State Dept.'s Jen Psaki discusses new twist in US-Israel relationship

State Department spokesperson on invite to Israeli PM


This is a rush transcript from "The Kelly File," January 26, 2015. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MEGYN KELLY, HOST: Developing tonight, Speaker John Boehner is defending his decision to invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak to Congress about Iran.

Mr. Boehner was on "60 Minutes" over the weekend after Israeli media reported Friday that this administration is furious it was not consulted on the invitation. The story in the Haaretz newspaper quoted one senior White House official as saying Mr. Netanyahu, quote, "Spat in our face publicly and that's no way to behave," adding that, quote, "there will be a price."

At the same time The Washington Post quotes a source close to John Kerry saying the secretary is also angry at Mr. Netanyahu arguing that Secretary Kerry had gone to bat for Israel at the U.N. recently, and saying, quote, "Playing politics with that relationship could blunt Secretary Kerry's enthusiasm for being Israel's primary defender."

Earlier I spoke with State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki.


Jen, thank you so much for being here.  


KELLY: So, that quote from The Washington Post, did they get it right? Is that how Secretary Kerry feels?

PSAKI: Well, Secretary Kerry spoke to this a bit last week. There's no question that he goes over and above the call of duty as it relates to our relationship with Israel. He's made dozens of calls if not more on their behalf in the past couple of weeks. And certainly I think he felt as we all did the way this process went down bordered on the bizarre.  

KELLY: I had Charles Krauthammer on the program on Friday and he called that response petulant, speaking about how Israel Iran really truly poses an existential threat, and of course Benjamin Netanyahu is going to want to make the case to anybody he can in America, but in particular to people's representatives. Can you understand that point of view?

PSAKI: Well, yes, you're right, Megyn. And the fact is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has come and spoken to Congress many, many times. We welcome that. But this was -- the process was a little odd.  

KELLY: Let's talk about this. Reports today about this Al Qaeda terrorist who was released from federal prison in the United States, al- Marri is his name, and he was sent over here by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to be here prior to 9/11 to unleash a second wave of attacks after 9/11, including poisoning water reservoirs and attacking the New York Stock Exchange and all sorts of terrible and nefarious stuff. He was captured. The Obama administration decided to treat him as a criminal as opposed to as a terrorist. You know, sort of at Gitmo he went through the federal courts here. And he was sentenced to prison. He just got released early for time served and good behavior. I mean, which is, you know, a story unto itself.

But the reports today were that there may have been a prisoner swap proposed by Qatar, which he has ties to, saying, you know what, we'll let go of these Americans that the Huangs, this couple that had been convicted over there for the death of their daughter. People here said it was a show trial. They said we'll let them go if you send al-Marri back to us. And this guy's a bad terrorist. Everybody said, wait a minute, why would we ever be negotiating for the release of a terrorist in a prisoner swap?

Can you confirm that that offer was made by Qatar?

PSAKI: Well, there was no proposal on the table. And that's not something we would consider. And I think it's also important for people to know the Huangs, which we felt very strongly as you mention as many people did that this was a case where they should not have been held, they were released and the judge said because there was a lack of forensic evidence. And they were released weeks ago.

KELLY: It was very close in timing of al-Marri's release for good behavior.  

PSAKI: You're right. That's true. But this was not a case where there was a prisoner swap considered, discussed as a part at any of these deals.  

KELLY: When you say -- I'm just trying to understand your language. When you say there was no proposal on the table, are you ruling out that this was ever suggested by Qatar or any of its representatives to the United States or any of its representatives?

PSAKI: Well, just to be as diplomatic as I can here, Megyn, and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity, I'm not in a position to confirm everything that's mentioned at any point in time.  

KELLY: All right. Let's move onto another topic.

I want to ask you about Yemen which, you know, basically is a hot mess now. And that we played a sound bite of you on Friday and I confessed to Charles Krauthammer who I mentioned earlier, he laughed at what you said, and here's why. The folks who are now in control of Yemen -- used to be a U.S.-backed government, we liked them, we were at least satisfied with them -- but these are the guys in control now. "Death to America. Death to Israel. Victory to Islam." So the American people may not be feeling too great about the new people in charge of Yemen.

You were asked about these folks  the Houthis last week. And here's what you said.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They do on occasion, you know, chant, "Death to America," and that kind of thing. So, it's not as if they haven't expressed anti-American sentiment in the past.  

PSAKI: Well, Matt, as I mentioned we continue to assess our security needs every day regardless of what's been said. But it is important to note that just this week they stated that was not their intention.


KELLY: So, I mean, you know the follow-up. But you're taking them at their word that they no longer mean the chants?

PSAKI: Well, Megyn, first of all I know you could never play all the back and forth we have on Yemen in the briefing, but we've been discussing this probably hours last week in the briefing.

KELLY: I don't want to get deep into the Yemeni politics. I just want to ask you whether you are actually saying that we should just trust this group because they now say, never mind all that chanting about death to America.

PSAKI: Well, I think our actions make clear that we don't just trust. I think it was important to note that that was something that was stated publicly.  

KELLY: So, is the death to America.  

PSAKI: Now there's no question there's been a great deal of unacceptable violence, rhetoric, everything you've said. There's no question about that. But we're  in a situation that is very tense, it's fluid. We have to see what's going to happen on the ground in Yemen. We don't know yet what's going to happen there.  

KELLY: Let's hope that was just bluster.

Let me ask you one thing before I'll let you go. Your boss John Kerry took some flak for going over to France after we didn't show up at the big march and bringing James Taylor and have him sing "You've Got a Friend" and he hugged President Hollande and all the European reports where, "This is an embarrassment, the United States clearly does not understand French culture, A, they don't hug, B, to sing the song in English over there, you know, it seems condescending," as the UK's Guardian put it. "Hokie placating condescending and tone deaf not to mention embarrassing." Do you think we misstepped diplomatic in either those choices, diplomatically?

PSAKI: Well, first, James Taylor had a range of concerts that were already scheduled in France that many people in France were attending. I was there at that event. It was a very warm event. It was a very emotional event. And I think you mentioned some of the coverage, but that wasn't most of the coverage in France of his visit there.  

KELLY: Is Secretary Kerry just a hugger?

PSAKI: He is a hugger. I don't think that's a bad thing, Megyn but --  

KELLY: Apparently the French think it is. But that's the French.

All right. Great to see you, Jen. Thank you so much, Jen Psaki, for being

PSAKI: Great to see you, Megyn. Thank you.

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