for doing this. When America is talking about a hostages deal, is it part of a bigger deal of normalization with Saudi Arabia, or are we talking about two different paths here?

MR. KIRBY: No, these are two different things. We're working very hard, as I mentioned to Steve, to try to come to closure on another hostage deal and an extended pause that will allow us to get the remaining hostages home with their families, to get more assistance in, and certainly to reduce harm to civilians. Obviously, we'd like to have something that's longer in length than a week that we were able to achieve back in November — again, to be as thorough as we can be on getting those hostages home.

And then, you know, once that gets put in place then, you know, we'll have to see where it goes from there, assuming that both sides meet their commitments.

At the same time, we were, before the 7th of October, and are still now having discussions with our counterparts in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia — obviously, the two key ones — about trying to move forward with a normalization arrangement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

So those discussions are ongoing as well. We certainly received positive feedback from both sides that they're willing to continue to have those discussions. But that is a separate track and not related specifically to trying to get this extended humanitarian pause in place. Both are really important though.

Q Thank you so much.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Nathan with Israel KAN.

Q Hi. Thanks for taking my question. I'd like to know about the supplemental assistance. Is there any assessment of how critical this is for Israel right now? How long can Israel wait before this is approved? And are there any measures that the U.S. can pass in order to mitigate that?

MR. KIRBY: Yeah, I'm going to be careful here that I don't talk about operational security matters for the Israeli Defense Forces.

But the figure that we came up with in October and then the one that's in this bill — roughly, they're about the same: more than $10 billion. And it's designed — the figures that we came up with were achieved in close consultation with our Israeli counterparts about their expectations of what they would need so many weeks hence. So, we're glad to see that this bipartisan Senate bill does continue to provide security assistance for Israel.

I want to say just one thing, though. I want to be — again, I will let the Israelis speak for how much longer they have to go and (inaudible) the munition, but we know that air defense capabilities are a key, critical need for the Israelis as rockets continue to get launched against them and targets in Israel. And they have expended quite a bit of air defense munitions, and we know that that's a critical need. So that's one area where, you know, I am comfortable talking about and saying that, you know, we know we've got to do more to help replenish their stocks.

Q Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Nick with PBS.

Q Hey, Sam. Thanks very much. Hey, John. Two questions on Ukraine. Given the response so far by Speaker Johnson, is the White House interested in and/or pursuing an alternative — for example, somehow combining the Israel bill that came out of the House with the Ukraine funding that would have to be created by the Senate and then sent back to the House?

And then, on air defense for Ukraine, I know you won't be able to be specific, but if there's no supplemental, could you say anything about how critical air defense for Ukraine levels

would be? Thanks.

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Nick. On the first one — you'll hear more from the President soon, so I hope you understand that I won't get ahead of him — our focus is on this negotiated bill from the Senate side, where Democrats and Republicans really worked hard to come up with a proposal, a bill that we believe and the President has said, you know, we support and we believe will go a long way to helping us with these emergency supplemental requests. And that's our focus.

And as the President — as we have said — as we have said, that, you know, if it gets to the President's desk, he'll sign it. So that's our focus. And we'd prefer that, on the House Republican side, instead of political gamesmanship and ploys, that they focused on — they focused more seriously on this Senate bill, because there's an awful lot of goodness in this bill for not just the people of Ukraine but also Israel, and, of course, to help our Border Patrol agents down at the southern border.

And as the ambassador said in the Indo-Pacific, there's a lot of goodness in here for our national security. And we urge members of Congress in the House to take it up and to take it up seriously. That's our focus.

On your second question, on air defense — again, without getting into inventory numbers, which I would never do for the Ukrainians — air defense, likewise, for Ukraine is critical right now, particularly in these winter months. We have seen a continued onslaught by Russian drones — actually supplied many of them by Iran — and cruise and ballistic missiles targeting particularly two things in Ukraine: one is obviously military units, but also specifically and directly targeting Ukraine's defense industrial base to try to eliminate Ukraine's ability to organically produce many of the munitions that they need to defend themselves.

So, air defense is critical, whether it's short, medium, or long range. And it's going to become more critical over these winter months as Mr. Putin continues to try to pound away at that Ukrainian defense industrial base.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Asma with NPR.

Q Hey. Thanks, John, for doing this. I have two questions on two different topics.

First, I know, on Friday, when you spoke of the administration's response to the servicemembers who were killed in Jordan, you had said that at that time you did not yet know, kind of, the scale of what that meant in terms of militants who had been killed or wounded. I'm wondering now if you have anything that you can share on that front.

And then, second topic is: In regards to the ongoing negotiations to release remaining hostages that were taken by Hamas, could you characterize what or whom has been the primary holdup? My understanding is this is now in the hands of Hamas, but could you characterize what is the major sticking point?

MR. KIRBY: I'm going to be unsatisfying on both of these questions.

I think the Pentagon briefed yesterday and spoke to their belief that there probably were some militia group members killed and/or wounded, but they did not have a number. And so, I'm not really able to go beyond what they are assessing. Your question is really better put to them. They're doing the battle damage assessment, and they would know.

And I'm not going to negotiate here, in public, and start throwing out labels on who's the holdup or what's the holdup. We believe that there has been a serious proposal put forward here and — for an extended pause that can do all the things we've said it can do. And we are still now in the process of trying to get that proposal inked and underway.

And I think I probably should just leave it at that lest I say anything that could negatively affect what is still a very sensitive negotiation process.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Michael with the Washington Post.

Q Hey. Thanks so much for doing this. Question or two about Ukraine. In the Scholz meeting on Friday, to what extent are you guys hashing out a strategy about how to help Ukraine if the supplemental doesn't pass and if there isn't substantial more U.S. funding for military assistance to Ukraine?

And just wanted to ask also about Jake's visit to Brussels tomorrow. I mean, is that what's on the agenda there with Stoltenberg? Thanks a lot.

MR. KIRBY: Yeah. Without additional funding to support Ukraine, the United States, at least unilaterally, won't be able to continue to provide security assistance. We said that very clearly. We've got to have the supplemental funding in order to be able to provide continued security assistance.

And I would remind that one of the things baked into that Senate bill is a significant amount, something to the tune of $20 billion, of replenishment authority for the Defense Department to help restock its shelves and a significant investment in our own defense industrial base here at home. It's really critical.

Other nations are also providing support to Ukraine. I think you've seen, just a week or so ago, the EU pledged like $10 billion in financial assistance to Ukraine. That's welcomed. That's important. And other nations, you know, unilaterally are continuing to support Ukraine, and we certainly hope that that support will not lapse either.

But again, back to, I think it was Aamer's question, the United States is certainly seen, and rightly so, as a real leader here on the support to Ukraine front. And people will look to us for that leadership. And we have the most robust defense industrial base, the most significant ability to continue to support in a robust way, more robust than many other nations around the world.

And so, that we might not be able to provide support doesn't mean that support won't still be able to flow from other countries. But our absence from that will certainly be felt in the hands of the Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield, and that's what we want to avoid.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Morgan with Semafor.

Q Hey, John. Thanks so much for doing this. I'm wondering if you can give us a sense of what the impact the lapse in U.S. aid is already having on the battlefield in Ukraine. What kind of things are you hearing from the Ukrainians?

MR. KIRBY: So, again, without getting too much into their operations, we know for a fact that some of their battlefield commanders on the ground are making tough decisions about how many munitions they're going to fire on a given day at a given target, how many do they have to keep back. They're making operational maneuver decisions based on their ability to continue to support the troops going forward in the field. So they're in a tough position.

They're also having to defend against, as I said earlier, a pretty heavy barrage in the air by drones, ballistic missiles, and cruise missiles. So they're expending air defense, again, mostly medium to long range, at a rate that they're concerned about. And the Russians notice. I mean, part of the tactic here is throw metal into the sky, knowing that the Ukrainians are going to have to throw metal back at it, and that there's not a steady stream or reliable stream of backfill for that air defense capabilities.

So we know that soldiers on the battlefield — on the battlefront are running low on certain types of ammunition. We know that air defense is going to be a key inventory item for them going forward. And we know that battlefield commanders, again, as I said earlier, are making some pretty dang tough decisions about what they're going to expend and how they're going to operate with what they have to spend in order to preserve some capability for the future, if that support is not coming.

And I just — one last point on this, and then I promise I'll shut up. But, I mean, these winter months, it's not as if the fighting has stopped. Both sides are slugging it out in the air and on the ground. And so, it's not as if everybody can just take a knee here and wait for the spring, the "spring offensive," and so we've got months and months to help resupply the Ukrainians. The time is now. They need this stuff now.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Kevin with CNN.

Q Thank you, John. On Friday, you said, after these strikes, that there had been no communications, backchannel or otherwise, with Iran. Has that changed in the last couple of days?

And then, I had a separate question on the hostage negotiations. In the past, there had been reporting about some of the difficulties in actually getting in touch with Hamas, you know, between the communications blackouts in Gaza and the bombardments there, that there had been gaps in when Qatar or Egypt could actually communicate with the leaders. Is that having any effect now in the back-and-forth over the hostage deal that appears to be coming together?

MR. KIRBY: I know of no private messaging to Iran since the death of our soldiers in Jordan over a week ago.

On your second question — again, I'll be careful here because I don't want to insert myself in the negotiations — but the communication with Hamas is done through Qatar. And that communication process — because, ultimately, whatever is being negotiated has to reach Hamas leaders in Gaza too, not just the ones that are present in Qatar — that communication process can sometimes be cumbersome. It doesn't mean that it's not effective; it doesn't mean that it's not reliable. Just, at times, it can be cumbersome. But we have managed in the past to work through that. And I have no doubt that we are right now still able, through the Qataris, to communicate effectively with Hamas leaders.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Aurelia with AFP.

Q Hi. Thanks for taking my question. A really quick one on the impact on the battlefield. Without American assistance, what do you think will happen on the battlefield in Ukraine? Do you think the Ukrainian forces will collapse? Do you see the conflict dragging on? What's your scenario here?

MR. KIRBY: I'm not very good at predicting the future when it comes to military operations. I'll just tell you that American security assistance and the security assistance from so many other countries remains critical to Ukraine. They'd be the first to tell you. In fact, President Zelenskyy has said that without foreign support he would not be able to wage this war in Ukraine's defense and to be able to claw back, as they have, more than 50 percent of the territory that the Russians originally took. It's absolutely vital. It's critical.

And the President is going to stay focused — and, again, you'll hear more from him in just a wee bit — we're going to stay focused on making sure we can continue to find a way to get them that security assistance.

But as I said — again, I'm not going to predict the future here; I would not do that — but as I said to the previous question, the commanders on the battlefield are having to make some difficult decisions that they should not have to make to be able to defend themselves and their troops.

MODERATOR: Thank you. And as Kirby said, we're going to hear from the President in a wee bit, so we'll let you go.

If you have any other questions, feel free to reach out, and we'll get back to you.

Oh, wait, Kirby has one more thing.

MR. KIRBY: Yep. Just again, I want to foot-stomp my apology at the top. I made a mistake there on Friday night, and I do really regret it. And I promise you I'll do a better job going forward and work harder to not put bad information out there. Again, my apologies. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Great. Again, if there's anything else we can do, feel free to email us, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can. Thanks.

11:33 A.M. EST

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