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Reporter scolds State: ‘I was under the impression that you guys didn’t speak to hypotheticals’

Matt Lee, the Associated Press diplomatic writer, pressed the Foggy Bottom spokesman on the U.S. president's threat if Israel goes into Rafah.

Matthew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesman, moderates a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, on June 19, 2023, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.
Matthew Miller, the U.S. State Department spokesman, moderates a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, on June 19, 2023, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken looks on. Credit: Chuck Kennedy/U.S. State Department.

Matt Lee, the Associated Press diplomatic writer who asks the first questions at U.S. State Department press briefings, pressed the Foggy Bottom spokesman on Thursday about U.S. President Joe Biden’s threat to the Jewish state.

Biden said that Washington would withhold weapons from Israel if the latter launched a major operation in Rafah—Hamas’s last remaining stronghold in the southernmost part of the Gaza Strip.

“Isn’t it ‘if?’ Isn’t there a big ‘if’ in here?” Lee asked Miller.

“I was under the impression that you guys didn’t speak to hypotheticals,” Lee said. “Every time you’re asked any question that’s got the word ‘if’ in it or it’s not something that has already happened, you refuse to answer. And now, all of a sudden—.”

“I wouldn’t say every time,” Miller said. “Wouldn’t say every time.”

“Pretty much,” Lee said. Miller responded, “Look, this—I—so just to be—I know we should be serious about this.”

“I am not trying to be making light of it,” Lee said. “You guys have made or the president has made a policy prescription, apparently, based on something that hasn’t happened yet.”

Miller said there is “a very real difference, obviously” between his getting a hypothetical question in the briefing room and “something that we’re engaged with a foreign government that they say they intend to do. And we treat those differently for quite obvious reasons.”

“Okay, so you’re saying you won’t tell us the full truth but you will—anyway,” Lee responded.

During a May 7 State Department briefing, Miller said, “So I’m not going to speculate about some hypothetical scenario that may happen in the future.” He added: “In terms of what might happen, I’m just not going to speculate on that or comment on such a hypothetical.”

“I think that gets me into a double hypothetical, and I’m going to decline even to engage with the first part of that hypothetical question, let alone the second,” he said at an April 16 press briefing. “I’ll leave it at that.”

At an April 15 press briefing, Miller said “I’m just not going to speak to hypotheticals.” On April 3, he told reporters, “It’s hard to comment on that without getting into a hypothetical.”

“So first of all, I’m not going to discuss hypotheticals and what might happen,” Miller said at a March 14 press briefing. “I would never do that with respect to anything, as we’ve—as others in this room have heard me say for the last few days when I’ve gotten other hypothetical questions.”

On March 13, Miller’s boss U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken twice told reporters he wouldn’t engage in what-if questions. “I’m not going to engage in hypotheticals,” he said. He responded to another question: “I’m not going to get into any other hypotheticals about Rafah or where that goes.”

On March 25, a reporter prefaced a question by imploring Miller: “I hope you don’t call this a hypothetical.”

The words “hypothetical” and “hypotheticals” appear more than 450 times in the briefings section of the State Department website and overwhelmingly involve a Foggy Bottom official declining to comment.

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