Washington, D.C., where the lines between politics and celebrity frequently cross, is sometimes referred to as “Hollywood on the Potomac.”
Lately, the State Department has been fielding questions about celebrity gaffes more likely to be covered by TMZ than foreign policy reporters.
Just this week, actress Scarlett Johansson responded to protests against a Super Bowl commercial she filmed for Sodastream, a company based in one of the controversial Israeli settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, which raised the ire of critics of Israel’s settlement policy.
In a statement, Johansson said she supports interaction between a democratic Israel and Palestine, and praised the company for “building a bridge to peace between Israel and Palestine, supporting neighbors working alongside each other, receiving equal pay, equal benefits and equal rights.”
But the commercial cost her a “global ambassadorship” with Oxfam, a charity that said in a statement that businesses that operate in settlements “further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.”
L’affaire Johansson prompted an extended conversation in the State Department briefing room Thursday over the United States’ trade policy regarding products made in West Bank settlements. (The U.S. opposes the settlements but not the buying and selling of products made there).
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the policy had nothing to do with the famous actress. “I’m not going to speak to the Super Bowl commercial, and certainly she’s a private citizen,” she said.
In recent weeks Psaki was also asked about former NBA player Dennis Rodman who is reportedly under investigation for gifts he brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un during his bout of “basketball diplomacy.” The gifts may violate an American law barring the delivery of luxury goods to North Korea.
Officials here have handled the inquiries about the eccentric basketball star by noting that he is a private citizen and that the State Department had nothing to do with his visits.
“He is not our ambassador of choice,” Psaki deadpanned Wednesday.
Justin Bieber was also a topic in the briefing room Wednesday after the Canadian pop star’s charges on drag-racing prompted a petition on the White House website to have him deported.
Q: — on Justin Bieber.
PSAKI: Oh. Not what I expected.
Q: I mean, is the State Department involved in considering deportation cases or is that purely a function of law enforcement?
PSAKI: Well, we’re getting down quite a rabbit hole here with Justin Bieber.”
With a touch of diplomacy, Psaki said, “I will check and see what the visa implications would be for anybody who is found of possibly violating the law.”
Johansson, Rodman and Bieber are the latest in a long line of celebrities who have provoked official Washington: There was Beyonce and Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba last year, which drew angry responses from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Kim Kardashian visited Bahrain in 2012 to promote a milkshake chain there, tweeting about the kingdom’s beauty even as its leaders were cracking down on opposition activists.
Beyonce, as well as singers Mariah Carey, Usher and Lionel Richie all performed at concerts paid for by the family of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafy. Beyonce reportedly gave her paycheck from her 2009 New Years’ Eve performance to Haiti earthquake relief once she realized the source of the cash.
Psaki, noting the frequency of celebrity questions, concluded on Wednesday, “I have to read my People Magazine more frequently.”