Department Press Briefing – February 25, 2021

Ned Price, Department Spokesperson

2:32 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon. A few things at the top. To start things off, you probably saw and heard that Secretary Blinken is making his first virtual visit as Secretary of State to Mexico and Canada tomorrow, February 26th. Expanding on his previous calls with the Foreign Secretary Ebrard and Foreign Minister Garneau, this visit will include a series of meetings in each country.

In Mexico, Secretary Blinken will meet individually with Foreign Secretary Ebrard and Secretary of Economy Tatiana Clouthier to discuss a number of issues, including the bilateral trade relationship, shared security challenges, regional migration, climate change, and other issues of mutual interest.

In Canada, Secretary Blinken will meet with Prime Minister Trudeau, Foreign Minister Garneau, and other cabinet members to follow up on the outcomes of President Biden’s meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau, President Biden’s first virtual bilateral meeting as President, including the U.S.-Canada partnership roadmap the leaders jointly announced on Tuesday. Secretary Blinken and Canadian leaders will continue conversations about the pandemic and reinvigorating our economies and discuss taking bold action on climate change, defending human rights in the Western Hemisphere and around the world, and bolstering our shared defense and security.

In addition to government meetings, Secretary Blinken will also tour the border crossing between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and will meet with students in Canada to discuss opportunities and policy options for our two Arctic nations. And we’ll obviously have much more for you on that tomorrow.

I also want to highlight that yesterday President Biden rescinded presidential proclamation 10014, entitled Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants Who Present Risks to the U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak. The President also suspended the sections of presidential proclamation 10052 and 10131 which continued presidential proclamation 10014 past its original expiration. These proclamations restricted the issuance of certain immigrant visas. We recognize the impact on families and individuals affected by these proclamations.

We also recognize that COVID-19 has delayed visa processing operations around the world. I want to emphasize: The Department of State is committed to serving the American people and to restoring our visa operations to normal as soon as possible, always prioritizing the health and safety of our applicants, their loved ones, and our staff. Many recipients of diversity visas in 2020 were unable to travel to the United States due to this and the other travel restrictions. Diversity visa recipients holding valid and unexpired visas may now seek immediate entry into the United States, as they are covered by a blanket national interest exception.

On Monday, March 1st, officials from the Bureau of Consular Affairs will be holding a briefing to discuss this and other recent visa developments in more depth. We’ll be sharing details of this calls – of this call shortly.

And finally, we welcome a joint – the joint statement between India and Pakistan that the two countries have agreed to maintain strict observance of a ceasefire along the Line of Control starting on February 25th. We encourage continued efforts to improve communication between the two sides and to reduce tensions and violence along the Line of Control.

So with that, I would be happy to take your questions. I normally look right there, but —

QUESTION: I know, it’s weird, right?

MR PRICE: It’s very weird.

QUESTION: Matt, I’m just warming your seat. (Laughter.) Don’t put a horse head in my bed. I will ask you, just because you ended with India and Pakistan, if we could start off there. To what extent, if any, did the United States play a role in helping broker this new ceasefire agreement? And I’m curious, I mean, when President Biden was vice president, he had a very warm relationship with Pakistan, especially to the extent that he saw Pakistan as a vital partner in the war in Afghanistan, and I’m just kind of wondering how his policy – how this is going to portend to his policy towards Pakistan now that he’s President and how that will interplay with his relationship with India.

MR PRICE: Well, to your first question, I think what I can say and what you’ve heard me say from this podium and others from this administration say is that we had called on the parties to reduce tensions along the Line of Control by returning to that 2003 ceasefire agreement. We have been very clear that we condemn the terrorists who seek to infiltrate across the Line of Control.

When it comes to the U.S. role, we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues of concern. And as I said just a moment ago, we certainly welcome the arrangement that was announced that will take place – go into effect, I should say, on February 25th.

QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship that this administration is going to have with Pakistan specifically, but also how it intends to walk what, as you know, is a very fine line between trying to stay neutral between the two states?

MR PRICE: Well, Pakistan is an important partner with whom we share many interests. We, as I said, have been clear in terms of this issue. Obviously, Pakistan has an important role to play when it comes to Afghanistan and what takes place across its other border. So clearly we will be paying close attention, and we urge the Pakistanis to play a constructive role in all of these areas of mutual interest, including in Afghanistan, including with Kashmir, including with our other shared interests.

Yes. Yes.

QUESTION: Thank you. I have two questions, Ned. The first one is to know the reaction of the United States to the Venezuelan Government to expel the European Union ambassador to Caracas in the last hours. They gave 72 hours to leave the country. And is the main U.S. objective the departure or removal of Maduro from power?

And the second question is regarding to Secretary Blinken virtual tour tomorrow. In his meetings with the Mexican counterparts, is the situation of Emma Coronel, the wife of El Chapo Guzman, be part of the conversations? Is the Venezuelan situation be part of the conversations?

MR PRICE: So on the question about the wife of El Chapo, that’s an issue that I would need to refer you to the Department of Justice on. I wouldn’t want to go further from here.

To your first question, the expulsion that I believe was announced yesterday – by expelling the EU ambassador to Venezuela, Isabel Brilhante Pedrosa, the Maduro regime has removed one of the more international – one of the international champions standing up for democracy in Venezuela and human rights of the Venezuelan people. This action will only further isolate the Maduro regime, and the world remains united in calling for a return to democracy in Venezuela.

Maduro knows, of course, that his record can’t stand up to scrutiny. And so he’s expelled Europe’s ambassador because of the EU’s February 22nd, I believe it was, announcement of new sanctions on 19 additional individuals for their role in human rights abuses and the rule of law in Venezuela. We are committed to working with our partners in the international community – that includes, of course, Europe, but that also includes partners in this hemisphere – to promote accountability for these human rights abuses. We have seen human rights abuses continue to escalate at the hands of Maduro and his allies. They have used violence to maintain control and to further undermine democracy. And the result is that millions of Venezuelans are suffering as a consequence.

The Secretary has called for strengthening coordination with likeminded partners to rebuild multilateral pressure, including through targeted sanctions against those responsible for corruption and human rights abuses in Venezuela. We feel strongly that coordinated action with our allies and partners – and again, our allies and partners in this hemisphere, in Europe, and elsewhere – is crucial to supporting the Venezuelan people as they work to build the democratic future that they very much deserve.

QUESTION: Is the removal or departure of Maduro the U.S. objective?

MR PRICE: We believe that Maduro is a dictator, that Maduro is corrupt, that Maduro is responsible for the suffering of his people. And we will continue to support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people.

Yes.

QUESTION: Can I move to Armenia?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Yes. What is your assessment of what’s going on in Armenia, and do you believe, as the prime minister said, that there was an attempted military coup? And do you support him as prime minister?

MR PRICE: Well, we are, of course, aware of recent developments in Armenia. We’re following the situation very closely. We urge all parties to exercise restraint and to avoid any escalatory or violent actions. We remind all parties of the bedrock democratic principle that states’ armed forces should not intervene in domestic politics. The United States has been a steadfast supporter of the development of democratic processes and institutions in Armenia. We continue to support Armenia’s democracy and its sovereignty, and we urge its leaders to resolve their differences peacefully while respecting the rule of law, Armenia’s democracy, and its institutions.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. So follow up, so how about the statement from the General Staff of the Armenia Armed Forces? Would you consider it as an incitement or attempt – a coup attempt?

MR PRICE: Well, as you know, the Department of State has a process to determine whether a coup has transpired. We talked about that process in the context of a very different setting, and that was Burma and the coup determination that we arrived at in the aftermath of the military’s overthrow of Burma’s democratic civilian leadership on February 1st. I think I said at the time that there are three criteria that this department looks for in making that determination. Of course, there has been no such determination in this case. We continue to support Armenia’s democracy and its sovereignty, and we’ll continue to watch developments very closely as they unfold.

QUESTION: Go to Saudi Arabia?

MR PRICE: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you give us any more information, Ned, on the timing of the release of the Khashoggi report?

And then secondly, in 2018, Secretary Blinken’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo, said there was no direct evidence linking the crown prince to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Does Secretary Blinken have – has he come to a conclusion on whether the crown prince was involved in Khashoggi’s killing?

MR PRICE: Secretary Blinken has full faith and confidence in our Intelligence Community. It is our Intelligence Community, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, that has put this report together. They will be the ones who will issue this report at the appropriate moment. Secretary Blinken will have full faith and confidence in their findings.

I, of course, wouldn’t want to characterize those findings, because that is at the center of the report in question here.

QUESTION: And do you have a sense about when it might be released?

MR PRICE: I would want to refer to the DNI. I understand that my White House counterpart Jen Psaki has said it will be soon, but I wouldn’t want to go beyond that.

QUESTION: Staying on Saudi Arabia, the Saudi state news agency said that the foreign minister has spoken to his counterpart. Can you tell us about that call and what Secretary Blinken conveyed during that?

MR PRICE: Well, the Secretary has had a – has had at least a couple opportunities to speak to his Saudi counterpart. We’ve read out, I believe it has been, two of those calls. If there is another call we’re in a position to read out, we will absolutely do so.

I think I’ve mentioned this statement before, but when it comes to our discussions with the Saudis, I would point you to what the President has said, and he first said this as a candidate for high office; namely, that across every relationship we have, including with our closest security partners, human rights and universal values will always feature in those relationships. And so I have every expectation that Secretary Blinken will continue to convey that message to his Saudi counterpart but also his counterparts across the world.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on this? The National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the release of the report would be accompanied by the answer of this administration to ensure full accountability. Do you think this administration is ready to take sanctions or actions against anyone found responsible in the intelligence assessment of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

MR PRICE: Do we think that this administration is —

QUESTION: Is this administration ready to take actions or sanctions against anyone found by the U.S. intelligence responsible for the murder?

MR PRICE: The United States – first of all, I should say we’ve been very clear that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it was a horrific crime. That, of course, is going to be at the center of the report that we have been speaking to. This was enshrined in legislation that the administration should provide an unclassified version of the report to Congress. As then DNI-designate Avril Haines first said, we intend to comply with the law. And as my White House counterpart has said, we will do that – we will be in a position to do that very soon.

Of course, this is a crime that, as I said before, shocked the conscience. I expect that we will be in a position in – before long to speak to steps to promote accountability going forward for this horrific crime.

QUESTION: How do you think it will change the relationship between the United States and the kingdom, assuming that the President agrees with what the IC conclusions are?

MR PRICE: Well, I think as I said, when it comes to Secretary Blinken, the same applies to President Biden, that he has full faith and confidence in our Intelligence Community, and I think you will see that respected – reflected, I should say, in the aftermath of the release of this report.

When it comes to the bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, President Biden has said that we will review the entirety of that relationship to make sure that it advances the interests of the American people, and to ensure that it reflects the values the United States brings to that partnership.

Since very early in this administration, we have taken steps to bring that relationship in accord with our interests and our values. We have spoken of our efforts to end the military conflict in Yemen, the changes we have made to the relationship in that regard, including when it comes to future arms transfers. We have spoken to concerns when it comes to human rights. We have welcomed certain steps that the Saudis have taken to move that in a better direction. And we continue to call on Saudi Arabia to take additional such steps.

At the same time, we also know that Saudi Arabia is a key partner on many priorities. We, of course, have been very clear that we condemn the attacks on Saudi territory that have been perpetrated from Yemen by Houthi terrorists. And we will continue to stand with our Saudi partners as they defend themselves from these outrageous attacks.

This relationship, to be sure, is multifaceted, but want to ensure that we bring those facets much closer in line with our interests and our values. And this is an important part of that, this being the release of that report and the accountability that will ensue.

Conor.

QUESTION: On that point, accountability, does the administration believe that so far there has been accountability for the death of – for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

MR PRICE: Conor, look, I think the release of this report, when that time comes, will be an important step in that direction. It’s an important step in the direction of transparency. Transparency, as it often is, is an element of accountability. I wouldn’t expect the accountability to stop there, however. But I wouldn’t want to go beyond that at this stage.

QUESTION: Can I ask just one more question on Tim Lenderking’s visit to Saudi Arabia? He met with the finance minister yesterday, and the readout from the department is that he encouraged Saudi Arabia to contribute more towards the humanitarian assistance. Are you pressuring the Saudis and the Emiratis to do more, to provide the funding that they pulled back on last year?

MR PRICE: We have made very clear to our partners in the region and even beyond that collectively we need to raise our ambition when it comes to ending or at least alleviating the humanitarian plight of the people of Yemen, now home to the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. I believe I spoke to this yesterday, but, of course, there is a donors conference on March 1st. We’ll have more details there. But that will be an important venue for our allies and partners around the world to signal their commitment to helping to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Yemen. It’s certainly something we are committed to. It’s something that Special Envoy Lenderking has prioritized in his engagements with our partners in the region.

But I think you will hear a very similar message from Secretary Blinken and other senior officials in this administration, because we do consider it a pressing priority for us, as we also prioritize our efforts to bring a diplomatic conclusion to this long-running conflict in Yemen.

QUESTION: On Rwanda, on behalf of a colleague, can you say whether the U.S. believes it’s possible for Paul Rusesabagina to get a fair trial? And why is the Biden administration not planning to join a bipartisan group of senators calling for his release?

MR PRICE: Well, we – I think we addressed this last week, and we have continued since then to underscore for the Rwandan Government that the legal process adjudicating the Government of Rwanda’s charges against Mr. Rusesabagina must be fair; they must be transparent; they must reflect the rule of law. They must be consistent with Rwanda’s international human rights obligations and commitment. The United States – the State Department, I should say, has engaged the Government of Rwanda at the highest levels, both here in Washington as well as in Kigali, and it is something we will continue to do as the proceedings run apace.

QUESTION: But do you believe he should be released? I mean —

MR PRICE: We believe that the legal process adjudicating his case should be fair and transparent, should respect the rule of law, and it must be consistent with Rwanda’s own commitments and human rights obligations internationally.

Yes.

QUESTION: Thanks, Ned. You said yesterday from this podium that the U.S. would not wait forever, and that the American patience towards Iran is not unlimited. What are the limits under which the U.S. Government would consider putting more pressure on Iran, if not imposing sanctions on Tehran if it didn’t comply with the U.S. calls to resume the diplomatic talks?

MR PRICE: Well, to be clear, Tehran is under significant pressure, sanctions pressure from the United States and well beyond that. I made the point yesterday, the point you refer to, precisely because for us this is an urgent challenge. And again, to be clear, I’m not speaking of the urgency of rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. For us, that is a tactic. It is a tactic to achieve our strategic aim, and that strategic aim is to ensure that Iran can never be in a position to acquire a nuclear weapon. President Biden has been clear on that, candidate Biden was clear on that, Vice President Biden was clear on that, Secretary Blinken has been clear on that.

The President, starting as a candidate and more recently, has also been very clear that the most effective, the most durable way to ensure that end state, the idea that Iran can never be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, is through diplomacy. That is why we have put this tactical way forward on the table – shorthand is “compliance for compliance.” If Iran resumes its full performance of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States would be prepared to do the same. We would then seek to lengthen and strengthen the parameters of that deal, as we then seek to – see to it that it is the floor, not the ceiling. And that’s follow-on agreements addressing Iran’s other malign activities, that we negotiate them together with our closest allies and partners.

We are so focused on this challenge because of the stakes, and the stakes, of course, are very clear. Iran, as it has distanced itself from the nuclear agreement, has advanced in its nuclear program in ways that would have been impermissible when it was in full compliance with the nuclear deal. We can speak about that in any number of ways. I’ve spoken about that here in terms of the breakout time, again, the time it would take for Iran to acquire, to develop enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon, if it chose to develop one. When Iran was in full compliance with the deal, that breakout time was 12 months. That breakout time was significantly lengthened under the deal from a period of just about a few months before that deal went into effect in January of 2016, on implementation day.

QUESTION: I have another question on the Palestinian issue, please. There are some reports about the U.S. Government intention to postpone reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem until after the Israeli elections. Do you confirm those reports?

MR PRICE: What I can say is that we look forward to deepening our engagement with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian leadership. As part of that, we are reviewing our diplomatic presence on the ground to ensure that that diplomatic presence enables us to fully conduct our complete range of activities. And that includes engagement, public diplomacy, assistance to the Palestinian people, and diplomatic reporting.

QUESTION: On Iran, just as – question on how the administration views the current situation as – the maximum pressure campaign over the last four years, now that – a number of administration officials opposed what the previous administration was doing, but now that you are in this position, does the administration view max pressure and the sanctions that have been built up over Iran almost as leverage or just four years of misguided policy?

MR PRICE: Rich, I think when you look at the results of maximum pressure, you can only be left with one conclusion. Maximum pressure was supposed to result in a better deal. It was supposed to cow Tehran and its proxies, it was supposed to isolate Iran from the rest of the world, and it was supposed to leave America’s interests in a better position.

In fact, every single one of those, the opposite has been true. We are – over the last four years, we came nowhere close to anything resembling a better deal. Those negotiations never even got off the ground. Iran today and Iran at the end of the Trump administration – at the last – at the end of the last administration, I should say – was much closer to a nuclear weapon if it chose to develop one than it was on the first day of the last administration.

Rather than cowing Tehran and its proxies into submission, Tehran and its proxies, as we’ve talked about in this briefing room and as we saw starting really in 2018 and 2019, have been emboldened. And we’ve seen the heinous attacks and violence directed at our partners and some that have even been directed at the United States, or at least have taken the lives of Americans. So I think however you look at maximum pressure, you can only be left with that one conclusion.

Now, our approach recognizes that maximum pressure accompanied by the lack of diplomatic engagement got us to where we are. That is why we are embarking on a different path, one that prioritizes real, principled, clear-eyed diplomacy – clear-eyed diplomacy with our partners and allies. It is also notable that under maximum pressure, we were sitting at the opposite side of the table of our closest European partners and allies. I’ve mentioned this before, but with the E3+1 meeting – the meeting that Secretary Blinken had with our European allies last week – what was so notable about that was that there was a joint statement emanating from that meeting. It was a clear signal that for the first time in years, the United States was on precisely the same page as our closest allies and partners.

And with that unanimity, with that cooperation, with those consultations, we enter this phase of diplomacy from a position of strength and we are confident that this is the sort of position of strength that will allow us to achieve our strategic goal. And that goal, again, is to ensure that Iran cannot ever acquire a nuclear weapon.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) why not just roll back the sanctions and comply with what Iran wants? Or does the administration not trust Iran to go back into the deal if the U.S. moves first?

MR PRICE: I think it is fair to say that we do not – there is a lack of trust in this relationship, and I think it’s an appropriate lack of trust. The Iran deal, when it was in effect, was not predicated on the idea of “trust but verify.” I think the better moniker for it was “distrust and verify.” That’s precisely what the Iran deal did. It is precisely what we seek to do. It is precisely why we seek to have verifiable, permanent constraints on Iran’s ability to build or acquire a nuclear weapon. That’s what we’re looking for. It’s pretty simple.

QUESTION: I know there’s – just on Iran, if I may quickly – I know there’s a lot of discussion right now on how it will be that the two sides, Iran and the United States, end up back at the Joint Commission talks again with the E3. I’m just wondering, at the end of the day, regardless of this lever or that lever or this concession or that offer, is this building confident – what is the level of confidence that this building has that such talks will in fact happen?

MR PRICE: Look, we believe diplomacy is the most effective way to achieve that end state. We have put an offer on the table together with our European partners. Under the auspices of the P5+1, we would be willing to take part in these principled, clear-eyed negotiations. We have done the needful. I don’t believe that we have heard a firm response from Iran just yet.

QUESTION: So low confidence level?

MR PRICE: Look, I think we are realistic. Certainly, I don’t think you will find anyone wearing rose-colored glasses in this building. But what we know and what we are committed to is the sort of principled, clear-eyed diplomacy that we can most effectively conduct, walking in lockstep with our European allies and partners. That’s precisely why this offer was put on the table in the aftermath of that session with the E3. It’s precisely why we’ve indicated our willingness to take part in such discussions under the auspices of the P5+1. I don’t want to say we’re pessimistic, I don’t want to say we’re optimistic, I want to say what we’re committed to, and we’re committed to this potential offer under the auspices of the P5+1 pending a response from Iran.

Anyone – yes. I don’t think you’ve asked – yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, you mentioned the donor conference in Yemen next week. Can you give us an update on U.S. aid to Houthi-held parts of Yemen which the Trump administration froze last year? Does the Biden administration plan to restore any or all of that funding?

MR PRICE: Well, the fact of the matter is that some 80 percent of Yemen’s population lives under Houthi control, and that is the point that we have been making for some time now in speaking to the profound humanitarian implications that the broad – overly broad, we should say – designation of Ansarallah inflicted upon the people of Yemen. The revocation of that, again, had nothing to do with the reprehensible conduct of Yemen’s Houthi leadership. It had everything to do with the humanitarian implications on the some 80 percent of Yemen’s population who lived under that Houthi leadership.

When it comes to our humanitarian assistance to Yemen, the United States was the largest donor in 2020, having provided almost $800 million, $790 million, since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2020. This includes nearly 16.7 million in humanitarian assistance to respond to COVID-19, to assist refugees, to assist vulnerable migrants, internally displaced persons, and host communities.

Our assistance does, in fact, reach all corners of Yemen, and it is used for vital programs – food assistance, nutrition, protection, education, health, shelter, water, sanitation, hygiene, and other needed resources for the people of Yemen. Of course, there is this donors conference next week. We are hopeful and we will continue to encourage our allies and partners around the world to raise that level of ambition, just because we know how dire the circumstances are for the people of Yemen. It’s something we’ve worked to alleviate over the course of time and something we remain committed to.

QUESTION: Yeah. On Yemen?

MR PRICE: Go ahead.

QUESTION: On Iran. I just wanted to follow up on some of my colleagues’ questions. The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Company, some other institutions, and they did that under counterterrorism authorities. Does the Biden administration believe that it is necessary to lift these sanctions in order to be considered back in compliance with the nuclear deal?

MR PRICE: Well, the nuclear deal, when it was in effect, implicated nuclear sanctions. We have – we were – the previous administration – the penultimate administration, I should say, the Obama-Biden administration, was very clear that we could do two things at once, two things that were very much in our interests. We could have a diplomatic framework that provided limited sanctions relief in return for these verifiable and permanent restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. That was the core idea of the JCPOA, just as we continued to push back and to hold Iran accountable for its malign activity in other realms. And of course, counterterrorism and its support to terrorist groups in the region remains a profound concern for the United States. So rest assured that we will continue to, in concert with our allies and partners, hold Iran accountable for its malign influence in that regard.

QUESTION: But just very specifically, you don’t think that you need to remove those terror designations? There were things like in 2019 and 2020 that were – that hit institutions that had been affected by the JCPOA-related nuclear sanctions that were then – then lifted when – on implementation of the JCPOA.

MR PRICE: What I’m saying very clearly is that we can and we will continue to hold Iran accountable for its support to terrorism in the region and beyond.

Anyone who has not asked a question? I think everyone has. Gustau.

QUESTION: On Columbia, this week, one former FARC guerrilla leader, Jesus Santrich, released video that was reproduced by the international news channel NTN24, making death threats against President Duque. How serious the United States is taking this threat, that threats and is worried about his security, the security of President Duque?

MR PRICE: Well, I wouldn’t want to weigh in on the security of a foreign leader. I would want to defer to our Colombian counterparts to speak to that.

What I would say broadly is that Colombia, it’s a vital strategic partner. The United States is proud to stand with the people of Colombia as they continue down the path to just and lasting peace and prosperity. We, of course, have many overlapping priorities and shared interests, and that includes supporting sustainable peace and reconciliation; combating narcotrafficking and transnational crime; coordinating a regional response to the crisis in Venezuela, including the refugee crisis; expanding our two-way trade and economic ties; and increasing U.S. investment in Colombian infrastructure and people-to-people ties. So it’s an important relationship. Colombia is an important partner with whom we share these important interests.

Let’s see, anyone? I think – yes, I don’t believe you have. Yes.

QUESTION: China?

MR PRICE: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: China?

MR PRICE: China, sure.

QUESTION: Yesterday, President Biden signed an executive order essentially cutting off supply chains. Can you talk about the work the U.S. will be doing with its allies as a part of this review to eliminate supply chain dependence on China?

MR PRICE: This is – this gets back – and I believe the White House spoke to this yesterday – but our strategy to compete and to outcompete with the Chinese Government ultimately relies on our core sources of strength, and I’ve said this before, and we bring to the table any number of sources of strength.

Our values is certainly one of them, and you’ve heard us speak to our values in the context of our – of the bilateral relationship and our approach to China more broadly: our system of alliances and partnerships around the world, the way in which we confront China not only on a bilateral basis, but we bring much of the world with us, certainly our likeminded partners and allies – those in Europe, those in the Indo-Pacific – with us as we do that.

But there’s also a big component of this that is domestic, that is our domestic sources of strength. Part of that is the resilience and the creativity and the education of the American people. Part and parcel of that is the security of our supply chains. And so that is why that you saw the White House make the announcement that they did, knowing that as long as our supply chains are left unprotected, as long as China is able to take advantage of our vibrant economic system, the vibrant marketplace we have here, our open economy and our open society more broadly, one of those core sources of strength – perhaps the core source of strength – that domestic strength, is sapped.

And so that is why President Biden committed very early on and actually spoke about this on the campaign trail, to – committed to protecting and building on those sources of strength, and yesterday’s step was a key element in that direction.

All right. We have gone on for a very long time, so why don’t we call it a day. I see a very eager question in the back, so —

QUESTION: Yeah, I was requested to ask this question about Russia.

MR PRICE: Okay.

QUESTION: Aleksey Navalny’s supporters say he’s being moved from Moscow jail to un-named – an un-named prison somewhere in Russia. What is the U.S. view of this development, and does the U.S. feel Navalny’s life is in great danger? And has the U.S. raised this development with Moscow? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Well, what I would say is that we renew our calls for Russia to release those detained for exercising nothing more than their human rights; in many cases, nothing more than what they’re guaranteed under Russia’s own constitution, and that includes Mr. Navalny. We condemn the Russian Government’s sustained efforts to silence the voices of the Russian people, including of the opposition. There was a – this is one of those issues where we have spoken with one voice with our international partners. There was a G7 statement on this issue last month. We will continue to speak clearly together with our partners and allies, standing up and demanding the release of Mr. Navalny, but also supporting the rights and the democratic aspirations of the Russian people, including the brave Russians who have peacefully taken to the streets to exercise the rights they are guaranteed under their own constitution.

Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:14 p.m.)

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    Over the past 10 years, the number of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime cases has generally ranged between 23,000 and 30,000 each year. The compliance actions the Department of Labor's (DOL) Wage and Hour Division (WHD) used to address these cases primarily involved either on-site investigations or conciliations that seek a resolution between the employer and the worker by phone. Back wages due to workers for FLSA minimum wage and overtime violations increased from $129 million in fiscal year 2010 to $226 million in fiscal year 2019. Although the number of WHD investigators decreased by 25 percent from 2010 to 2019, WHD maintained its casework by using procedural flexibilities, such as not investigating low-priority complaints and by distributing work across offices to balance workloads. From fiscal years 2014 through 2019, most of WHD's FLSA compliance actions were targeted at priority industries—those WHD identified as low-wage, high violation industries that employ workers who are unlikely to file wage or overtime complaints, such as food services. In 2011, WHD developed a list of 20 priority industries, and encouraged its regional and district offices to focus on these industries by setting and monitoring performance goals as part of its annual enforcement planning process. The percentage of FLSA compliance actions involving the priority industries increased from 75 to 80 percent from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, according to DOL data. WHD uses several strategies, including supervisory reviews, to address FLSA complaints consistently, but does not track uniform data needed to ensure that the reasons complaints are filed with no WHD compliance action are applied consistently. WHD may file complaints without completing a compliance action because they are not within WHD's jurisdiction or for other reasons, such as that they are determined to be low-priority. GAO found that WHD filed about 20 percent of FLSA complaints with no compliance action from fiscal years 2014-2019 and the percent varied considerably (from 4 to 46 percent) among district offices (see figure). WHD lacks uniform data on the reasons complaints are filed with no compliance action at intake or the reasons cases are dropped after initial acceptance because there is no data field in WHD's enforcement database that can be used to systematically aggregate that information. Absent this data, WHD is less able to ensure that a consistent process is applied to complaints. Percentage of Fair Labor Standards Act Complaints Filed with No Compliance Action by WHD District Offices, Fiscal Years 2014-2019 Note: WHD filed about 20 percent of FLSA complaints with no compliance action from fiscal years 2014-2019, and the percent varied considerably among its district offices. The FLSA sets federal minimum wage and overtime pay requirements for millions of U.S. workers. WHD may investigate worker complaints of FLSA violations or initiate investigations in industries it prioritizes for enforcement. GAO was asked to review WHD compliance actions. This report examines (1) trends in WHD's FLSA minimum wage and overtime cases, (2) the extent to which WHD's FLSA compliance actions targeted priority industries, and (3) the extent to which WHD's reported efforts and data indicate that WHD applied a consistent process to FLSA complaints. GAO analyzed WHD data on FLSA cases for fiscal years 2010 through 2019, the last full fiscal year of data available when GAO conducted its analysis. GAO also conducted more in-depth reviews of recent efforts (fiscal years 2014-2019). GAO interviewed officials from WHD's national office, five regional offices, and five of WHD's 54 district offices with the largest share of FLSA cases in their regions. GAO also interviewed external stakeholders, including state agencies and organizations that represent workers and employers. GAO recommends DOL's WHD develop a method for systematically aggregating and reviewing data on the reasons complaints are filed with no compliance action or cases are dropped. DOL agreed with GAO's recommendation and stated it would take action to address it. For more information, contact Cindy Brown Barnes at (202) 512-7215 or brownbarnesc@gao.gov.
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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has reviewed the financial assistance it provides for off-base child care services and taken steps to standardize this assistance across the military services. Specifically, in August 2018, representatives of each service agreed to work toward a goal of standardizing the only element of the fee assistance calculation that varies among the services—the maximum provider rate. DOD officials said that they assess progress toward this goal each year, but have not set a definite deadline for full standardization. With respect to assistance for off-base child care at high-cost duty stations, DOD's 2020 report on its child care programs states that the Air Force, Marines, and Navy review high-cost locations annually, and the services may approve increased provider rate caps for specific high-cost locations. In addition, it states that the services may grant waivers allowing increased fee assistance for individual families experiencing hardship. DOD has also assessed factors that contribute to wait lists for on-base child care. According to DOD’s report, DOD found that wait lists are the result of a myriad of factors, including staff shortages and facility conditions that vary across service locations. Officials said DOD has worked for several years to analyze and address wait lists. In 2017, DOD launched a web portal that consolidates child care data across the services and in August 2019, DOD officials began monthly monitoring of wait list data from this portal. These data allowed DOD to identify four geographic regions and six additional locations that account for the majority of wait lists, and focus their efforts on addressing the issues affecting these regions and locations, according to the report. DOD officials said that any requests for additional resources to help address wait lists must be handled through the individual services’ budgeting processes. DOD offers child care in a variety of on- and off-base settings for children of military families. In fiscal year 2020 these child care programs received nearly $1.2 billion in federal funds; in addition, parents pay a portion of the costs. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 required DOD to report on elements of its financial assistance to off-base child care providers and wait lists for on-base child care, and included a provision for GAO to review DOD's report. This report describes DOD's assessment of (1) financial assistance provided to off-base child care providers, and (2) its efforts to reduce wait lists for child care at military bases. GAO reviewed DOD's report on this assessment, interviewed DOD officials, and reviewed relevant federal law. For more information, contact Kathryn A. Larin at (202) 512-7215 or larink@gao.gov.
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    The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), has identified a range of risks facing the W80-4 nuclear warhead life extension program (LEP)—including risks related to developing new technologies and manufacturing processes as well as reestablishing dormant production capabilities. NNSA is managing these risks using a variety of processes and tools, such as a classified risk database. However, NNSA has introduced potential risk to the program by adopting a date (September 2025) for the delivery of the program's first production unit (FPU) that is more than 1 year earlier than the date projected by the program's own schedule risk analysis process (see figure). NNSA and Department of Defense (DOD) officials said that they adopted the September 2025 date partly because the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015 specifies that NNSA must deliver the first warhead unit by the end of fiscal year 2025, as well as to free up resources for future LEPs. However, the statute allows DOE to obtain an extension, and, according to best practices identified in GAO's prior work, program schedules should avoid date constraints that do not reflect program realities. Adopting an FPU date more consistent with the date range identified as realistic in the W80-4 program's schedule risk analysis, or justifying an alternative date based on other factors, would allow NNSA to better inform decision makers and improve alignment between schedules for the W80-4 program and DOD's long-range standoff missile (LRSO) program. W80-4 Life Extension Program Phases and Milestone Dates NNSA substantially incorporated best practices in developing the preliminary lifecycle cost estimate for the W80-4 LEP, as reflected in the LEP's weapon design and cost report. GAO assessed the W80-4 program's cost estimate of $11.2 billion against the four characteristics of a high quality, reliable cost estimate: comprehensive, well-documented, accurate, and credible. To develop a comprehensive cost estimate, NNSA instituted processes to help ensure consistency across the program. The program also provided detailed documentation to substantiate its estimate and assumptions. To help ensure accuracy, the cost estimate drew on historic data from prior LEPs. Finally, to support a credible estimate, NNSA reconciled the program estimate with an independent cost estimate. GAO considers a cost estimate to be reliable if the overall assessment ratings for each of the four characteristics are substantially or fully met—as was the case with the W80-4 program's cost estimate in its weapon design and cost report, which substantially met each characteristic. To maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, NNSA and DOD conduct LEPs. In 2014, they began an LEP to produce a warhead, the W80-4, to be carried on the LRSO missile. In February 2019, NNSA adopted an FPU delivery date of fiscal year 2025 for the W80-4 LEP, at an estimated cost of about $11.2 billion over the life of the program. The explanatory statement accompanying the 2018 appropriation included a provision for GAO to review the W80-4 LEP. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) the risks NNSA has identified for the W80-4 LEP, and processes it has established to manage them, and (2) the extent to which NNSA's lifecycle cost estimate for the LEP aligned with best practices. GAO reviewed NNSA's risk management database and other program information; visited four NNSA sites; interviewed NNSA and DOD officials; and assessed the program's cost estimate using best practices established in prior GAO work. GAO is making two recommendations, including that NNSA adopt a W80-4 program FPU delivery date based on the program's schedule risk analysis, or document its justification for not doing so. NNSA generally disagreed with GAO's recommendations. GAO continues to believe that its recommendations are valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov.
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    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has faced challenges in its efforts to accomplish three critical information technology (IT) modernization initiatives: the department's health information system, known as the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA); a system for the Family Caregiver Program, which is to support family caregivers of seriously injured post-9/11 veterans; and the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that collects and stores information and is used for processing disability benefit claims. Specifically, GAO has reported on the challenges in the department's three previous unsuccessful attempts to modernize VistA over the past 20 years. However, VA has recently deployed a new scheduling system as part of its fourth effort to modernize VistA and the next deployment of the system, including additional capabilities, is planned in October 2020. VA had taken steps to address GAO's recommendations from its 2014 report to implement a replacement system for the Family Caregiver Program. However, in September 2019, GAO reported that VA had yet to implement a new IT system that fully supports the Family Caregiver Program and that it had not yet fully committed to a date by which it will certify that the new IT system fully supports the program. In September 2015, GAO reported that VA had made progress in developing and implementing VBMS, but also noted that additional actions could improve efforts to develop and use the system. For example, VBMS was not able to fully support disability and pension claims, as well as appeals processing. GAO made five recommendations aimed at improving VA's efforts to effectively complete the development and implementation of VBMS; however, as of September 2020, VA implemented only one recommendation. VA's progress in implementing key provisions of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (commonly referred to as FITARA) has been uneven. Specifically, VA has made progress toward improving its licensing of software and achieving its goals for closing unneeded data centers. However, the department has made limited progress toward addressing requirements related to IT investment risk management and Chief Information Officer authority enhancement. Until the department implements the act's provisions, Congress' ability to effectively monitor VA's progress and hold it fully accountable for reducing duplication and achieving cost savings will be hindered. In addition, since fiscal year 2016, GAO has reported that VA faces challenges related to effectively implementing the federal approach to, and strategy for, securing information systems; effectively implementing information security controls and mitigating known security deficiencies; and establishing elements of its cybersecurity risk management program. GAO's work stressed the need for VA to address these challenges as well as manage IT supply chain risks. As VA continues to pursue modernization efforts, it is critical that the department take steps to adequately secure its systems. The use of IT is crucial to helping VA effectively serve the nation's veterans. The department annually spends billions of dollars on its information systems and assets—VA's budget for IT now exceeds $4 billion annually. However, over many years, VA has experienced challenges in managing its IT projects and programs, which could jeopardize its ability to effectively support key programs such as the Forever GI Bill. GAO has previously reported on these IT management challenges at VA. GAO was asked to testify on its prior IT work at VA. Specifically, this testimony summarizes results and recommendations from GAO's issued reports that examined VA's efforts in (1) modernizing VistA, a system for the Family Caregiver Program, and VBMS; (2) implementing FITARA; and (3) addressing cybersecurity issues. In developing this testimony, GAO reviewed its recently issued reports that addressed IT management issues at VA and GAO's biannual high-risk series. GAO also incorporated information on the department's actions in response to recommendations. GAO has made numerous recommendations in recent years aimed at improving VA's IT system modernization efforts, implementation of key FITARA provisions, and cybersecurity program. VA has generally agreed with the recommendations and has begun to address them. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harriscc@gao.gov.
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    What GAO Found Containerized shipping—performed by oceangoing vessels using standardized shipping containers—accounted for approximately 60 percent of all world seaborne trade, which was valued at approximately $12 trillion in 2017. At a port, shipping containers are placed on "intermodal chassis" (chassis), standardized trailers that carry shipping containers and attach to tractors for land transport. Multiple entities are involved in the movement of shipping containers, including intermodal equipment providers (IEP) (which own and provide chassis for a fee); ocean carriers (which transport cargo over water); and motor carriers (which transport shipping containers over land via chassis). Four distinct models are used in the U.S. to make chassis available to motor carriers (see table), each with benefits and drawbacks according to the entities GAO interviewed. While chassis are generally provided to motor carriers using one of these four models, more than one model may be available at a port. Chassis Provisioning Models Model 1: Single chassis provider An individual intermodal equipment provider (IEP) owns chassis that are directly provided to shippers or motor carriers. Model 2: Motor carrier-controlled A motor carrier owns or is responsible for a chassis that it has procured under a long-term lease. Model 3: Gray pool A single manager, often a third party, oversees the operations of a pool that is made up of chassis contributed by multiple IEPs. Model 4: Pool-of-pools Each IEP manages its respective chassis fleet, but each allow motor carriers to use any chassis among the fleets and to pick up and drop off chassis at any of the IEPs’ multiple locations. Source: GAO.  |  GAO-21-315R Entities GAO interviewed identified multiple benefits and drawbacks to each of the chassis provisioning models. Regarding benefits, for example, both the single chassis provider model and the motor carrier-controlled model allow IEPs and motor carriers to have direct control over the maintenance and repair of their chassis, something these entities potentially lose under other chassis provisioning models. Further, the gray pool and the pool-of-pools models can resolve many of the logistical concerns regarding the availability of chassis, leading to operational efficiencies for port operators and the ability of motor carriers to choose whatever chassis they wish. Regarding drawbacks, cost considerations were identified in some cases. For example, under the single chassis provider model, two IEPs told us that while an expected part of the business, repositioning chassis to ensure there is a sufficient supply of chassis where they are needed can be costly to the IEPs. The federal government provides oversight of chassis safety but has a limited economic oversight role regarding chassis. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) employs several inspection methods to help oversee chassis safety and compliance with regulations. For example, inspectors perform roadside inspections on commercial vehicles, including chassis, in operation. FMCSA also performs investigations of individual IEPs to oversee chassis safety. While one stakeholder GAO spoke with stated that FMCSA should consider maintaining safety ratings for IEPs—as is currently done for motor carriers—FMCSA officials told us that the current processes provide sufficient information to select IEPs for investigation. The Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) oversees ocean carriers that provide service to and from the U.S. and works to ensure a competitive and reliable ocean transportation supply system. Entities may file complaints with FMC to allege violations of the Shipping Act of 1984, as amended. One such complaint was filed in August 2020, in which the complainants allege, among other things, that although ocean carriers do not own chassis, they still control the operation of chassis pools at ports. An initial decision on this complaint is expected in August 2021. None of the entities GAO spoke with identified additional actions they would like for FMC to take regarding chassis. Why GAO Did This Study Senate Report 116-109—incorporated by reference into the explanatory statement accompanying the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020—contained a provision for GAO to study intermodal chassis. Within the U.S., some entities have expressed concerns about chassis, including limited availability of chassis in some circumstances, as well as the age and safety of chassis. This report describes selected stakeholders' views on: (1) the ways in which chassis are made available for the movement of shipping containers and the benefits and drawbacks of those models, and (2) the federal government's role in the chassis market. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed relevant reports on chassis provisioning and federal oversight. GAO interviewed representatives from FMC, FMCSA, five industry associations, and the three largest intermodal equipment providers. GAO also interviewed three ocean carriers, five port operators, and a motor carrier selected, in part, for their large number of container movements. The information obtained from these interviews provides a broad perspective of relevant issues but is not generalizable to all entities. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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