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Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 23, 2017

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 17:45
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 23, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • D-ISIS
  • D-ISIS


    2:11 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Just a few things at the top and then I’ll take your questions.

    Beginning with yesterday’s attack in London, we can confirm that U.S. citizen Kurt Cochran was killed in yesterday’s attack, and we express our deepest condolences to his family and his friends. We’re also aware that another U.S. citizen was injured in the attack, and we, of course, stand ready to provide any and all assistance possible. Due to privacy considerations, I don’t have any further details to provide.

    I can say that the U.S. embassy in London issued an emergency notice or emergency message to inform U.S. citizens in London and surrounding areas of the security incident, and U.S. citizens should maintain security awareness and monitor media and local information sources. We also strongly encourage U.S. citizens in the UK to contact family and friends in the United States directly to inform them of their safety and their whereabouts.

    As President Trump and Secretary Tillerson expressed both publicly and privately yesterday to their respective counterparts, we extend our sympathies to the victims and their families, and we stand ready to assist the UK in any way possible.

    The United States strongly condemns this attack, an attack that was carried out on a pillar of the United Kingdom’s democracy, its parliament building. Attacks such as these can only strengthen our resolve to defeat the scourge of terrorism worldwide. We also, of course, commend the work of the first responders and we have offered, as I said, to provide any assistance that we can to the city of London and the wider UK during this difficult time.

    I also thought it might be useful to give a little bit of a recap of yesterday’s D-ISIS ministerial. So as you know, Secretary Tillerson hosted ministers and senior representatives of all 68 partners of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The overarching objective was to coordinate global efforts to – or, rather, to coordinate global efforts behind President Trump’s goal to ensure the utter destruction of this barbaric group and to prevent it from returning in any form.

    In his remarks, the Secretary laid out his vision for a more effective campaign to defeat ISIS on the battlefield, provide the stabilization support needed to ensure that ISIS cannot return, and in particularly – in particular emphasized the importance of accelerating our efforts to combat ISIS in cyberspace as aggressively as we are on the ground in Iraq and Syria in order to prevent it from spreading its message and recruiting new followers online. The Secretary also noted the more than $2 billion that was identified by coalition partners for humanitarian, stabilization, and demining needs and he called on all partners to rapidly fulfill their commitments.

    Prime Minister al-Abadi from Iraq also, as you know, addressed the morning plenary session, and coalition members stressed their support for Iraqi forces who are engaged right now in operations to liberate Mosul and pledged to continue their support for Iraq even after ISIS is finally defeated.

    Following the morning session, Secretary Tillerson hosted a working lunch for coalition delegations where he was joined by the Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin – Mnuchin, rather – and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, along with the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and the Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland as well as the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Tom Bossert.

    The discussion at lunch focused on how different partners can more effectively coordinate and share lessons learned to deny ISIS the ability to threaten our homeland as well as that of our partners. The lunch also featured a more in-depth discussion of countering ISIS’ poisonous ideology in the Middle East region both through television as well as through social media. And the Secretary in this session stressed the U.S. commitment to an integrated and whole-of-government approach to defeating ISIS as exemplified by the other U.S. Government attendees to that lunch and called on partner nations to similarly integrate their own departments and agencies to the extent possible and to increase information sharing within the global coalition.

    In an afternoon session, Secretary Tillerson hosted the coalition’s small group and was joined by Secretary of Defense Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Coats. The participants discussed how to strengthen coordination and intensify the campaign against ISIS both in its core base in Iraq and Syria as well as its affiliates in other countries. The small group consists of those approximately 30 coalition stakeholders who play a major role across military and civilian lines of effort.

    Throughout the day, the Secretary reaffirmed the United States singular commitment to work with partners in this fight and was encouraged by the commitment and unity that coalition partners exhibited at this historic gathering.

    One last thing to note, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that this is Press Office Director Elizabeth Trudeau’s last briefing. She’s leaving us this week. Hard to believe, I know, but she has been a stalwart colleague, a good friend, indefatigable I think describes her in some ways, relentless in other ways. (Laughter.) But she is a tireless advocate for transparency, for responsiveness, and for trying to always answer your questions to the extent that she can at any time, day or night. I couldn’t keep pace with her. I can’t. I admit that freely. But she has done an extraordinary job coordinating the efforts of the press office and certainly in, I think, addressing your needs, which we all recognize, in this day and age, are 24/7.

    I do want to note that we’re fortunate to have Mark Stroh, who many of you probably know from his time at the NSC, who is going to come on board and bridge the gap, if you will. So we’re very excited to have Mark lend a hand and to try to fill Elizabeth’s role as best anyone can. But anyway, I just wanted to say thank you very much, Elizabeth. (Applause.)

    All right, on to the business of the day.

    QUESTION: Thanks, Mark.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Thank you, Elizabeth. Mark, as you know, the 60-day review that the Trump administration has put in place for the Keystone pipeline is set to expire on Monday. What is the status of that review? Do you expect we’re going to have an announcement on that?

    MR TONER: So I can say that the review’s ongoing. I don’t have anything to announce at this point. We’re fully aware of the deadline approaching. Once we do have something to announce, certainly we’ll make you aware. But I will say that that’s likely to be a White House announcement, but I don’t have anything to add at this point other than that we’re still undergoing the review.

    QUESTION: The Obama administration had been very set on the idea that this was actually not really a White House decision but that this really centered on the approval or lack of approval from the State Department as far as the national interest determination. Is that no longer the theory?

    MR TONER: Not at all. The State Department’s still playing the same role that it did in evaluating and conducting that kind of review. And certainly, that’s a decision, in terms of the way this thing works, that we’ll make. I just don’t have anything to announce at this time, but that certainly, we’ll play the same role in this regard as well.

    QUESTION: Given that the State Department under the previous administration looked at this issue quite extensively over many years and Secretary of State Kerry came up with a recommendation that this did not serve the national interests, if there were to be a determination that was different than that, what new information has come to light or what would be the justification for changing your view on that?

    MR TONER: Sounds an awful lot like a hypothetical. Look, all I can say is that when we revisited this, we were asked again to look at, review the findings with regard to this pipeline and its impact. We’re in the process of doing that. Certainly, we’re looking at all the factors. And as you note, we did do an extensive review previously but we’re looking at new factors. I don’t want to speak to those until we’ve reached a decision or conclusion, and once we do we’ll let you know. Thanks.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up to that? You say “new factors.” Have you commissioned new research?

    MR TONER: My understanding is that --

    QUESTION: Or are you looking at what you already knew but in a different light?

    MR TONER: Well, again, we’re looking at – certainly looking at previous data and other factors, but I just don’t have anything to add to --

    QUESTION: You say the State Department’s role has remained the same. Has the Secretary’s role in the process remained the same? Given the current Secretary’s previous role in the oil industry, is any thought being given to keeping him out of the process?

    MR TONER: He has recused himself from the process.

    QUESTION: So this will be delivered to the White House by Mr. Shannon?

    MR TONER: That’s correct.

    QUESTION: So has he made a determination yet? Has he delivered that review to the White House?

    MR TONER: He has not.

    QUESTION: Because the White House said they’d have an update on it tomorrow, suggesting they’d have – that this would be announced by them tomorrow. Can you confirm that?

    MR TONER: Confirm what, that a decision’s been made?

    QUESTION: That a decision has been made --

    MR TONER: A decision has not been made yet.

    QUESTION: Not been made by the White House?

    MR TONER: By either.

    QUESTION: Okay, but you have delivered your – the out – the – what you – what the State Department’s feeling is about it to the White House. That’s been passed on?

    MR TONER: I’m not aware that we have, but again, we’re – there’s still an afternoon and an evening to go, and a morning to come tomorrow, so (laughter) there’s still time left if – we’re just – we’re fully aware that the deadline is Monday, Lesley. So – but our work is ongoing. We haven’t made a determination yet that I’m aware of.

    QUESTION: And in this review – in this review you’ve had to – I mean, it’s still going to be a long process before there is a final outcome. This is just the start of something. How does the State Department see its role in that process?

    MR TONER: Fair question. Look, I think at that point – look, our responsibility has been to conduct this review, as Josh noted, and that hasn’t changed this time around. Once we conduct and once a decision’s been announced by the White House, I’ll have to get back to you on further steps.

    QUESTION: Hey, can I follow up on that?

    QUESTION: Mark, Mark, can I?

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s finish with this, Said.

    QUESTION: Follow-up --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: In – it’s not – is it just the environmental impact or is it also the jobs? I seem to remember a previous State Department report talked about most of the jobs that this is creating are going to be temporary. Is that still your finding?

    MR TONER: We look at all the factors and, again, I think that all of that is under review once we reopen the process. And I just can’t speak to any of the conclusions that this new review has discovered.

    QUESTION: But can you speak to the old conclusions about what – about jobs?

    MR TONER: I mean, they’re out there. I mean, we reached those conclusions and that decision – the decision was made by President Obama, but our review – previous review stands. Those conclusions stand. I think we’re just looking at it with fresh eyes and trying to see if there’s any new factors to look at and consider.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I --

    QUESTION: Just a clarification on that. If the Secretary of State has recused himself from this, so he has no role in the review whatsoever?

    MR TONER: That’s correct. That’s --

    QUESTION: So his --

    MR TONER: “Recuse” means no role.

    QUESTION: Can I follow (inaudible) just a second?

    QUESTION: Yes, can I --

    QUESTION: Would it be fair to say, then, if this review led to an approval, that it no longer undermines America’s position as a climate change leader?

    MR TONER: Sorry, one more time the question.

    QUESTION: Sure. The question is: If this goes through, would that not undermine America’s leadership as a climate change --

    MR TONER: So, again, in a pre-decisional state such as we’re in, I don’t want to speak to hypotheticals and speak to a decision that might be taken or might not be taken. But with respect to how any decision like this might undermine our role as a climate change leader, I think that’s not fair. This administration is conducting a review of climate change policy, but within – but our record on this issue speaks for itself. I think we have been a leader in addressing climate change globally, regardless of the decision that’s made with respect to this keystone application.

    QUESTION: Mark, Mark, the only – the only member of staff who has changed since the transition is the Secretary, and he’s recused himself from this issue. So is this exactly the same people looking at exactly the same information?

    MR TONER: I just can’t answer – I mean, with respect to at lower levels, I just don’t have that --

    QUESTION: But you know that --

    MR TONER: -- that knowledge.

    QUESTION: -- you haven’t appointed any --

    MR TONER: Right, that – I mean, I --

    QUESTION: -- assistant secretaries or deputy secretaries.

    MR TONER: That’s correct. So there’s an acting assistant secretary and --

    QUESTION: Is the head of the climate change and pipeline department still the same as before?

    MR TONER: I’d have to check. I believe that’s the case, yes.

    QUESTION: So this is --

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: -- essentially the same people looking at the same information and coming to a different conclusion.

    MR TONER: We haven’t said they’re going to come to a different conclusion yet --

    QUESTION: Well, I’m just guessing.

    MR TONER: -- so we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But look, I mean, again, regardless of the group of people who are examining a situation, I think what’s important is how they’re looking at – or rather the information that they’re looking at and assessing to make that conclusion or make that decision. So we’re trying to take a new look at it. This is a review for a purpose.


    QUESTION: Mark.

    MR TONER: Are we done with – yeah.

    QUESTION: Yeah. First, I just wanted to add my voice to what you said about Elizabeth. I want to thank her. She’s always been here for us, for me in particular. I mean, I’ve communicated with Elizabeth almost every day, so I want to thank you. You’ve been diligent and amazing and omnipresent, especially for me. So let the record show. And I want to follow up --

    MR TONER: I, on the other hand, go to bed every night at 10:00 p.m. She doesn’t. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Yeah, and she’s diligent, so --

    MR TONER: She’s very diligent. As I said, I can’t keep pace with her.

    QUESTION: Right. And second, I wanted to follow up on – I mean, on --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: I wanted to ask on the Palestinian issue --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- on the settlement. I want you to react – yesterday, on the issue of the settlement, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics indicated that the settlements have increased in 2016 by 40 percent. And two more things related to the settlements so we get it all out of the way.

    MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.

    QUESTION: There was also a statement by the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in China where he said that he will continue to build. And thirdly, could you confirm or comment on what Mr. Jason – what is attributed in the Israeli press to Mr. Jason Greenblatt of saying that – to the Israelis last week, you could build in Jerusalem, you could build in the existing bloc, but you can’t build in the, let’s say, isolated outposts.

    So all these three issues on the settlement, then if I may, I’ll probably ask another one.

    MR TONER: Okay. With respect to – first of all, with respect to what – excuse me – what Special Representative Greenblatt may have said in a private meeting, I wouldn’t speak to that. I can say that he’s actually meeting today with an Israeli delegation. I’d refer you to the White House for a readout. I know that our own Michael Ratney is in – also attending those meetings.

    Look, with respect to your question about the surge of 40 percent in 2016 from the previous year, the President’s already spoken out about – with respect to settlements. He said we’d like to see Israel hold back on settlement activity for a short time. I think what’s important is that we and the Israelis continue to have discussions relating to settlement construction in the hope of working out an approach that is consistent with the goal of advancing peace and security. So again, this is – and we’ve talked about this before – this is one factor, a factor that is keeping us from getting back to what we all claim to be the goal here or all say we want as a goal here, which is negotiations on a final settlement. So with respect to that, we’re working with them constructively to try to come up with an approach that allows us to get there.

    QUESTION: Now, last week, the United States Government pressed the United Nations to withdraw the report terming Israel as an apartheid state. Today in the Israeli press, we saw a film, a video of Israeli soldiers taking an eight-year-old child in Hebron from door to door so he can tell them who was throwing stones, forcing an older man to translate for the little boy. Would that be really disturbing? Isn’t that some sort of an apartheid kind of behavior?

    MR TONER: Sorry, you’re talking about the specific incident – I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: Yeah, a specific incident, yes, where they picked up an eight-year-old boy, they took him around, a group of them – I mean, it’s – it was shown on Haaretz and shown by B’Tselem. They were taking him from house to house, to – so he can point to other boys who allegedly threw stones at the Israeli soldiers.

    MR TONER: Well, look --

    QUESTION: That – what kind of a behavior is that? Would --

    MR TONER: -- not having seen the video --

    QUESTION: Isn’t that some sort of an apartheid --

    MR TONER: Not having seen the video, not understanding the context, I’m very reluctant to speak to what we may or may not be seeing in this, so --

    QUESTION: Okay. So going back to the initial point that you guys have pressured the United Nations to withdraw the report, now, if the Israeli – if top Israeli politicians and leaders and generals and so on actually call that apartheid, why is it so outrageous – call what is going on in the occupied West Bank an apartheid system, why is that so outrageous to you?

    MR TONER: You’re talking about with respect to --

    QUESTION: I’m talking about with respect to the report that was issued by ESCWA last week describing the situation --

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: -- in the West Bank, in the occupied West Bank, as an apartheid system.

    MR TONER: -- I think I’ve explained this several times, Said. I mean, we viewed it as an anti-Israel, biased report, and we expressed our concerns about it. Look, no one’s saying that we don’t have frank discussions with Israel when we believe it’s taking actions that are detrimental to pursuing a peace process or getting back to the pursuit of a peace process. But we’re also not going to stand by while what we consider to be anti-Israel reports are set forth, and again, we’re going to speak out when we consider those – such reports to be biased.

    QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about the ISIS meeting yesterday, some clarifications?

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: So the Secretary of State talked about setting up interim zones of stability in Syria. Can you define what he meant by that, whether coalition forces would be involved, how that would work exactly? And then I have a follow-up question about what he said about reconstruction, but if I could ask that first.

    MR TONER: Sure. With respect to the – his comments about these zones, look, I think what’s – so I don’t have a lot of detail to provide. These are all discussions that are still ongoing within the administration. But I think what --

    QUESTION: So it’s just a suggestion? It’s not a decision?

    MR TONER: Well, what I think what – well, let me finish. So what I think what he is looking towards is: How do we – once we’ve defeated ISIS on the battlefield, how do we maintain that? How do we build upon and stabilize the area so that – in these liberated areas so that local populations can return? And I think what he’s trying to do, what he was attempting to do, is speak to the broader problem, which is you have all these displaced people, and how do you get them home again? And I think what – we’re confident that we can defeat ISIS on the battlefield. That’s not to say we’ve done it yet; we’re not there yet. But we’re confident that we’ve got the progress, that we’ve shown the ability – working through Iraqi Security Forces, working through the Syrian Democratic Forces – that we can do that.

    But what comes next is vitally important, which is: How do we stabilize, provide security on the ground, so that these local populations can return home? I think what we’re looking at in terms of these zones, or these areas, is: How do we protect these populations to get back to --

    QUESTION: Mark, he specific --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Just to follow up. But I mean, to say “interim zone of stability” is quite a loaded phrase given the debate and discussion, et cetera, about safe zones. So are you saying that the Secretary of State is throwing a sort of unformed idea out there? He’s saying it’s a good idea to somehow protect the people, but we haven’t figured out how we do that yet?

    MR TONER: No, I think he’s offering our view on what needs to be done. But again, we’re still discussing specifics about how that looks.

    QUESTION: Just to --

    QUESTION: Can I? Can I – sorry --

    QUESTION: Sure, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Is it about the zones?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Yeah, okay.

    QUESTION: Can I just try and flesh this out a little bit? So are you saying that – or is the Secretary saying that once these areas are kind of cleared of ISIS, this is where the refugees or displaced people should be able to return back, and then that area would be somewhat protected from conflict from here on in? Because that would be – that would take, obviously, not just getting ISIS and being able to hold it, but that would take some kind of agreement not only with the Russians, who are also in the battle space, and also the Assad regime. There would have to be implicit recognition that Assad would not go to those areas. Because most of the displaced people – maybe if not most, but a large portion of them are displaced because of the Syrian conflict that started with the campaign by the regime.

    MR TONER: So, again, I think what his emphasis was on is what comes next and what comes after liberation, which is reconstruction, which is stabilization, and how that looks and how you provide the security that’s necessary for these local populations to come through.

    QUESTION: So I know you --

    MR TONER: But how the mechanics of that look, who provides what – that’s all to be discussed. And that’s partly --

    QUESTION: Well, no, I understand, but you’re --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- just talking about – I just want to make sure we understand what you’re talking about.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: You’re talking about clearing an area of – free of ISIS.

    MR TONER: That – and that’s clearly the objective is --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: And then designating that a safe zone, or a zone of stability, or whatever, for displaced people to go. But that does nothing to keep these people safe from the regime campaign, does it?

    MR TONER: Well, I think --

    QUESTION: Wouldn’t you need – I mean, is it really going to be a zone of stability or a safe zone if the regime – if you don’t have agreement by the regime that – or the Russians that they’re not going to go hit there?

    MR TONER: Again, I think what he was trying to address is the need to consider all these factors going forward so that we have a zone of stability for these local populations to return home.

    QUESTION: No, I know you --

    MR TONER: He didn’t necessarily – no, but I mean, I’m unable to flesh that out because these are still ongoing conversations, not only with our coalition partners but within the administration itself.

    QUESTION: How does that – but what I’m asking is – and I understand what you’re saying, but --

    MR TONER: And I understand what you’re asking me, which is: How does that --

    QUESTION: How does that relate to the Syrian civil war --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- and the fact that ISIS is not the only people that – the whole concept of safe zones from the very beginning was not really about protecting them from ISIS. The whole concept of safe zones or no-fly zones --

    MR TONER: So --

    QUESTION: -- for the last six years has been about --

    MR TONER: Yeah, so there’s a lot of conflation here --

    QUESTION: -- the Assad regime.

    MR TONER: -- and let me try to address that. So you are talking about – and understood – that there was a lot of talk, certainly with respect to the civil war that’s ongoing, and we all recognize that Syria has a very complex battle space, if I could put it that way. There were talk – was talk of safe havens or safe zones; that’s not what we’re talking about here, and that’s not the focus of what he was talking about yesterday, which was – when he was addressing the coalition members, he was very clear that our number one priority with respect to the region is eliminating ISIS. That’s not to say that we’ve forgotten or that we’re disregarding the conflict – the civil conflict, the civil war that’s ongoing in Syria, but first and foremost, and he said this, he said, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Our priority is defeating ISIS and creating the conditions so that they can’t return. And so that’s going to be our focus going forward. That’s not to say that we’ve forgotten about what else is happening in Syria --

    QUESTION: I can see how it can be a zone of stability or a zone of safety or a safe zone for these people to go. I mean, maybe they’re not being hit by ISIS, but I mean, I think, aren’t you – don’t you recognize that you would need some agreement from the Russians or the regime about --

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think that’s all --

    QUESTION: -- about that that would truly be a safe zone?

    MR TONER: Those are all legitimate questions. I think all those factors are something, obviously, we’re looking at.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: About yesterday --

    QUESTION: If not – it’s not like a no-fly zone --

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: -- where you need protection, or a safe zone.

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: Is it like a relay station, so if you – it’s a holding area where people are on their way back to their homes and villages?

    QUESTION: I have one follow-up --

    MR TONER: No, I – fair question, Said. What’s that?

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I mean, here the budget outline projects that there will be less money for what is called nation-building or reconstruction, or other civilian needs. How do you fit that in the budget priorities?

    MR TONER: Sure. Fair question as well, Andrea. Look, I mean, we’re in early days of the budget process. We’re looking at all this. We’re understanding and we recognize this was a skinny budget that came out last week, that we’re looking at some significant cuts, but I think also the Secretary is very clear that it’s about realigning priorities, and that’s what he’s looking at now with the awareness that ISIS is one of those priorities, and defeating it, and ensuring that. And he was very clear about this yesterday. He spoke to this many different times in many different forms, but ensuring that once we defeat it on the battlefield, that it doesn’t come back. That the conditions that allowed ISIS to arise – the vacuum, if you will, that allowed it arise in the first place, it doesn’t – we don’t return to that state in either – in Syria or in Iraq.

    Now, look, Iraq has a stable government, a prime minister who is undertaking reforms, but it’s going to need a lot of money and assistance in turn to get – to reconstruct, to provide stability in the aftermath. That’s one of the things he talked about, and certainly I think – I have the figure here, but with respect to our coalition partners, everybody needs to do more.

    QUESTION: Does he see an American leadership role in this?

    MR TONER: Of course. And we’re not --

    QUESTION: Mark?

    MR TONER: -- regardless of how the numbers shake out with regard to budget, American leadership is not going to go away.

    QUESTION: But did he just do --

    QUESTION: May I have a quick follow-up --

    QUESTION: Just to follow up with my reconstruction question.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: He said that the coalition resources would not be used for reconstruction or the – they were not in the business of reconstruction, nation-building and reconstruction, he said. So what’s – how does that – what does he mean by that, because there was clearly talk about elements that equal reconstruction.

    MR TONER: I think, and certainly Iraq is a good example of this, but I think what we’re talking about is: How do we empower local governments, local forces, local populations to have the capabilities to restore and stabilize these areas? And again, it’s very clear in Iraq; it’s a tougher job, certainly, in Syria.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    QUESTION: So by --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: Quick follow-up about yesterday’s meeting?

    QUESTION: Well, I’ve got – can I just stick with the interim zones for just a second? Sorry, it took me a minute to find the exact quote. You say it’s an idea that’s under discussion. He says --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- “The United States will work to establish interim zones,” but all right. And even leaving that aside, to – “will work to establish interim zones of stability through ceasefires.” You’re not going to have a ceasefire with ISIS or al-Qaida. Who are the ceasefires going to be with?

    MR TONER: Again, I think – I’m not going to get into the details of this, because they’re all being worked through and they’re all being discussed. What I can say is that it’s a recognition of the fact that given the state that Syria is in today that we need to be able to establish areas where local governance can return, infrastructure can be restored, and all that can be done in a stable, safe way – environment – excuse me. And how that looks I think is all being discussed.

    QUESTION: Was it a mistake to use the term interim safe zones in the Secretary’s speech without having more information for us?

    MR TONER: I don’t think so. I think – look, this was a chance for him to lay out how the U.S. views the effort to defeat and maintain that defeat of ISIS going forward. He talked a lot about defeating them on the battlefield and then what comes next, and then he talked a lot about – as we know, about cyber space and how we defeat them from reaching out and recruiting new terrorists.

    QUESTION: He talked a lot about all those things --

    MR TONER: He did.

    QUESTION: -- but he talked a little bit about --

    MR TONER: So – no, no, but let me --

    QUESTION: -- safe zones and ceasefires

    MR TONER: Right. He did. And I’m not – and so – but this was a discussion with coalition partners. Part of this was an opportunity to share new thoughts, offer new ideas on the way forward. And I think that’s – that that concept was offered in that spirit.

    QUESTION: So I think when many people first read that, that kind of moniker, interim zones of stability, sort of interesting as it is, people immediately, of course, think safe zones. You’re saying that this is not related to safe zones. But by laying it out this way and calling it that and then qualifying it by saying through ceasefires, does this mean that the concept of safe zones is not a possibility moving forward then?

    MR TONER: Again, I think all I can say is I don’t want to rule anything off the table when we look at Syria, but I think what’s very clear is a few things. One is this administration’s focus is on defeating ISIS. That’s not to say we’re, again, abandoning any resolution of the civil war and resolving that through a political process in Syria, but the primary focus is on defeating ISIS and then, as I said, maintaining a zone of stability whereby reconstruction can take place so that ISIS isn’t able to reform, regroup, and return within that area. How this looks, how it’s done, those are all sort of to be discussed.

    QUESTION: So the concept then of establishing safe zones or no-fly zones, you’re saying that that is – that’s not off the table? This isn’t some alternative?

    MR TONER: I don’t ever want to rule anything off the table.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: But it’s something up till now, as you all know, have not – we’ve not, for many different reasons, some of them logistical, have not considered seriously. But that said, this is a new administration. The focus is on defeating – first priority is on defeating ISIS, and that’s – it was in that spirit that he offered this idea.

    QUESTION: And for all of the talk of acceleration and integrated approach, a whole-of-government approach, intensification, one thing that we heard from foreign attendees yesterday multiple times was that this – what they didn’t hear was much of a plan. So can you describe why there isn’t more of a plan in the views of these people who’ve been deeply involved and when you foresee this shaping up to be more of a plan?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, as you know, the Pentagon did present the White House with a plan. That plan is being looked at. The State Department is going to have a role certainly in all of these activities going forward, as evidenced by yesterday’s coalition meeting, across – and let’s remember there’s the kinetic side of this on the battlefield, but there’s also – these are multiple lines of effort, including the internet or cyber space, including countering terrorism, terrorist financing, including preventing foreign fighters, and then, of course, stabilization. The State Department has its role to pay in all those areas.

    But with respect to the Pentagon’s plan that was presented to the White House, that’s still being vetted, being discussed within the White House. And let’s remember also I can’t speak to how or how much of that plan the White House is going to reveal. Let’s remember that the President during the campaign said he’s not going to necessarily telegraph the strategic decisions or tactical decisions that he’s going to make.

    QUESTION: Mark, what are the new ideas? You came out here a couple days ago and said that you didn’t want to steal the Secretary’s thunder, but he was going to have a bunch of new ideas. Are you saying these zones of stability – is that what you characterize as new? Because it seems like an awful lot of what we heard yesterday and what you just outlined is really just a continuation, in some cases word for word, from the Obama administration’s strategy.

    MR TONER: I think – sorry, I heard somebody sneeze and I wanted to say God bless you, sorry. (Laughter.) Distracting.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: You’re welcome. Sorry. (Laughter.)

    Look, to answer your question, a couple of things: One was, it’s very clear – it was a very clear expression of this administration’s singular approach to defeating ISIS. It’s not to say that the previous administration wasn’t making an effort, a concerted effort to defeat ISIS. This administration’s focus is singularly focused, primarily focused on defeating and destroying ISIS, and accelerating what we’ve already done. There was no – and Secretary Tillerson spoke about this – there’s been tremendous progress in the past year, certainly on the battlefield.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Some 30 percent – I’ll get to you – some 30 percent territory loss in Syria, I think 63 or 64 percent regained in Iraq. So recognizing that progress, how do we complete that task, how do we accelerate our efforts to complete that task? And then I think the big emphasis yesterday was also on the next steps – reconstruction, stabilization. There’s not --

    QUESTION: Don’t you think it’s a little bit premature, though – stabilization and reconstruction?

    MR TONER: Not at all. I mean, look, we’ve already been doing this when you’ve been liberating cities, certainly Tikrit and other areas in – that have been liberated in Iraq is – there’s been success in getting the local populations back into these areas, Iraq more so than Syria. Syria’s a more complex area. But I think what his emphasis for and his reason for raising that yesterday was to make the point that we can’t just beat them on the battlefield and walk away, because we’ve seen what happens in the past when that happens, and so we’ve got to complete the task. I think you’re seeing how he prioritizes --

    QUESTION: But then he also said – can I – may I?

    MR TONER: Yeah. Yeah, please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: He also said that, like, the U.S. can’t nation-build. So I thought – I mean, don’t you see a disconnect between saying that the U.S. isn’t going to nation-build and then you’re talking about kind of reconstructing the nation state, if you will, because there’s been such this vacuum?

    QUESTION: And just to add to that, he didn’t just say the U.S. can’t nation-build; he said the coalition will not – resources will not be used for nation-building or reconstruction. So that – if the – can you explain that? I don’t understand that.

    QUESTION: Yeah, so how do you square that line?

    QUESTION: To add to that too, we’re also talking about increases to the Pentagon budget and huge cuts here. How does that factor into the fact that we’re now moving away from a military campaign towards stabilization and reconstruction?

    MR TONER: Well, I would argue that the Pentagon has some experience in this kind of work as well, what comes after – post-conflict. I think that’s the important thing.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: So I think that’s the important thing. I think there’s always some degree of post-conflict stabilization efforts that need to happen. But let’s be very clear: What we’re doing here in terms of military approach, we’re not – this is not a major U.S. footprint on the ground. What we’ve been doing in Iraq especially but working with Iraqi Security Forces and similarly in our reconstruction efforts, we’re going to work with the Iraqi Government through the Iraqi Government --

    QUESTION: So are you going to work with the Syrian Government in terms of reconstruction?

    MR TONER: Of course not, but we’re working with local forces in the northern part of the country and we recognize that it’s a very difficult and challenging environment to work in.


    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: Could you – could you --

    QUESTION: In his opening remarks, Secretary Tillerson specifically welcomed the representative from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

    MR TONER: He did.

    QUESTION: That seemed like a difference from the Obama administration, which was reluctant to invite a KRG representative. It just invited one representative from the whole Government of Iraq. Did the State Department have any role in inviting him? Can you talk about that a little?

    MR TONER: I’m not going to draw comparisons. We’ve been very clear in this administration and the previous administration our deep respect for the role that Kurdish fighters and – have played in the fight against ISIS, and we have great respect for the sacrifices and also great respect for what capable forces they are and the role that they played thus far.

    QUESTION: A quick follow-up about yesterday’s meeting?

    MR TONER: Let’s – are we done with --

    QUESTION: Did you – sorry, just – just to be clear --

    MR TONER: Are we done with --

    QUESTION: -- did you invite him or was he just --

    MR TONER: No, I believe he was brought as part of the Iraqi Government.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: Mark, I have one quick follow-up on yesterday’s meeting.

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Excuse me.

    QUESTION: Can I ask a question about public diplomacy and --

    QUESTION: Could we just stay on reconstruction and stabilization?

    QUESTION: No, can we go back to – just stay in --

    MR TONER: I would love that, but we’ll finish up with – (laughter) --

    QUESTION: Mark –

    QUESTION: Can I ask about (inaudible)?

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: Guys, I’m up here for a limited time, so let’s finish things. Go ahead. Go ahead, Elise, and then last question on – yep.

    QUESTION: Mark, you said – you said you – when this gentleman asked about the cuts to the State Department funding and you said, well, the Pentagon has some experience in that too, are you saying that some of those – that the Pentagon is going to take a greater role in the reconstruction and stabilization --

    MR TONER: I think we’re all – sorry. I think we’re all looking at – first of all, we’re talking – we’re projecting forward here for the FY18 budget, so that’s down the road a ways. We’re still in early days with respect to the budget, so I’m not trying to signal or telegraph anything here. All I’m saying is the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, has been our partner – the State Department. I mean, this is an interagency --

    QUESTION: Yeah, but numerous defense secretaries have said that, like, they don’t want to be in that business anymore and that the State Department should play a greater role in doing that.

    MR TONER: Look, again, I think --

    QUESTION: Including, I think, Secretary Mattis.

    MR TONER: Well, Secretary Mattis was here yesterday. He’s aware of the challenges. I think there is no daylight between the way Secretary Tillerson thinks about the next steps or way Secretary of Defense Mattis does.

    QUESTION: (Crosstalk.)

    QUESTION: You talked about the $2 billion – you talked about the $2 billion and that there had already been commitments more than $2 billion. How much is – have you actually got in your pocket?

    MR TONER: I don’t have any answer for you on that.

    QUESTION: And was additional funding raised beyond this 2 billion yesterday?

    MR TONER: I don’t believe so, but I don’t have an answer for you with respect to who’s stepped forward yet. I think we’ll leave that to the individual members to speak to that.

    QUESTION: Mark, a single, quick follow-up on yesterday’s meeting? Yesterday’s meeting?

    QUESTION: Do you know how much it was from the U.S.?

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: We’re still looking at that.

    QUESTION: We’re also seeing that Taiwan’s representative also attend that meeting in this building yesterday and also the Taiwan – person of Taiwan also address that Taiwan will keep devoting into the humanitarian assistance. I’m just wondering that do you have any comment on that.

    MR TONER: We certainly appreciate those contributions as we appreciate the contributions of all coalition members. I think it’s an important thing to emphasize is that big or small, whatever role any coalition member can play and partner can play, we appreciate it. I think what the message yesterday was we all need to see how we can do more to finish this.

    QUESTION: Are you aware that the Taiwan’s representative --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Yeah. Let’s --

    QUESTION: In an interview this weekend, the Secretary said that the department cuts would be appropriate in the coming years as we sort of draw down these military efforts overseas. So does he believe that the State Department shouldn’t play a role in that reconstruction, that it should be the Pentagon, that it’s no longer this department’s job?

    MR TONER: No, I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think he was speaking more broadly about the fact that we hope to, frankly, draw down our involvement in what has been the longest sustained period of American military action and engagement overseas, frankly, almost in our history. And I think in recognition that this administration wants to not necessarily increase those engagements and recognizing that, and I think you’ve seen that. Again, the approach to ISIS has been less boots on the ground and ways that we improve the capability of these local forces, whether they’re Iraqi or otherwise.

    QUESTION: Well, shouldn’t that mean more diplomacy and more State Department personnel, then?

    MR TONER: Well, it does. And again, a budget is a budget. You decide within – I mean, within – as the leader of the department, you decide how the money’s going to get spent and what the priorities are. The priority in this case is defeating ISIS.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Can we – yeah, please.

    QUESTION: You just said less boots on the ground. I thought we were adding forces in Syria.

    MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to necessarily – I’m aware of the reports on that yesterday.

    QUESTION: Doubling forces in Syria.

    MR TONER: What’s that?

    QUESTION: Doubling forces in Syria.

    MR TONER: Again, but I’m drawing the comparison to previous efforts in Iraq and others, so – and Afghanistan.

    QUESTION: Can we go back to Asia?

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    QUESTION: On Turkey.

    MR TONER: I’m happy to change the subject, yeah.

    QUESTION: Asia?

    MR TONER: Let’s go to Asia.

    QUESTION: Okay. So I just want to clarify something first. So you’re saying the first priority is defeating ISIS. The singular focus is defeating ISIS. Are you talking about just the region or as a whole? And I have a follow-up.

    MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, look, we’re the United States – we’re the Department of State. We need to be able to chew gum and pat our heads or whatever the expression is – walk and chew gum – that’s it – at the same time.

    QUESTION: Rub your tummy.

    MR TONER: Yeah, rub your tummy. (Laughter.) Thank you. And so we’ve – what I’m trying to say is we need to be able to do multiple things at once. Everybody recognizes it’s a complex world and there’s lots of security challenges out there. Secretary Tillerson was just in Asia where he discussed the threat that the DPRK poses to the region and increasingly to the United States and how we deal with that. So no one’s saying that we’re simply going to focus solely on ISIS, but I think what it is and what he spoke about in his remarks yesterday was looking at the region – looking at the region, there’s a lot of priorities there. And what he wants to try to do is make one singular priority – one priority, and that is defeating ISIS.

    QUESTION: And so I wanted to just – I asked about Asia because I was going to ask --

    MR TONER: Yeah, of course. Because you were going to ask --

    QUESTION: -- where is North Korea – if ISIS is first, then where is North Korea on that consideration?

    MR TONER: North Korea is a clear and present danger. I mean, and he was very clear about that on his trip last week, and he was very clear in his messages to Japan and to Korea in his discussions there with our allies and partners, as well as our discussions – or his discussions with leadership in Beijing.

    I think the message was very straightforward, which is: We can’t afford to give North Korea more time and space. They are rapidly working to develop a nuclear capability and ways to deliver that – the – that capability in the region and, indeed, to the United States. And that is a danger and we need to address it.

    QUESTION: Follow-up --

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    QUESTION: (Crosstalk.)

    QUESTION: Mark, follow-up North Korea again.

    MR TONER: So I’m looking at the time --

    QUESTION: Yes, yeah.

    MR TONER: -- so you, and then one more.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: North Korea launched the --

    MR TONER: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: All right. (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: Go ahead, go on. You’re --

    QUESTION: You have the floor, Janne.

    QUESTION: Okay, North Korea launched --

    MR TONER: Very short.

    QUESTION: -- launched missiles again and – yesterday morning to the east coast of South Korea. Do you have anything on the particular why they failed this missile?

    MR TONER: You have a question about what? Why we --

    QUESTION: Yeah, failed this --

    MR TONER: I mean, I – beyond the – look, I mean, this is yet another provocative act by North Korea. We strongly condemn it, of course. We call on North Korea to refrain from these kinds of actions. It’s threatening international peace and stability, clearly the stability on the peninsula – or on – yeah, on the Korean peninsula, and in the region. And it just underscores, again, the urgency.

    QUESTION: Do you know what kind of a missile it is?

    MR TONER: I don’t, and I wouldn’t say.

    QUESTION: And one on the reports that have come out from Fox that North Korea might conduct another nuclear test before the end of the month.

    MR TONER: I wouldn’t speak to that.


    QUESTION: On Turkey.

    MR TONER: Turkey, and then Andrea, and then you.

    QUESTION: Turkey and EU – tension continues between the Turkey and EU. Does the Trump administration supports Turkey’s EU membership currently?

    MR TONER: Look, I mean, Turkey is an ally, obviously, a strong partner, certainly, with respect to ISIL, and a friend. We support Turkey’s aspirations to engage with Europe. I’m not going to speak to what is an issue between Turkey and Europe, and the EU, rather, specifically. That’s for them to work out, but as much as Turkey wants to pursue that integration with the Euro-Atlantic community on an economic level, we’d encourage that.

    QUESTION: And is --

    QUESTION: Mark, I have a follow-up.

    QUESTION: There is a report that Secretary Tillerson is --

    MR TONER: You’re very good at follow-ups.

    QUESTION: -- going to Turkey on end of – end of March.

    MR TONER: Yeah, nothing to announce. When we do, we will.

    QUESTION: I have follow about – a follow-up on this. (Inaudible) and everything now. President of Turkey is threatening the European every day. Today, he accuse – he attacked Germany, Norway, Austria, Greece, Cyprus, every European country.

    MR TONER: Yeah, I’m aware of --

    QUESTION: No, no, no, one second.

    MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Do you agree with his behavior?

    MR TONER: I think what we’ve said about some of the back and forth that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks – that we want to see everyone get along and to tone down the rhetoric.


    QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about public diplomacy --

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: -- and the importance of a free press.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: I’ve covered six secretaries and they have always brought traveling press with them, specifically and importantly when going to Beijing; when, let’s say, going to Cairo; when, let’s just say theoretically, going to Turkey or to Moscow, for the reason of holding a unilateral press conference if there isn’t a bilateral to show that this is the way we value press freedoms in the United States. And I’m wondering, many people are wondering about the commitment of this administration to a free press given the travel difficulties and challenges for not even bringing a press pool to some of these places.

    MR TONER: Sure. Well --

    QUESTION: Very notable in Beijing, for instance.

    MR TONER: So, Andrea, a couple of thoughts on that. One is I’ve been up here for now going on an hour, and that’s – and I accept that willingly because this is a forum where we can talk about foreign policy, I have to answer your questions, I have to fend – to defend our policy decisions across a broad spectrum of issues, and that is I think a testament to our commitment to a free press. Now, with respect to traveling press, I know that’s a concern for those in this room. I would respectfully say that during the trip to Asia, there was access to the Secretary, there was access --

    QUESTION: I would respectfully disagree, having been there.

    MR TONER: Well, again, and I can give you the numbers, but many news organizations are – have bureaus in places like Tokyo and Beijing, certainly in Seoul as well, and they were able to be represented at these press events. And I know you were there, and I know it was difficult to make that trip, but this Secretary – and he was clear and he’s spoken about this in his interviews – is that he is committed to a smaller footprint. That’s not to say – let me be clear – that we’re not going to look at taking any press in future trips. I’m not saying that at all. But he is committed to a smaller footprint. And with respect to the trip to Asia, the space constraints on the plane did not allow, frankly, for a press contingent. So we worked with --

    QUESTION: That’s not accurate.

    MR TONER: So we work with our embassies. I think it is. And I can get into this. I don’t – we don’t need to have this out here, but I’m happily – happy to talk to you about this offline. But there’s a significant cost savings to taking the smaller plane, but that smaller plane requires – or has minimal seating.

    QUESTION: A 737.

    MR TONER: Yeah. And this Secretary also travels with a greatly reduced staff in comparison to previous secretaries, and he does that for a reason. He likes a smaller footprint, but he’s also – has an eye towards cost saving.

    QUESTION: But in evaluating the preference for a smaller footprint, what is the priority placed on showing the flag for press freedoms when you arrive in Beijing --

    MR TONER: The Secretary had --

    QUESTION: -- when you arrive in Moscow and other places where journalists – like Turkey, like Cairo – are being locked up?

    MR TONER: But again, the Secretary did press in each of his stops. He also – we did have a press person on the plane --

    QUESTION: Pressed for --

    QUESTION: Press for – in Beijing? Press in Beijing?

    MR TONER: And I think in – and I think in --

    QUESTION: Pressed for what, Mark?

    MR TONER: What’s that?

    QUESTION: You said he pressed in each stop.

    MR TONER: No, no, no, I said he did press in – he did press in --

    QUESTION: That’s not correct. That is not accurate.

    MR TONER: I think it is, Andrea. He did press in each stop. I mean, Seoul and Tokyo certainly, and I think he did take questions --

    QUESTION: In Seoul, if you went to --

    QUESTION: Smaller footprint aside, he took one unilateral journalist.

    MR TONER: Look, guys --

    QUESTION: And if you – if you went to the DMZ, you could not do the press events in Seoul.

    MR TONER: Look, guys --

    QUESTION: It was either/or.

    MR TONER: Look, guys --

    QUESTION: And that was specifically --

    MR TONER: With all due respect, with all due respect, are there any other questions, because this is --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: No, Mark, Mark, it’s not accurate to say from that podium that he did press in every location.

    MR TONER: I believe he did.

    QUESTION: He did not.

    MR TONER: He answered questions in Beijing.[1]

    QUESTION: He did not.

    MR TONER: I’ll take the question. I’m not trying to sell you a false bill of goods here by any way, shape, or form.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: What I can say is that there were some 50-plus U.S. media on the ground in Beijing covering his activities. And again, partly – I recognize that that meant journalists flying commercially. But also, bureaus like – or The New York Times, other major media outlets, have bureaus in places like Beijing, in places like London, in places like Moscow, and those are journalists who know the issues and cover the issues as well.

    QUESTION: Mark, I have one on --

    QUESTION: One on Syria? A tiny one on Syria?

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Guys --

    QUESTION: A really small one on Syria --

    QUESTION: Wait, Mark – Mark, you said we’re going to (inaudible).

    QUESTION: -- a clarification.

    QUESTION: Yeah, Mark, can you take my --

    MR TONER: Sorry. I did promise Felicia.

    QUESTION: Can you --

    QUESTION: It’s on --

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: So on Venezuela, the U.S. and I think 13 other countries are going to issue a statement calling on Maduro to release political prisoners, return full power to the national assembly, and set a timetable for regional elections. Do you have any comment on the statement and anything on when it might happen?

    MR TONER: I think I do. I have to find it in here.

    QUESTION: Venezuela, Mark.

    MR TONER: Please. Is there another Venezuela while I look for Venezuela?

    QUESTION: Yeah. President Trump called last weekend to President Temer and President Bachelet and talked on the situation in Venezuela. I’d like to know what is the position of this government on the – what do you expect for these two countries on the situation on Venezuela? Do you expected any kind of coordination from Brazil and Chile on --

    MR TONER: Well, let me – okay, so – and your question was on the OAS?

    QUESTION: Yeah. Yes.

    MR TONER: Okay. Well, we do share concerns of the state of democracy in Venezuela the secretary-general of the Organization of American States lays out in great detail in his report. We believe that his report merits serious consideration by the OAS Permanent Council. Let’s be clear we’re not pushing for Venezuela’s expulsion from the OAS at this time; however, we do think the OAS is the appropriate venue to deal with the ongoing situation in Venezuela.

    And then in broad response, elections are essential to securing accountability, and the Venezuelan people deserve a voice in creating solutions to the myriad economic, political, and social and humanitarian challenges that they face.

    So we urge the Venezuelan Government to comply with its constitution. President Maduro should permit the democratically elected national assembly to perform its constitutional functions and should hold elections as soon as possible. And the United States calls for the immediate release of political prisoners in Venezuela, and that includes Leopoldo Lopez.

    Thanks, everyone.

    (The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)

    DPB # 19

    [1] Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister Wang held a press availability on March 18 in Beijing.

    The Office of Website Management, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department.
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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 20, 2017

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 17:12
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 20, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • NATO
  • IRAQ


    2:07 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Hey, everybody.

    QUESTION: Hello.

    MR TONER: I’m going to wait patiently while Nicolas – you don’t have to run. No, no. Just – I’m not joking or not – I’m happy to wait. (Laughter.)

    Welcome, everybody. Happy Monday. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top, so I’m going to catch Matt off guard.

    QUESTION: Nothing?

    MR TONER: He was --

    QUESTION: I can’t believe you have nothing, absolutely nothing to say. Really?

    MR TONER: I’m an open book.

    QUESTION: Are you? In that case --

    MR TONER: (Laughter.) So to speak.

    QUESTION: -- I just want to begin with --

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Of course.

    QUESTION: -- kind of a logistical, technical question --

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: -- about NATO funding --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- given some recent comments from the White House. How much exactly is Germany in arrears?

    MR TONER: So first of all, with respect to Germany’s funding level, I’d refer you to NATO and/or Germany to speak to how much it spends on its defense and how much of that goes to NATO. Really, it’s not for us necessarily to speak to that.

    QUESTION: Well --

    MR TONER: You’re looking at me like --

    QUESTION: I’m sorry, there seems to be another – at least one other building in town that does think that it’s appropriate to --

    MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, everybody said – and we’ve said this many, many times before – that NATO allies need to step up their burden-sharing commitments that – and frankly, to the 2 percent level that they all committed to at Wales in 2014. So all NATO members committed to that 2 percent pledge.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Now, where they’re at in meeting that pledge is up to them or to NATO to speak to. That’s all I’m saying.

    QUESTION: But two things about that.

    MR TONER: Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: One, that money – the 2 percent – how much of that is each country – what percentage of that, of each country, goes directly to fund NATO operations?

    MR TONER: I think it varies from country to country, is my understanding.

    QUESTION: Does any of it? Aside from the contribution that each country provides for the maintenance, the upkeep of the organization in Brussels itself, how much --

    MR TONER: Right. Right, right, right, right, right. No, but for NATO operations, we’re looking at --

    QUESTION: How much of those – how much of that 2 percent commitment to the defense budget is supposed to go to NATO operations?

    MR TONER: Well, again, it’s every allied – ally, rather, is committed to spending 2 percent more for their respective defense budgets.

    QUESTION: Yeah, but not – how much of that goes directly to NATO?

    MR TONER: I don’t know. I don’t have a breakdown. That’s a NATO question.

    QUESTION: Mark, you --

    MR TONER: I just don’t have that breakdown.

    QUESTION: You used to work at NATO.

    MR TONER: I understand that, but I don’t have current breakdowns for what percent of every ally’s defense budget --

    QUESTION: Two percent.

    MR TONER: No, I know the 2 percent commitment, Matt. I don’t know what we’re arguing here.

    QUESTION: I’m not arguing.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: I’m just trying to ask you how much money Germany is in arrears.

    MR TONER: And again, that’s a question for Germany.

    QUESTION: Okay. The 2 percent figure --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- they didn’t --

    MR TONER: That’s a target --

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: -- for many countries.

    QUESTION: Right, right. But did they agree to 2 percent funding of their defense budgets in – by 2015, 2016, 2017?

    MR TONER: I think they committed themselves to 2 percent of GDP target by 2024. So --

    QUESTION: Oh, that’s seven years from now. Right?

    MR TONER: That’s correct. Wait – yes.

    QUESTION: So even if countries are --

    MR TONER: Don’t ask me to do math.

    QUESTION: Even if – 2014 minus 17 is 7, I believe. Am I wrong?

    MR TONER: No, you’re right.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: I said don’t ask me. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: So even if countries are not yet spending the 2 percent GDP on their defense – it is this year, in 2017 – is it correct to say that they’ve fallen behind on meeting that commitment?

    MR TONER: I think what it’s correct to say is that – and this is, as you know, who’ve followed NATO for years – it’s not news that NATO and that the United States is looking for a commitment by all NATO allies to reach that 2 percent target as soon as they can. It’s essential to keeping NATO the capable, ready force that it should be. And I think there are countries who meet that; there are countries who fall short. But there are – but coming out of Wales, there was this pledge to reach that goal. And again, I’m not going to necessarily speak on behalf of Germany’s defense spending schedule except to say that that’s a goal we want to see all NATO members eventually reach.

    QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking you --

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: -- to speak on behalf of Germany. I’m asking you, though, is it correct that Germany is behind in paying dues, quote/unquote, or that Germany owes vast sums of money to the United States for NATO and NATO operations?

    MR TONER: I’m going to say that NATO, I think, currently – or NATO – Germany currently spends about 1.2 percent of GDP on defense.

    QUESTION: That’s fine. That’s not my question.

    MR TONER: We want it to reach 2 percent. I’m not going to speak – I just don’t know whether they’re behind – whether they owe any arrears. I think any NATO ally spends what it can afford to spend, with a goal towards reaching that 2 percent.

    QUESTION: All right. I’ll drop it there.

    QUESTION: Can I follow up on that one then? You say you don’t know, but – and refer us to NATO, but I’ve already spoken to NATO. They’re not in arrears on the maintenance of NATO. That's a $2 billion budget and that is – all member states are fully paid up to that. As you’ve just noted in your answer to Matt, there’s a 10-year plan in Wales to go up to 2 percent. So given that that’s a 10-year plan, they haven’t fallen behind on that. The President's tweet was very clear: He thinks they owe some money to somebody – the United States apparently.

    MR TONER: Well, again --

    QUESTION: To whom does Germany owe money?

    MR TONER: Again, I would refer you to the White House to answer the question about the President's tweets.

    QUESTION: Can we go to China.

    QUESTION: Can we go to Palestinian-Israeli issues?

    MR TONER: Nick, and then I’ll get to you, I promise, Said.

    QUESTION: In Beijing, Secretary Tillerson twice used language that was identical to Chinese leaders on the U.S.-China relationship. He said it was guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. That’s language that the Chinese have used for a long time and past U.S. administrations have declined to use. So what signal is he sending by using that word-for-word identical language to the Chinese?

    MR TONER: I think the message he is sending or he tried to send in his visit to Beijing writ large was that we want a cooperative, productive, forward-looking relationship with China. I’m not going to parse out the language that he used or whether that mirrored similar language from the Chinese except to say that we’ve also been very clear, and he’s been clear on the record, to say that there are areas of cooperation; there are areas we agree on that we can really make, we believe, progress on; there are areas we need to make progress on and deal with and address such as North Korea; and then there are areas where we disagree and that includes trade and that also includes, frankly, human rights. And with respect to trade, we want just a level playing field for U.S. companies, but we believe that can also be turned, obviously, to both our advantage.

    QUESTION: But was there – was he sending a signal? I mean, this isn’t just generalized agreement. This is word-for-word using language. The Chinese place a high degree of importance in the specifics of how their language is used in these speeches. He’s using identical words, phrasing that is very important to them. So was he sending a signal by using the exact same words or was this not intentional?

    MR TONER: I think he was trying to convey that in his dialogue and our dialogue with China we also want a quote/unquote “win-win relationship.” But we’re going to make sure that we press our priorities in that respect. So --

    QUESTION: Just the last thing of --

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Is he aware of the significance or is his staff aware of the significance that this exact phrasing has to the Chinese?

    MR TONER: He was aware of his word choice, yes.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I follow-up?

    MR TONER: I want to stay on China. Let’s stay on China. Yeah, Michelle.

    QUESTION: So the Chinese media is portraying this visit as a big win and they’re citing the use of those specific words as a part of that. So on the U.S. side, what kind of win is this? Did he get some assurances from China, especially on the North Korea issue and also on the islands?

    MR TONER: Sure. With respect to the overall visit, I think it was a positive visit. I don’t think we were looking for any major outcomes. Obviously, we were talking – he was there to talk about the challenge of North Korea first and foremost. That was, frankly, a theme throughout his trip and how do we address it going forward; how do we address this threat going forward. I can’t say that we found any solutions, but we’re continuing those conversations. And I think he was very clear in how we perceived the threat, and you all saw that through his remarks about it.

    With respect to – your other questions were – your follow-ups were on the islands as well as --

    QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, would you say that this moved the needle at all in cooperation on pressuring North Korea and also the island activity?

    MR TONER: I would say it’s part of an ongoing conversation. Certainly, we’re going to see that when President Xi comes to the United States for his visit. So part of this is laying the groundwork for that, so that’s a productive, forward-looking, results-oriented visit.

    QUESTION: Does Tillerson – in his confirmation hearing when he – he had a fairly forceful bit where he said the island-building stops and some other statements on that. Does he still feel the same way about that?

    MR TONER: Look, we’re very clear on our position with respect to the South China Sea, which is we believe that with respect to any kind of construction or attempt to create or enhance construction on that – on those islands, that that’s counterproductive, that it only increases tensions in the region, and that we need a format for dialogue so that all the claimants with respect to the South China Sea can resolve their concerns through a diplomatic process. With respect to the United States, we don’t have a dog in that fight. All we ask for is the freedom to sail or fly our boats – or our ships and planes through that area. It’s freedom of navigation.

    QUESTION: To what extent was that discussed on this trip?

    MR TONER: I know it was raised. I don’t know the exact extent it was discussed.

    QUESTION: Okay. All right.

    MR TONER: But that’s something we always raise with them.

    QUESTION: But --

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Follow-up. Secretary Tillerson’s --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- language again. When Secretary Tillerson visited Japan last week, Secretary Tillerson said that Japan is an important alliance to United States, and South Korea is an important partners. What does he mean about two different expressions, his expression about these --

    MR TONER: Look, again, I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on a choice of – a word choice there. Obviously, both are strong allies and partners in the region. And that’s, frankly, evidenced by the fact that with respect to Republic of Korea, he has spoken with Foreign Minister Yun several times and met with him several times already. And the same goes for Japan. So there’s – I don’t want to get into any argument over who’s more important in this relationship. We consider both vitally important to the United States.

    QUESTION: President Trump --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: -- called acting president of South Korea, Mr. Hwang – he said that 100 percent alliance to United States. He mentioned that both country, U.S. – I mean, Japan and South Korea.

    MR TONER: Well, there you go.

    QUESTION: But why is Secretary Tillerson --

    MR TONER: I wouldn’t – again, I wouldn’t – again, I wouldn’t read anything into that.

    QUESTION: One – another one. Was there --

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Was there any reason why Secretary Tillerson did not have dinner with South Korean foreign minister?

    MR TONER: Wasn’t on the schedule. There was never any dinner scheduled. The Secretary had very productive, long meetings with Korea – his Korean counterparts. And then I think he ended up having a private dinner with his staff. So there wasn’t a question – and that was something we saw in some of the media accounts – there was never any question of him being fatigued or having fatigue and waving off dinner. That was never the case. He simply – it wasn’t on his schedule.

    QUESTION: That’s a diplomatic gesture, or --

    MR TONER: Not at all.

    QUESTION: Not at all?

    MR TONER: No, it just wasn’t – I’m sorry, it just wasn’t – it wasn’t on his schedule, it was never scheduled. As I said, he had a private dinner with his staff. But that’s not to say that his meetings with his Korean counterparts weren’t productive.

    QUESTION: He had a dinner with the foreign minister in Japan, but why he skip in Korea?

    MR TONER: I’m aware there was no – I’m simply stating that there was never any dinner scheduled.

    QUESTION: Even if he tires, he have to do with the diplomatically --

    MR TONER: He wasn’t tired. There was never any dinner scheduled.

    QUESTION: Well, he have to – he had a job to do.

    MR TONER: I don’t know how plain I can be.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible) ever after a trans-Pacific flight?

    QUESTION: “Tired” doesn’t mean anything.

    MR TONER: Beyond jetlagged. I mean, we’re all jetlagged. No, I’m just – seriously, though, it was – there just wasn’t a dinner planned. It wasn’t scheduled. So I’m not sure why that’s become such a sticking point, but it shouldn’t be.

    QUESTION: Can I go back to --

    MR TONER: Have we --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: Can – are we done?

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s – I’ll come back to you, David.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Thank you. I just wanted to --

    QUESTION: Can we --

    MR TONER: Go ahead, Nicole. We’re going to – let’s stay on Korea, Said. I’ll get to you, I promise.

    QUESTION: I just want to come back to Nick’s question about --

    MR TONER: Sorry.

    QUESTION: -- the language. You said that Secretary Tillerson was aware of the language he was using and he chose it deliberately. And in the Chinese context, the phrase “mutual respect” means something with regard to Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan. It indicates their belief that the U.S. should stay out of issues and areas that China, that Beijing believes are its own purview. So I’m wondering, in using that language, in choosing those words deliberately, is he signaling some sort of shift on Taiwan, on Tibet --

    MR TONER: Not at all.

    QUESTION: -- on --

    MR TONER: Not at all.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: However, our stance on Taiwan is, apart from encouraging good, strong – increasingly strong cross-strait relations, that we stand by our “one China” policy. With respect to other aspects of the relationship, we’re not walking away from our concerns about human rights, personal freedoms within China. I think he also said at one of his press avails during the trip was that human rights is part and parcel – is embedded, I think he said, in all of our conversations and in all of our discussions of the issues with respect to China, but with respect to other countries as well. So there’s no backing away from that; I want to be clear about that.

    QUESTION: Okay. Can I follow up with a Korea-related questions?

    MR TONER: On a what? Korea-related?

    QUESTION: A Korea-related question?

    MR TONER: Sure. Yeah.

    QUESTION: The representative of the Six-Party Talks, Mr. Yun, was – met in China with officials about the issue. And the Chinese readout said that their talks were extremely frank. I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about those extremely frank talks.

    MR TONER: I can’t. I don’t have a readout. But I know Joe Yun is in the region. I think we put out a media note the other day. These are useful follow-ups. It’s also preplanned. I mean, this was long time in the planning stages, but the timing helps because now he can follow up on some of the conversations that Secretary Tillerson had.

    QUESTION: Iraq. Iraq.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: Still on Korea and China.

    MR TONER: If we’re – okay, one more on Korea. We’re going to finish up. You’re next in line, Said.

    QUESTION: In addition --

    MR TONER: I just can’t cut off – we finish the issue.

    QUESTION: Yeah. In addition to not scheduling the dinner in Korea, there was no – there was nothing on the schedule about visiting the embassies in the three cities concerned. He didn’t – wasn’t able to find any time on this trip, and I don’t think he’s ever found any time on a trip, to meet with U.S. diplomatic staff in their missions abroad. Is this something he hopes to do? Does he accept that some diplomats might be disappointed after preparing the trips that he hasn’t had time to meet with them and their families?

    MR TONER: Well, I know he obviously – there’s a lot of embassy staff and personnel who are seconded to the trip, and in fact, even more so in Secretary Tillerson’s case given the small footprint that he travels with, and I know he expresses appreciation for their work during his visit. With respect to visiting the embassies, I think that’s something he would obviously consider going forward – just hasn’t had the time yet.


    QUESTION: Can we go to the --

    MR TONER: We can go.

    QUESTION: Okay, great.

    QUESTION: Sorry, when you said there’s a lot of people seconded to the visit – so you’re saying – and he’s expressed his appreciation to them – you mean he met with them personally and said thank you?

    MR TONER: I think he did. I think he met – yeah.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Yeah, go – go ahead. Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: Okay. Yeah. On the U.S. boycotting UN discussion on Israeli human rights abuses, you issued a statement saying the United States strongly and unequivocally opposes the existence of the UN Human Rights Council’s Agenda Item Seven: Human rights situation in Palestine and the occupied Arab territories. Are you saying that there are no human rights abuses in the Palestinian territories? Why do you --

    MR TONER: No, look --

    QUESTION: Why do you so unequivocally oppose that?

    MR TONER: Because it’s – it specifically targets Israel.

    QUESTION: I mean, isn’t there an occupation --

    MR TONER: Yeah, but --

    QUESTION: -- that is practiced by Israel against the Palestinians?

    MR TONER: It’s – it – look – look, again, it’s not – Agenda Item Seven specifically targets Israel for, frankly, repeated and unjustified scrutiny, criticism, and abuse, and we, the United States, oppose any effort to delegitimize or isolate Israel. And it’s not just within the HRC; it’s wherever it occurs. We’ve been very clear about this. This is not something new, necessarily, but when it happens, we’re going to state our disagreement.

    QUESTION: Independent of targeting Israel, I mean, you do know acknowledge there is a military occupation. You do acknowledge there are like 750 checkpoints and so on, there are human rights abuses. It’s been cited in your own Human Rights Report. So why do you unequivocally oppose discussing that item?

    MR TONER: Again, because we feel it’s out of context, it’s specifically biased against Israel, and frankly, it’s – it discredits the entire organization because it is so specifically geared and targeting a country we think that is in an unwarranted way. That’s not to say that we can’t have discussions about human rights in Israel, in Saudi Arabia, in wherever – in the United States – as long as we view that it’s done in an open, transparent, and, frankly, productive way. We don’t believe that Agenda Item Seven in any way, shape, or form accomplishes that.

    QUESTION: Okay. But independent of the council, you acknowledge that there are Israeli human rights abuse of the Palestinian people under occupation, don’t you?

    MR TONER: Well, I’d refer you to our Human Rights Report and what that lays out, which is U.S. – the U.S. perspective on it.

    QUESTION: Can I – you said --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: You said correctly that the successive administrations have said that the council and its predecessor have been unfairly attacking Israel in biased resolutions and such, but have you ever boycotted the entire discussion and announced before the vote on Agenda Item Seven that you would vote against everything in it?

    MR TONER: So the first part of your question – I think that is unique to today, that we specifically boycotted. I think so some extent it had to do with the timing with respect to – we normally would sit and listen to the explanation of – I’ll correct this if it’s wrong; I apologize – but because of the timing of it, we wanted to put out a statement prior to it and simply boycott the vote.

    QUESTION: No, but haven’t you in the past – no --

    MR TONER: Sorry, go ahead. Ask again. Ask again.

    QUESTION: Well, maybe you could – can you take the question? (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: I’ll ask the question – I will take the question.

    QUESTION: Because I don’t think you’ve boycotted, but you’ve always voted no, I think.

    MR TONER: Yes, that’s true. We’ve always voted no.

    QUESTION: But I know that you’ve ever – that you’ve ever boycotted the actual debate about the item before. Are you saying that if you haven’t before, it’s because the vote and the debate have been on the same day, and so you’ve just gone for the debate, said that you’re opposed, and then voted against, and not --

    MR TONER: That’s correct. I think that’s right, but I’ll check on that. I’ll take the question.

    QUESTION: Okay, but in the past, you have – the U.S. actually has registered its objections --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- within the meeting itself, and not in a statement?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Thanks.

    MR TONER: That’s my understanding.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: There – the Israelis are prosecuting two – one Palestinian poet and one Palestinian journalist for posting things that are related to the right to resist occupation, and is calling that incitement here. Have you seen that report?

    MR TONER: Are you talking about the Facebook incitement?

    QUESTION: Right, yeah.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Look, we’re always concerned about reports of incitement, of violence. I’m not going to weigh in on every incident. In principle, we do, of course, support the right to free speech. I just – I don’t have any more details with respect to this case.

    QUESTION: Just a --

    QUESTION: In light --

    QUESTION: Going back to that --

    MR TONER: Sorry.

    QUESTION: Go ahead. Finish, Said. I’ll just --

    MR TONER: No, no, that’s okay.

    QUESTION: Mine is extremely brief.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: Very briefly, though, I wondered if you could comment --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: I wanted to ask if you could comment on the Israeli raid on Syria and Damascus, and then the consequential rockets and so on from Syrian territory.

    MR TONER: Oh, the --

    QUESTION: Over – on Friday, the Israelis raided a position and I guess in Syria near Damascus, and the Syrians --

    MR TONER: I mean, obviously, I’d refer you to Israeli Security Forces and the Israeli Government to speak to that, but there’s – this is not the first time that Israel has been threatened by Syria’s forces along the border, and --

    QUESTION: I think it was the Israelis that attacked Syria.

    MR TONER: I understand, but they were acting out of, I think, concern. But I’d refer you to the Israeli Government to speak to it.

    QUESTION: Just on – I’m just curious as to – if the previous administrations have actually sat in on the debate and participated in the debate in the council on this, why did – why did this administration make a decision not even to take part? Is it because that your – that previous administrations’ objections were never heard or accepted by other members of the council, or is there some other reason?

    MR TONER: Let me take the question in terms of the protocol.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll do Iraq. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: The Iraqi prime minister is here with a delegation that includes the chief of staff to KRG President Barzani, and their meetings include with Secretary Tillerson. What are the main issues on the agenda of these talks, and what are your goals in these discussions?

    MR TONER: Sure. As you noted, the prime minister is in town with a delegation, and I think Secretary Tillerson is meeting at the White House with – along with the President, obviously, taking part in that meeting later today.

    Our goals are pretty straightforward. It’s to reiterate our support for the Iraqis in their long struggle to defeat and destroy ISIS. We also want to encourage them to take the necessary steps to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS, and to – we also want to communicate our support for a prosperous, unified, and democratic Iraq going forward.

    Under Prime Minister Abadi, Iraq has made real progress with respect to defeating and destroying ISIS. What comes next is another aspect of ensuring that ISIS doesn’t come back, and that’s dealing with economic, political reforms, but also ensuring that we deal with some of the tensions in Iraqi society, and also reestablish – and I’m talking about stabilization efforts here – reestablish order, infrastructure, so that places like Mosul can welcome back those who have fled or those who have stayed, frankly.

    QUESTION: On the political reforms, I assume you have – the building has some ideas on that. Would they include, sort of, decentralization of authority and power within Iraq or what --

    MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, some of these things are well known with respect to our concerns, but again, we feel that Prime Minister Abadi has been, so far, shown himself to be a willing partner. He’s tackled some of these reforms himself already, so we’re positive going forward that he’s going to take additional steps.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    QUESTION: Can I stay on Iraq?

    MR TONER: Yes, let’s stay here.

    QUESTION: Just a follow-up on Laurie’s question. You usually repeat this unified Iraq. Is it the message to the Kurds that sometimes they are – especially during the spring – that they are claiming to have an independence or separation from the – from Iraq. And that’s just a follow-up.

    And the second question is going to be the – Iraq’s demand several times – the Iraqi officials, including the Prime Minister Abadi, asking for activating the strategic agreement with the United States. Do you have this --

    MR TONER: The last part again, I’m sorry. The – I apologize.

    QUESTION: The Iraqi prime minister, several times, ask for reactivating the strategic agreement with the United States. Is there any, like, willing from your side to activate this strategic agreement beyond ISIS, beyond military cooperation?

    MR TONER: With respect to the strategic agreement, I don’t have an update on that. I think, like I said, our focus – immediate focus – and that’s going to be obviously true with respect to the ministerial on Wednesday and Thursday this week – is how do we ensure a quick – how do we accelerate our efforts to destroy and defeat ISIS, but then how do we, again, redouble our efforts to stabilize those areas that have been liberated from ISIS.

    With respect to the unity of Raqqa[1], you’re right, that is something we make a point of saying. But ultimately, these are all internal political discussions that Iraq needs to have with all ethnic groups resident in the country.

    QUESTION: Iraq – still Iraq?

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Thanks much.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: As Iraqi forces have increasingly relied on, turned to airstrikes and artillery in their operations in western Mosul, we’ve seen more and more reports, accounts from locals describing situations where airstrikes hit not only houses – not only houses where ISIL is located, but also nearby buildings, killing many civilians. Does the United States do anything to change the manner in which these bombings are carried out?

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: Or have they?

    MR TONER: Sure. I mean – again, I’d preface my response by saying that’s something that DOD can speak with – speak to in greater detail, but of course, whenever there are legitimate allegations of civilian casualties, we investigate them. And I don’t have the website in front of me, the URL address for it, but there is a website that DOD, the Department of Defense, maintains that actually aggregates any of these claims and follows through on them, which means it puts out a report about the incident – whether it’s credible, whether it’s not, what happened, what steps are taking – going to be taken to address any civilian casualties and also amend it going forward.

    QUESTION: But I understand. Can I please --

    MR TONER: Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: On their website, there haven’t been updates in the past month, if I understand it correctly.

    MR TONER: I think it’s – I was about to say I think it’s a monthly basis, so I don’t know. But these things also take --

    QUESTION: Since the beginning (inaudible) --

    MR TONER: Sorry, but these things also take time, obviously, because it’s a battlefield. But in direct response to your question, yes, when there are credible claims of civilian casualties, they’re investigated by the U.S. military or by the Iraqi Security Forces. Reports are made, assessments are made, and any corrective measures are taken to avoid any regrettable incidents in the future.

    QUESTION: So yes to the question – the question was “Does the United States do anything to change the manner in which the bombings are right now carried out in” --

    MR TONER: I think we always – we always – so based on reports, assessments, we would always take steps, obviously, to avoid civilian casualties going forward.

    QUESTION: I just have one more follow-up.

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: So in one instance, an airstrike hit a house, killed, according to a witness, three people, severely injured a five-year-old girl, and --

    MR TONER: This is in Mosul?

    QUESTION: -- the father said it took – yes, a neighborhood in Mosul – and her father said it took them three days to get her to the hospital. With that, I want to ask, what does the U.S. do to help people exit the fighting and get help?

    MR TONER: I do – and I can get you more details, but obviously, we’ve been working in conjunction with the UN, but – Iraqi Security Forces in creating corridors to get civilians out safely. We had set up with the UN basically refugee facilities and camps so that those displaced by the fighting in Mosul could find temporary shelter in the aftermath or during the fighting. That said, it’s an active battlefield, and so obviously, it’s very difficult in some circumstances. I don’t know the incident you’re speaking about specifically, but that it might take some delay. I just – I don’t know specifically the incident you’re referring to, but in general, we have taken steps to – and frankly, the Iraqi Government has taken steps.

    A couple more questions, guys.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: How about yourself? Hi. Oh --

    QUESTION: Global minsters conference – could you talk about why this is happening now? And do you expect a shift from the Obama administration coalition strategy or more of a broad continuation strategy?

    MR TONER: You’re talking about the – so the global coalition, yeah. So it’s happening – this is the first full coalition meeting or ministerial since, I think, 2014 December. So this is a full 68-member ministerial meeting. I think it’s – first of all, it’s an opportunity in the new administration to assess where we’re at and what we want to do going forward. I don’t want to steal any thunder from the Secretary, but I think we will – he will come with new ideas and new approaches and a new way of looking at the counter – or rather, the – how to defeat ISIS. And the – it’s going to focus on how we accentuate – accelerate the efforts across the multiple lines of effort, and again, this is an opportunity because it’s the big meeting for us really to have specific conversations with the countries who are doing work in these various areas and leading efforts in these various areas. I mean, there are some who have taken a more kinetic role, and then there are others who are working, as I said, in the information sphere, on the internet, and trying to confront and address ISIS’s efforts to recruit using the internet.

    So this is a multiple-line effort. I think it’s an assessment period, but I also think there’s going to be some new ideas put on the table.

    Please, Barbara.

    QUESTION: Just in terms of the new ideas approach, et cetera, where does Mr. Tillerson and the administration feel that the current approach isn’t working?

    MR TONER: I don’t think – so I think, again, I think everyone recognizes there’s been significant progress in the past year, especially. We’ve seen gains made against ISIS across the board, whether it’s in Syria, but certainly in Iraq, liberations of large areas that they previously held. I think it’s a way to accelerate and focus more on how we can accelerate our efforts.

    QUESTION: And where do safe zones fit in this realignment or strategy?

    MR TONER: Sure. It’s a good question. I think that it’s something that’s obviously still being thought out. This will be an opportunity, I think, to talk in a little bit more detail. I don’t have anything to preview.

    We still on this or do you want to – go ahead.

    QUESTION: Separate.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: An LGBT group has accused the Center for Family and Human Rights of violating federal ethics laws by using their position as part of the UN – U.S. delegation to the UN Commission on the Status of Women conference to solicit donations. Do you have any comment on that? And then, as a follow-up, who actually made the decision to allow this group, which has been designated as a hate group, to actually have status as part of the U.S. delegation to this conference?

    MR TONER: Sure. So we – I spoke a little bit about this last week. The United States does seek to include individuals from civil society organizations with diverse viewpoints and allow them to observe the UN in action during the Commission on the Status of Women as – they’re called public delegates. And then can attend formal meetings of the commission as well as side events. They’re not, however, authorized to negotiate or speak on behalf of the United States.

    With respect to your question about who chose these individuals, I think I’d have to refer you to the White House. I think they’re responsible for the selection of these individuals who participate in this commission.


    QUESTION: I’ve got a couple questions on European relations. UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson will be in the building on Wednesday for the ISIS conference, but I understand that he’ll also have a bilateral meeting with Secretary Tillerson. Will he be taking this opportunity to bring up concerns that a British intelligence service may have bugged Trump Tower in the run-up to the election?

    MR TONER: You’ll have to ask him. I don’t know. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: I’m asking his spokesman.

    MR TONER: I’m not Boris Johnson’s – much as I like him.

    QUESTION: No, will Secretary Tillerson be taking the opportunity to bring up U.S. concerns?

    MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were saying – okay. I’m sorry, I misheard you.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: I don’t know what specifically – I think they’ll probably focus on the issues of the day, which is defeating ISIS.

    QUESTION: Okay. And over the weekend it was reported that Marine Le Pen’s campaign is saying that they met U.S. officials in recent days. Obviously, you don’t have an ambassador to France, or to anywhere very much, but who met with Marine Le Pen and what level? And I appreciate you might need to take that question because that’s (inaudible).

    MR TONER: I will. I will take the question. But I will also push back on your assertion that we don’t have ambassadors. We have chargé’s in many places where there were politically appointed ambassadors who have since left post, but we also have acting ambassadors --

    QUESTION: How many ambassadors --

    MR TONER: -- or ambassadors – serving ambassadors.

    QUESTION: How many ambassadors have you appointed to the 76 open positions?

    MR TONER: I’m not sure yet. Those are all being vetted, and as they would normally through the cycle.

    QUESTION: But is it more than – more than zero?

    MR TONER: You’re saying --

    QUESTION: How many ambassadors have you appointed?

    MR TONER: So we don’t need to walk through this, but I’m happy to do it for you. So they would go through the chief-of-mission selection process.

    QUESTION: How many so far have been appointed?

    MR TONER: And then they’re being vetted now by the new administration. So the previous administration has just selected individuals, they’re being vetted, but then ultimately they’ll be sent to the Senate for confirmation.

    QUESTION: Mark, isn’t the answer one?

    MR TONER: I’m sorry?

    QUESTION: Isn’t the answer --

    MR TONER: For what, one ambassador? Yeah, yeah, I mean, yes.

    QUESTION: Isn’t the answer to his question one at this point?

    MR TONER: I think so but that’s a White House – I’m not going to speak to the White House’s equities.

    Is that it, guys?


    MR TONER: Yeah. (Laughter.) Last question. Last question. No, seriously.

    QUESTION: No, no, go ahead. Michelle.

    QUESTION: What?

    QUESTION: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Oh, thanks. I owe you one.

    QUESTION: No problem.

    QUESTION: Okay, speaking of White House relations, I’m just wondering about this tweet that the President sent out while Tillerson was traveling, that China hasn’t done much to help on the North Korea situation. It was related to his statement that North Korea has been a bad actor. Did that affect Tillerson’s communications at all while he was there? Did he need to explain that tweet or talk about that tweet? Because we’ve seen things like a single tweet affecting his conversations in other places like Mexico, for example. Was this a similar situation?

    MR TONER: Well, I would argue that it didn’t break new ground in the sense that China knows that we believe they can do more with respect to addressing North Korea’s bad behavior. We’ve said that many, many times. The fact that the President chose to say it in a tweet, I think, signifies how concerned and at what level we’re concerned about it.

    QUESTION: Did it affect conversations there, though? Did he --

    MR TONER: I don’t think so. I mean --

    QUESTION: -- need to address the tweet at all?

    MR TONER: I mean, I wasn’t, obviously, on the trip. My assessment or my understanding is that no.

    QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Please.

    QUESTION: I have – this is a budget question.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: I realize that we just had the top line, the blueprint, and that a lot of stuff still needs to be gone through in detail and there are not a lot of specifics out there. But one thing that we do know in addition to the Israel carve-out is that the climate change funding has been eliminated. The climate – the whole initiative itself, but including the Green Climate Fund.

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: When he was asked about this at a White House briefing last week, the President’s OMB director said simply, “We’re not going to pay for that anymore.” And I’m curious to know, since you speak for a building that for the last eight years, until January at least, had put climate change as a priority, whether or not the administration generally, and the State Department specifically, thinks that climate change remains a threat or is a threat.

    MR TONER: I think that this building and this administration recognize that climate change is a threat, but I think they’re still assessing how big a threat and how we approach that threat. I think specifically with respect to your question, I think the concern was that this doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re eliminating all climate programs. I think it’s part of, though, a broader assessment of where we can curb or in any way decrease funding in an effort to, as we said, as they were very clear in the budget, try to exert some fiscal responsibility and to try to reduce the overall budget obligations.

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: But --

    QUESTION: -- the administration does believe that climate change – this administration agrees with the previous administration that climate change is a threat but just doesn’t want to pay --

    MR TONER: I think Secretary Tillerson – no, but that’s – the Green Climate Fund – and again, these are all – I don’t have much additional details, as you said – prefaced in your question, but these are – Green Climate Fund is one aspect or one funding mechanism for addressing climate change. It’s not the sole way we would address it.

    QUESTION: I understand that. But at least the previous administration and in particular this building during the previous administration and the guy who headed this building thought that the Green Climate Fund was of big importance. And I’m just – do you still think that helping developing nations meet their emissions – meet emissions targets as agreed to in Paris is an important goal?

    MR TONER: I think --

    QUESTION: Or no, they should pay for it themselves? I don’t --

    MR TONER: No, no, I think that’s --

    QUESTION: Or you don’t think it’s a problem?

    MR TONER: No, no, I think we think climate change is a problem. I think we’re looking at – I think I’ll just say we’re looking at the issue broadly speaking and how we address in it in the best possible way. So --

    QUESTION: Yeah, but the budget director said flat out, we’re just – we’re not going to pay for that --

    MR TONER: With respect to the Green Climate Fund.

    QUESTION: I think the question that he was responding to was the climate change initiative more broadly.

    MR TONER: Yeah. I’m not aware – again, these are conversations that are ongoing. I just don’t have any more details. Sorry, Matt.

    QUESTION: What climate programs are you keeping? You said it wasn’t going to eliminate all climate programs.

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think that’s part of something we’re looking at right now. I mean, these are, again, early days. I know that they specifically mentioned about the Green Climate Fund, but we’re assessing – and that’s not just climate issues or climate funding as well. We’re addressing issues across – or funding rather – across the broad.

    QUESTION: But climate change issues have been particularly targeted.

    MR TONER: I wouldn't say that. I mean --

    QUESTION: You wouldn’t say that?

    MR TONER: Well, I would say, like, assistance --

    QUESTION: It says – the budget outline says that the entire initiative is --

    MR TONER: I’ve closed my book. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: -- going to be removed.

    MR TONER: What’s that?

    QUESTION: The budget outline says it’s going to be entirely removed, the climate initiative, including --

    MR TONER: The climate initiative, including the Green Climate Fund.

    QUESTION: -- the Green Climate Fund.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Again --

    QUESTION: So the question is why – not just that you don’t want to pay for it anymore, because that’s an answer, but why? If it’s still a problem --

    MR TONER: Again, I don’t have much more detail to provide you other than that we’re looking at climate, we’re looking at other areas like assistance and how we can rejigger our priorities but also look at how we spend that money. It’s not to say that we’re not going to spend any money on the environment, although – or on climate change, but I think we’re just looking at ways we can --

    QUESTION: Are you still going to be up here when a full budget comes out so we can quiz you on that?

    MR TONER: (Laughter.) No comment.

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR TONER: Thanks, guys.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:51 p.m.)

    DPB #17



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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 16, 2017

Thu, 03/16/2017 - 17:50
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 16, 2017 Index for Today's Briefing

    Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.

    2:07 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Thank you, and thanks to everyone for joining us in the final minutes of the Notre Dame-Princeton game. Anyway, I appreciate it. Earlier today – just a quick readout of the Secretary’s day in Tokyo – Secretary Tillerson met with Prime Minister Abe as well as Foreign Minister Kishida in Tokyo. The Secretary, of course, reaffirmed the strong and enduring friendship between our two nations as well as our commitment to the U.S.-Japan alliance, which serves as the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the region. The Secretary also discussed our joint response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as well as the need to deepen trilateral cooperation with the Republic of Korea in our response to North Korea’s continued provocations. The Secretary overnights in Tokyo and he’ll travel to Seoul and the Republic of Korea tomorrow.

    One more thing at the top. There was a UN vote to control fetanyl – fentanyl, excuse me, precursors today, and it’s an important step toward reducing U.S. opioid overdoses. This was done by the UN Commission on Narcotics – on Narcotic Drugs, which voted unanimously today to internationally control the two most common chemicals used by criminals to produce the toxic drug fentanyl. This vote means that nearly 200 countries will be obligated to establish controls domestically over the two leading precursors used for fentanyl, which is helping fuel the U.S. opioid epidemic. This swift action by the UN drug-control body which led to this vote exemplifies an effective international response to a drug crisis.

    That’s all I have at the top. I’ll take your questions now.

    OPERATOR: And just a quick reminder, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, *1. And we’ll go to Matthew Lee with the AP. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks a lot. I hope you’re – I hope the Irish are doing okay on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not able to see the game myself. But anyway, I got two budget questions for you. One, is it your understanding that – what is the State Department’s understanding of the percentage cut that this proposes? Because there are various numbers flying around. What is it that you guys here and at AID are working off of? And then I have a second one.

    MR TONER: Sure. So – and I agree, there’s a little bit of confusion about that, so let me try to clarify it. The FY 2018 budget requests 25.6 billion in base funding for the Department of State and USAID, and that’s a 10.1 billion or 28 percent reduction from the FY 2017 continuing resolution level. So that’s a 28 percent reduction without the overseas contingency operations funding. So the budget also requests, obviously, 12 billion as overseas contingency operations funding for a total request of 37.6 billion, which represents an overall reduction of 17.3 billion. That’s 31 percent from the annualized – or from the CR level, which is base and OCO funds.

    So just to simplify it, the two variations there – the 28 percent is the amount of reduction without OCO, which is the overseas contingency operations funding. The 31 percent number or figure is with that overseas contingency operations funding.

    QUESTION: So you guys are using 31 then as the total?

    MR TONER: That’s correct, which incorporates OCO. Correct.

    QUESTION: Okay. And then after apologizing for getting St. Patrick’s Day a day early – (laughter) – moving to the other. The second one is: The blueprint that the White House put out assures the aid, the assistance, military assistance and other assistance to Israel, but doesn’t mention other things that are assured. And I’m just wondering, can you say now that the administration is or will meet its treaty obligations to other countries? And by that, I’m specifically referring to commitments that arise out of the U.S. role as part negotiator and guarantor of both the Israel-Egypt and Israel-Jordan peace agreements.

    MR TONER: Matt, so you’re correct in that our assistance to Israel is, if I could say, a cutout on the budget, and that’s guaranteed, and that reflects, obviously, our strong commitment to one of our strongest partners and allies. With respect to other assistance levels, foreign military assistance levels, those are still being evaluated and decisions are going to be made going forward. So we’re still at the very beginning of the budget process, and in the coming months these are all going to be figures that we evaluate and look at hard, obviously bearing in mind some of our – or not some of our – our treaty obligations going forward. But we’ll have more details, obviously, when the final budget rolls out in May, I believe.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Kylie Atwood with CBS News. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thank you. I have a question for you in regards to what the Secretary said in Japan this morning, early, which was that the President wants to make sure that the State Department is reflective of the fact that as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in. So I’m looking for you to provide a little bit of context on that rationale. In saying that, is he saying that as military conflicts go down, the State Department budget should go down as well?

    And I have a follow-up, sorry.

    MR TONER: Sure, sure, sure. Of course, of course. So I think – I mean – and he said this, obviously, in his message, and as many of you have seen has been reported in the press, he acknowledged that as our commitments overseas went down, that we expected to have to pay less in terms of assistance to some of these countries. I think he acknowledges the fact that we have been a country at war for going on 16 years now, and those conflicts have incurred a tremendous secondary cost in terms of assistance, in terms of development, in terms of, frankly, security and other commitments that have cost a tremendous amount of money over the past decade and a half.

    I think – so that was the frame for those comments, and I think that as the Secretary absorbs that mandate from the President, he does so with the recognition that we’re going to be having less presence in future conflicts around the world, and acknowledges that that will cost less money. That’s the basic frame there. But that in no way should be seen as that we’re not going to continue to be heavily – or to continue to provide humanitarian assistance and other development assistance where we see fit and where we see that it could make a difference. But again, that’s part of the larger process here, which is evaluating how we spend taxpayer dollars and what’s the best value for that money, recognizing that over time, some of those assistance commitments change.

    Go ahead. And what’s your follow-up? I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: Yep. And my follow-up was just: Could you provide any guidance on how the State Department is working with the Department of Defense on these budget cuts? Especially because there were certain bureaus, such as the Political-Military Affairs Bureau, that work very closely with DOD. So is there the thought that the work that they do could just be transferred over there? Could you talk a little bit about that?

    MR TONER: I don’t want to get out ahead of anything or propose anything that is under discussion, but I can certainly assure you that we are working very closely with the Department of Defense on these proposed budget figures. And obviously, as I said, mindful of the fact that – and the Secretary was very clear on this – that we need to ensure that our frontline diplomats at our missions overseas, especially in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, have the resources, the personnel they need.

    Again, this is about putting America’s security foremost on the agenda, but recognizing that, and recognizing the vital role that our diplomats play in that process, we’re going to make sure, and the Secretary was very clear on this, that it’s not a matter of necessarily cutting across the board, but it’s rather re-defining priorities for the State Department. And one of those is how we defend the national security of the United States, or better defend the national security of the United States going forward. So that’s a discussion we’re certainly having with the Department of Defense.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: We’ll go to Tracy Wilkinson with The Los Angeles Times. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Hi, Mark. Back to the – something that Matt was asking – and these are all budget questions. I have several budget questions. So Israel is the only country that has been assured in this budget that their assistance will continue? That’s one question.

    Second question is: Looking over all of these cuts, do you see any bright spot? Is there any program that has been salvaged of many that are – that seem to be cut?

    And finally, the third question is: Nikki Haley, yesterday or the day before, was talking about another billion dollars against human trafficking at the UN. So how do you reconcile something like that with these kinds of cuts? Thank you.

    MR TONER: Sure. So going back to your first question on – with respect to Israel, that is correct. It was the only one that was singled out or cut out of – in the budget that we will maintain our commitment to Israel.

    With respect to your second question, what are some of the bright spots – look, I would just say that this is about looking at ways that we can find greater efficiencies within the State Department. And I think that having a leader like Secretary Tillerson, somebody who comes out of the business world, who is used to running a profit-making corporation, is very good at finding those efficiencies, using resources the right way and personnel the right way in order to ensure that the mission is being accomplished. And again, I think going forward, that’s what we’re going to be looking at, is what the core priorities are for the department and how do we get there and how do we look at things differently to make sure we’ve allocated the right resources, the right personnel, in the right way.

    With respect to other bright spots, if you could call it that, we’re certainly going to maintain strong funding within the UN. We already carry our weight significantly in the UN with respect to humanitarian assistance, with respect to peacekeeping. But we’re also going to be looking for other countries to stand up and do more. And that’s been a very clear message in this budget. It’s a very clear signal to our partners and allies around the world that we need to see more action on their part. As I said, the U.S. certainly carries its weight within the UN organization. I don’t think there’s any argument against that. I would also note that there’s significant funding maintained for the very successful PEPFAR program as well as other humanitarian assistance programs or humanitarian programs.

    Your last question was about Nikki Haley. I forgot it now. I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: She talked about a billion dollars, I think it was, for anti-human trafficking programs at a time that you here are talking about cutting back.

    MR TONER: Sure. I mean, again, this is going to be a conversation that we’re having going forward. Again, we’re still – and I know I said this a lot, but we’re still in early days here. We recognize, I think, the challenge in front of us. The Secretary was very clear in his note to the personnel within the State Department. There are – this is a challenge. We’re looking at a restricted budget. Nobody’s deluded about that. We’re very clear-eyed about the challenge here. And that means looking at, as I said, a range of programs across the board, but looking at them with an eye towards where can we find efficiencies, where can we cut cost but not lose effectiveness. This isn’t about necessarily abandoning certain priorities with respect to others. It’s about trying to find ways to do more with a little bit less.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: That’s from Anne Gearan with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Could you expand a little bit, please, on the Secretary’s remarks in Tokyo this morning about 20 years of failure in diplomacy in dealing with North Korea? Are – could you point to a couple of things he – specifically that he sees as failure and evidence of failure and where he would like to actually see changes?

    MR TONER: Well, the Secretary made a very valid point and had a very, I think, strong – used a very strong figure, in the sense that he said that we’ve spent over $1.3 billion in assistance between 1995 and 2008, that we’ve provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance. I think 50 percent of that was for food assistance; 40 percent of that was for energy assistance. And really, we’re still at the same place, if not even a worse place, with North Korea. I think there’s a recognition that certain mechanisms, like the Six-Party Talks, haven’t really borne the fruit that we would have liked to have seen them bear over the years. But again, I don’t want to necessarily – nor does he want – to condemn past efforts. I think all the – all of these past efforts were undertaken with an eye towards finding ways to bring North Korea back into a discussion about its nuclear program and how to address concerns about its nuclear program.

    But I think, given the recent spate of missile tests and nuclear tests, that we need to look anew on how we do what we’re already doing more effectively with respect to sanctions, but also look at new options. I don’t want to get ahead of these discussions. I don’t want to preview what might come out of the discussions he’s having in Seoul, he’s already had in Tokyo, and will have also in Beijing, except to say that this is a time of real concern. The threat, frankly, has increased. And it’s a threat not just to our allies and partners in the region, but to U.S. national security interests. So with that in mind, we’re looking at whatever options we have.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: We’ll go to Mariko de Freytas of Kyodo. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks for taking this question. I had a question on the DPRK. So the Japanese legislators have been discussing whether Japan should have a first-strike capability. And again, we discussed about the Secretary’s mention of the failed North Korean policy – diplomatic policy. But does the U.S. support the idea of either Japan or the U.S. having first-strike capabilities? And I have a follow-up. Thank you.

    MR TONER: Well, with respect to your question, again, I just would say that Japan’s one of our closest allies and global partners. We do welcome Japan’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and play a more active role in regional and international security activities. Already it’s made important contributions that include sending forces, support, and reconstruction forces to Iraq and Kuwait; it’s deployed peacekeepers in South Sudan and Haiti; it’s conducted refueling activities in the Indian Ocean. So Japan has increasingly proven itself an important ally.

    The last part of your question was? I forget.

    QUESTION: Well, you’re talking about all these other countries, but I wanted to know specifically on North Korea whether you support first-strike capability or not.

    MR TONER: I’m not going to – again, I’m not going to get ahead of discussions that we might be having with Japan, except to say that we are very clear in our treaty obligations to the security of the Japanese people.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Next question, please.

    QUESTION: Sorry. I had one more --

    MR TONER: Oh, go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- (laughter) – which you might not want to answer.

    MR TONER: It’s okay. Go ahead. No, I’m --

    QUESTION: But – and you might give me the same answer. But in any case, are you worried that if the Japanese had this first-strike capability whether it might increase regional tensions and jeopardize the prospect for a successful North Korea policy?

    MR TONER: Look, I’m not going to get ahead of things. I’m not going to discuss hypotheticals. I’ll stay where I was, which is that what I can assure you is that we are committed to the security of Japan, and that’s our main objective here as we go forward. Thanks.

    OPERATOR: And our next question is from Said Arikat with Al Quds. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you, Mark, for doing this. I have a couple quick questions. Mark, yesterday, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for West Asia, ESCWA, released a report, which explicitly accused Israel of the crime of apartheid. Consequently, I think the United States has urged the (inaudible) to withdraw it. Could you give us – could you comment on this and why is it doing that and some of the things that are being done? Are they not sort of emblematic of some sort of apartheid kind of activities by the Israeli occupier?

    MR TONER: Thanks, Said. Look, we stand by Ambassador Haley’s comments yesterday and her demand that the UN secretary-general withdraw a report by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia. We were outraged by it, we felt that it was anti-Israel propaganda, and the fact that this came from a body whose membership nearly universally does not recognize Israel’s existence is, frankly, not surprising.

    With respect to – we did, frankly – or we do think the United Nations secretariat was right to distance itself from this report, but again, we want to see it go farther and withdraw the report altogether. And we certainly stand by our ally, Israel, and we’re going to continue to oppose bias and anti-Israel actions across the UN system and around the world.

    Do you have a follow-up, Said?

    QUESTION: Well, Mark, if I may – now, how could you – if they don’t withdraw it, what will the United States do?

    MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to predict what next steps we might take. I can only reiterate that we strongly condemn the report, and we’re calling for the UN secretary-general to take appropriate action. Again, these are, frankly, the kind of biased reports that we see far too often from various UN bodies that only undermine the UN’s credibility.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Dmitry Kirsanov with ITAR-TASS. Please, go ahead. Dmitry Kirsanov, your line is open if you’re on mute, possibly.

    QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

    MR TONER: Yes, I can. Thanks, Dmitry.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Listen, I wanted to ask you about an economic blockade of Donbas announced yesterday by the Ukrainian Government. My question is, is the U.S. administration comfortable with that step, and do you think it does or does not violate the spirit and letter of the Minsk agreements?

    MR TONER: So thanks for the question, Dmitry. We’re closely monitoring this blockade in eastern Ukraine. I just want to underscore the importance of resolving the issue peacefully and in a way that supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. I’m going to have to refer you, for more specifics, to the government of Ukraine for additional comment.

    With respect to the Minsk agreements, I think it’s a fluid situation, but it is one with potentially serious consequences, and that’s why we want to see this resolved. We want to see it resolved peacefully and, as I said, in a way that supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

    Thanks, Dmitry. Next question.

    OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Michele Kelemen with NPR. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah, hi. I wanted to go back to today we talked about with Anne, you talked about the Six-Party Talks failing. I’m wondering is this administration open to direct negotiations with Pyongyang? And why did the Secretary feel the need to talk about how North Korea and its people need not fear the U.S.?

    MR TONER: So with respect to the Six-Party Talks, I wanted to – let me just clarify, and I thought I said this before, is that we felt it – and I think that’s no surprise to anyone – it hasn’t fulfilled its potential. We’ve said this many times before that we don’t need a mechanism to hold talks for talks’ sake. And that’s – frankly, the onus is on North Korea to approach any talks that we have, whether it’s in the Six-Party format in any other format, in a way that is productive and in a way that addresses the international community’s serious concern about its actions.

    With respect to Secretary Tillerson’s comments – I’m sorry, again, about – what was your question?

    QUESTION: North Korean people need not fear the U.S. --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- and we seek to live in peace.

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, I think that’s a message that we always want to convey to the North Korean people, that this isn’t about them. This isn’t directed at them, it’s directed at the threat that their government, the regime that controls North Korea, is projecting across the Peninsula, the Korean Peninsula, but increasingly towards Japan and towards the United States. And so this isn’t about any animosity or any threat towards the Korean people. And also I think he’s trying to underscore the fact that we want to resolve this in a way that allows for the peaceful and diplomatic resolution of our concerns. That’s not to say we ever take any option off the table, but I think it’s – it speaks to the fact that we are ready – if and when North Korea seriously approaches any negotiations, we are ready to have those kinds of negotiations and address concerns about its nuclear program.

    Any other follow-up?

    QUESTION: One. One real quickly is about the executive order. On the refugee program, are you still looking – regardless of what happens in the court cases, is the refugee number still going to be 50,000, or does it revert back to 100,000 if the EO doesn’t go through?

    And then separately, some human rights groups are expressing concern about anti-LGBT representatives at a UN meeting, that the U.S. has sent these people to a UN meeting on women’s rights. I’m wondering if you have any explanation for that.

    MR TONER: Sure. Your first question, and then – so the court order obviously enjoins enforcement of Section 6 of the EO, which is the section that deals with the refugees and incoming refugees, and we’re certainly going to comply with the court order. With respect to your specific question, we’re consulting with our attorneys, including at the Department of Justice, on specific implementation. And I don’t – it would be premature, frankly, to get ahead of those kinds of consultations at this point, so – which is to say I don’t have a solid answer for you yet on that, whether that cap is still valid or not.

    With respect to – you were asking about the UN Commission on the Status of Women, right?

    QUESTION: That there’s some anti-LGBT representatives from the United States.

    MR TONER: So a couple of points on this, but first of all, the public delegates to the Commission on the Status of Women are not U.S. Government employees. They’re not authorized to negotiate or speak on behalf of the United States. I think the United States seeks to include, though, individuals from civil society – society organizations with diverse viewpoints in order to observe the UN in action during the CSW, the Commission on the Status of Women, as public delegates. And during that time, they’re allowed to attend formal meetings as well as side events. With respect to some of the allegations, I’m going to have to refer you to the White House, since they specifically deal with appointing these delegates.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Ilhan Tanir with Washington Hatti. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you, Mark, for taking my question. Two quick questions: First, it’s just yesterday Washington Post ran an editorial asking U.S. administration whether to speak up against downward spiral in Turkey when it comes to human rights and press freedom. As you know well, over 150 journalists right now in jail, and Turkey is going to referendum. There are many pressures on the opposition as well. What’s your view on these human right issues in Turkey?

    MR TONER: Sure, thanks for the question. Look, the United States has a long record of speaking out privately and publicly on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and that includes Turkey. All of you know that. We urge Turkey to respect and ensure freedom of expression, fair trial guarantees, judicial independence, and other essential freedoms. We also firmly believe in freedom of expression, and that any freedom of expression, including for speech and the media – and that includes also speech that some may find controversial or uncomfortable – only strengthens a democracy and it needs to be protected.

    With respect to the constitutional referendum, I’ve said this before, I’ll say it again: This is a matter for the Turkish people to debate and decide.

    I’m going to take just two more questions, so next question, please.

    OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Jean Chemnick with E&E News. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. So the budget seems to eliminate the Global Climate Change Initiative, and that funded the UNFCCC dues, IPCC dues, a whole bunch of other programs. Would any of those programs be picked up by other funding sources within this budget or can we assume that we are going to be in arrears of our dues on the UNFCCC and IPCC and other things?

    MR TONER: So I’m going to give you a bit of a non-answer, but it’s predicated on the fact that we’re still going through all this and figuring this out, to be perfectly honest. This is – as I said before, these are early days. You’re right in that the FY 2018 request does not include funding for the Green Climate Fund or the Global Climate Change Initiative, but I don’t have additional details about how or what we may fund going forward. These are all questions that we’re going to try to answer in the next couple of months as we approach a final budget in May.

    Final question, please.

    OPERATOR: And that’s from Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan W-24. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Thank you, Mark, for taking my question. Can you explain what is being done to bring ISIS members to justice for the genocide against Yezidis? Amal Clooney spoke eloquently about that issue last week, and the UN Ambassador Haley said that the U.S. is committed – or she tweeted, “The U.S. is committed to bringing ISIS to justice, not just on the battlefield, but in the judicial system as well.”

    So I want to know, what are you doing on this issue?

    MR TONER: Sure. First of all, we’re appalled by the horrific acts being committed by ISIS against people from a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups in Iraq and Syria, and that includes, of course, the Yezidis. We’re working with these communities and the government – and the Government of Iraq to facilitate their safe return to their ancestral homes. That’s first and foremost.

    And our ambassador to Iraq, for example, just completed a visit to Bashiqa in northern Iraq, where he met with Yezidi and Christian communities to better understand and assess their situation on the ground. We also, of course, welcomed the determination by the House of Representatives last year with respect to the genocide of Yezidis, and we stand with all the innocent victims of ISIS’s inhumanity. And we’re working with our partners – and this can’t be underscored enough – we’re working with our partners around the world to defeat ISIS and destroy ISIS and eradicate it from both Iraq and Syria and wherever else it extends its tentacles to.

    We’re also continuing to strongly support efforts to collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities, and do all that we can to see that the perpetrators of these atrocities are held accountable. And as I said, that starts with eliminating, defeating ISIS both on and off the battlefield.

    I’m going to end there, guys. Thanks so much for joining us and have a great afternoon.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:40 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 15, 2017

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 17:45
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 15, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ
  • DPRK
  • IRAQ


    2:07 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Just one thing at the top and then I’ll take your questions.

    The U.S. Department of State mourns the loss of Richard H. Solomon, a distinguished diplomat, peacemaker, and scholar who devoted his life to building bridges between the United States and East Asia. His public service career included positions as senior staff member on the National Security Council, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the U.S. Institute of Peace’s third president. While at State, he helped negotiate the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that brought an end to the 14-year war between Cambodia and Vietnam. He also served as a U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. And worth noting, he’s also the father of Jay Solomon of The Wall Street Journal, and we extend our condolences to Jay and to his entire family.

    With that, over to you.

    QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Mark.

    MR TONER: Sure thing.

    QUESTION: Just one housekeeping thing that I know is on a number of people’s minds.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: When we all last spoke yesterday, you said that the reason for the limitations on reporters accompanying the Secretary was a lack of space on the airplane. Is that argument still operative? And if so, can you explain why, once a seat was identified on that plane that was available, the decision was made rather than to allow the press to send a pooler who would share information and actually allow us to work around not being there personally, the decision instead was made to handpick a conservative outlet to accompany the Secretary and not to share that information?

    MR TONER: Sure. Starting with the plane, so it was a 737 and I believe that’s the same plane that went to Mexico. My understanding, though, is that space was a constraint given the longer trip. I know we did accommodate I think at least one or two members of the press in Mexico. Again, I wasn’t on that trip so I don’t remember exactly. But given the length of the trip, which also affects staffing needs, corresponding staffing needs including crew, then there were a significantly reduced number of seats available not only to – for the press but also for staff to support the Secretary.

    With respect to the press seat that was made available on the plane, I did speak to the fact that this – there might be a seat available the last couple of days. It was determined – and many of you know – last night – found out that the one seat that was available, it was decided to take a journalist who was not – or from an outlet that doesn’t normally travel with the Secretary as part of an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media.

    I do want to note, though, that there’s 23 reporters who are on the ground in Tokyo right now. I think 20 – or 17 of them are U.S. press and six local press, which means based in Tokyo – correspondents. All of them are going to have access to Secretary Tillerson’s media availabilities, press sprays; I think he’s going to do a press avail as well. So we are making every effort to accommodate the press who want to cover this trip.

    QUESTION: Will those reporters have the access to all of the same information as the reporter that was selected to travel on the plane?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I can’t exclude – and again, I’m not on the trip so I can’t speak to what additional access may be provided to this reporter. I just can’t – I don’t – can’t confirm that.

    QUESTION: Can I --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Okay. You said that this is part of a broader effort to include a – an effort to include a broader participation of U.S. media.

    MR TONER: Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: But by doing that, if there was – first the State Department said that there was no press. Then it was because of budget constraints and time constraints and space constraints. Then there was a seat made available, and as Josh said, it wasn’t made available to U.S. pool. And now you say this is part of an effort to include a broader participation of U.S. media.

    So does that mean that in your effort to include a broader participation of U.S. media, that the foreign policy journalists and diplomatic press corps that have traveled with the secretary for ages and are steeped in the issues of foreign policy and that are at this podium questioning about U.S. policy and the various developments every day are being kind of excluded?

    MR TONER: No, in answer to your last question first, and then I’ll unpack the rest of it. So, certainly not, and I would never want to imply in any way, shape or form that we don’t respect and acknowledge --

    QUESTION: Well, I think the implication of this move is that’s what it is.

    MR TONER: -- let me keep going, let me – give me a chance to answer – we respect and acknowledge the level of expertise, the commitment of the individuals in this room, and you know nobody does that more than I. So – but unpacking the rest of your question, I guess all of the above applied in this case, so we did take – the Secretary did decide to take a smaller plane on his trip to Asia. That did result in space constraints for the trip. It did also result in – sorry, let me just – and then you can come back to me, I know.

    It also resulted in significant cost savings. I don’t have those numbers in front of me, but I can get them for you or DOD can get them for you because they ultimately control the costs aboard that plane. And I know that press pay for their fair share, their ticket, but overall, it does have a broader effect, if I could put it that way, on the cost of the trip. That said, there was a decision made late in the game to carry – to take this journalist on board, recognizing --

    QUESTION: How late was it in the game?

    MR TONER: I’m not aware of when that decision was made.

    QUESTION: I thought you had said that they were offered it last week.

    MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, so, as I said, I wasn’t --

    QUESTION: Wait --

    MR TONER: Sorry, can we just – we can unpack this, guys. Sorry. So I wasn’t a part of that decision-making because I wasn’t on this plane – on this trip. You know how that works as well. When you’re on the trip, and the press or media representative on the trip, you’re involved in the trip planning. So I wasn’t involved or steeped in the trip planning, but that decision was made. It doesn’t necessarily reflect in any way, shape, or form on the opinion that we have of the press corps that follows and covers the Secretary of State.

    QUESTION: Well, I didn’t say it – I didn’t say it --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- reflects your personal opinion, Mark --

    MR TONER: But --

    QUESTION: -- but the new State Department leadership, I mean, I don’t understand why – I mean, I just think – we’d like a little bit more rationale. I mean, I think it’s – I also would like to know if you think it’s very unfortunate that at this important juncture of U.S. foreign policy, on a critical, serious foreign policy crisis such as North Korea, that we are sitting here asking questions about why the State Department is excluding the diplomatic press corps --

    MR TONER: I would agree with that.

    QUESTION: -- from traveling with the Secretary and offering a seat to a unilateral --

    MR TONER: I would agree with that and --

    QUESTION: -- and that we’re not talking about the serious issues about North Korea?

    MR TONER: So I would agree with that and that’s why I’m up here at the podium trying to answer your questions specific to the policy priorities of this trip and the issues that are going to be discussed. I’d much rather have this conversation offline. But that said, I’m willing to answer your questions because I do it every day. I try to stand up here and answer your questions to the best of my ability.

    QUESTION: And we appreciate that.

    MR TONER: No, I get that. But with respect to this decision, I wouldn’t extrapolate that there’s some intent to ostracize the media in this room.

    QUESTION: Well, if there is --

    MR TONER: And I can say going forward – sorry, let me finish – and I can say going forward that – and I’ve said this – that every effort will be made to accommodate a press contingent on board the plane. But in this specific trip and instance, it was decided to take – to make an outside-the-box, if I could put it that way, decision to bring somebody in who doesn’t necessarily cover the State Department, a media outlet that doesn’t – isn’t steeped in foreign policy and give it a new, fresh perspective.

    QUESTION: Well, I mean, is this how Secretary Tillerson wants to kind of debut his important diplomatic mission on a foreign policy crisis and --

    MR TONER: But --

    QUESTION: -- let me – let me finish --

    MR TONER: Okay. Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- and issues such as what’s going on with North Korea and China? He’s setting the table for the President Xi’s visit next month --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- to the White House and all of these kind of important diplomatic initiatives that he’s got on, yet you took the opportunity, as you said, to go out of the box and take a reporter from an outlet that is not at the briefing every day – or ever, as far as I can tell – and does not know anything about these foreign policy issues. So, I mean, could you explain that a little bit more?

    MR TONER: Again, I don’t know that I need to explain it beyond what I’ve said, is that this was an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media. You can agree with that or not, but that was the decision behind – or that was the rationale behind the decision. But I also beg to differ on the presumption that somehow other U.S. media are going to be excluded from this trip. I mean, we’ve all seen, or I at least saw Andrea Mitchell was broadcasting live from Tokyo where she was covering the Secretary’s visit. I know that, as I said, there’s at least 17 or possibly more U.S. media on the ground. They’re all going to have access to the press avails and --

    QUESTION: Equal access?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: May I ask a --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: -- couple of just --

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Who made the decision to take a reporter, and this particular reporter?

    MR TONER: I don’t know that I need to answer that question.

    QUESTION: But you’ve used a passive construction three times.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: “It was decided,” “it was decided,” “it was decided.” Was this the Secretary’s decision?

    MR TONER: Well, often – so, often – so – no – often, Arshad – so the Secretary was obviously aware of the decision, but as you probably know, he doesn’t necessarily make that level of decisions, frankly. But the reason I put it in the passive voice is simply to say that these are decisions that are made often by groups of people, and that goes into any kind of logistics planning for the Secretary’s trip. So --

    QUESTION: So who made it? I mean, what is the problem with saying who – what is the group of people that made that decision?

    MR TONER: It’s the staff that does – senior staff that come together when any trip is being planned and make those decisions at the seventh-floor level.

    QUESTION: Who is paying for the journalist’s trip? Is the State Department picking up the tab, or --

    MR TONER: No, I believe the organization – the media outlet is.

    QUESTION: Okay. Third, what benefit does the State Department believe it confers on the reporting of U.S. foreign policy to establish what has hitherto not been the practice, which is to say, to establish a pick-and-choose system whereby you select individual reporters or news organizations, rather than going with what had previously been the practice, which is to include a wide array of news organizations, and at a minimum, a wire service reporter who would share the information with all the other regulars and whose news organizations have very wide dissemination of their reports? What is the advantage that this confers in the department, the Secretary, or the group of people who made this decision’s view?

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: What is the diplomatic or other advantage you get?

    MR TONER: It’s a – not a – I understand there’s a lot of questions around this issue. I’ll do my best to answer a couple more, and then I’d like to move on if that’s possible.

    With respect to your question, what was the advantage or what was the – I’m sorry, one more time, what was the --

    QUESTION: What is the advantage to this?

    MR TONER: I think --

    QUESTION: There has been a practice of having a wide group of people --

    MR TONER: No, I understand. Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- and at a minimum of having a wire reporter --

    QUESTION: Or a newspaper.

    QUESTION: -- or a newspaper, but historically it’s more often been wires, but yes, or a news paper --

    MR TONER: No, no, no. I feel --

    QUESTION: -- to share the information with everybody and it goes out everywhere.

    MR TONER: I acknowledge and understand and appreciate --

    QUESTION: What’s the advantage?

    MR TONER: -- the concept behind pool reporting.

    QUESTION: So what’s your – what’s the advantage here? What is your advantage here?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: What is the benefit?

    MR TONER: Again, I think this is just an attempt to reach beyond the usual suspects. And I’m not trying to say that in a demeaning way at all, but it’s just to say --

    QUESTION: “Usual suspects” is not demeaning?

    MR TONER: I’m using a term of art, a cultural term of art, or everyone knows what that means. What I’m saying is this is a chance, or an opportunity, at the beginning of a new administration, to look at outside the box – if I can say that – approaches to how we cover or how we handle coverage of the Secretary. It isn’t to say this is going to be the status quo or the new order going forward. This is a – just particular to this trip. I don’t know at this point. But it’s an effort, as I said, to reach beyond the normal procedures, and rightly – or that’s exactly what you pointed out, Arshad. I just, again, want to stress the point that there’s going to be broad access to the Secretary on this trip, and we’re doing best – we’re doing our best to accommodate through our embassies in Beijing, in Tokyo, and Seoul to accommodate reporters, as we always do

    QUESTION: But to choose a reporter --

    QUESTION: The last – I’m sorry, the last one from me, if I may. Last one from me.

    MR TONER: Last one, and then Michele, and then that’s – I’m sorry, we’re going to move on to --

    QUESTION: Last one from me. What is – I get you say that you’re trying to think outside the box. What I don’t get is what advantage it confers to the department to look outside the box in this way. What does it get – what does it get you to have a reporter on there --

    MR TONER: New perspectives, new --

    QUESTION: -- that is not filing to the rest of the press corps and that does not appear to have longstanding knowledge of these issues? What is – what advantage is there?

    MR TONER: New audiences, new perspectives.

    QUESTION: Conservative audiences? This is a conservative outlet.

    MR TONER: Again --

    QUESTION: A friendly audience?

    MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to speak to – I mean, it’s – I mean, look, we can dissect the cross-section of U.S. media and we can spend the rest of the briefing doing that. This was a choice that was made to do something differently that’s been done for many, many years, as we all know. I can’t say that it’s going to be the policy going forward. I just can’t speak to that. But at the same time that we’re doing this, we’re experimenting, if you will, taking it in a different direction. We’re also meeting our obligations to provide access to reporters who want to cover the trip.

    Michele, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Did the department feel like – I mean, because something has been done for many, many years, there’s obviously a reason that it evolved to be that. So this indicates that the department feels that there was something wrong with that setup, which got the message to --

    MR TONER: Not at all. I don’t think so. I think it’s – again, just because you try something new and different, it doesn’t mean necessarily that you’re saying what we’ve been doing is wrong. There’s – look, we all know that there’s a very time-honored system for how we cover secretary of state trips. I understand that. All of you understand that in this room. This is a little bit different way of doing it. Again, I’m not saying this is going to be the norm going forward. We’re also, at the same time we’re doing this, allowing us – we’re also providing support for – can we move beyond this?

    QUESTION: Was the White House --

    QUESTION: Hold on a second.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: Was the White House involved in this decision?

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: Can – wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait --

    QUESTION: Mark, can we --

    QUESTION: I just want to ask a quick question --

    MR TONER: Barbara.

    QUESTION: -- about the Human Rights Council.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: So it’s been reported that Secretary of State sent a letter to nine nonprofit organizations saying that there need to be reform or the U.S. might withdraw. And his words quoted in the article are, “The Human Rights Council requires considerable reform in order for us to continue to participate.” So what’s the process here? Is there, like, a kind of probation period and then after which the U.S. might withdraw from the council? And I have a follow-up after that.

    MR TONER: Sure. So I don’t want to speak to the contents of what was a letter by Secretary Tillerson and these NGOs, but I think speaking to the broader question, a couple of points to make. One is that our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms is stronger than ever. Our delegation is now at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council. It’s actively engaged. But the United States also continues to believe that only UN member-states with strong records of promoting and protecting human rights should be elected to the Human Rights Council. And I think our future engagements with the council will consider the council’s actions with an eye towards reform to more fully achieve the council’s mission to protect and promote human rights.

    So I think this is an eye towards greater accountability and greater transparency with respect to human rights. I’m not predicting we’re going to walk away from the council. What I will say is that we’re going to hold the council and its members more accountable and urge greater accountability and transparency.

    QUESTION: So what do you mean by “future engagements?” Future engagements will consider the council’s actions --

    MR TONER: With the council, working with the council and the members of the council.

    QUESTION: So you might decide not to work with it but not walk away, like --

    MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to predict what our – that we’re going to walk away from it. I think what we’re – at this stage now, we want to try to urge greater accountability and greater transparency on the part of the council.

    QUESTION: And speaking of accountability and transparency, is there a reason why we moved away from the subject that we were on so quickly? I mean, I wasn’t even finished.

    MR TONER: I feel like we’ve exhausted it, frankly. I mean, I’m --

    QUESTION: Do others feel that way? I mean --

    QUESTION: Isn’t – well, isn’t it that people should ask their questions? I mean, if Michele has another question, I think she should be able to ask it.

    QUESTION: Yeah, you very abruptly moved away from the subject. There were a few more follow-up questions, I mean --

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- if you don’t mind.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: For the White House, or whoever made this decision, to choose an organization that is not part of the pool and is an obviously conservative website or whatever you want to call it, doesn’t that narrow the message and not broaden it? And what message does this send to the American public and the rest of the world?

    MR TONER: I think it sends a message that we’re willing to look at new paradigms with our approach to the media, again, while at the same time ensuring that traditional media has full access, and non-traditional media for that matter.

    QUESTION: What – you were asked: Is this person on the plane going to have more access and/or going to have some kind of additional opportunities? And your answer was you didn’t know. And that’s another question that I have: If you are the press spokesperson, why do you not know?

    MR TONER: But no, Michele – Michele, but why should I – I mean, the fact of the matter is I’m not managing this trip – I’ve been very clear about that – in the sense of press access. There’s somebody with the Secretary who’s dealing with that.

    QUESTION: But you’re the press spokesperson.

    MR TONER: So with respect – I understand that. I understand that.

    QUESTION: So shouldn’t you know who’s going on a trip two hours before the plane takes off? And shouldn’t you know what kind of access or not that person’s going to have related to the pool?

    MR TONER: So first of all, Michele, not necessarily going to lay out what access this individual might have or might not have. Frankly, that’s between the State Department and this individual. Secondly, I wasn’t in a position to confirm this individual’s participation or involvement with the trip until shortly before the trip, and I think I spelled it out, or if I didn’t, I apologize. But I spelled it out as after the briefing ended yesterday, I tried to confirm that this individual was on board, but they were already wheels up and, frankly, they were in the air until almost midnight, so I didn’t have comms with the plane – communications with the plane. Once we did, we confirmed, and I think we put out something this morning.

    QUESTION: Can we move on?

    MR TONER: I’d love to.

    QUESTION: I understand it’s a big issue, but --

    MR TONER: I’d love to. I feel like – and guys, I’m not trying to move – sorry – I’m not trying to move quickly away. I think I’ve answered now somewhere in the vicinity of 10 or 15 questions about this. Let me finish. But guys, we can talk about this offline. This is an exercise in discussing the issues and discussing policies. Respectfully, can’t we move on?

    QUESTION: This is an – I’m sorry --

    QUESTION: These briefings are really (inaudible).

    QUESTION: This is an exercise in transparency.

    MR TONER: It is, and I’ve been transparent.

    QUESTION: No, this is not against --

    MR TONER: But do you really want to spend the next hour – because I don’t have all day to answer your questions about policy issues, and yet --

    QUESTION: Especially when you only have four briefings a week.

    MR TONER: I mean, for example, do we want to talk about the fact that it’s the sixth anniversary of the conflict in Syria?

    QUESTION: Mark – yeah, please.

    MR TONER: Do we want to answer questions about the Middle East?

    QUESTION: We have only --

    QUESTION: Yemen?

    MR TONER: Yemen? I’d love to answer a question about Yemen.

    QUESTION: I’d love to go --

    MR TONER: Go ahead, Said.

    QUESTION: I was driving for --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: First of all, today marks the sixth anniversary of the beginning of the Syria war. Today – do you have any comment, where you are with the Syria war? What is your involvement? What is the effort forward? What is going on?

    MR TONER: Sure. As you note, six years ago this week, tens of thousands of Syrians did take to the streets to claim the right to express themselves freely, call for reforms, and demand justice. And as we all know, President Assad reacted to these peaceful protests with guns, with bullets, and with brutality. And I think it’s important to note on this day and to recognize the sacrifice of the brave men and women from across Syria’s diverse society who risked so much to build a better future for themselves and their children. We also remember the countless civilians, including many, many children, who have lost their lives from torture, from starvation, and from attacks by the regime and its backers.

    The United States does remain committed to finding a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the Syrian conflict. All of us know how hard that is. We can only look at the talks in Astana and to see how they’re struggling to reach a durable ceasefire. But that has to be the next step, and we support those talks. We support them even though we’re only there in observer status.


    QUESTION: We are – we’re a little bit confused as to what the United States is doing, which groups it is supporting, and so on. I mean, of course you condemn the regime and so on, but there has been a great many terror acts in Damascus, in and around Damascus.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: You have not condemned that. I mean, there was one today.

    MR TONER: We’re aware of the one today.

    QUESTION: There was one two days ago and so on. So we have not seen a statement, so what is your position on these Qaida-affiliated groups that claim to have your support, claim to have weapons that were supplied by the United States?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, a couple points to make. One is you know where we stand with respect to al-Nusrah, who rebranded themselves but remain an affiliate of al-Qaida. I’m aware of the attack – or today’s attack in Damascus. I think we’re still trying to collect all the details of that to figure out what exactly happened. Said, you know as well as I do we don’t have the best eyes and ears on the ground in Damascus, so whenever we are looking at any event like this, tragic as it appears, we want to obviously collect all the details before we make an educated guess as to who was behind that. But we condemn any act of violence, any act of terrorism.


    QUESTION: And you still believe that Assad should not have a role to play in the future of Syria?

    MR TONER: We still believe Assad --

    QUESTION: The president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

    MR TONER: How would we view him? We view him as a brutal – no, we view him as a brutal man who has led his country into this morass. That said, it’s up for the Syrian people – that means opposition, moderate opposition – working with, obviously, the – some representation on the part of the regime to try to forge a political transition. We believe that will be a transition away from Assad, because we don’t believe he can ever be an acceptable leader to all of the Syrian people.


    QUESTION: Mark, on Astana talks.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Michel. Let’s stay on Syria.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    QUESTION: On Astana talks.

    MR TONER: Stay on Syria, then I’ll go to Iraq.

    QUESTION: Russia has proposed yesterday a project to set up a constitutional commission to deal with the drafting the constitution. How do you view this step, and does it contradict with the Geneva process?

    MR TONER: Michel, I’ve seen that. I’m not sure; I haven’t had a chance to look at that very closely. I’m aware – I mean, obviously, drafting a new constitution was part of the overall process leading towards a political transition, so I’m not quite sure where this new proposal would fit into that process, as you say, or whether it’s in accord with or in contradiction to the Geneva process. So let me look into that and get back to you.

    QUESTION: And the U.S. ambassador in Kazakhstan has met with the Russian delegation there.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Do you have any readout for this meeting?

    MR TONER: I don’t. He’s there --

    QUESTION: Any coordination between the two countries?

    MR TONER: Sure. It’s our ambassador to Kazakhstan. He’s there, obviously, in an observer role. I haven’t gotten the readout of his participation yet.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Iraq? Let’s do Assyria, sure. Assyria and then Syria. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: The Hill reported last week that Senator McCain is very concerned that the U.S. alignment with the YPG in Syria is going to lead to a quote, “train wreck,” because the U.S. fails to comprehend the extent of Turkish opposition to the YPG. What would be your response to Senator McCain’s concerns?

    MR TONER: Well, we certainly respect Senator McCain’s opinion. Obviously, he’s a very – an experienced senator and he has broad knowledge of global affairs, including Syria. I think we’ve been clear in acknowledging that it’s a very complex battle space in northern Syria. We have chosen to work with the YPG as a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Syrian Kurds, Syrian Turks – Syria Turkmen, rather – and Syrian Arabs; so a diverse group of ethnicities in order to go after, destroy ISIS. This – so we’re in common cause in going after ISIS, as is Turkey. Turkey also realizes the threat they face from ISIS.

    But we also recognize that – we recognize, rather, Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG, and that’s why we’ve set out very clear ground rules about YPG’s role. And we’ve conveyed that both to Turkey and both to the YPG forces who are fighting on the ground. And we would urge and continue to urge all parties operating in that space to work and maintain pressure on ISIS. That’s the goal here. Everyone agrees in that group that ISIS needs to be destroyed and dismantled and can never again reestablish itself. So that’s – we need to keep our focus on that goal. But we also do that mindful of the fact that – mindful of the fact of Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG, and we’re working with Turkey. Those are discussions that are ongoing.

    QUESTION: The Wall Street Journal also reported that there is a debate within the new administration, new people, new ideas, about the wisdom of supporting the YPG or finding some alternative more acceptable to Turkey. That debate is going on within the administration. Is that debate going on in this building as well?

    MR TONER: I’m not going to discuss internal deliberations.

    QUESTION: Can I ask a question about Yemen (inaudible)?

    MR TONER: You had a – okay, sure.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: One on Syria and then I --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: Syria.

    MR TONER: Sorry, sorry, one more time. Just break it down. So Syria, Iraq, and then I promise you, Michele, okay?

    QUESTION: And Asia?

    MR TONER: And then – we – I promise, we’ll get to Asia too.

    QUESTION: So Syria, is it still – you noted that this is the 6th anniversary of the start of --

    MR TONER: Correct.

    QUESTION: -- Syria’s civil war. Only a few months after the war began in August of 2011, former President Obama said that Assad had lost the legitimacy to lead. Is it still the position of the U.S. Government that Assad has lost the legitimacy to lead Syria?

    MR TONER: Yes, but I’ll caveat it by saying what I just said to Michel, which is it’s our decision that he’s not a credible leader of the Syrian people. It’s our – not decision, it’s our opinion, given what he’s wrought, the devastation he’s wrought on his own people. But it needs to be a decision by the Syrian people, and that includes moderate Syrian opposition as well as regime forces, on how to transition to a new government. We think one that doesn’t include Assad, obviously, but that’s where we’re at on this. So it’s up to the Syrian people to decide. Our opinion is that he’s not a credible leader.


    QUESTION: Iraq?

    MR TONER: Yeah, Iraq and then back to Michele, and then I’ll work my way around, I promise.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Reuters quoted an Iraqi politician, Khamis Khanjar, who said at least 3,500 civilians have been killed in Mosul within the past month. He also said that the mounting casualties came mainly from airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling of heavily crowded neighborhoods. As I understand, neither the Iraqi Government nor the coalition had officially acknowledged any civilian casualties in this operation. Does it mean that they didn’t happen? What information do you have?

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, can you just repeat the top part of your question? Who – who has made these claims?

    QUESTION: Sure, sure, sure. So Khamis Khanjar, who is an Iraqi politician, he said that at least 3,500 civilians had been killed in Mosul within the past month. He also said the mounting casualties came mainly from airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling of heavily crowded neighborhoods. As I understand --

    MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- the Iraqi Government – neither the Iraqi Government nor the coalition had officially acknowledged any civilian casualties in this operation. Does it mean that they didn’t happen? What information do you have?

    MR TONER: No. I mean, as I’ve said many times, if there’s credible allegations of civilian casualties as a result of Iraqi Security Forces’ actions or, frankly, of the coalition’s actions, then they should be investigated. I just don’t have any kind of visibility on these precise – or these exact allegations. I can only say that we stand by what we said before, which is we take every effort in carrying out our own airstrikes, but also in sharing information with Iraqi Security Forces, to – obviously, to avoid civilian casualties. I just don’t have any sense of whether these are credible numbers or not. I just can’t answer – I can’t speak to it.

    QUESTION: About --

    MR TONER: Yeah, please. One more and then Michele.

    QUESTION: About visibility, I remember on Aleppo, the State Department cited monitoring groups and credible organizations, like John Kirby would say, to talk about civilian suffering in Aleppo. What information do you have from monitoring groups and credible organizations about civilians in Mosul and what they’re going through?

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Can you cite any reports?

    MR TONER: I think there’s UN organizations on the ground, obviously, dealing with refugees fleeing the city. I’d have to get back to you on what are the monitoring groups. And again, it’s not that there aren’t them – there aren’t some there, I just – I don’t have precise details. But obviously, we’re working very closely and the Iraqi Government’s been very clear about wanting to avoid civilian casualties.


    QUESTION: Yeah. Last year, after bombing of a funeral home in Yemen, the Obama administration put some weapons sales on hold to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis seem to think that that’s changed now, that the U.S. has given a green light. I want to know what the status is --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- of their request for those sales and if you’ve seen any change in Saudi behavior that would allow you to resume those sales.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Well, we can’t comment or confirm any – we can’t comment, rather, or confirm or deny arms transfers until they’re formally notified to Congress. That’s a longstanding rule. But I can say in answer to your other question that we do continue to work with the Saudi-led coalition to take steps to mitigate against future civilian casualties. We have over many times expressed our concerns to the Saudi-led coalition and urged them, as we’ve urged all sides, to work towards reaching a sustainable cessation of hostilities.

    I would also say that any defense sale to Saudi Arabia or anywhere else would be carefully assessed under the U.S. Government’s conventional arms transfer policy to examine issues that include human rights, regional security, nonproliferation concerns, but also whether a given transfer is in the foreign policy interests of the United States. And again, as I said, we’ve made very clear that review and monitoring are an important part of any follow-up that we do with any arms sale. Again, that’s not just exclusive to any arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But with respect to Saudi Arabia, we’re still working with the Saudi Government, Saudi security forces, to urge greater restraint with respect to civilian casualties.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: More on Yemen.

    QUESTION: And was --

    MR TONER: More on Yemen. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: So your own Human Rights Reports acknowledge countless reports of attacks on schools and hospitals and infrastructure and whatnot, and when the White House put a hold on that weapons transfer, an official anonymously told Reuters, quote, “It’s not a matter of how smart or dumb the bombs are, it’s that they’re not picking the right targets.” Do you have concerns, given your own Human Rights Reports, that they’re not picking the right targets?

    MR TONER: Again, I think that’s something we’ve addressed previously, is that we’re working to help Saudi Arabia improve its – how it goes about targeting, when it does decide to target, that it’s targeting the right places and not indiscriminately hitting civilian targets.

    QUESTION: Right, but your own reports acknowledge countless atrocities, so is it your position that these are all accidents or that some of them are on purpose?

    MR TONER: Again, I think we’ve been through this before and we’ve raised our concerns with Saudi – the Saudi authorities and Saudi Government that we need to see greater restraint shown with – in respect to the targeting choices that are made.

    QUESTION: And one more, one more, one more.

    QUESTION: A clarification on the same topic.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: And then I have just a couple more questions after this and I have some Asia questions too. Go ahead, sir.

    QUESTION: Just --

    MR TONER: One more.

    QUESTION: Yeah, sorry, one more, one more.

    MR TONER: Yeah, please, that’s good.

    QUESTION: Are you investigating any Saudi military units for human rights violations, as is your legal obligation?

    MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I’m not aware and I don’t know that I would actually speak to that, but any kind of assistance that we give to certain groups is under, obviously, Leahy --

    QUESTION: On China?

    MR TONER: -- vetting jurisdiction or law, but I can’t – I don’t know if I can even speak to that.

    QUESTION: Same topic.

    QUESTION: China?

    QUESTION: Mark, I just wanted to ask you to clarify, was there an approved sale by State on the PGMs, the precision-guided missiles, last week? Were there any approve sales?

    MR TONER: I don’t – again, I don’t know if I could speak to that if it hasn’t been --

    QUESTION: State – I think State signed to it. You don’t --

    MR TONER: Again, I don’t know if I can speak to it if it hasn’t been notified to Congress.


    QUESTION: Just separate from the precision-guided ones, did the ban on cluster bomb sales to Saudi Arabia get lifted?

    MR TONER: I’m not sure about that, John.

    QUESTION: On China --

    QUESTION: One more on Yemen?

    QUESTION: Asia.

    QUESTION: The State Department has announced that you guys are going to be offering $5 million for information regarding the murder of U.S. citizen Joel Shrum.

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: That was claimed – the murder was claimed by al-Qaida. Can you explain a little bit about why the State Department is offering this money now five or almost five years after the murder and if it’s part of a larger anti-ISIS campaign on behalf of the U.S. Government?

    MR TONER: Sure. So this is, for the broader audience here, the Rewards for Justice Program – many of you know it – which offers rewards for information leading to the arrest or conviction of any country or any individual that commits or conspires to commit or aided or abetted to commit – commission of a crime or terrorist attack. In this case, the murder of U.S. citizen Joel Shrum.

    With respect to your question, Kylie, about why now: So this reward offer was cleared by the Rewards for Justice Interagency Rewards Committee and approved by the U.S. Secretary of State, so we’re moving forward with our announcement and the placement of the rewards offers on the RFJ website. Unfortunately, this is a normal process, and why I say “unfortunately” is it does take some time for advertising these kinds of reward offers. But we do think that there’s still a possibility that we can follow leads and hopefully solve this case.

    I do want to just note, because it’s worth noting, about the victim for whom this Rewards for Justice is offered, and that’s Joel Shrum, and he was shot and killed on March 18th, 2012 while on his way to work in Taiz, Yemen, by a gunman riding on the back of a motorcycle who had pulled up alongside the vehicle. At the time of his death, Mr. Shrum was an administrator and English teacher at the International Training and Development Center, which is one of the longest-standing international development organizations in Yemen. And a few days after the attack, it was terrorist organization al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP, that claimed responsibility for the murder.

    And I think part of the reason with – in spite of the delay, we never forget the victims of terrorist attacks and we’re going to pursue them to justice.

    QUESTION: So this is normal timing?

    MR TONER: It’s – it does take some time to process these and to get them posted, but we’re still confident we can bring the killers to justice.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: Israel? Okay.

    QUESTION: Can you confirm reports that the Trump Administration is planning a regional conference in May to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that it would involve regional partners?

    MR TONER: I cannot at this point. I don’t have any information on that. I’d – when we have something to announce, obviously, we will, or might refer you to the White House.

    QUESTION: Iraq. Iraq.

    MR TONER: In the back. Do we want to move to Asia and --

    QUESTION: Iraq.

    QUESTION: Yeah, Asia.

    MR TONER: Asia.

    QUESTION: On North Korea --

    MR TONER: North Korea.

    QUESTION: -- is there any information on the release of a U.S. college student detained in North Korea? Do you have anything on the release information?

    MR TONER: You’re talking about Otto Warmbier, I believe.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: No update on him. I spoke a little bit about this yesterday. I mean, obviously, it’s still a great concern to the United States any time there’s an American citizen who’s held overseas, cut off from his family, we believe unjustly held in this case, and we call on the North Korean authorities to release him. We believe that the time or the sentence for his alleged crimes – and I emphasize “alleged” – is excessive. We believe he should be, as I said, sent home; allowed to be – go home to his family and friends.

    And again, I always do this, but I have to do it. I feel obliged as a parent to advise anyone, young or old, considering a trip to North Korea, an American citizen considering a trip to North Korea, to think twice about that.

    QUESTION: So now, U.S. and South Korea have a military exercise ongoing. So what action will be taken to ensure immediate release this student?

    MR TONER: To ensure?

    QUESTION: To ensure to an immediate release this student.

    MR TONER: Well, again, these are – these kinds of defensive exercises are part of our longstanding commitment to our ally, South Korea, Republic of Korea, and we’re committed to the defense of our ally and partners in the region.

    Just a few more questions, guys.

    QUESTION: On North Korea and the Secretary’s visit there.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Yeah, I did promise you, I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: It’s all right. Does the Secretary expect firm commitments on moving forward against North Korea while he’s there?

    MR TONER: No, I wouldn’t predict that there’s going to be concrete action out of his trip. I think this is a chance for him to have a lot of substantive, hard discussions with our allies and partners in the region about possible next steps – again, recognizing that the threat of North Korea, frankly, is only growing stronger.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: And on withdrawing from the TPP --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- what message does that send to Japan?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think the focus and the focus that we’re certainly going to convey in our conversations with Japan is that we want to pursue trade, we believe in trade. Trade is good for American workers, it’s good for American companies, but we want to do that on a bilateral basis, and we want to ensure the best possible trading platform. We want to ensure a level playing field for U.S. workers and U.S. companies, and we’re happy to have those discussions. I mean, trade with Japan is a vital stimulus to the U.S. economy.

    QUESTION: On North Korea.

    MR TONER: One more question.

    QUESTION: On Iraq?

    MR TONER: You, sir, and then I got to get out of here.

    QUESTION: Yeah, on Iraq. Just recent developments in Sinjar yesterday --

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: I just wanted to update you. I don’t know if you have seen the reports. There was a demonstration by civilians in Sinjar area, and there was a shooting by the Kurdish air forces that – belonging to KRG. As a result of that, one civilian was killed, which was – she was a sex slave survival from ISIS. She was a teenager. And then 15 people were injured as a result of the clash between the KRG-affiliated forces and the civilian in Sinjar.

    The reason I bring this to your attention is that it’s really miles away from the – your trainers and soldiers on the battleground embedded with the Iraqi forces. And also these Kurdish forces, some of them have been trained by you and also they are in possess of the U.S. weapons. Are you concerned that these weapons are being used against Yezidis themselves that you claim to support?

    MR TONER: Well, we’re concerned in general about the situation around Sinjar, around western Nineveh. There’s discussions ongoing between the Government of Iraq and the KRG generally about building stability in those areas and those regions that hug the Syrian border that have been liberated from ISIS. And that’s – those discussions are ongoing. We’re also having those discussions with those two groups because we recognize there’s tensions in the area. And again, we’ve said this many times, part of the success is once we’ve liberated an area from ISIS is how do we establish control, how do we establish local governance, how do we establish stability back in these regions? And that’s certainly something we’re focused on.

    Thanks, everybody.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:52 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 14, 2017

Tue, 03/14/2017 - 16:16
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 14, 2017 Index for Today's Briefing

    Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.

    2:04 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Thanks very much. And thanks for everyone for joining us on this snowy afternoon.

    Just briefly at the top I wanted to mention, obviously, as many of you know, Secretary Tillerson is wheels-up in a couple of hours en route to Japan, the first leg of his three-country tour of Asia. He’ll also go to South Korea – Republic of Korea, as well as China.

    He did meet with the United Arab Emirates foreign minister this morning, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan today, where they discussed bilateral and regional issues, including the conflicts in Yemen, in Libya, the fight to defeat ISIS, and other counterterrorism efforts. The UAE is a key U.S. partner in the region. Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister al-Nahyan affirmed their mutual intention to continue to deepen the bilateral relationship between our two countries.

    With that, I’ll take your questions.

    OPERATOR: And it looks as if our first question comes from the line of Said Arikat from Al Quds. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Hello, Mark. Thank you for doing this. I have three quick questions for you. I’m glad to be the first one in line. Can you hear me, Mark?

    MR TONER: Yes, I can.

    QUESTION: Hello?

    MR TONER: Yes, I can.

    QUESTION: Okay, great. Okay. My first question is that it is reported that Secretary Tillerson told the Human Rights – the United Nations Human Rights Council that the U.S. will be compelled to leave unless there are some real reforms. I guess that is in reference to the alleged maltreatment of Israel. Could you comment on that?

    MR TONER: Sure. I’m aware of the article; I’ve seen the report. I don’t want to speak or address specifics of any correspondence that the Secretary may have had with these NGOs, beyond saying that it’s fair to say we’re having discussions about – and that’s internal discussions, meaning within the State Department, but also with some of our partners – about how to increase transparency and accountability in human rights. But I’m not going to speak specifically to the contents of any letter or correspondence the Secretary may have shared.

    Do you have an additional follow-up? Said?

    QUESTION: Mark, if you allow me, very quick --

    MR TONER: Yeah, please. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Okay. One, there was a report that Mr. Jason Greenblatt, the envoy from the White House, warned the Palestinians that Congress intends to cut off all aid to the Palestinians unless payment to attackers is completely stopped and incitement is completely stopped. One, can you confirm that? And second, do you have any comment on that?

    MR TONER: I’m not going to confirm that. I can confirm that he did meet with President Abbas – he being Jason Greenblatt – met with President Abbas in Ramallah earlier today. They did have a positive and far-ranging exchange about the current situation. And they did discuss how to make progress toward peace. They also spoke about building the capacity of Palestinian security forces, as well as efforts to stop incitement. But I’m not going to speak to that specific claim.

    Ready for the next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Arshad Mohammed of Reuters. Your line is open. Mr. Mohammed, your line is open for us.

    QUESTION: Can you hear me?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Hey, Mark. I have a series of short questions, so if you’d let me do some follow-ups, please. Question one: You note that Secretary Tillerson will be wheels-up in a couple of hours en route to Asia. Is he, in fact, taking any journalists with him?

    MR TONER: I’d have to take the question. I’m not sure if there was a seat that was available in the plane. As you know, it was a small airplane; we could not accommodate press. We were trying to finalize logistics. I’m not actually on this trip, but I’d have to take that question. Do you have an additional one?

    QUESTION: Yeah. Well, they’re all related.

    MR TONER: Okay. Go ahead. Yep.

    QUESTION: I mean, you’re two hours and six minutes from takeoff. Is it really so hard to find out whether there’s a reporter on the plane?

    MR TONER: Again, I haven’t been handling logistics around this particular trip, so I’m going to have to take the question. I do know that they were considering a seat, having a – or if there was a possibility of having a seat available. All that said, it’s a small airplane. There’s limited seats available. We’ve been very clear in our discussions with the media about that. We’ve been very clear, frankly, that this is a smaller footprint all around, and this is the Secretary’s decision, to travel with a smaller footprint. And in some degree – or to some degree, it’s a cost-saving measure.

    That said, we’ve also made the point that I think there’s going to be 20-some media in each of the cities that he’ll visit on the ground, U.S. media, that we’ll accommodate, that we’ll provide logistics for. We’ll make sure that they get into the photo sprays and, in a couple cases, press avails that he’s going to be holding. So we’ll still have that access available to these individuals.

    Did you have a follow-up?

    QUESTION: (Inaudible) if I may. One, you’re aware that Secretary Powell took a small plane to Greenland in, I think, August of 2004. He found room for a reporter. Is the plane even smaller than that? I mean, if he was able to take one, why can’t Secretary Tillerson? And then the second question is you made a point about reducing cost. Is it not the case that media who travel with the Secretary of State have always paid for the cost of their air travel plus their hotels, plus additional imputed charges for ground services, such as buses and vans in a motorcade?

    MR TONER: They have paid a degree of those costs. But I’d refer you to the Office of the Comptroller at the Department of Defense, who can do a deep dive on how those costs are really reflected in the overall costs of the actual air trip. I don’t mean to get into that breakdown, nor is it my place to discuss that kind of – get into that financial breakdown on this call. But those are representative costs, what the tickets – or the price or the fees that journalists pay for those flights, but does not reflect the overall cost of operating that aircraft.

    I think, again, I want to make the point going forward that we’re going to make every effort in future trips to have a contingent of press onboard that plane. And I’ve been very clear about that since last week.

    All right. Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Barbara Usher of CBC. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Thank you. That’s BBC, actually. Mark, I also have three short questions, so if you’ll allow me to follow up as well. My first question is about the meeting with the foreign minister of the UAE today. This week there’s been also a meeting with the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, and both of those have been closed press. Can you tell us why the Gulf foreign ministers have closed press and others do not, it seems? I mean, is there some particular reason for that?

    MR TONER: No, not in particular. I think we did official photographers this morning. We usually work that out, those kinds of protocols, with the visiting dignitary or counterpart. I’d have to, frankly, look into it to understand – or to get a better, clearer understanding of why there was no photo spray. But I don’t think it was any kind of particular reason why we didn’t do it with these two individuals.

    Next question. I mean, for you, Barbara. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Just two other quick questions. One is there are reports that the Russians have deployed military forces to an Egyptian base near the Libyan border, presumably or possibly to – as part of their effort to support al-Haftar in Libya. Are you aware of that, or is the U.S. aware of that? And does – do you have any concerns about this?

    And then I have one quick question about Lieberman after that.

    MR TONER: I’d have to, with respect to Russian airplanes in Egypt, I’d just have to refer you to the Russians to speak to that. I don’t have any additional details on that. What was your final question? Sorry, I apologize.

    QUESTION: It’s about Lieberman, the foreign minister of Israel. It’s been reported that he presented to Mr. Tillerson and State Department officials his land swap plan, which has been around for some time. And I wondered if you could confirm that and whether that was seriously in the mix of options being considered going forward.

    MR TONER: I can’t confirm that. And I wouldn’t get into the specific details of the options that we’re looking at, except to say, as we’ve said over the past week or so, that we are looking at different options, but we’re talking to both sides. Hence the reason for Greenblatt’s trip to the region – to hear perspectives, to hear ideas on a way forward, to get back to a place where we can proceed with – or get to a place where we can consider getting negotiations back up and running. But as to specific details on the components of that, what that might look like, I just can’t speak to it at this time.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: It will come from the line of Michelle Kosinski of CNN. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, Mark. A quick question. So you said that you’re not sure if the Secretary is going to fill that seat with a reporter. But if he were to do that, that would be someone handpicked, that he chose? Or how – I guess, what’s the protocol for that process at this point? Even if you don’t know if that seat has been filled, how is the plan laid for potentially filling it?

    And my second question is about the New York attorney general sending a letter to the New York State supreme court judge trying to get ExxonMobil to comply with the subpoena to turn over these emails from then-CEO Tillerson. My question is: Does Tillerson have any – what’s his feeling on these emails? What can we say is his stance regarding the second email address in which he at times discussed climate change? Thanks, Mark.

    MR TONER: Sure, thanks. So I’ll answer your second question first. The – with respect to the story and reports of the email address that he allegedly used while he was in – was CEO of Exxon or at Exxon, I would have to refer you to Exxon for any questions about that. I don’t have any details. It predates, obviously, his time here at the State Department.

    But I will speak broadly, anticipating maybe a follow-up. I know I got one follow-up from one of – one reporter this morning, so I wanted to put out there that with respect to how he uses email now as Secretary of State, he uses only his Department of State email address to conduct official business, and he does comply with all federal record-keeping requirements.

    With respect to your question about whether there’s journalists or not on the plane, again, I’m not going to get into how we choose or how that decision’s made. I’m not on this flight – I’m not on this trip, rather – but in general, you know that this is a process that we usually work out with the press corps. But I would say it is our prerogative to make the choice as to who from the media sits on the plane – again, with the understanding that we’re going to do all we can to accommodate those U.S. media who are on the ground at each of the three stops, to give them logistical support, to provide access to the Secretary’s photo sprays and press avails where we can. That’s not going to go away. And again, going forward, we are going to make every effort to include a contingent of U.S. media on those – on the actual flights.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Michele Kelemen of NPR. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Before my question, I just wanted to set the record straight that no one – that this wasn’t worked out with the current press corps if indeed there’s somebody on the plane today.

    As for my question, I’m wondering, is climate change going to at all be a topic that he discusses in China, or does he recuse himself from those sorts of issues?

    And secondly, on a separate issue, we’re expecting big cuts in funding for the United Nations, and I’m just wondering what are you – how are you planning to talk about this? Are you going to have any briefings to the press corps, to the UN press corps about the budget this week?

    MR TONER: Yeah, hi. Sorry, Michele. So with respect to climate change, broadly speaking, you know this administration’s conducting a broad review of international climate issues. Secretary Tillerson, though, did speak about the fact that this is a problem that requires a global response, and he believes that the United States needs to be in those discussions, needs to be at the table in discussions about how to address it. And I can’t rule out that he won’t – or that he will raise this, rather, in his discussions, especially with China, with whom we’ve had cooperation on climate issues, especially in the run-up to the Paris Agreement. This is, again, among the many issues that we do work with and cooperate with China on.

    I’m sorry, I went – I forgot your last --

    QUESTION: On UN funding. I mean, are – how are you going to sort of explain to the public what you’re planning on doing on UN funding? I mean, this is a time when the UN is talking about famines in four countries and 20 million people at risk of starvation. Why is this the time to cut funding to the United Nations?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to speak to any reporting about impending budget cuts. And the reason I’m not is because I think it’s important that as the budget – we’re early – as I said, we’re early in the process with respect to budget numbers. It’s an ongoing conversation, so for me to speak to a number today or a possible cut today, it may be very different – look very differently a couple weeks or months down the road. As we get information available, we’ll of course share it with you, but I think I’m going to wait for the President’s budget outline on Thursday. And then, of course, as I said, we’ll make sure we inform the press on State’s posture going into the budget process.

    I would just say, broadly speaking, there’s many U.S. agencies, and that certainly includes State Department and USAID, who contribute funds to international organizations and depend on the work that these organizations do to advance U.S. national interests. I certainly understand where you come from when you mention the plethora of humanitarian crises around the world. The U.S. has been a leading contributor to humanitarian assistance efforts, especially with respect to Syria but elsewhere in the world, and we’re going to do – continue to do what we can to help in that regard.

    Do you have a follow-up, Michele?

    QUESTION: Sure. On Thursday, when this comes out, I mean, are you going to have some budget experts come and talk to us about the decisions that were made?

    MR TONER: Again, I’d let the President and the White House speak to the President’s budget outline on Thursday. We’ll do our best to answer questions about our specific role in that, but we just need to see where we’re at in the process and what we can talk about. Again, I just don’t want to get out ahead of a process that’s going to take a few months to materialize.

    Thanks. Next question.

    OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Tejinder Singh of IAT. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thanks for doing this, Mark. Can you confirm that the Canadian Girl Guides which has – they have more than 70,000 members – have canceled all trips to the U.S. until further notice?

    MR TONER: Sorry, you’re talking about the Girl Guides of Canada?

    QUESTION: Of Canada and also (inaudible).

    MR TONER: Yeah. Go – I’m sorry, let me answer that. So I’ve seen the reports. I’d obviously refer you to their organization to speak to the reasons why they’re canceling their travel. I would simply add that or say that Canadian passport holders are not affected by the executive order, and of course legal residents of Canada who hold passports of a restricted country can apply for an immigrant or non-immigrant visa to the United States if the individual presents that passport and proof of legal resident status to a consular officer.

    But with respect to the decisions about travel to the United States, that’s up to them to speak to. I would only add that we’re confident that the U.S. remains a premier travel destination for many people around the world, and we’re confident that that will remain.

    Do you have a follow-up, Tejinder?

    QUESTION: Yeah. On that last sentence that became – I know we don’t talk about the individual visas and others. Can you just but let us know that if there has been a drop in visa applications around the globe or they are on the rise?

    MR TONER: So preliminary data – and I stress preliminary – but it does suggest that visa applications have not, in fact, decreased. But of course, as I said, visa demand fluctuates, but what we’ve seen thus far is there’s been no decrease in visa applications.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Deborah Pettit of NBC News.

    QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thanks for taking our calls. How are you?

    MR TONER: I’m good, thanks. I’m sorry, I put it on mute, but go ahead. I’m --

    QUESTION: (Laughter.) Okay. I’m asking a question for our London bureau, who is doing a story about the American student who is held in North Korea – Otto Warmbier. You familiar with that?

    MR TONER: Of course I’m familiar with this case, yeah.

    QUESTION: Yes. Anyways, tomorrow will be the first-year anniversary and there hasn’t seemed to have been any progress. Do you have anything to comment on that first anniversary or any update you can give us on his welfare?

    MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry, was I – okay. I apologize. Did you hear the first part of my answer? Hello?

    QUESTION: I didn’t, Mark.

    MR TONER: Okay, I apologize.

    QUESTION: That’s okay.

    MR TONER: With respect to Otto Warmbier and the anniversary of his incarceration, look, our concern about his welfare is very well known. We believe that he’s being held unjustly. He’s gone through the criminal process and he’s been detained for, as you noted, more than a year. We believe his sentence of 15 years’ hard labor is unduly harsh – harsh, rather – for the actions that Mr. Warmbier allegedly took. And we urge North Korea to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds. We would also like to see our – or have, rather, access to him – regular access through our protecting power, which I believe is the Swedish embassy.

    More broadly speaking, I just have to reiterate, take this moment – occasion to say that we strongly discourage any travel by any U.S. citizens to North Korea given how they are treated, Mr. Warmbier’s case only being the most recent one. We urge any U.S. citizen considering travel to North Korea to visit our website,, and to heed the warning there against traveling to North Korea.

    Do you have a follow-up?

    QUESTION: Is Secretary Tillerson going to make any inquiries or is that going to be part of a discussion that might happen on this trip?

    MR TONER: Hard to say. It’s not that it’s not considered an important issue, and, of course, North Korea and its bad behavior and its continued bad behavior, frankly, is going to be a very high priority in the discussions that he’s going to have in each of his three stops.

    But certainly, we raise in multiple fora ways that we can try to get Mr. Warmbier back home. Look, the safety and security of American citizens abroad is probably our highest priority at the State Department. I think we’ve shown our track record over the years that we never lose sight of individuals like Mr. Warmbier who are, we believe, held unjustly by governments or entities overseas. We’re going to continue to press for his, as I said, his amnesty, and we’re going to keep his case at the forefront.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Nicolas Revise of AFP.

    QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon, Mark. Thank you for doing this. Yesterday we had a U.S. official expressing concern about the diplomatic spat between Turkey and the Netherlands, but since then, the situation has been getting worse and worse, especially from the Turkish side. So how much are you concerned about this war of words between the Netherlands and Germany on one side, and Turkey on the other side?

    MR TONER: Sure, thanks for the question. Look, it’s a bilateral matter between the governments of the Netherlands and Turkey. Both countries are NATO allies, and we would call on them to avoid escalatory rhetoric and engage one another with mutual respect and try to resolve the differences in this matter.

    Do you have a follow-up?

    QUESTION: Yes. Don’t you think – who is to blame for this war of words? Is it President Erdogan or other – Germany and the Netherlands because of the very tense political context?

    MR TONER: Yeah, I think I’ll leave it where I just left it, which is we want to see both sides avoid escalatory rhetoric and work together to try to resolve the situation. Again, these are two strong allies, two strong partners within NATO. We work closely with both these countries. We want to see them, obviously, cooperate and get along. So I’ll leave it there.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Will come from the line of Curt Mills of US News and World Report.

    QUESTION: Yes, hey. Hello, Mark, can you hear me?

    MR TONER: Sure can.

    QUESTION: Yes. Okay, so there was a report – a couple of reports last week, one in The Daily Mail that alleged that non-U.S. citizens are being told that they can’t arrange tours at the White House, and some web – some embassy websites seem to indicate that there’s been some sort of change in procedure with the new administration. Is there any veracity to these reports?

    MR TONER: Hey, thanks for the question, actually, because we’ve gotten some questions about this last week as well. Look, I’d have to refer you to the White House, but it’s not true. And I think they have to go through the embassy, if that’s correct, to get on these tours. But certainly, there is no discouragement with respect to UK or any foreign – foreigner – foreign government – or, rather, foreign tourists visiting the White House.

    Thanks. Sorry, couple – a few more questions, please.

    OPERATOR: Sure. The next will come from Kylie Atwood of CBS News.

    QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thank you for doing this. Just want to go back to the email question for a minute. And you were very clear in saying that the Secretary is complying by federal rules on recordkeeping, but I just want to clarify: So is Secretary Tillerson using a personal email address in addition to his State email address? And does he only have one State Department email address? And then I’ve got a follow-up to that.

    MR TONER: Sure. He only uses a State Department – or a Department of State, rather, email address for the conduct of official business, and I can assure you he’s very disciplined about that. Similarly, he only uses an official phone number for conversations he may have with respect to his business. I’m simply unaware that he might have a – or whether he has a personal email address in addition. But in the conduct of official business, he only uses a Department of State email address. And your follow-up?

    QUESTION: Follow-up is in regards to Janice Jacobs, who I think former Secretary Kerry had hired at the State Department to be a transparency coordinator. So is she still in that role? And if so, has she been meeting with the Secretary on these issues?

    MR TONER: I can confirm that she’s still in that role and still meets regularly with senior staff – I don’t know if she’s sat down with the Secretary yet; I can only imagine she has – but to talk about all these issues, obviously realizing, as we discussed before, how important it is in today’s day and age to maintain and comply with federal recordkeeping requirements.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Will be Karen DeYoung of Washington Post.

    QUESTION: Off the hook. My question’s already been asked. Thank you.

    MR TONER: Great. Last question, guys. Sorry. I got to run. But last question, please.

    OPERATOR: Looks like it’ll come from the line of Josh Lederman of Associated Press.

    QUESTION: Hey. Thanks, Mark. I wanted to ask you about the crackdown on political dissent in Bahrain and specifically the change that the parliament has approved to allow the military courts to try civilians. Is that something you guys are concerned about? Have you talked to Bahrain about it? And I have a follow-up on that.

    MR TONER: Sure, Josh. You’re talking about specifically the military courts? Is that what you’re talking about? Or --

    QUESTION: Yeah, to try civilians in military courts --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- which some of the human rights groups are saying is basically martial law.

    MR TONER: Understood. We’re aware of the amendment – I think it was recently passed by parliament, as you note – that expands the purview of military courts. We understand that it’s going to become official, once it’s affirmed by the King. I think we recognize the threats that Bahrain faces from terrorism in the region. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Bahrain and our other allies in the Gulf to counter any regional threats.

    However, these are actions that must be in accordance with international legal obligations to protect human rights, so we urge the Government of Bahrain to ensure that all civilians retain the right to due process in all cases and to transparent judicial proceedings, in addition to the rights of freedom of expression and assembly.

    Do you have a follow-up?

    QUESTION: Yeah. I was just curious. I mean, there’s been a lot of talk about the Trump administration potentially delinking concerns about human rights to military aid, jets that we sell them, and I was curious if that’s a decision that the Secretary has come to yet.

    MR TONER: Yeah, Josh, look, we’ve raised this particular issue, asked about it, as well as other human rights concerns, with the Government of Bahrain. We continue to do so. There’s been no easing up in that regard.

    Great. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. I appreciate it. And I’ll see you all tomorrow on camera. Take care.

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    (The briefing was concluded at 2:35 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 13, 2017

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 17:32
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 13, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ


    2:11 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy Monday. I hope everyone had a good weekend.

    I have just a few things at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions. First of all, just a few readouts, actually, from the Secretary’s meetings beginning last Friday and also this morning. Secretary Tillerson met on Friday morning with the ambassadors of the member-states of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to hear views from Southeast Asia ahead of his first trip to the region. The Secretary and ambassadors discussed the continuation of the U.S.-ASEAN strategic partnership in this 40th anniversary year of U.S.-ASEAN relations. The Secretary also emphasized the important role the U.S. relationship with ASEAN plays in a peaceful and prosperous Asia Pacific region.

    Earlier today, the Secretary met with the foreign minister of the Republic of Tunisia, Khemaies Jhinauoi. And forgive me if I mispronounced his first name. The Secretary noted the important security partnership between the United States and Tunisia and highlighted Tunisia’s progress on security and democratic reforms. They also discussed the importance of finding a resolution to the conflict in Libya and as – in Libya in order to bring stability to the region.

    Also, Secretary Tillerson met today with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and reaffirmed the significance of the U.S.-Greek bilateral relationship. The Secretary and foreign minister also discussed the importance of building and sustaining security and stability across the region.

    And lastly, Secretary Tillerson met with Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir today to discuss a number of critical bilateral, multilateral – or rather, regional issues, including, of course, the ongoing conflict in Yemen as well as broader counterterrorism efforts. The Secretary and foreign minister also discussed strengthening economic and commercial ties as well as U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 socio-economic reform program.

    I’ll stop there and go over to you. Josh.

    QUESTION: Thanks, Mark.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Jason Greenblatt from the White House is in the Middle East this week meeting with Israelis and Palestinians. Does the State Department have any representation in that delegation or involvement in the diplomacy that he’s doing over there right now?

    MR TONER: Well, you are correct; he is headed to Israel and to the West Bank this – for the coming week. He’ll be meeting there with Israelis and Palestinians. He’ll have meetings with senior officials. He’ll be there to do a lot of listening, discussing the views of the leadership in the region, getting their perspectives on the current situation and how progress towards eventual peace can be made. He’ll meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he’ll meet with President Abbas. He’ll also meet with other Israeli and Palestinian officials, including security officials on both sides.

    And this – I’d characterize it as the first of what will become many visits to the region. I can say that he’s been working closely with – obviously, within the NSC, but also with the State Department on this trip, and we’re of course supporting him on this trip and as well as a senior representative from the NSC who’s traveling with him. I can’t – I don’t know that we’ll have anybody from the State Department joining him on this trip. I’ll try to confirm that. But of course, our embassy will be supporting him on the ground, as well as our consulate.

    Yeah, anyway.

    QUESTION: Is the U.S. and Israel getting closer to the – any kind of an agreement on settlements that the President and Netanyahu had spoken about? I mean, is that a primary goal of this trip, to sort of wrap that issue up?

    MR TONER: No. I mean, look – I think as I said, he’s really there to, as I say, get perspective, listen to both sides and how they come at looking forward to a peace process or how they perceive getting to a peace process that’s back on track. I think it’s part of him trying to, as I said, just get a good perspective on possible ways forward. I think settlements will obviously be a topic of discussion, but I wouldn’t predict there will be any kind of a resolution of that issue. I think, as we said earlier just a few weeks ago, with respect to settlements, we see them as a challenge that needs to be addressed at some point. But I think what’s mostly important for this trip is it’s an orientation trip for him to get – hear perspectives on the ground of how we can create a climate that leads to eventual peace negotiations.

    QUESTION: Mark, could I stay on that just for a little bit?

    MR TONER: Yeah, Said. Yeah, go ahead. Please.

    QUESTION: Now, let me ask you the same question again: Has there been any coordination between Mr. Jason Greenblatt and the State Department before the – before their conversation?

    MR TONER: Yes. Yes, and if I wasn’t definitive enough about that, yes, there was.

    QUESTION: Okay, okay. And --

    MR TONER: Yeah. I just don’t know – my question – my answer to Josh – I just wasn’t sure that there was anybody actually traveling with him from the State Department on this trip.

    QUESTION: Now, I know last week you told us that Mr. Ratney will be assuming the file or whatever – the peace file – replacing Mr. Lowenstein.

    MR TONER: No, I want to be very clear on that. He’ll – so he’ll be – he’ll have that portfolio within the front office of the --

    QUESTION: Right, in addition – right --

    MR TONER: I mean, I’m getting into – but he won’t be the – yeah.

    QUESTION: In addition to the Syria issue, right?

    MR TONER: Correct, yeah.

    QUESTION: Okay. So has there been coordination between Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Ratney?

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: Okay. All right. And let me ask you a couple more on the phone call between the President and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Was – did the President or the White House brief Secretary Tillerson on the call before or after?

    MR TONER: I can only assume that he did. I’m not aware – I mean, I can’t confirm that, but that’s the normal --

    QUESTION: You don’t know for sure whether he has spoken --

    MR TONER: It’s a normal procedure for us to get --

    QUESTION: It’s a normal procedure. Okay.

    MR TONER: Also be consulted before a call and get briefed after the call --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- if not beyond the call.

    QUESTION: Okay, now, let me – can I stay on the topic just for one more?

    MR TONER: Sure thing.

    QUESTION: A couple more. The Israeli authorities arrested a Palestinian novelist, a woman. She wrote a novel called The Jackal’s Trap, and they arrested her because apparently talk – she talks about the process of recruiting informants and so on and all these things. Are you aware of this issue?

    MR TONER: I’m aware. I’ve seen the reports. I’m not in a position, obviously, to weigh in on every security incident or every security action that’s taken by Israeli authorities on the ground. I’m also not familiar with the novel. I’ve – like you, I’ve seen the title. Broadly speaking, we of course support freedom of speech, but I can’t speak to it beyond – I would just have to refer you to Israeli authorities.

    QUESTION: All right. But it would be disturbing if you find out that she was arrested because of this novel, which is fiction, right?

    MR TONER: Again, I think --

    QUESTION: Writing literature and fiction should not be --

    MR TONER: I mean, in all honesty, Said, I’d have to look at the novel and what it – and hear what the Israeli authorities’ concerns about it were. There are some times when even novels can reveal information or can incite in some ways, but as I said, generally speaking, not having read the novel, not having read any review of the novel, I’d just generally say we support freedom of expression.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    QUESTION: Can we stay on the – I have just one more on – can you confirm that there was an – some kind of orientation briefing about the other players in this Middle East process? Because the – in the – all other – before this administration, there is always the European Union plays a role in the peace process and the things.

    MR TONER: You’re talking about the peace process?

    QUESTION: Yes. So is there – about settlements, about – because the EU money goes in into (inaudible), and – which gets destroyed, so Brussels is always unhappy about the Israeli actions.

    MR TONER: I mean, generally speaking – and I’d refer you to the White House and – for the specific conversations that they may have had with members of the EU or with other states that are actively working towards Middle East peace, but generally speaking, we have those kinds of conversations all the time with the key players, mostly just to get a sense of, again, who’s doing what, who’s speaking to whom, and what are the prospects and how do we get back – I think the overall – just to get back to Josh’s question – and we’ve talked about this before, but what are the steps, constructive steps that both sides can take to put us back on a footing towards some kind of negotiated settlement I think is what we’re looking at now.

    So we’re not there yet. I don’t expect any big announcements out of this trip. I think, again, it’s just an orientation trip for him to hear perspectives on the ground.

    QUESTION: Iraq.

    MR TONER: Please, Barbara.

    QUESTION: Yeah, I have two questions, one on Syria and one in Iraq.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: Is there any discussion or preparation in this building for the day after in Raqqa in terms of U.S. civilian assistance after the fight for Raqqa is by and large completed?

    MR TONER: With respect to Raqqa? I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: U.S. civilian assistance.

    MR TONER: I’m sorry. I apologize. There’s always day-after planning going on, especially with respect to when we – and we’ve talked about this a lot, is when we liberate, or when these forces liberate territory that is held by ISIS, one of the key factors is how quickly you can get in to restore basic infrastructure, restore electricity, basic services, and reestablish some kind of local governance. That’s the case in parts of Syria as well as certainly in Iraq, so that’s always something that we’re factoring in when we look at sort of next steps. But at this point we’re not there yet. Obviously, with Raqqa, I mean, we’re just – we’re still in a – taking steps to close the city and cut off any escape route for ISIS there.

    QUESTION: But there’s a plan in the works or being developed for civilian assistance, U.S. civilian assistance afterwards?

    MR TONER: I think we’re always looking at how we can provide follow-up assistance to these. I can’t speak in specifics with respect to Raqqa, but certainly with Mosul and other places in Iraq, that’s been a key component. I think with respect to northern Syria, we’ve talked about the need, again, to also – these liberating forces that go in afterwards, we’ve always stressed that we want to see local governance restored so that civilians can return home. But again, a component of that is humanitarian assistance; a component of that is re-establishing a climate or conditions that will allow people who have been displaced by the fighting to return.

    QUESTION: And just in terms of Iraq, which you mentioned the day-after planning there --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- along the same lines for Mosul, has – have those plans or that discussion been affected in any way by the budget cut calculations?

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, with respect to Iraq?

    QUESTION: Yes, you know the --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- the cuts to the State Department budget and foreign assistance. Has that affected the plans in Mosul for American assistance?

    MR TONER: Not at all. Not at all. And a lot of that is because a lot of that money has already been set aside and already been, frankly, put into the pipeline for assistance. I mean, we’re looking at – it’s important when you’re looking about the – looking at the budget process, we’re looking a year ahead in terms of fiscal years, but right now the money has already been appropriated and sent to the Iraqi Government with respect to assistance, post-conflict assistance to Mosul.

    QUESTION: Mark, you did not --

    QUESTION: So Iraq --

    MR TONER: You want to stay on Iraq?

    QUESTION: Iraq.

    QUESTION: Did you condemn the bombing in Damascus? I mean --

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, did we condemn it?

    QUESTION: There was a bombing in Damascus.

    MR TONER: I’m aware of – I’m aware that there was a --

    QUESTION: Okay. It was, like, 50 people were killed; they’re all pilgrims, Iraqi pilgrims.

    MR TONER: I’m aware, yeah.

    QUESTION: A hundred and twenty. Did you condemn that attack?

    MR TONER: I’m not aware that we issued – from the State Department, we did not issue condolences but certainly --

    QUESTION: Would there be any reason why you wouldn’t consider it a terror attack?

    MR TONER: Certainly we express our condolences to the victims of any violent attack.

    QUESTION: But you consider that to be a terrorist act? I mean, it was claimed by al-Nusrah.

    MR TONER: Again, Said, I said we condemn and express our condolences, but I’m not aware we issued a statement.

    QUESTION: Yes, on Iraq.

    MR TONER: Let’s stay on Iraq. Let’s finish up with Iraq, guys.

    QUESTION: Special Envoy McGurk was in Erbil today and he saw President Barzani. Could you give us a readout on that meeting?

    MR TONER: Okay, let me take a step back because he did arrive in Baghdad on Saturday and then I’ll walk up to today. I don’t have much of a readout to provide, though, on the meeting because I think it just took place a few hours ago. But he did arrive in Baghdad on Saturday for consultations with a host of senior Iraqi leaders – that did include Prime Minister Abadi, Foreign Minister Jaafari, Defense Minister Hayali, and Parliament Speaker Jabouri – on the Mosul operation in general, but also our longer-term efforts to support Iraq’s reconstruction and stabilization post-ISIS. He was joined in his meetings by our ambassador to Iraq, Doug Silliman, as well as Lieutenant General Townsend, who is obviously leading coalition efforts on the – from Baghdad in our effort to fight against ISIS.

    He also met with some members of UNDP in Iraq, and then he actually gave a press conference while he was in Baghdad and I would – I think we’ve got the transcript of that posted on our website.

    He has been in Erbil today. He’s had meetings with senior leadership from the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, and that of course includes President Barzani; discussed again aspects of the Mosul campaign. He of course thanked Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Barzani for the tremendous sacrifice that Kurdish forces have made in not just liberating Mosul but other parts of Iraq that have been held by ISIS. He also commended the Iraqi Security Forces for their achievements on the battlefield. So, again, these were just, I think, efforts to – as we’ve been doing all along, just efforts to make sure that we’re very coordinated as we move through what has been a really difficult, but we believe will ultimately be a successful, campaign to liberate Mosul.

    QUESTION: And do you know if in these discussions that McGurk had in Baghdad and Erbil whether there’s any more concrete notions about Mosul after the ISIS defeat, plans for Mosul?

    MR TONER: In terms of what? In terms of just assistance or --

    QUESTION: Well, assistance as well as the political change that President Barzani among others has said needs to occur to accommodate the wishes of the people --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- and their perspectives so that we don’t have another ISIS to fight again.

    MR TONER: I mean, look, I think – we’ve talked about this before and in essence it’s what I was alluding to when I was talking – answering Barbara’s question. But it’s the fact that you can liberate a city, but unless you come in with leadership, local governance, and deal with some of the – obviously, the real issues of reestablishing infrastructure, electricity, that kind of thing, basic services, but also dealing with some of the political tensions and dynamics and addressing them with reforms, I think you’re not – then you’re not going to win the overall battle.

    Part of what we need to do, and this is certainly going to be an issue that’s tackled when we have the ministerial here in a few weeks, or in a couple of weeks – the de-ISIS ministerial here – is going to be how do we look at not just defeating ISIS on the battlefield but making sure that they’re eliminated from the social fabric, that they don’t somehow – we don’t simply defeat them tactically and not defeat them online, in other spaces so that they can no longer recruit, there’s no longer people who would be swayed by their cause. And part of that is going to be how do you enact the kind of political reforms. And Iraq is already taking steps to do so. The government, we believe, has taken steps to do so but there’s more work to be done, and how do you implement the kind of political reforms that will make Iraq stable, that will make it more prosperous, and a better place for the people.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Same topic.

    QUESTION: Iraq. Iraq.

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s stay there. Please.

    QUESTION: Our correspondent in Iraq interviewed people who got out of Mosul, who escaped, and along with ISIL’s atrocities, they described situations where ISIL would go into people’s homes, not allow them to leave, and then airstrikes would hit the houses and – with the civilians still inside. And in November, in response to my question, you said, “We take every effort and take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, to the point where we will choose sometimes not to take strikes against known enemy targets because they put civilians at risk.” Was it different in Mosul? Have the rules of engagement changed in any way?

    QUESTION: I wouldn’t say that. With respect to – we’ve always said that and that’s – it’s absolutely clear, is that when we’re sharing information or – with the Iraqi military or whether we’re carrying out airstrikes, we do so in an effort or we try to be as precise as possible. We try to have the best intelligence and information available that we can to avoid any civilian casualties. And again, we stand – I stand by those comments that we will sometimes, if we have information that indicates that there’s civilians nearby or civilians in a place, then we will refrain from acting. Let me finish.

    With respect to these specific charges, I think that’s all something that – these are the kind of allegations, if credible, that would need to be investigated, looked into, and if something – if changes need to be made in terms of targeting, then that’s something that Department of Defense would look at.

    QUESTION: It appears that the airstrikes were hitting places were civilian casualties were likely.

    MR TONER: I just – I’m not aware. Sure, I’m --

    QUESTION: Are you saying that the rules of engagement have not changed in any way? Is the --

    MR TONER: They have not changed.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    QUESTION: India?

    QUESTION: Just one more on Iraq.

    MR TONER: Let’s stay – are we done with Iraq?

    QUESTION: I have a question on Iraq.

    MR TONER: Okay, one more Iraq, and then I’ll go to China.

    QUESTION: So just on McGurk’s visit to Erbil, local media have reported that they discussed the mounting tensions between the PKK-affiliated forces and the KRG-affiliated forces in Sinjar, and there we’ve seen some skirmishes between those forces. They’re all anti-ISIS forces. Your view, what is – does this complicate your mission against the Islamic State, that rival Kurdish forces fight against each other?

    MR TONER: So there have been discussions between the Government of Iraq and the KRG with respect to western Nineveh, which is the area west of Sinjar – area around Sinjar to the west. And those discussions have focused generally on how to build stability in that particular region along the border with Syria that’s been liberated from ISIS. We’ve talked a lot about some of the complex battlespaces. We understand some of the tensions on the ground with respect to, for example, the PKK, that we believe has no place on the battlefield and we consider to be a foreign terrorist organization.

    So there’s these ongoing efforts to address some of these tensions, better coordinate in the aftermath of when we liberate these areas or when the Iraqi Government and Iraqi Security Forces liberate these areas. I can say we’re very much aware of it and we’re in discussions on how to best deal with that.

    QUESTION: Has the U.S. military or the United States Department of State done anything to calm those tensions down between the two forces --

    MR TONER: Well, I --

    QUESTION: -- or to address the problem?

    MR TONER: Sure. I mean, I think we’re always looking about – we’re always talking to – and of course, Brett McGurk was just obviously in the region in the last couple of days, but we’re always in discussions with Turkey, with Iraq, and with all the players in Iraq, including Kurdish forces, about how to de-escalate tensions between these – some of these different groups with the recognition that, again, we don’t want this to escalate in any way, need to keep the focus on what everyone’s main goal should be, which is defeating ISIS.

    You had China --

    QUESTION: Can we stay in the region, Mark, in Syria?

    MR TONER: Sure. We’ll get to you.

    QUESTION: The opposition – the Syrian opposition has said that they will not attend Astana meeting tomorrow since the ceasefire was not implemented. Do you have any comment on that?

    MR TONER: Well, we respect that decision. That’s their decision to make not to attend the talks. I think we’d still call on the regime and Russia and Iran to make a good-faith effort to look at ways to de-escalate the violence and, frankly, to adhere to numerous ceasefire agreements that have been put into place over the past few months. I mean, I think there was at least some hope that these talks in Astana, when they started, would potentially lead to a durable ceasefire or cessation of hostilities on the ground in Syria, one that could allow us to really concretely get the Geneva talks up and running, and that remains an obstacle. It’s the same obstacle that we faced over the past couple of years is how do we get a durable ceasefire in place. That’s the kind of the next – the key to getting to the next level in terms of a political process and a peaceful transition. We’d like to see that – we’d like to see some effort in that regard, some constructive effort in that regard come out of Astana.

    QUESTION: And will this absence affect the next round of Geneva talks, do you think?

    MR TONER: No, I think Geneva talks are still scheduled – I think March 24th [1] is the next date for them – sorry, I’m looking through here, I have the dates written in here somewhere – I think they’re still scheduled to begin. They’ve obviously already taken place without a durable ceasefire in place, the last round, of course. We just think it’s more – to have a durable, nationwide ceasefire in place would create the kind of atmosphere, the kind of environment where we believe this political process can move forward.

    QUESTION: And my last one.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: Any State Department official will attend Astana?

    MR TONER: Yeah. As with previous talks, I think our U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan George Krol will be in attendance.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Can we switch to China?

    MR TONER: Let’s finish. You had – Michele, you wanted to move to China.

    QUESTION: China – yeah, is that okay?

    MR TONER: We’re not off of --

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    QUESTION: Is that okay? Should I --

    QUESTION: Yes, yes.

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s --

    QUESTION: Okay, great. So now that there’s word that – or confirmation, I should say, that the U.S. intends to station attack drones in South Korea in addition to THAAD, what effect do you think that will have on the Secretary’s talks while he’s in China? And I mean, what kind of a reaction are you expecting from the Chinese on this?

    MR TONER: Well, look, with respect to the Secretary’s trip – I mean, obviously, he’s going to have an opportunity at every stop to talk about next steps or what we do now, with respect to North Korea. I mean, it’s obviously the looming challenge over our relations and, frankly, the security of the Korean Peninsula, but also increasingly the security of our allies in the region and the security of the United States, given the scale of their testing and the – frankly, the pace of their testing as well.

    You mentioned drones specifically. I know that the U.S. Army has directed United States forces create and prepare for a permanent station – stationing, rather, of a Gray Eagle unmanned aerial system company at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. This is, I think, an ongoing effort to defend the Republic of Korea and U.S. interests in order to maintain regional security, stability, and economic prosperity for the region. In addition to THAAD, these are largely – or not largely, these are defensive measures that are a response to what we – and by “we” I mean South Korea, the United States and, certainly, Japan – view as a real and credible threat to our security.

    Now, I understand and, obviously, the Secretary understands that China feels differently certainly with respect to THAAD. I think part of, obviously, the discussions he’s going to have when he’s in Beijing are hopefully going to be geared towards easing some of those concerns, but also in making very clear that we’re taking these actions in an effort to deal with an increasingly – an increasing threat – I’ll put it that way – and that we have to do more, we have to look at new ideas, new ways of dealing with North Korea. So we understand there’s – everybody agrees on the challenge, which is: How do you stop North Korea’s bad behavior? There’s many ways to look at the problem, many ways to address it. I think part of this trip will be about trying to hone in on some next steps.

    QUESTION: Okay, so – I mean, the U.S. has wanted China to do more --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- in terms of pressure for a long time. So given the pace that you mentioned now, are you fully expecting just from this trip to see more commitment from China? And do you expect that the addition of this – like, I guess I’m getting at how big of a deal do you see THAAD in combination with the drone stationing and how China will react to that? Are you expecting to get more from China or do you think that the timing now with what the U.S. is doing in South Korea is going to slow that down despite North Korea’s pace?

    MR TONER: Well, I think it’s a fair question. Again, these are very clearly defensive measures that we’re taking in response to an increasingly worrying, concerning threat from North Korea. China understands that threat. They’re not oblivious to what’s happening in North Korea with, again, the pace of the testing that’s been going on over the past six months. As I said, we differ in our view points on the way forward, but in no way are we going to back away from our, frankly, our treaty obligations to our ally, South Korea, in doing the utmost that we can do for not only the defense of our forces, but for the defense of the Korean people.

    But what I think, more broadly speaking, we really do need to talk with and these talks have already – these discussions have already been going on with Secretary Tillerson and his counterpart about other ways, whether it’s – well, certainly it’s in the implementation of the existing sanctions regime, but what are next steps we can take to really put pressure on the regime to make them feel and pay a price for their behavior.

    So I think all of these things are on the table; none of them are easy. If it were, then we’d have solved it long ago. But again, it’s trying to really convince a regime and a leader who doesn’t seem to care much about international pressure or international law or international norms. He’s acted in defiance of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, so how do we sway him and his regime back onto the right track and to pursue talks, credible talks, about the future of their nuclear program?

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Mark, what about – same issue.

    QUESTION: One more on --

    MR TONER: Sorry, you want to stay on Korea?

    QUESTION: China?

    QUESTION: It’s actually on China.

    QUESTION: A follow-up.

    MR TONER: Okay, China, China.

    QUESTION: We’ll stay – we’ll – go ahead, okay.

    MR TONER: You don’t have to ask at the same time.

    QUESTION: Yeah, in unison. So at the White House earlier today --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- Sean Spicer said – wouldn’t confirm a visit to Mar-a-Lago, but said it’s in the works, and said – and there – and the expectation is that Tillerson will lay the groundwork for a visit soon on his trip. I guess, do you have anything to say about those preparations? And then, would Secretary Tillerson join Trump in a bilateral meeting after his China consultations? Because I don’t think he’s been in a meeting with Trump and a foreign leader yet.

    MR TONER: I don’t want to speak to meetings or visits that have yet to be formally announced, so – but of course, Sean was correct in his characterization that part of this trip will be – his trip to Beijing will be to, when there is this visit, is not only staging the visit and how it works and the logistics of it, but I think almost more importantly, what’s the agenda? What’s our – what are our core concerns with China, but also how can we get this relationship off on a good footing, a solid footing, a cooperative footing? Where are the areas that we can cooperate more closely with China with respect to, obviously, North Korea, but also economically and in other ways? China is a global player, and as much as we can cooperate and work with them on issues where we find common ground, it’s to the betterment of the region; but also making clear where we do have concerns about China, whether it’s a level playing field for business, American business or any business, but also with respect to human rights as well.

    So, setting a positive agenda. Please, Carol.

    QUESTION: About human rights in China, do you know if the Secretary has any expectation in Beijing, if he plans to discuss the situation involving the imprisonment and harassment of journalists there, and if he plans to discuss at all the role that a free and independent press can play in the country that the international community expects?

    MR TONER: Sure. So I would say that these are all, obviously, concerns of his and concerns of the State Department, concerns of the U.S. Government. I’m just always wary of predicting exactly what will be on the agenda of any meeting, but I can guarantee that it is a concern, and I said as much just now in responding to Felicia that we recognize there are challenges there. Human rights is one of those challenges and --

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: And the press?

    MR TONER: -- freedom of press – and freedom of press is an essential part of that.

    QUESTION: Mark, is it --

    QUESTION: And if --

    MR TONER: It’s okay.

    QUESTION: And if he flies there without a regular member of the State Department press corps traveling with him, do you feel that this might send a message that might be contrary to that?

    MR TONER: Well, that’s not what we would intend to – a message we would intend to send. Look, I think the fact that, I think, some 20 members of the press are going to be meeting us, or even more, at various stops along the way, and we’re going to accommodate those individuals and crews and make sure they have access, and I also believe the Secretary is going to give a press availability when he’s in Tokyo, sends the right message, which is that we respect and want to work transparently with the media.

    QUESTION: Same issue, follow-up.

    MR TONER: Do you want to stay on China? Finish that out, and then we’ll get back – yeah. China too?

    QUESTION: On North Korea.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Got it. Yes, please.

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    MR TONER: Oh, North Korea, sorry.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: You pulled me away from China. Clever.

    QUESTION: China and North Korea, whatever, they're all same issues.

    MR TONER: I’ll get to you. I know, I know, they’re all --

    QUESTION: There is reporting that North Korea will be conducting next – new six – the nuclear test soon. Do you have any information on that?

    MR TONER: I don’t, and I wouldn’t be able to share that with you. I think, though – I mean, I wouldn’t get into intelligence, obviously, and our assessment – intelligence assessments, but I think you could be, frankly, a casual follower of the region and look at North Korea’s track record over the past six months and anticipate that they’re going to continue along that roadmap until either they can be convinced otherwise or otherwise persuaded to engage in a denuclearization.

    QUESTION: But very soon – they say sooner or later they’re going to do another test, so your intelligence should have (inaudible) --

    MR TONER: Well, exactly. I mean, look, we want them to come to the table in a serious effort to address concerns about their nuclear program. And until they do that --

    QUESTION: Yeah. Another one. Will the United States reassign the North Korea as a terrorist country?

    MR TONER: What’s that? I’m sorry, I apologize.

    QUESTION: North Korea as a terrorist country, U.S. will put in the North Korea --

    MR TONER: Again, that’s a designation – I don’t want to get into this because I’ve taken flak for this when I’ve talked about this process – that’s a very deliberate process to designate a state sponsor of terror, and I’d have to have lawyers actually walk through how that’s designated, but it’s a very specific evaluation or criteria that goes into that kind of designation. But I can say – without that determination, I can say that North Korea is a destabilizing player in the region and increasingly so.

    Please, Luke.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Does the Secretary want China to do more to counter the North Korean threat?

    MR TONER: Yes. I mean, we’re always cognizant of China’s influence over North Korea and we’re always encouraging it to play a more forceful role in that regard, whether it’s through a more thorough implementation of the sanctions regime that exists or through other ways. And so that’s a leverage that China brings to the table and that’s certainly something we want to see them take more advantage of.

    QUESTION: Does – given China’s objections to THAAD being deployed to South Korea and now these armed drones, and with Japan announcing they’re going to sail a large warship in the South China Sea, how does Secretary Tillerson expect to get anything done with regard to North Korea on this trip?

    MR TONER: Well, I think, again – I mean, there’s a few issues to unpack in that. One is – has to do with freedom of navigation. That’s a rule we hold sacrosanct, as do many countries around the world. But I think what the Chinese certainly can take away from that is that there’s real concern with respect to North Korea and its behavior. And this isn’t – we need to look at fresh ways of how to deal with this challenge because thus far, we’ve been unable to persuade them either through UN action, through sanctions, whatever. So I think we need to look at new possibilities. But any part of dealing with that threat is to take prudent action to the defense of our allies and that’s what’s behind THAAD, that’s what’s behind these drones.


    QUESTION: And is it a challenging time right now to be a diplomat with the State Department’s budget getting cut, yet the military is planning a large buildup?

    MR TONER: It’s always a challenging time to be a diplomat. (Laughter.) I mean, it is, but – no, Lucas, I mean, I think – first of all, I don’t want to get into too many specifics about the budget because we’re still in early days, but – I talked a little bit about this last week. I think there’s an opportunity here at the beginning of a new administration to reassess how we’re spending our taxpayer dollars here and whether they’re focused on the right priorities, how we can do a better job. I think any organization, any bureaucracy can probably look at ways to trim some fat or to reorganize, to operate more effectively. And that’s something that Secretary Tillerson’s very much involved in doing, but at the same time recognizing that he needs to make sure, and it’s partly his job to ensure, that this building gets the money – and our posts, more importantly, overseas get the money and resources they need.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: One or two more questions, guys. Yes, I’m sorry, please. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Can you just tell us a little bit about how the Secretary is preparing for this visit? Obviously, he’s been to the region before --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- in his previous jobs, but can you talk about how he’s preparing for this visit? And then also, is anyone from the White House traveling with him to any of the countries?

    MR TONER: No, there will be no one from the White House with him on this trip. He will obviously be traveling with acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton. He will – I mean, he obviously – I mentioned at the top of the briefing he did meet with ASEAN leaders on Friday, again, to get their ideas, to hear from them what their thoughts – what he should be looking for and asking about in his trip. And he’s also already had meetings in Bonn and also here in Washington, D.C. with senior Chinese leadership as well as foreign ministers from Korea – Republic of South – of Korea and as well as Japanese foreign minister. So I think he’s already got a pretty good basis and he’s heard a lot of their viewpoints already, but I think, as I said, given concern over North Korea’s actions, I think he really wants to come – rather – really wants to try to drill down on that challenge for this trip. But let’s not also ignore the other 800-pound gorilla in the room here, which is our trade relations with the region. It’s hugely important. I mean, these are valuable trading partners, and that’s another thing that’s going to be discussed is how do we look at trade issues, how do we foster more productive bilateral trade relations with these countries, and that includes, obviously, China.

    QUESTION: Mark (inaudible) way in the back?

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Yeah, Michelle. And then two more questions, guys. I’m sorry, I have to run. I apologize.

    QUESTION: The United Nations has confirmed that it’s looking for two officials with the panel of experts, including American Michael Sharp. Wondering what you can tell me about the circumstances about that disappearance. Is this a kidnapping? And the other question is whether – there is this U.S. envoy on hostages – or hostage situations. Does that position still exist, and does this case rise to that?

    MR TONER: Well, we are aware – you’re talking about, I think, in the Democratic Republic of Congo?

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: We’re aware of reports of a U.S. citizen who was reported missing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I will not be very forthcoming because we’re still trying to get more specifics about the case; so I won’t be mentioning the individual’s name. I’m somewhat restrained in what I can talk about except to say that we obviously take the security and welfare of American citizens abroad very seriously. We’re watching this case very closely. We’re working with local authorities to try to find out more information. We’re also in touch with the UN as well.

    With respect to your second question, it was about the hostage --

    QUESTION: Right. You have – you had a whole office here working on those issues. Does it still exist?

    MR TONER: That office – to my understanding, that office is still up and running and still involved in this – is involved in any situation where there’s a U.S. citizen or an American citizen who’s been kidnapped or held hostage overseas. Again, with respect to this particular incident, I don’t want to – we’re aware of reports that he’s missing, this individual’s missing. I don’t want to lean too far forward until we’ve really gotten a better factual basis to talk about it.

    QUESTION: Mark, India –

    QUESTION: Has Obama --

    MR TONER: One more question, guys. I’m sorry to cut this off.

    QUESTION: Has Obama’s appointee left the --

    MR TONER: Felicia and then John, and then last one.

    QUESTION: In reference to Michelle’s question, the Obama appointee who was the envoy, has he left?

    MR TONER: I’ll have to take the question. I don’t know. I’ll have to find out.

    QUESTION: I think he has left.

    MR TONER: I think he has, too, but I don’t want to speak incorrectly.

    Go ahead, John.

    QUESTION: Mohammed bin Salman is --

    MR TONER: I’ll have to take Felicia’s question.

    QUESTION: Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting with some White House officials. Is --

    MR TONER: I missed the first part of your question.

    QUESTION: MBS, Mohammed bin Salman is meeting with White House officials.

    MR TONER: Oh, yeah, of course.

    QUESTION: Is he meeting with anybody from the State Department?

    MR TONER: I’m not sure. I’ll take the question as well.

    QUESTION: On the visit of – on the meeting with the Saudi foreign minister --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- with Secretary Tillerson, it’s been widely reported in the region that Secretary Tillerson was instrumental in facilitating the visit of Adel al-Jubeir to Iraq a couple weeks ago. Could you comment on that? What – has he been instrumental in that regard? Has he been – he convinced the Iraqis to receive and the Saudis to go?

    MR TONER: Well, you’re right, that was an important and constructive visit. I don’t really want to speak to any possible role that he may have played or we may have played in establishing that visit except to say that we’re close partners with Saudi Arabia, and obviously, close partners with the Government of Iraq, and whatever the Secretary – what we can do as a Department of State to foster stronger regional cooperation, we’re going to do so.

    MR TONER: Thanks, guys.

    QUESTION: One on Saudi Arabia.

    MR TONER: That’s it.

    Correction: The talks are March 23, 2017.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:54 p.m.)

    DPB # 13

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 9, 2017

Thu, 03/09/2017 - 16:06
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 9, 2017 Index for Today's Briefing

    Today's briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.

    2:02 p.m. EST

    MR TONER: Thank you so much. And welcome, everybody, to this – today’s briefing with the State Department, the first one in a long time by telephone, but hopefully it’ll be useful. And it’s a new format, so we look forward to it.

    Just a couple things at the top, and then I’ll take your questions. Secretary Tillerson will host foreign ministers and senior leaders of the global coalition dedicated to the complete defeat of ISIS and will express his full support of the coalition’s mission. This meeting will be held on March 22nd, here in Washington, D.C. Secretary Tillerson has been crystal clear that defeating ISIS is the State Department’s top priority in the Middle East. He said it in his confirmation hearing, and he said it repeatedly to foreign counterparts.

    ISIS has unleashed violence and havoc in the region by committing a mass homicide and terrorizing people in Iraq and Syria, unleashing a wave of refugees and – as well as a humanitarian crisis. Defeating ISIS is the start of a process to create, as well, stability in Syria.

    This will be the first meeting of the entire coalition – all 68 members – since 2014. It’ll be the largest gathering of the coalition since its inaugural meeting. And while significant ground has been gained on the battlefield, there are new fronts, and that includes online, where we can improve our tactics, our strategy, and our coordination. Defeating ISIS requires the support of all members of the coalition, and the Secretary looks forward to stressing the importance of their cooperation as well as their contributions to the effort to eradicate ISIS from the region.

    The meeting will cover other ground, including how to thwart foreign terrorist fighters, counter terrorist financing, stabilization of liberated areas, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. Secretary Tillerson thanks all of our partners for their contributions to date and recognizes this is a key moment in establishing the roadmap to defeat this dangerous threat in the Middle East once and for all.

    With that, I’ll turn it over to your questions. We’re going to just – given this is a new format, what I’ve worked out is that we’ll allow each questioner a follow-up question, and then we’ll move to the next questioner.

    Thank you. Go ahead.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. The first question comes from David Clark with AFP. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks for doing this. So the – this meeting of the coalition, what level will the people be represented at? Will it be just diplomats, or will general officers be there as well? And will Russia be there in any capacity? I know it’s not a member of the coalition per se, but obviously, they’ve got forces on the ground de-conflicting with the coalition. And do they have an observer role or a guest role in this?

    MR TONER: Thanks, David. So this is at the ministerial level, so it will be with foreign ministers. Now, that said, on March 23rd the coalition’s working group co-leads will meet as well to coordinate across all lines of effort. That includes military, counter-finance, counter-messaging, counter-foreign-fighters, as well as stabilization – all aspects of the campaign. I can imagine that will involve all aspects – certainly both military and government as well.

    With respect to your question about Russia, no, Russia will not be part of these meetings. They’re not part of the global coalition.

    Go ahead.

    QUESTION: And then just my follow-up, then.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: You say that it’s the administration’s top priority in the Middle East, and you say that defeating ISIS is a prelude to establishing stability in Syria. You no longer then regard the role of Bashar al-Assad’s regime as being the prime driver of instability in Syria?

    MR TONER: I wouldn’t say that, David. But we obviously – this is – and we talked about this before. This is a – there’s two tracks in Syria, two conflicts that we need to resolve. Obviously, first and foremost is the fight to destroy ISIS, and that’s where we are focusing our efforts during this ministerial meeting, but certainly going forward in how we look at the situation on the ground. But that certainly doesn’t change our focus on trying to resolve the civil war that’s ongoing in Syria. We just are – there’s essentially two difficult challenges to resolve within Syria. One is the removal of ISIS, and certainly the other one is a peaceful political resolution to the civil war. And let me be clear as well that the primary driver of that civil war is the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. Tracy Wilkinson with Los Angeles Times, please, go ahead. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Hi. Yes, thank you. Hi, Mark. I see that the foreign minister of Mexico is in town, Luis Videgaray, meeting with – according to the Mexicans – Kushner, Gary Cohn, and McMaster. Is there no State Department meeting with him? And if not, why not?

    MR TONER: Tracy, good question. We’ll take that and get back to you. I was unaware that he was – the foreign minister was in town. And I’m not sure – I can’t speak to whether there’s going to be any meetings at the State Department at any level. I’ll take the question.

    QUESTION: Okay. Okay, thank you.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Please, next question.

    OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Conor Finnegan with ABC News. Please, go ahead.

    MR TONER: Thanks, Mark. I was wondering about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Given the attack yesterday that ISIS claimed credit for, is the U.S. reevaluating its position in Afghanistan? What, in particular, would be involved in that review? Are we considering sending more troops or increasing foreign assistance? And would that be the case despite the possible budget cuts in something like foreign assistance and despite President Trump’s statements, both as a candidate and as a private citizen, that he thought the U.S. was wasting money in Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Thanks for the question. So first of all, our mission currently in Afghanistan is, along with our NATO partners, how we provide training, advice, assistance to the Afghan Security Forces. Our assistance as well supports a broad range of Afghan civilian and security institutions, essentially with the goal of how we develop – or are trying to develop, rather – the capacity to prevent these kind of ongoing attacks and how we can build up the Afghan forces’ capabilities to respond effectively to them when necessary, and bring the perpetrators to justice, of course.

    With respect to how we look at that policy going forward, I mean, I think we’re looking – as I said, at the outset of a new administration, we’re looking at a broad review of current policies. But let me just stress that our commitment to Afghanistan remains rock solid. I know the Secretary has spoken to both President Ghani and as well as CEO Abdullah in recent weeks – in days, in fact. He emphasized in those conversations his continued support for the National Unity Government of Afghanistan. And of course, we continue to work with our Afghan partners across a broad spectrum of issues that include security force development, counterterrorism cooperation, as well as economic development.

    Any other --

    QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up on that, Mark?

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Does the U.S. see the threat from ISIS as growing in Afghanistan? Is there increased concern given yesterday’s attack and some previous attacks from ISIS Khorasan?

    MR TONER: Look, I think with respect to ISIS we’ve always been clear that this is an organization that, as we attempt to eradicate it from its home base in – Iraq, rather, and in Syria, it’s trying to set up new affiliates, if you will, in other places around the globe and in some of those ungoverned spaces, which, again, supports why it’s so important for us to continue our efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, to work with the Afghan Government and Afghan Security Forces to increase their capabilities to provide that kind of security.

    But I would say certainly we’re concerned about anywhere that ISIS might look to establish a foothold. We’ve seen it also in places like Libya. But we’ve also been successful in, where we do have opportunities to strike ISIS leadership in those places, we take advantage of them. It’s just something we’re obviously aware of and we’re coordinating with our partners on the ground to go after ISIS wherever it seeks to establish itself.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Guy Taylor at The Washington Times. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark, how are you? I wanted to follow up on the ministerial meeting of the counter-ISIS coalition and see if we can kind of pull you back into that a little bit. I’m just reading through the release that State put out as the call started. Is there really anything new that the Trump administration hopes will come of this meeting? What is the administration actually hoping to achieve by doing this now or get out of hosting it, strategically?

    MR TONER: Sure, fair question. So I think – look, I mean, there have been meetings of this coalition both at the small group level but as well as the entire coalition periodically throughout its existence. I think the full coalition met soon after it was founded in December 2014. It’s now at – was down at 68 – 60 partners, rather. Now it’s grown to, I think, 68 members. And this is the first full coalition meeting since it’s now at 68 members. But again, at the small group level it has also met periodically as well.

    I think what sets this meeting apart – obviously, it’s the first meeting of the new administration. I think it’s an opportunity for Secretary Tillerson to lay out the challenges that are facing the coalition moving forward. I think we all recognize that we have seen progress in defeating ISIS on the ground, certainly on the battlefield. They’ve lost territory. How do we leverage that success? How do we build on that success? How do we augment our capabilities? And also, as I said, what are the next challenges? I mentioned – and cyberspace as one area that they’re going to look at – how we augment our work. But I think, again, there’s also dealing with finances, dealing with the foreign fighters. I think he wants to get a sense, working with partners on all of those issues, what are the best ways forward.

    I also think that this also is an opportunity for our coalition colleagues, our coalition partners to get together and share their view, and also it’s a chance for us all to recommit ourselves to ISIS’s ultimate defeat, and also how we burden-share, how we share our capability – or how we share the costs certainly going forward, and better share our capabilities on the ground.

    Next – do you have another one?

    QUESTION: Mark, quick – actually, quick follow-up.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: So the administration more than a month ago ordered all agencies to do a comprehensive review of Washington’s ISIS, counter-ISIS strategy, that I believe has been delivered to the White House from Secretary of Defense Mattis’s office. Will that review factor into this coalition meeting? Is it something that there’s going to be some new strategy that the administration is hoping to roll out for all of these partners at this meeting?

    MR TONER: So you’re right. On January 28th, obviously, the President, as you mentioned, directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to work with interagency partners to develop that preliminary plan, and the State Department was involved in that process and the drafting of the plan, and it was delivered to the White House on February 27th for consideration and for broader discussion. Now, the details of that plan are still classified. I can’t really provide further information on the contents of that plan, but I think that broadly speaking, we’re going to look at how we approach this in new ways, how we augment, I think, existing capabilities and processes on the ground, as I said, to really take advantage of what’s been progress in – certainly on the battlefield with ISIS. But I just can’t really speak to what those new initiatives could look like at this point in time. Sorry. Thanks.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. And next, we’ll go to Kylie Atwood with CBS News. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, thank you so much. Hi, Mark. We just saw in the White House briefing that Sean said that he hadn’t heard that the Secretary was traveling without press to Asia. Can you talk a little bit about the discussions between the State Department and the White House regarding this trip? And could you also give us a reason? I know that you said you’d get back to us on why the Secretary is taking a smaller plane, but could you get back to us on that, please?

    MR TONER: Sure. Thanks for the question, Kylie. Look, I mean, we coordinate with the White House on – obviously, on the substance and the logistics involving the Secretary’s travel because we need to be knitted up at an interagency level on the policies going forward, and that’s certainly underway with respect to this trip. We also work closely with our NSC and White House colleagues on press issues as well, although that’s not necessarily sharing of the logistics. So it’s not surprising that he might not have been aware of the press posture for this upcoming trip.

    That said, with respect to the trip to Asia, we’re still working out the logistics, so I really can’t say specifically or speak definitively, I guess, as to whether we will be able to accommodate any press on the Secretary’s plane. I think we’re all aware that it is a smaller plane for this particular trip. There will, as you know, going to – there will be some U.S. media who will be traveling to the destinations, each destination, and of course, we will do our utmost to support them at those destinations and provide whatever access we can.

    And I think going forward, the State Department is doing everything it can to – and will do everything it can to accommodate a contingent of traveling media on board the Secretary’s plane.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Yep. Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Carol Morello with Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Greenpeace said today it was starting a petition drive to ask the Office of Government Ethics to urge Secretary Tillerson to recuse himself from any decisions regarding the Keystone pipeline. Is that something he would consider, or does he rule it out once he’s completed the process of divesting himself from his ExxonMobil stock?

    MR TONER: Hi, Carol. With respect to the Keystone pipeline, I wouldn’t want to speak to the contents of the letter until we’ve had a chance to see it, so I’m going to take a pass on that. We will get a response to you once we’ve had a chance to read the letter and evaluate it.

    With respect to his divestiture of his stock and involvement in Exxon, I think I spoke to this a little bit the other day. But the Secretary made very clear that he was going to comply with federal ethics rules, and he is in the process of meeting the terms of that agreement. I don’t have anything to add to that.

    Next question.

    QUESTION: Can --

    MR TONER: Oh, go ahead. I’m sorry, Carol.

    QUESTION: I was just going to say can you tell us how far along he is in the process of divesting himself? Halfway there, three quarters of the way?

    MR TONER: I don’t – I just can’t at this point. And that’s not – I just – I’m unaware. Like I said, this is a process that he’s working with the Office of Government Ethics in doing, and we don’t really have a role in that, so I can’t give you a progress report.

    QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

    MR TONER: Thanks.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hey, Mark. I just wanted to circle back on the Asia trip and North Korea. The first is: Do you have an idea of who’s going to be traveling with him given that Danny Russel has now left the building? Will it be the acting assistant? And then I have a follow-up to that question.

    MR TONER: Sure. With respect to who will be traveling with him, I know that Susan Thornton is the acting assistant secretary since Danny Russel has departed that position, so I know she’ll be on board. You had a follow-up question?

    QUESTION: Yeah. Just to circle back to something you said about North Korea yesterday, which was that, essentially, what everybody had been doing to get – achieve a denuclearized North Korea had not worked so far, and the Secretary would be looking at new approaches. You also mentioned yesterday that the U.S. was still looking for a signal from the North that it’s capable and ready for these kind of negotiations.

    So I’m wondering, I mean, if that seems to be the primary stumbling block for past negotiations, a sense that (inaudible) in its intent, so would the U.S. be willing to enter into negotiations with North Korea that did not have – I mean, didn’t require them to sort of promise to be on the road to denuclearization? Is that one idea that’s being discussed as part of these new approaches?

    MR TONER: So thanks, Nick, for the question. So just revisiting that whole issue and, in fact, the double freeze idea that was put forward by the Chinese foreign minister a couple days ago – I think yesterday, in fact – I just want to revisit that quickly, and then I’ll get to your broader question. And there’s no equivalence between North Korea’s illegal missile and nuclear activities and what is our lawful, longstanding joint security exercises with our allies in the region. So that’s one of the reasons we’re somewhat dismissive of the proposal. The [inaudible] – the international community, rather, remains united in condemning North Korea’s continued destabilizing behavior, and I think North Korea’s actions demand that we look at new ways to resolve the problem. And that’s going to be part of his trip. I don’t necessarily have anything to preview, but you mentioned that we are looking for – and that is a fact. We don’t want to hold talks for talk’s sake; this is an ongoing issue with North Korea. We are ready to have serious discussions about denuclearization if they take steps to show themselves to be ready for such talks, and they know what steps they can take to send that signal. And I’ll leave it there.

    But we’re not going to – we’re not going to talk about other issues. All of that can be something that we look at further on down the line, but first we need to address the international community’s – and this is not just the U.S., it’s not just South Korea, it’s not just Japan, it’s not just China, it’s the international community’s concerns about its illegal nuclear program.

    Next question.

    QUESTION: Could I ask, though, just that --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: I mean, you say they know what steps they need to take. I mean, so what does that mean? And then, also, I mean, it seems like you’re saying two contradictory things, because on the one hand you’re saying we’re going to look for new approaches, but then we’re still going to require this thing which has been the chief stumbling block to the negotiations in the past.

    MR TONER: No, all I’m saying, Nick, in terms of the, as I said, this double-freeze concept that was put out or laid out – or proposal, I guess – yesterday, it’s just that, as I said, there’s no equivalence. We’re not going to stop what are legal, transparent, longstanding military exercises that are defensive in nature in order to convince North Korea to stop what it’s doing, which is in contravention of international legal norms and numerous UN Security Council resolutions.

    So I don’t want to draw any equivalence between the two, but that said, I also want to be clear that we would be willing to talk to North Korea – and I mean this in a broad sense – if it shows itself serious and willing to talk about its nuclear program. So – and as we – we’re not there yet; we’re certainly far from that given some of the actions it’s taken over the past six months or so. In fact, we’re moving farther away from that given the continuing tests it is carrying out. So we need to look at – in the absence of any kind of positive signals that we’re seeing from North Korea, we need to look at ways we continue to apply pressure on the regime in Pyongyang to convince them to end their nuclear program.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to Elise Labott with CNN. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Thank you. Can you hear me okay?

    MR TONER: Sure can.

    QUESTION: Oh. I just want to follow up on a couple of the North Korea (inaudible). Forgive me, I dropped on – I jumped on a little bit late. Did you address that – this UN report that North Korea tried to sell nuclear – nuclear weapons material in the past year? And I’m wondering, if you didn’t, whether – what the U.S. says about that and how much more of a concern is it that – about North Korea proliferation? Not just about the nuclear threat itself, but that it’s proliferating its nuclear technology. And then I have another question about the exercises.

    MR TONER: Okay. I mean, we’re very concerned. We, frankly, welcomed the findings of – it was the UN Panel of Experts report on this. We call on all states to fully implement DPRK or North Korean sanctions in their entirety, and that includes UN Security Council Resolutions 2321 and 2270, which explicitly obligate UN member-states to prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of items to and from North Korea that can directly contribute to its proscribed programs. So we’re concerned, I think, about both aspects of this, as you rightly raised in your question, which is --

    QUESTION: Well, doesn’t it – aren’t you – I mean, what does it signify in terms of the fact that they’re producing this enriched lithium, this lithium-6? Because some nuclear experts cite it as evidence that North Korea may be advancing on miniaturization, which is one of the main concerns that, in addition to having the nuclear technology, that it’s also advancing its miniaturization and ballistic missile capability.

    MR TONER: Well, I don’t want to – I don’t want to get into intelligence matters. I think, broadly speaking, we are concerned at the scope and the pace of North Korea’s nuclear program. And as I said previously to Nick, we’re concerned that, if anything, the pace of that program seems to be picking up with continued testing of missiles and of nuclear technology or nuclear --

    QUESTION: I just have one more on the exercises. I mean, I guess it’s a larger question, but I feel like we go through this every year with these kind of major exercises. You expect almost some kind of North Korean provocation because these are the largest annual exercises, and it’s like clockwork. As soon as you start them, there’s some kind of provocation, and then you get into this cycle with North Korea. And I’m just wondering, like – I understand your rightful ability to conduct these exercises, but don’t you think at some point there needs to be some kind of dialogue with North Korea in advance of these exercises or in congruence with these – in parallel with these exercises to at least attempt to allay their fears that it’s not a provocation on your part? Because it’s always followed by a provocation on their part.

    MR TONER: Well, look, I mean, a couple points about that. You rightly say these are – this is a – somewhat an annual event in the sense that we carry out these exercises and there’s a reaction, which speaks to the fact that this is something that has been going on for the past roughly 40 years, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. And indeed, these are transparent. They’re carried out openly under the Combined Forces Campaign – or Command, rather. They’re planned months in advance. They involve participants from the United Nations sending states, members. They’re carried out in the spirit of the Korean – rather, ROK and U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. And as I said, they’re done transparently.

    So I understand your point, but the challenge here, frankly, is we should not be in a position where we are in some ways rewarding North Korea’s continued bad behavior, and that’s exactly what it is. When we’re carrying out military exercises with our ally, South Korea – the Republic of South Korea – it is, again, in response to the threat that they feel and we feel from North Korea’s continued provocative behavior in the region. So I think it’s important to put it in that framework. We always talk about the fact that, well, why don’t we just talk to them, but it’s – we can’t – we’re not in a position now where we can talk with them. We need to be in a position where we understand that they are willing to come to any kind of negotiation with a real intent to address the concerns about their nuclear program. And until that time, it’s frankly – it’s not something worth pursuing.

    Again, it’s incumbent on us, on China, on Japan, and on South Korea and our other partners to look at ways that we can persuade them. Part of that includes pressure, of course. We need to look at, I think, a number of ways that we can put that pressure on the regime to answer the international community’s concerns.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. And next we’ll go to Alicia Rose with NHK. Please, go ahead. And Ms. Rose, your line is open. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi. Sorry, I had my phone on mute. My question is about the hearing in South Korea. South Korea’s constitutional court is expected to deliver a decision later today on the impeachment trial of Korean President Park Geun-hye. How is the U.S. watching this trial? And also, how will the decision, either way, have an impact on U.S.-Korea relations? And then I have one follow-up.

    MR TONER: Sure. Look, clearly, our relationship with South Korea is important. It’s a strong ally, regional partner. Secretary Tillerson is going to be there next week, looks forward to meeting his counterparts in Seoul.

    I think with respect to the processes, the impeachment process ongoing in South Korea, we wouldn’t speak to that. We view that as a domestic issue and we certainly wouldn’t comment on it, except, as I said, to simply state that we’re very committed to our partnership with South Korea and look forward to strengthening it.

    You had a follow-up?

    QUESTION: Yes. Sorry. Just also, would there be any impact on the deployment of THAAD?

    MR TONER: No, not at all. Sorry, I didn’t quite hear you. On the deployment of THAAD, you mentioned? That was your question?

    QUESTION: Yes. Yeah.

    MR TONER: Okay. Yeah. No, not at all.

    Next question.

    QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. And next, we’ll go to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Two questions. Ambassador Haley said yesterday that a political settlement in Syria required that it no longer be a safe haven for terrorists – quote, “We’ve got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out.” Is reducing in a significant way Iran’s influence in Damascus a new U.S. objective in regards to Syria?

    MR TONER: Not at all. We’ve consistently raised our concerns about the destabilizing nature of Iran’s activities in the region, but certainly in Syria, and we continue to hold the Iranian Government accountable for its actions, using the tools at our disposal.

    On Syria, frankly, the support the Assad regime has received and continues to receive from Iran has enabled it to avoid pursuing what we all agree is the only outcome possible there to resolve the conflict, and that is a peaceful political outcome. It’s avoided – it’s allowed them to avoid seeking a negotiated end to the conflict, and that’s an issue.

    We’ve imposed targeted sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as well as its Ministry of Intelligence and Security for their support of the Assad regime. So as I said, we’re looking to counter those destabilizing actions, and we recognize – and we have recognized for some time – that Iran is playing a very destabilizing role in Syria. That should come as a surprise to no one.

    You had a follow-up?

    QUESTION: Yeah. It had to do – you mentioned this counter-ISIS meeting that you’re going to hold later this month. Are you considering or might you consider KRG representation at these meetings?

    MR TONER: Well, again, this is something that the Government of Iraq would be attending, and we’ve talked about this before: We are very appreciative and aware of the sacrifice and effectiveness of Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS, but we also recognize that they operate under the command and control of the Iraqi Government. That’s been very clear in all of our dealings with the Iraqi Government and our support for forces in Iraq that are fighting ISIS that we operate under the mandate of Iraqi Government command and control to all of our assistance, and that continues.

    That said, we – and our Special Envoy Brett McGurk has frequent conversations with Kurdish leadership on the ground, and we consult with them closely. So we believe they’ll be represented here by the Government of Iraq.

    QUESTION: Any chance you might encourage the Government of Iraq to bring along some Kurdish officials?

    MR TONER: Well, look, that’s something for the Government of Iraq to work out with Kurdish officials themselves.

    I have time, I think, for one more question.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. And our final question will come from Lalit Jha with PTI. Please, go ahead. Your line is open.

    QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I have two questions. One on Compassion International, calling up all your answers from yesterday. Have you raised this with India and what’s the response from them? Do you think in the coming days this will become a major irritant in the relations between the two countries? Then I have another question.

    MR TONER: Sorry. You were, I think, talking about the closure of Compassion International. Is that what you’re referring to?

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Look, I mean, as I think I said yesterday, first of all, we have, as you know, a very strong bilateral relationship with India and with the Government of India. A relationship where we can talk about, obviously, all the issues we agree on as two strong democracies, but we can also, when needed, we can share our concerns. And I think this is an area where we have a concern, and we have shared those concerns with the Government of India and we remain concerned about the closure of Compassion International and its operations in India.

    I think it speaks to our concerns more broadly about civil society and its ongoing vibrancy and health, and the fact that we will always advocate for freedom of expression and association around the world. As I said yesterday, over the past couple of years we’ve seen, frankly, a number of foreign-funded NGOs who have encountered significant challenges to continuing their operations, and it’s something we’re watching and it’s something we’re going to engage with the Indian Government on and try to find a way forward. And I think that, just to emphasize, we want all parties to be able to work cooperatively and certainly in a way that honors India’s laws and also, as I said, in a transparent process and find a way forward.

    You had a follow-up, I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: Yeah, why are – they are – at the same time, there are several scores of U.S. organizations working uninterrupted in India. So why the case of one particular NGO is, of course, of concern to you? Why not – on the other hand you see several dozens, scores of American NGOs who are continuing to work, do the good job in India.

    MR TONER: Sure. I think that this is the latest and I said that in my previous answers. We’ve seen a number of foreign-funded NGOs over the past couple of years encounter similar problems, so it remains a concern. It’s something we’ve raised. Compassion International is obviously just the most recent case. But we’re going to continue to talk to the Indian Government about it.

    Just time for one more question. I know AP was --

    QUESTION: Yeah, I have just one more quick question.

    MR TONER: No, no, no, I’m sorry, Lalit. I’ve got to – Lalit, I apologize. I got to go to AP and then I have to run. I apologize.

    AP, please.

    OPERATOR: Certainly. Matthew Pennington with AP. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Right. Thank you, Mark. You – following up on the concerns about Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, she’s been a very close partner of the United States on your North Korea policy. And the general consensus is that her successor is going to be more moderate and seek to engage the North Koreans rather than have a tough line. So are you concerned that South Korea’s policy toward North Korea will change to a sort of pro-engagement policy? And isn’t it possible that a new South Korean Government could withdraw permission for the deployment of THAAD?

    MR TONER: With respect to our relationship with South Korea, as I said, it is undergoing an internal political process. We’re not going to speak to that. What we can speak to is our commitment to the relationship going forward and to how we strengthen that relationship with South Korea recognizing that, as we know in this own country, governments change, administrations change, new leadership comes into office, but what endures is the fundamental ties and bonds between two countries. And we believe those couldn’t be stronger with the Republic of South Korea.

    With respect to THAAD, I’m not going to get ahead of the new government’s decisions and policy choices that it may make going forward. As I can say, Secretary Tillerson looks forward to visiting Seoul next week. He’s going to have a lot of these conversations on the ground and we think it’s going to be a productive time to engage with the Government of South Korea going forward.

    Everyone, thanks so much for joining us on this call. I appreciate it. And we’ll have a transcript out later this afternoon. Again, thanks, everyone. Have a good afternoon. Bye.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:42 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 8, 2017

Wed, 03/08/2017 - 19:55
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 8, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing


    2:19 p.m. EST

    MR TONER: Hey, guys. Happy Tuesday.

    QUESTION: No, it’s not a happy Tuesday.

    MR TONER: What he said. Happy Wednesday, guys. And I’m sorry I’m late. I realized it; I was waiting for one last bit of information that did not come, but I will do my best anyway. So, apologies at the top.

    A couple things at the top, and then I’ll take your questions.

    First of all, the United States strongly condemns today’s deadly attack on an Afghan National Army hospital in Kabul. Targeting a medical facility that provides care for the brave Afghans working to protect their fellow citizens has no possible justification. The Secretary extends the United States’s deepest heartfelt condolences to the family – families, friends, and colleagues of the victims of this senseless and cowardly act.

    I would also note that the Secretary was focused on the safety and security of U.S. citizens who may have been affected, including our own personnel. I can confirm at this point that we have full chief-of-mission accountability following this attack.

    QUESTION: That means they’re all safe too, though, right?

    MR TONER: Correct.

    I wanted to note as well that today, Assistant Secretary Brownfield is wrapping up a trip to two key Latin American partner nations – Guatemala and Colombia. In Guatemala, he focused on counternarcotics as well as corrections reform, a crucial piece of that country’s effort to reduce gang violence, taking part in the opening of a new prison, which will serve as a model for effective corrections moving forward. In Colombia, Assistant Secretary Brownfield also met with senior government officials to strategize on our joint counternarcotics approach in the face of worrying increases in Colombian coca cultivation and cocaine production.

    Then, also I wanted to note that this week at the State Department, PEPFAR is holding the third of three management meetings in order to plan its fiscal year operational plans, Fiscal Year 2017. These are annual work plans that guide PEPFAR’s efforts to save and improve the lives of men, women, and children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS in high-burden countries. PEPFAR is driven by a commitment to excellence, achieving greater results and impact in a budget-neutral environment by using data, finding efficiencies, and leveraging partnerships. And along with an increased focus on transparency, PEPFAR’s approach makes it a cost-effective model for foreign assistance programs everywhere.


    QUESTION: I’m sorry, that thing about Bill Brownfield.

    MR TONER: Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: He attended the ribbon-cutting for a prison? Is that what you said?

    MR TONER: That’s correct, yes. It was the opening of a new prison. I don’t know if it was an actual ribbon-cutting, but it was an opening of a new prison.

    QUESTION: In Latin --

    MR TONER: In Guatemala.

    QUESTION: Does the U.S. have something to do with this prison?

    MR TONER: So we’ve been working with Guatemalan authorities on judicial reforms, on police reforms, on security reforms built around counternarcotics --

    QUESTION: So there’s a --

    MR TONER: -- but also to – sorry, just to – the other piece of this is that – is Guatemala’s plagued in particular by gang violence.

    QUESTION: No, no.

    MR TONER: I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: I understand that, but I’m just – does the – did the U.S. help pay for it or --

    MR TONER: I don’t know that we had – no, I don’t believe we had any – although I’ll double-check on that, I don’t believe we had any assistance to --

    QUESTION: We’re not – he’s not going to get in the habit of going to prison openings around – okay.

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: All right. Listen, I had just a couple of things to --

    MR TONER: Although if it --

    QUESTION: What?

    MR TONER: -- if it highlights the good work that Guatemala is doing in – with respect to prison reform, of course we will.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Did you get a – were you able to get an answer to my question on the Palestinian aid review, that money, from yesterday?

    MR TONER: Yes. At least I hope so. So as you noted yesterday, this was a last-minute action by the previous administration that remains under review and consideration. But your question specifically yesterday was, I think, the total amount? Or --

    QUESTION: Well, it was both --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- whether the review is still --

    MR TONER: It’s still ongoing.

    QUESTION: Where is the money?

    MR TONER: It’s still ongoing. So twenty – 220.3 million that was released was for West Bank programs such as water, infrastructure, education, renewable energy, civil society, municipal governance, and the rule of law, as well as Gaza recovery. And a smaller amount was to go directly to Israeli creditors of the Palestinian Authority as well as East Jerusalem hospitals. None of the funding was to go directly to the Palestinian Authority.

    Whether this money has been released, it’s my understanding that the money – that the money has been released.

    QUESTION: Okay. So the review was concluded and it determined that there was no --

    MR TONER: I have here that it was – it remains under review, but I believe the money has been released so I don’t know --

    QUESTION: Okay. Well, can you double-check on those?

    MR TONER: I’ll double-check on it, Matt. Sure.

    QUESTION: All right. And then somewhat related to this --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- the Secretary met today with Defense Minister Lieberman of Israel.

    MR TONER: Correct.

    QUESTION: Can you offer us any details of that meeting? Specifically, the Israeli officials are saying that Minister Lieberman asked Secretary Tillerson to review the U.S. role in the Human Rights Commission, the UN Human Rights Commission, as well as its funding of UNRWA, the Palestinian aid agency.

    MR TONER: I --

    QUESTION: Is that – is that correct? And whether or not you can say whether this was raised, is the administration reviewing those two things?

    MR TONER: So I can confirm that he did meet earlier today with Minister of Defense for Israel Lieberman here at the department. It was a private meeting. Obviously, I was not actually in the meeting room, so I can’t give you a specific readout of the discussion, nor would I other than that, obviously, Secretary Tillerson reaffirmed our close and unshakable bond to Israel and the commitment to Israel’s security.

    With respect to your question about the Human Rights Council --

    QUESTION: Yeah, I know that came up yesterday.

    MR TONER: Yeah, yeah. It did, and our --

    QUESTION: But other than – it’s in a different – it’s in a different context now and it’s also combined with UNRWA. So I’m wondering --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- is the administration reviewing its participation/funding for either of these organizations?

    MR TONER: Well, with respect to the Human Rights Council, I think we talked about it yesterday. Our position has not changed.

    QUESTION: I don’t recall you saying there was a review of your participation yesterday. That’s the question today. I know that you’re participating in it right now.

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: It goes until March 24th or whatever it was that you said.

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: But is there an active review of whether you’re going to remain in it? That’s the question. And is there – and secondly --

    MR TONER: Is with respect to UNRWA.

    QUESTION: -- to UNRWA.

    MR TONER: Well, let me start with UNRWA, and UNRWA is obviously something where we’ve had – we’ve been very vocal about our concerns given some of the allegations made about UNRWA – UNRWA’s, rather – some of UNRWA’s programs and how it’s spent or used some of its funding. I don’t know if I would categorize that as a review, but we certainly made those concerns clear to UNRWA’s leadership.

    With respect to the Human Rights Council, I’m not aware of any review at this time.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: We’re engaged. We’re there at the council meeting today and we’re going to remain focused on our agenda.

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    MR TONER: And then the last one is: Did you have an answer or do you have a reaction to this new Israeli law that would ban people who support BDS from entering the country?

    MR TONER: I mean, look, Matt – and we’ve talked about this law even before it was actually voted on and passed. I refer you to Israel to talk about its law.

    QUESTION: Yeah, but do you – you don’t have any concerns? Or is it – I mean, when – I remember asking during the last administration what your position was on this. I think that you had a bit of a firmer answer, but --

    MR TONER: We said – right.

    QUESTION: -- at the same time pointing out that a sovereign country can decide who it wants to --

    MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, I’m nodding in agreement with you.

    QUESTION: -- let into its country.

    MR TONER: Look, our strong position – opposition to boycotts and sanctions on the state of Israel remains firmly in place and is well-known, but as a – and as a general principle, sorry, we value freedom of expression, even in cases where we don’t agree with the political views espoused. That said, as you’ve noted, that’s Israel’s sovereign decision to make.

    QUESTION: All right. I will let someone else ask the North Korea questions.

    MR TONER: (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Can we stay on the same topic, please?

    MR TONER: Okay, great.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: And let’s – for folks who are new, but I actually see a lot of familiar faces today, just to – yesterday was a bit of a scrum, and I apologize for that, but we generally try to keep on topic, exhaust it, and then move to the next. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Mark.

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: On the ban, the Israeli ban, it also – it includes the Palestinian Americans who go to their homes and grounds in the West Bank, not only in the Green Line where Israel is. So you don’t have a position on this? They are not going to Israel. And I can understand Israel exercising sovereignty over its territory, but these people are going to the West Bank, they’re including Palestinian Americans that regularly go there. So you don’t have a position on this if they are turned back from the airport?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think I’ve stated what our position would be on this, which is that while we oppose boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel, we also support firmly freedom of expression. That said, it’s – this is a sovereign decision for Israel to make regarding its borders. And we’ve been through this before, Said. I’m not trying to say – I’m happy to discuss it again --

    QUESTION: Okay, I understand.

    MR TONER: -- but I’d refer you to them to justify --

    QUESTION: But I think you --

    MR TONER: But I’d refer you to them to rationalize and get perspective to why they passed this legislation.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Let me just move on. On Lieberman, then --

    MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, sure thing.

    QUESTION: -- today out of the meeting, Mr. Lieberman made a statement right before he left Tel Aviv yesterday or the day before saying that they have been warned by the United States not to annex the West Bank lest aid be cut off. Do you have any comment on that? Was that a topic that was discussed with Secretary Tillerson?

    MR TONER: Again, I wasn’t in the meeting, but what I can say about that is President Trump’s, in fact, made clear that he’s committed to working with Israel and Palestinians on a comprehensive peace deal that will allow both sides to live in peace and security they deserve. The administration needs to have the chance to fully consult with all parties on the way forward and that process is just getting started, but again, to quote the President, he’d like to see a level of reasonableness on the part of both parties with respect to the way forward. That’s – yeah.

    QUESTION: And my last question, I promise, on this issue. Today being the International Women’s Day, there remains dozens of Palestinian women underage in Israeli prison that have been detained under administrative detention, which is internationally illegal and so on. Do you have any comment on that?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, Said, we’ve talked about this before as well. We respect Israel’s right to ensure the security of its people. We respect its judicial system. We respect the integrity of its democratic institutions. We’ve always said, though, that in taking actions, regardless of whether it’s out of security or whatever legal actions they take against Palestinians, that they do so always acting with restraint and with respect to the dignity of these individuals. I’m not particularly aware of the example that you brought up, but certainly, I think that would fall under that rubric.

    QUESTION: Can we move to Syria?

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: The White House has made clear that they want to look at potential cuts to all foreign aid. Does that include money that the U.S. gives to Israel?

    MR TONER: Not going to necessarily say this country or that country. I think what I said yesterday was that Secretary Tillerson, when he’s looking at – and I think at the start of a new administration, it’s appropriate time to do such a thing – but when he’s looking at how we’re spending assistance while seeing the value of that assistance, he’s assessing. He’s assessing which countries are receiving, how much assistance they’re receiving, and whether that’s appropriate. So I think that’s across the board. It applies to everyone at this point.

    QUESTION: So the money that you give to Israel is under review right now?

    MR TONER: I think it’s safe to say that he’s looking – we’re taking a universal look at how our assistance dollars are – this is American taxpayer dollars and we’re mindful of that.

    QUESTION: And what’s the timeframe for that review?

    MR TONER: A fair question. I mean, I think it’s in respect to the budget cycle, so we’re still in somewhat early days in the budget cycle, but it would be obviously in line with that because we’re looking at budget numbers.

    QUESTION: But he hasn’t set his own two-week or whatever timeframe on it --

    MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no.

    QUESTION: -- or something like that? Okay.

    MR TONER: Let’s – are we done with – where were we? Israel?

    QUESTION: Israel.

    MR TONER: Yeah, we kind of morphed into budget, but go ahead – on still – can we move to Syria or you want to --

    QUESTION: This is only loosely related to Israel, but --

    MR TONER: Okay. Sure.

    QUESTION: -- it sort of follows a little bit.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: So given the respect for sovereignty that you just espoused, does that mean you – does that translate into your having no issues with the Christian charity being booted out of India and Mercy Corps being deregistered in Turkey?

    MR TONER: So you’re right, and you’re talking about two particular cases and I would like to address those. You’re talking about the closure of Compassion International in India. While I’d refer you to Compassion, the – Compassion International for specifics about this action, we of course are committed to the health and vibrancy of civil society, and we strongly advocate for a strong civil society and organizations that are working in that sphere around the world. I think, unfortunately, we’ve seen over the past couple of years a number of foreign-funded NGOs in India that have encountered significant challenges in continuing their operations. And we believe it’s imperative that all parties work transparently and cooperatively in a way that, obviously, respects India’s laws but also encourages a transparent process, and these are views that we’ve made clear to the Indian Government.

    I think in general the same answer applies with respect to Mercy Corps, which was deregistered in Turkey, and we’re in contact with Mercy Corps both in Turkey and the United States. Mercy Corps is a valuable partner. It provides critical humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Turkey and the region. And as all of us are aware, Turkey has seen an enormous influx of refugees from Syria, so this is an organization that directly assists those individuals and those families, and our embassy in Ankara continues to engage with Turkish officials on this matter. We’ve also informed the Government of Turkey of our concerns regarding Mercy Corps’ closure and the impact it’s going to have on their ability to provide, as I said, the critical humanitarian assistance that’s needed.

    QUESTION: Do you question that they have the right to close them down?

    MR TONER: Well again, look, how I would phrase that is just exactly how I put it with respect with India, that these are – we think that these are NGOs that are operating in what we’d like to see as a healthy civil society. These NGOs do valuable work overseas. Certainly, these countries and governments have their own reasons for the laws they pass, but we believe it should be transparent and clear why they’re shutting down these organizations.

    QUESTION: Can we stay on India?

    MR TONER: We can stay on India.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: What’s that? I’m sorry, I --

    QUESTION: Why they’re shutting down these organizations?

    MR TONER: Well, again, with respect to the situation in India with Compassion --

    QUESTION: So you wouldn’t have an issue with it --

    MR TONER: What?

    QUESTION: You wouldn’t have an issue with it if they explained it fully and --

    MR TONER: So --

    QUESTION: It sounds like you’re expressing great concern for Syrian refugees, which is one thing, but --

    MR TONER: Well, we are and Mercy Corps is working in that sphere.

    QUESTION: Yeah, but – right, right, but --

    MR TONER: I think we’d like to see – sorry, Matt, just to continue, I think we’d like to see the rationale behind clearly explained because we believe that these – both these organizations are doing good work.

    QUESTION: Okay. So my – my question was, then, you don’t believe that it has been clearly explained, the rationale --

    MR TONER: Correct.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Yeah, sorry.


    QUESTION: One follow-up and one question. The follow-up is that you just mentioned that over the years, few – last few years you have been talking to or reaching out to the Indian Government. Have the – have you got any reply back from the Indian Government about what is going on with these NGO closures?

    MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to necessarily speak to the substance of our diplomatic conversations with India, but I think we’re concerned. I mean, when we see, like I said, a group like Compassion International, which we believe is working and doing important work in India and is closed down, that it’s a matter of concern, but certainly we’ll raise that with the Indian Government.

    I mean, look, one of the good things about our strong bilateral relations with India is that we can talk about these kinds of issues.


    QUESTION: And the question is about the Kansas governor has written a letter to the Indian prime minister, and he has expressed his condolences to them and talked about the death, but he also has said that Kansas is a hospitable, welcoming place for Indians. So anything from the U.S. Government or the State Department on this subject? Any way you are trying to help the widow settle back? Anything on this subject you have?

    MR TONER: So with respect to the governor of Kansas’s letter, I’d have to, obviously, refer you to his office to speak to the substance of it. But certainly, I think we’ve spoken out both at the White House and I know Secretary Tillerson has made clear to his counterparts our condolences over these killings. They are, it’s important to note, still under investigation by local law enforcement and we’re waiting to see the results of those investigations. So I don’t really want to speak to what may or may not have been the motivation behind these killings, but certainly, we share in the sorrow of the families and loved ones of these victims.

    QUESTION: Is there anywhere the --

    MR TONER: With respect to the widow – I’m sorry – I just am not aware of that, so I’d have to take that question and see if we’re able to offer any assistance to her.

    Yeah. Please, Barbara.

    QUESTION: Okay, so I have a question on Syria and then a follow-up on the budget from yesterday.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: It seems at this point there’s going to be a high level of continuity with Syria policy as regards counterterrorism – like, the fight against ISIS, obviously we’re still waiting for details on that – but what about policy on the political transition talks? Do we – is there one at this point in terms of how much the U.S. is going to be engaged? Because they were waiting in Geneva to try to find out about that. I know there was low – there was diplomatic representation, but in terms of the U.S. Government policy, what is going to be the approach going forward and what does it mean that the envoy for the Syria opposition has now also been given another big job as the envoy for Middle East peace, which suggests there might – we might be finding efficiencies there?

    And then the question about the budget is: Just in terms of clarifying what you said yesterday, is it the feeling in this building that a cut to the budget of the size proposed would be a serious blow to American soft power that would be a threat to the country’s national security, which is how the critics, including former military officers and diplomats, have been describing it? Is that also the view in this building?

    MR TONER: Starting with Syria, we did have representation I think throughout the duration of the talks in Geneva. We have had I think observer status at the talks in Astana because we’re not a party to those negotiations. Where we stand with respect to the political side or the ongoing civil war in Syria is that we still want to see and believe strongly that there is only a political solution to what’s happening there. There’s no military one. And we firmly support UN efforts to broker a political process – first of all, of course, a nationwide cessation of hostilities, ceasefire, but then also a political process going forward.

    Of course, these talks are ongoing in Geneva. We remain engaged, as I said, with Michael Ratney and his team. With respect to whether he’s got too much on his plate, I can assure you he’s a very competent diplomat and can handle both portfolios.

    QUESTION: But wait a second. He doesn’t have the special envoy for the Middle East portfolio. He’s a – he’s the DAS.

    MR TONER: He’s the DAS, of course. Yeah.

    QUESTION: This is not a replacement for Frank Lowenstein, is it?

    MR TONER: Again, I think we’re looking at restructuring and whether there will be a replacement for --

    QUESTION: Exactly. But the --

    MR TONER: But no, he’s --

    QUESTION: But that other job that he has is not the special envoy job.

    MR TONER: Right, no. Exactly. Yes. Thank you. Yeah, I mean, I can clarify what – so --

    QUESTION: And in fact, there was – there have been DASes with that portfolio --

    MR TONER: Yes. Yes.

    QUESTION: -- even when there was a special envoy.

    MR TONER: Yes. So he is now both the special envoy for Syria and the Near East and – sorry, he’s both the special envoy for Syria and the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau’s deputy assistant secretary for the Levant and Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

    QUESTION: Right. And there is no --

    MR TONER: So that is not – correct, that is not --

    QUESTION: -- special envoy for --

    MR TONER: That’s correct.

    And then finally, on your – so with respect to Syria --

    QUESTION: So your position in terms of wanting a political solution is the same, but in terms of the policy of how you’re going to engage in the future, is that – has that been sorted? Where are we?

    MR TONER: Well, I think we’re still looking at the way forward and how we might change our approach, look at new ways. But the essential goal is the same, which is we need to see a political process that results in a political transition – a peaceful political transition in Syria. That remains the challenge and it’s a formidable one. And obviously, that needs to be preceded by some kind of nationwide or at least credible cessation of hostilities on the ground. We’ve been supportive of current efforts, even though we’re not involved, to obtain that kind of ceasefire on the ground. Currently that’s being worked through by Turkey and Russia in Astana. But we also – again, the basic precepts remain: We want to see access to communities that have been besieged so we can provide humanitarian assistance, we want to see a cessation of hostilities, and then we want to see a political process.

    With respect to the budget – sorry, I’ll get to you, I apologize. Your question on the budget, Barbara, was – quickly.

    QUESTION: Does this building also see a significant cut to the budget as a threat to soft power --

    MR TONER: Oh, right.

    QUESTION: -- and a national security threat?

    MR TONER: Again, I think we’re looking – as I said yesterday, we’re still in early days with respect to the budget. I’m not going to speak to any figures that were out there with respect to the cuts that may or not be in play for the State Department, because all of that is being discussed right now as part of the budget process. I think what I said yesterday still holds, which is that Secretary Tillerson is resolved to ensure that this building, that its mission – missions, embassies and consulates overseas have the necessary resources to carry out their mission.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Syria, yeah, let’s go --

    QUESTION: Follow-up --

    MR TONER: Not on Syria? Syria.

    QUESTION: Syria. Syria.

    QUESTION: On Syria.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Just – the first time you said “a political solution;” the second time you said “transition.” Can you clarify what the Trump administration’s views are on Assad?

    MR TONER: Sure, I – sure, sure, sure and very quickly here. So what I meant by that was to say that we’ve always or we’ve long said there’s no military solution – look – to what’s happening in Syria. What we need is a – and the UN has broker – or has laid out what would be a political process that would lead to a peaceful political transition to a – hopefully a democratic government.

    QUESTION: And does the new administration believe that Bashar Assad could play a role in that new government or --

    MR TONER: Again, our policy with respect to President Assad has not really changed, and that is that we believe that this – his ultimate fate needs to be something that is worked through – that is resolved, rather – through this process and through this negotiations and through this transition.

    QUESTION: When you say that your position hasn’t really changed, but the previous administration’s position was that he must go. Is it the same now? Is it the same --

    MR TONER: But I qualified it by saying that also – that we’re looking at as – again, as I said, made clear on a wide spectrum of issues, new approaches, new ideas, new ways of looking at. But I said the basic precepts remain the same, which is that we’ve still got a very complicated situation, a conflict on the ground in Syria, and we’re looking at ways that we can effectively resolve it, put a durable ceasefire in place, and then move towards political negotiations. We’re still supportive of the UN process that’s leading that effort.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: So are you no longer meeting at all?

    QUESTION: Dealing with President Assad --

    QUESTION: Michel. No, I said and we’ve said this before, Said. We’ve said that President Assad – we, the United States, believe he’s – that he’s not valid as the president of Syria, but --

    QUESTION: No, you – no, you stated that his days were numbered --

    MR TONER: But, but – no, but look, we’ve – this has evolved. And that is and our current position is that the fate of President Assad is something that needs to be worked out by the parties through political negotiations.

    Michel, quickly.

    QUESTION: Yeah, Mark, the U.S.-Turkey-Russia chiefs of staff meetings have concluded in Turkey. Do you have any readout for these meetings?

    MR TONER: I do, hold on one second, please.

    QUESTION: And I have a follow-up too, please.

    MR TONER: Got to wade through my – I do have something on that. Just give me a moment. So with respect to the meetings in Turkey is what you’re referring to, right, Michel?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Yeah. So first off, the meeting was an effort to more effectively communicate operational intent while seeking new concepts for de-confliction. So what we mentioned before and mentioned yesterday, really the focus was on de-confliction. With respect to Manbij, which I thought you asked about – if you didn’t, then I’ll offer it up – they did discuss Manbij, but only in the context of the larger fight against ISIS in the region. They also discussed other terrorist organizations that are active including PKK, al-Qaida, al-Nusrah Front as part of the regional security picture.

    QUESTION: Mark, on Syria --

    QUESTION: Have you reached an agreement – Mark, one more on this. Have you reached an agreement with Turkey regarding the support that the U.S. provides to the – to YPG, and are you now on the same page or not?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I would say, with respect to the YPG, we’ve always long supported the YPG within the context of the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces that are operating in northern Syria. They’ve been very effective – we’ve talked about this many times – in removing ISIS from the battlefield, dislodging them, and ultimately destroying them. I think they’ve liberated some 6,000 kilometers and more than 100 villages from ISIS around Raqqa since the operation began on November 4th. We’re also obviously mindful of Turkey’s concerns with respect to the YPG and we respectfully disagree with them linking the YPG with the PKK. And let’s be very clear that, with respect to the PKK, we still view them as a terrorist organization.

    QUESTION: Mark, just on (inaudible) --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Let’s – are we – let’s finish Syria and then a few more questions, guys. Got to keep --

    QUESTION: Syria --

    QUESTION: So just specifically on the meeting in Antalya and I suppose also the meetings underway in Kazakhstan, this was a tripartite meeting – Russia, Turkey, the U.S. Now, on the counterterror mission in Syria, previously Turkey has been described as being a member of the U.S. coalition. Now, this is a three-way meeting; the optics were all three equal parties and it’s been discussed as a three-way meeting. Do you still regard Turkey as being part of your anti-ISIS coalition, or is it a --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- separate player in that organization?

    MR TONER: No, no, not at all, and I just want to emphasize that it’s a very complicated – I mean, the best way to describe this is it’s a – this battle space is, as we all know from countless conversations in this room, is extremely complex. And so the focus – my understanding – the focus of this meeting was, again, to strengthen the de-confliction mechanisms that we have already in place to ensure the safety and well-being of our various forces who are operating on the ground in Syria.

    QUESTION: But there are British, Australian, French forces involved, and they were represented at that meeting by --

    MR TONER: Correct. Correct, but --

    QUESTION: -- the U.S. chief of staff. The Turkey – Turkish forces were represented by their own chief of staff.

    MR TONER: But Turkish forces are – I’d have to check, but I think Turkish forces are present on the battlefield in a way that is more significant than many of these others.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Syria (inaudible) --

    MR TONER: Let’s finish up with Syria and – what – do you --

    QUESTION: Can I (inaudible) North Korea?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Yeah, are we ready to move to North Korea? We haven’t gotten there yet.

    QUESTION: Syria (inaudible) --

    MR TONER: Quickly Syria, and then I want to get to North Korea.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: I realize this is probably better addressed to the Pentagon, but still: Do you think it’s a one-off event or the chiefs plan to meet again? Is this some kind of regular dialogue now, trilateral form?

    MR TONER: I can say that the meeting – the purpose behind it was to enhance senior-level communications and improve operational, as I said, de-confliction. I can’t speak to whether they’ll be in ongoing meetings. I can’t rule it out, either.

    QUESTION: Syria.

    QUESTION: Syria --

    MR TONER: Let’s switch to DPRK, guys. Got to keep it moving.

    QUESTION: Mark, is the United States seriously considering the Chinese offer that the U.S. suspend military exercises in exchange for North Korea giving up its ballistic missile and nuclear program?

    MR TONER: Good question. So just to unpack it – and everyone knows, I think, what you’re talking about with respect to the public remarks of the Chinese foreign minister – look, we remain open to dialogue with North Korea with the aim of returning to credible and authentic negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

    But – and I’ll be very clear about this – the onus is on North Korea to take meaningful actions toward denuclearization and refrain from provocations. So to be very clear here, our joint military exercises are transparent, they’re defense-oriented, and have been carried out regularly and openly under the Combined Forces Command for going on 40 years. And they’re designed to increase readiness and defend the Republic of Korea, protect the region, maintain stability in the Korean Peninsula, and they’re also a demonstration of U.S. commitment to the alliance.

    In contrast to this, North Korea has in 2006 alone – ’16, rather, alone – carried out two nuclear tests and 24 ballistic middle – ballistic missile tests, all in violation of international law.

    QUESTION: So the U.S. believes it’s – the onus is on the North Koreans to act first and won’t give any concession unless the North Koreans do?

    MR TONER: What I want to make clear is that this is apples and oranges. This is not – what we’re doing in terms of our defense cooperation with South Korea is in no way comparable to the blatant disregard that North Korea has shown with respect to international law and international concerns repeatedly about its nuclear weapons program. And – excuse me – and frankly, the world needs to understand this isn’t about the U.S. and North Korea. I mean, the world – certainly the region, but the world is threatened by nuclear Korea – North Korea’s, rather, actions, and every nation needs to look at how we can better respond.

    QUESTION: Is North Korea capable of credible and authentic, do you believe, the current Government of North Korea?

    MR TONER: We haven’t seen it thus far.

    QUESTION: Can we follow-up on --

    QUESTION: So we heard that --

    MR TONER: Michelle. Is this still on DPRK?

    QUESTION: Yeah, it is. Thank you.

    MR TONER: Great. Okay.

    QUESTION: So Ambassador Haley said today --

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: -- that we’re not dealing with a rational person here. Is it the U.S.’s position that Kim Jong-un is not sane, or not rational? Or are those things two different states of being?

    MR TONER: I think the point she was making – and I hesitate to speak for her, but she did speak very articulately in – coming out of a UN Security Council consultations earlier today on DPRK. I think the point there is that North Korea’s behavior has not been rational, and efforts up ‘til today – whether it’s Six-Party Talks, whether it’s sanctions – all of the efforts that we have taken thus far to attempt to persuade North Korea to, again, engage in meaningful negotiations, have fallen short, to be honest. So we need to look at new ways to convince them, to persuade them that it’s in their interest.

    QUESTION: So what do you make of China’s suggestion on throwing something out there and then saying that this seems to be heading for some kind of a collision?

    MR TONER: Well, look – a couple of things. One is China is obviously concerned about the threat that nuclear – that North Korea’s nuclear program poses to the region. That’s legitimate; we all share that concern. I think we all share concern over North Korea’s actions. I think we differ somewhat in our approach. But I also think that’s going to be, obviously, front and center on Secretary Tillerson’s trip to the region next week. It’s going to be an opportunity for him to sit with his counterparts in China, in Korea, and in Japan, and talk through what our options are and new ways to look at resolving the situation.

    QUESTION: Thanks.

    QUESTION: Can I follow-up on North Korea?

    MR TONER: Let’s stay on North Korea, and I promise I’ll get to you. Last couple questions back here, and then I really do need to run.


    QUESTION: You said at the start that the U.S. is willing to consider dialogue with the North. Does that mean you’d be willing to consider one-on-one, government-to-government talks with North Korea?

    MR TONER: I don’t want to --

    QUESTION: And just – is the idea of --

    MR TONER: Yeah. Nick – yeah.

    QUESTION: -- suspending these drills something that’s on the table?

    MR TONER: Sorry, is the idea of suspending – I think at this point, again, we don’t see it as a viable deal in the sense of it’s not – it’s not a fair trade for us to suspend what our defense-oriented exercises, based in large part – well, fully on the threat that North Korea poses to the peninsula.

    QUESTION: And on the dialogue?

    MR TONER: On the dialogue – I think, look, we’re open to – and I don’t want to get into discussing possible formats, because we’re so far away from that right now. What we’re saying is if North Korea were to signal that it was capable of and ready for these kinds of negotiations, then that’s something we would consider. But we’re not there.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible)

    QUESTION: It’s always a hypothetical (inaudible) raised.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Go ahead, Tamar.

    QUESTION: The – can you confirm the authenticity of the video by the son by the Kim Jong-nam --

    MR TONER: We’re aware of the video, but we can’t confirm its authenticity at this point in time.

    QUESTION: The group who helps to release the video says that countries, including United States, China, Netherlands help to provide the emergency humanitarian assistance to the son. Can you --

    MR TONER: I wouldn’t speak to that in any case. Thanks.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Let’s do a couple Russia questions. Are we done with North Korea?

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Okay. North Korea there, and then I’ll take last one on – and then Russia.

    QUESTION: The Chinese --

    MR TONER: So boom, boom, boom. Please.

    QUESTION: Thank you, Mark. The Chinese foreign minister, yesterday he still complained that that’s the wrong choice for – to deploy the THAAD in the South Korea. So from your point of view, is it the wrong choice?

    MR TONER: Again, I think we – sorry, I don’t mean to talk over you. Again, we were – I made very clear yesterday, the reason we’re undertaking the deployment of THAAD, with the consent of the Republic of Korea, is out of our concern that North Korea’s nuclear program poses for the peninsula. It is clearly not aimed at, in any way, shape, or form, China. It is a defensive system. We’ve made that very clear, and we’ll continue to make that clear with China going forward.

    Very quickly.

    QUESTION: Could I follow up?

    QUESTION: Yeah, on --

    MR TONER: We’re switching the subject to, I assume, Syria or --

    QUESTION: Yes, Syria. You’ve – a delegation of the Kurdish National Council of Syria was in Washington last week and met with State Department officials, including Brett McGurk. Do you have a readout on that meeting?

    MR TONER: Not sure that I do. I’ll take that and get back to you, okay? We’ll get that, definitely.

    QUESTION: Okay, could I –

    MR TONER: Yeah, please, go ahead. One more.

    QUESTION: I was going to ask about the PKK in Sinjar then. There’s been clashes between --

    MR TONER: We believe – our position on PKK in Sinjar remains the same. We don’t believe they should be there.

    One more on Russia.

    QUESTION: We now know that Russia has deployed a land-based cruise missile that violates the spirit of the intent of the arms control treaty. Does the State Department have a reaction to that and has Tillerson reached out to Lavrov to talk about it? And I have a follow-up.

    MR TONER: Sure. So the United States obviously takes clear – takes seriously, rather, its international commitments and arms control obligations. And I think what you’re referring to is something we detailed most recently in the 2016 Compliance Report, which is that we believe Russian Federation – the Russian Federation remains in violation of its INF – Intermediate Nuclear Forces – Treaty obligations not to possess, produce, or flight test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to five – 5,500 kilometers or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.

    I’m not going to comment beyond that because it gets into intelligence matters, but we do believe they’re in violation.

    QUESTION: And has the Secretary reached out to anyone?

    MR TONER: We have conveyed that. I’m not sure that the Secretary himself has conveyed that, but they’re quite clear that – of our concerns.

    QUESTION: Just because in his confirmation hearing, Tillerson referred to having an open dialogue, frank dialogue with Russia. So how is he following through on that --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- if we’re not seeing reaction from him on a provocative (inaudible)?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I – I was – I am not aware that it came up just in the bilat he had with Foreign Minister Lavrov specifically. I can’t speak beyond that whether it’s come up, but I do know that it has been conveyed by other means, by other officials.

    QUESTION: Mark, sorry.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    MR TONER: That’s it, guys. Sorry, that’s it.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Thanks, guys.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    (The briefing was concluded at 3:01 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - March 7, 2017

Tue, 03/07/2017 - 20:45
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 7, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ


    2:00 p.m. EST

    MR TONER: All right, all right. Well, greetings, everyone. Good afternoon. It feels good to be back up here. Just a few things at the top, and then I’ll move to your questions.

    Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to Japan, the Republic of Korea, and China March 15 through 19th – his first visit as Secretary of State to the East Asia and Pacific region. In each country, the Secretary will meet with senior officials to discuss bilateral and multilateral issues, including strategic coordination to address the advancing nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.

    Obviously, given North Korea’s continuing provocative behavior and actions, the U.S. is actively engaged with its partners and allies in the region to address the threat posed by North Korea’s weapons programs.

    Secretary Tillerson will also seek to reaffirm the administration’s commitment to further broaden and enhance U.S. economic and security interests in the Asia Pacific region. Asia is, of course, a key engine of economic growth and dynamism that the U.S. believes is crucial to the growth of its own economy.

    This administration is also intent on pursuing a constructive relationship with China – Secretary Tillerson has already met with China’s state councilor as well as its foreign minister – while remaining determined to ensuring that China abides by its – by international rules and plays fair with respect to trade, regional issues, and of course, human rights.

    Also wanted to add that the State Department welcomed the visit to Washington yesterday by UN Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Cyprus Espen Barth Eide to Washington. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon met with Special Advisor Eide yesterday and reaffirmed strong U.S. support for the special advisor and Cypriot-led, UN-facilitated process to reunify the island as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. Based on the considerable progress made by the Cypriot leaders, we believe this is the best chance in decades to achieve a lasting and comprehensive solution, and hope the leaders will return as soon as possible to the negotiating table. The United States remains prepared to offer any assistance that the leaders would consider useful.

    With that, over to you, Matt.

    QUESTION: Thanks, Mark, and welcome --

    MR TONER: Thanks.

    QUESTION: Welcome back. This, as you know, well know, is a very important venue for not only foreign governments but foreign publics, the American people, and the men and women who work here and in embassies abroad. They all look to this briefing; they take their cues from it and try to figure out what’s going on with – or hopefully, that you explain what’s going on with foreign policy. So going forward, I hope that you will expect the same kind of questions that you were getting in previous administrations, and we will expect the same kind of fulsome answers.

    MR TONER: I appreciate that.

    QUESTION: Even I’m using the word “fulsome” wrong. (Laughter.) I want to go – I know that there’s a lot of new administration reviews, a lot of policies, a lot of things are works in progress.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: And so I would just want to start with, very briefly, with a couple of things that have already happened.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: One is in the last day of the Obama administration, Secretary Kerry notified Congress that you were going to ignore some holds on aid to the Palestinians, $221 million. That was on January 20th. On Monday – that was the Friday, so on Monday, the first full day of the new administration, this building said that that money was now being reviewed. I’m wondering, one, what the status of that review is; but also, two, why it is that his building, in saying it was going to review it, said the money was, in fact, $220 million for Gaza recovery programs, when that differs with what the Congress was notified.

    MR TONER: Well, Matt, as always, you’ve stumped me right out of the box, because I don’t have a status update on that assistance. With respect to the discrepancy in numbers, I’ll also have to take that and get back to you.

    QUESTION: Okay. Second thing.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: The – one of the first things that the President did was to sign the – an executive order reinstituting the Mexico City language --

    MR TONER: Correct.

    QUESTION: -- for family planning programs. The White House, in explaining this, said that this would prevent U.S. taxpayer dollars from funding abortion or promotion of abortion overseas. I’m curious how much money over the previous administration, the eight years of the Obama administration when the Mexico City language wasn’t in place – how much money was spent on abortion or promoting abortion?

    MR TONER: How much money, specifically broken out? I don’t have that figure. But --

    QUESTION: Because it is, in fact, against the law, is it not – existing law – for U.S. taxpayer dollars to be spent --

    MR TONER: To be spent for abortion. Well, that’s --

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: Again, we’re implementing the EO that was passed.

    QUESTION: Yeah, but wasn’t it already being – I mean, I’m asking if it was necessary to do this since it was already illegal for taxpayer money to be spent --

    MR TONER: Taxpayer – again, though --

    QUESTION: It’s been illegal for decades.

    MR TONER: It’s been illegal for decades.

    QUESTION: So --

    QUESTION: Well, it’s illegal to use the money for abortion --

    MR TONER: To use the money --

    QUESTION: -- but not for organizations that also provide abortions --

    MR TONER: Correct. Which is what the Mexico City --

    QUESTION: Right. Well, the argument that previous administrations have made in support of this is the question of fungibility, where money can be used for different purposes frees up other money.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: So I’m wondering, considering that this is an important issue for the administration, what your studies have shown the amount of money – the fungible money – is that will be stopped from – by this order.

    MR TONER: Again, I’ll have to get back to you. I don’t have a specific breakdown on that.

    QUESTION: All right, last thing. On the executive order that was signed yesterday but which we all had a preview of, the immigration and refugee executive order.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Since you knew that this was coming, and everyone basically knew it was coming since the first one came out, it calls for a review of the vetting procedures for not just refugees, but also on the terms of visa issuance. I’m wondering, since that review must be well along now, what deficiencies the reviewers have uncovered in the previous, or prior, or even current vetting processes.

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, I mean, look – and this is elaborated in section five of the executive order – but it does call for the development of a uniform baseline for screening and vetting standards and procedures. And it also, as you noted, calls for progress reporting to the President beginning 60 days after the implementation date, which is March 16th. That said, some of this work was already underway from the previous EO.

    I can’t get into too many specific details about what this report has uncovered thus far. We spoke with – and frankly, Secretary Tillerson spoke in respect to some of the progress that Iraq has made with regard to meeting some of the questions or some of the disconnects, if you will, in terms of information sharing and other procedures, that they’ve met those requirements – one of the reasons why Iraq was removed from the list of seven countries.

    But this is all part of the executive order’s purpose, which is to review and improve our national security-focused visitor screening and vetting procedures. And the process, as I said, is ongoing.

    QUESTION: So there hasn’t been any specific improvement so far --

    MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, we’re always seeking to improve what we’re doing. And this is an iterative process. I mean, even before the executive order, we can say that it’s not like we just began this January 27th. But I think it was a renewed commitment to look at the procedures with how we vet both refugees incoming as well as immigrants – or rather, traveling public – into this country to ensure that we’re doing the necessary to provide for the security of Americans.

    QUESTION: That suggests that the necessary wasn’t being done prior. Is that correct?

    MR TONER: Not at all. And I think the Secretary spoke to this yesterday, when he said that this is – it’s almost impossible – and I’m paraphrasing him – for this to be infallible, this process. But we always have to strive to do so. And I think past administrations have done so as well. But I think the President clearly identified this as a security issue when he came into office, and now we’ve reissued the executive order yesterday – or issued a new executive order yesterday. But I can assure you that this is an ongoing process.

    QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Andrea.

    QUESTION: Thank you, Mark.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: China has today warned that there will be consequences both for the United States and for South Korea from the initial stages of deployment of missile defense in South Korea. Can you respond to that? And then I want to ask you about the North Korean test and what the vulnerabilities are.

    MR TONER: Sure. I mean, in terms of – you want me to respond directly to some of China’s --

    QUESTION: To the Chinese foreign ministry, if you will.

    MR TONER: Yeah, of course. Look, I think we’ve been very clear that THAAD, which is what they’re referring to, is clearly a defensive system. And the reason we’re pursuing this implementation or deployment of THAAD with South Korea is because of North Korea’s continued, for lack of a better term, bad behavior, that they continue to carry out exercises – or rather, tests that frankly not only threaten the stability of the Korean Peninsula but the region and even the national security of the United States of America.

    So this is not something that is obviously, we’ve made the decision in the past week or so; this has been months in the works. And the next stage is moving forward. And for the specifics on that deployment of the THAAD system, I’d refer you to the Department of Defense. But we’ve been very clear in our conversations with China that this is not meant to be a threat and is not a threat to them or any other power in the region. It is a defensive system and it is in place – or it will be in place – because of North Korea’s provocative behavior.

    QUESTION: Now David Sanger and his colleagues at The New York Times have reported over the weekend that among the options being considered are helping South Korea get a nuclear defensive weapon or a nuclear weapon. Is that one of the options being considered? And how would that make the peninsula safer?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to – I certainly don’t want to get into those kinds of conversations that we might be having, in terms of some of the things that are out laid in that – or laid out in that article. I wouldn’t say that’s something that we’re actively pursuing. What we’re focused on right now is strengthening our defensive exercises, our defensive cooperation, with South Korea so that they can defend themselves against continued North Korean aggression.

    QUESTION: And finally, there has been criticism today on the Hill, as there has been in past weeks from other venues, that this department has been silent in the face of a number of threats – in Ukraine, in North Korea, and elsewhere from other adversaries – that the State Department has not had a voice, both from the podium and hearing from the Secretary. Is diplomacy taking a second seat or backseat in the National Security Council? And what is the department’s response to the outlined budget cuts, which would be as deep as 37 percent in terms of diplomacy and USAID development overseas?

    MR TONER: Sure. It’s a big question, but I’ll try to answer it. First of all, I think that, with respect to the State Department’s voice – first of all, I’m glad that we’re back up at the podium. Many of you know that I’ve been in this job for a number of years, so obviously, I respect what this briefing is about and what it accomplishes. And of course, I appreciate the patience of all of you over the past month or so as this new administration got its sea legs underneath it and were able to come back out here and brief to the public, because we do take this very seriously, I can assure you.

    With respect to the State Department’s voice in this new administration, I can also assure you that Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the President, speaks to him frequently, was over there I believe just yesterday for a meeting. And I can assure everyone that the Secretary’s voice – or the State Department’s voice is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.

    The Secretary himself has been hard at work and focused on, I think, in his early days in establishing the relationships that he feels are absolutely vital with his key counterparts. He was at the G20. He held, I think, some 14 bilateral meetings and, I think, three multilateral meetings, including one with the Republic of Korea and Japan to talk about North Korea’s continued threat to the region’s stability. He also met with Foreign Minister Lavrov there; he met with Foreign Minister Yan – Wang, rather from – or Yang from China, and at the same time held meetings on Yemen and Syria. Again, I think he’s working hard at establishing the connections that he needs to have in order to be an effective secretary of state with key counterparts, with key partners, and with key allies.

    He also went to Mexico. He had a very successful visit there, along with the Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly. Again, it was productive, laid out a very forward-looking agenda for U.S.-Mexico relations, and it was, I think, a recognition of how vital that particular relationship is, that bilateral relationship is, to the United States and to the prosperity and security of both our countries.

    And now, next week, he’ll be going to Asia, again, visiting with China – visiting in China, rather – then going to South Korea, as well as Japan. These are important visits. They’re important trips. They’re important meetings that he’s having, I think, again, to just establish the relationships that he needs to have to be an effective secretary of state.

    I think going forward, he’ll be clarifying his priorities as the Secretary, and your last question – sorry – to address it – I was going through in my head, but --

    QUESTION: Sorry.

    MR TONER: -- you talked about the budget. That’s okay.

    QUESTION: But the budget – will he be fighting for the State Department, for diplomacy, for this workforce --

    MR TONER: So the short answer --

    QUESTION: -- and its mission?

    MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, of course. The short answer to that is he – the budget process is still, as you well know, is in early days. This is going to be a process that’s going to play out in the weeks and even months ahead. But I – what I can say is that he has been working with senior staff here at the State Department, listening to what their priorities are, what they’re working on, what they believe is going well, where they believe they have needs that need to be addressed. And he is working to ensure that this department, and most importantly our missions abroad, have the resources and personnel they need to fully carry out their missions. And I think that’s where his focus on.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I have a follow-up to that?

    QUESTION: Mark, can I follow up on that?

    MR TONER: Yeah, Elise. Then I’ll get to you too.

    QUESTION: Mark, I just want to echo what Matt and Andrea said, and I’m glad that you said in your opening remarks that you respect the briefing process, and hope that you will continue it regularly, not just as a tool of American leadership but also in transparency to the American people that the Secretary promised on his first day to employees.

    If you could – I just want to follow up on the budget issue.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: You said that the Secretary is working with senior staff to determine what their needs are and then make sure that the building and the missions overseas have the resources that they need. With the reported budget cuts of up to 37 percent of this State Department, which is more than a third of the budget, what would be the practical effect of the State Department operations, including the dramatic cuts of foreign aid? And what do you think would be the effect of U.S. leadership overseas?

    MR TONER: Sure. Look – and I’m aware of all the various numbers that are circulating out there with respect to proposed budget cuts not only to State, but to other --

    QUESTION: Well, they’re circulating those documents that have been released.

    MR TONER: I understand. I understand. Again, I would just stress that this is still very early on in the process, and I think what’s important – well, that’s important, first of all, to stress that. I would also stress that Secretary Tillerson understands the vital work that this department does. He understands the hard work of our embassies and our embassy personnel, our diplomats, our Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel here in Washington, but also, as I said, overseas, and wants to make sure as their leader, as a former CEO but now directing the foreign policy of the United States, that his team, his staff are properly resourced. And I think that’s his mindset going into the budget process, is how do I make sure that they have what they need to get the job done.

    Now, that being said, I think there’s also a period, as with any transition, of reassessment. It’s one of the reasons why he’s meeting and talking to senior staff, talking to various leadership at different levels to try to get their feedback on what they believe are their priorities and how we can reconfigure and look at resources. That’s part of what he’s been doing the past several weeks. I don’t have many specifics to add, but of course, as we go forward, that’s something that he’s going to be looking at.

    Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: But given the fact that several of his predecessors across party lines – secretaries of defense, members of Congress – up until this point with the existing budget that you’ve been working on, this continuing resolution, have said that the State Department is under-resourced, how does the Secretary fathom that the State Department could be properly resourced with up to more than a third of cuts if it wasn’t properly resourced? I understand that there’s a reassessment that he’ll want to make and --

    MR TONER: Right, and again, I would --

    QUESTION: -- make reforms and changes.

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: But those numbers seem wildly disparate.

    MR TONER: Right. And again, I – sorry, I didn’t mean to talk over you. And again, I would be cautious to say that that preliminary number that’s floating out there is where we’re going to end up. I think what his goal, what senior staff’s goal here at the State Department is is to say, okay, where can we possibly move resources to, re-evaluate resources, reassess, perhaps make cuts if that’s – we feel that’s necessary, but in no way trying to limit the function or the efficacy, efficiency of this State Department. And I think that’s always foremost in – certainly in his mind in these early days.

    I think in terms of – we’ve seen the letters, we’ve seen the public statements by many former leaders, military, and obviously former secretaries of state with regard to the value of foreign assistance, and I think we recognize the value of foreign assistance. Again, though, I think at the beginning of a new administration, it’s a chance and it’s an opportunity to look at who receives foreign assistance, how much they receive, whether that much is still needed, and again, just reassess how we’re spending American taxpayer dollars.

    QUESTION: Just one last one --

    MR TONER: Of course, and then I’ll get you, yeah.

    QUESTION: -- as a follow-up to Matt’s question. On the EO, yesterday, Secretary Kelly said that there were 14 – or maybe it was this morning --

    MR TONER: That’s okay.

    QUESTION: -- time is a continuum right now – that about 14 other countries don’t – or have questionable or insufficient vetting processes. Is the Secretary in touch with the leaders or his counterparts in these 14 other countries about strengthening those type of vetting? And is another executive order or amendment adding some of those countries in consideration?

    MR TONER: Right. So my understanding on this is that that’s part of this vetting review that we’re looking at is how to identify and get a clear understanding of where there are gaps, where there are deficiencies in the vetting process, and between, as I said, which countries that involves. So that’s going to be part of the process going forward in this coming period, which is to re-evaluate where we can do better and where we need additional information. And then, of course, we will address those shortcomings with the governments of concern.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I – Mark – Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark, can I just ask a question about the Mideast peace policy?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Can you clarify --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- what the policy on settlements is? Has it changed? Are settlements still an obstacle to peace or is there some nuance there now? And secondly, the President has named Jared Kushner as his envoy to make Middle East peace. What sort of connection does his role have with the State Department, aside from Secretary Tillerson calling him and chatting? Is there any sort of channel with the experts here at the State Department who have been very much involved in previous efforts to have some sort of Israel-Palestinian negotiations?

    MR TONER: Sure. First of all, on the settlements, I think the President spoke about this, I guess a couple weeks ago, where he said he would like to see Israel hold back on settlement activity. And I think that we’re in discussions with Israel about what exactly that would look like. But I think with respect to how any settlement activity might affect the overall climate for an eventual solution between the two parties, I think that’s under consideration, and it’s in that regard that he made those comments.

    With respect to the connection or how the State Department may be playing a role in the pursuit of Middle East peace, I know that we are working closely with the White House on evaluating where we stand. I think at this point, we’re still kind of at a stage where we’re looking at the situation and trying to formulate next steps. But I can assure you that the State Department’s playing a role in that process.

    QUESTION: Staying on the same subject, Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Yes, Said.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Well, it’s good to see you back there.

    MR TONER: Good to see you too.

    QUESTION: We missed you.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Anyway, a couple of things on this issue. First of all, could you clarify the United States position on being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council? Because there was a bit of confusion; apparently, Secretary Tillerson said that he’s looking into – according to Politico, he’s looking into the value of U.S. membership on this council. Could you clarify that?

    MR TONER: On – sorry, you’re talking about on – with respect to the Human Rights Council?

    QUESTION: Right, right.

    MR TONER: Well, I – what I can say is that the – I think the Human Rights Council is meeting, I think it’s – it continues its work until late March. We’re there, we’re a part of that process, we’re bringing an agenda and we’re hard at work on the ground. So as to any rumors that may have been circulating out there, I think they’re just that.

    QUESTION: Right. And just a couple more --

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: And now the Secretary --

    MR TONER: Sorry, March 24th I think is – sorry, I apologize, I just found the date here. I think the Human Rights Council is supposed to go until March 24th. And as I said, we’re there, we’re at the table, we’re working on an agenda, we’ve been elected to a three-year term I think back in 2016, and we’re committed to human rights and fundamental freedoms and working to pursue those. Please, go ahead, I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: Now, Secretary Tillerson also hosted the Israeli prime minister for dinner here on the 14th of February, last month. Has he been in touch with any Palestinian leaders? Are there any plans to meet with any Palestinian leaders? I know he’s planning to meet with the Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman in the near future --

    MR TONER: I apologize, you’re referring to Secretary Tillerson not to the --

    QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, yes, of course.

    MR TONER: Yeah. I am not aware of any meetings in the immediate future, but --

    QUESTION: Has he been in conversation with any of the Palestinian leadership?

    MR TONER: I’m not aware that he has been. I’ll check on that, Said. Yep, please.

    QUESTION: So Mark --

    MR TONER: But I can assure you that obviously, Michael Ratney, who I believe is taking over that portfolio in this administration is within the Bureau of Middle Eastern Affairs – or Near Eastern Affairs, rather – is in touch with Palestinian leaders.

    QUESTION: Could we go back to THAAD?

    QUESTION: Wait, wait – wait, wait, he’s being – so he’s --

    QUESTION: Syria.

    QUESTION: He’s not doing Syria anymore?

    MR TONER: He’s doing both.

    QUESTION: He’s doing both?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Oh, good. Because that’s not too much of – for one person, is it? (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: He’s a dynamo.

    QUESTION: He isn’t --

    QUESTION: Are you concerned --

    QUESTION: Mark, Mark --

    QUESTION: On Syria, Mark.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: On Syria.

    QUESTION: Could we go back to THAAD just for a minute?

    MR TONER: Let’s go here and we’ll work back, thanks. Hey, yeah.

    QUESTION: Okay, so – I mean I know that the U.S. --

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, where are we?


    MR TONER: Oh, THAAD, thank you.

    QUESTION: So I mean, I know the U.S. position has always been that it’s a defensive system, and the decision to start this deployment under the Obama administration since the – right?

    MR TONER: That’s right.

    QUESTION: Yeah. So since the Secretary is about to walk in to the teeth of this in Asia next week, like, what more can you do, can the United States do to make that position more saleable to the Chinese?

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: I mean, they’re looking at the radar and the radar looks into their country. Why wouldn’t they be concerned?

    MR TONER: Well, again, just to unpack this, China is well aware of not just our concerns; China, in fact, shares our concerns about North Korea’s unlawful weapons programs and the fact that they, as I said, represent a clear and very grave threat to the peninsula, to the region, and as well as to the United States.

    I mean, North Korea openly states that its ballistic missiles are intended to deliver nuclear weapons to strike cities in the United States, and the Republic of Korea, and Japan. So it’s in that context that we are in conversations and discussions with China, we’ve been very clear that the decision to deploy THAAD is as a defense measure in order to protect not only South Korean, but also our military who are stationed in South Korea.

    I think where we all have to focus on going forward and I think a central focus of Secretary Tillerson’s trip to the region should not be on the deployment of THAAD, which is frankly a response to the threat, it’s the threat itself; the threat that North Korea continues to pose and that frankly only augmented in the past year to six months. And how do we address that threat? And I think we’re looking at new initiatives, new ways to address it. I also think that – I know that we’re pressing for increased implementation of an already very stringent sanctions regime. But as we all know and have said many times, sanctions are only as good as how well they’re implemented. And so until we have full implementation of the sanctions, we’re not going to have – be able to apply the pressure that we feel needs to be brought to bear on North Korea. And you’ve seen China in recent days take some steps with respect to coal imports that reinforce or enforce those sanctions in greater – in greater detail.

    QUESTION: Does that include new sanctions?

    QUESTION: Mark, on Asia. One more Asia question.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Let’s go to – yeah, Michel, go ahead. I’ll get to you all.

    QUESTION: Mark, what’s the U.S. position towards the situation in Manbij in Syria? The American flag is flying there, there are more American troops in the area, and Turkey is threatening to enter the city, and the regime is preparing to enter – to go through the city too.

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, I believe the Pentagon has already spoken to this in some tactical detail, and I would also – I would encourage you to speak to them directly about these kinds of movements on the ground. I think, broadly speaking, of course it’s a very complex environment around the area east of al-Bab. It’s a place where multiple forces, frankly, have converged – all with the intent to drive out ISIS. But I think when you’ve got multiple forces in such a small, confined space, we want to avoid any unnecessary or unintended escalation in what is already a very tense and dynamic situation.

    So we are sending a message to all forces that are there on the ground to remain focused on the counter-ISIS fight and concentrate their efforts on defeating ISIS and not towards other objectives that may detract from the coalition’s ongoing campaign. So we want to keep the focus on the stated intent to destroy ISIS. The coalition is going to continue work in close coordination with allies and partner forces, again, with the focus on defeating what is a common enemy, which is ISIS.

    QUESTION: A follow-up on --

    QUESTION: One more on this, Mark.

    MR TONER: One more, okay. Yeah.

    QUESTION: U.S., Russia, and Turkish chief of staffs have met in Antalya today, and they will continue meeting. Is there a new coordination between the U.S. and Russia on the fight against ISIS and on the situation in Syria?

    MR TONER: You’re talking about a meeting today – not sure what the date was – but between Joint Chiefs of Staff General Dunford, and he met with the chief of Russian general staff – the Russian general staff, as well as chief of the Turkish general staff. The purpose of the meeting, as I understand it, is to enhance senior-level military communications and improve operational de-confliction of our respective military operations in Syria. I’d refer you to DOD for any details, but my understanding of this is that it’s – it remains focused on de-conflicting.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Nick.

    QUESTION: Can we stay on Russia, Mark?

    MR TONER: Nick.

    QUESTION: Two – just two quickly, one on the Iraq EO. Yesterday, when Secretary Tillerson spoke, he said – suggested that Iraq came off the list because it was partnering with the U.S., and you’ve mentioned this, in the vetting process. Prior to that, Iraq was extremely angry about being on this list, and there was some concern that its partnership with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS might be jeopardized by its appearance on the list. So is – are you saying that Iraq is taken off this list only because of the vetting process, or because there were concerns that its partnership with the U.S. in the fight against ISIS would be jeopardized?

    MR TONER: Well, I think both, but I think you can’t have – obviously, we would not have just lifted them out of this group if we were not convinced and satisfied that they were taking steps to address our concerns with regard to the vetting of individuals and willing to take measures to achieve, frankly, our shared objective, which is to prevent anyone with criminal or terrorist intent to reach the United States.

    But this was, frankly, a bold and step – a bold and important step by the prime minister of Iraq. We appreciate his positive engagement on this issue, and obviously, it reinforces the strong collaboration we already have with Iraq with respect to the effort to destroy ISIS on the ground in Iraq. So I think it speaks to the growing ties between our two countries, the growing ability to work together on these kinds of issues, that they were able to, in fairly quick fashion, address some of the concerns we had with regard to vetting.

    QUESTION: On the refugees, can I ask --

    QUESTION: And then just one more on the budget issue.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: In his Senate testimony, Secretary Tillerson said that he had looked at the org charts and seen a few more dotted lines, a few boxes that --

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, what are we talking about? I missed the first part.

    QUESTION: We’re on budget.

    MR TONER: Oh, got it. Okay.

    QUESTION: So he had said that he’d seen a few more dotted lines and a few more boxes that had not been there previously, and suggested those should be eliminated. So regardless of what the top-line budget figure would be – 37 percent or not – does he support some form of budget cuts to this building, and does he feel that the State Department needs to be slimmed down?

    MR TONER: I think I would answer that, Nick, is that he’s looking, like any new leader of an organization as big as the State Department – although we’re not that big in the world of federal agencies, but it’s a sizable organization – is where efficiencies can be found, where there might be duplications of efforts. I mean, let’s face it, the State Department operates on a fairly modest budget in the grand scheme of things. So I think as an effective leader and manager of the State Department, of U.S. foreign policy, he’s looking for where efficiencies can be found and where we can, if needed, change or eliminate positions, but also focus on other priorities, or focus efforts on other goals and actions that we can take, and policies.

    QUESTION: What are those priorities?

    QUESTION: Mark, this theme of State Department --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: John. John.

    QUESTION: This theme of State Department drift, it also derives from a lack of --

    MR TONER: State Department?

    QUESTION: A drift, a lack --

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead. I got it. Sorry.

    QUESTION: -- of vigor – it’s also for lack of appointments. There’s no deputy secretary appointment, undersecretary, assistant secretaries, huge number of ambassadorial vacancies. It’s led some people to believe that Tillerson doesn’t have the clout to appoint his own people. Is that true?

    MR TONER: Look, John, this is – again, I think this is where – and many of you in this room have been around. This is not your first transition, as we say. And it’s not mine either.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: So I would caution everybody. I would say take a deep breath, because this is always an ongoing process. And we’re working at identifying candidates. I can assure you all, I can assure the American public that we’re working on identifying qualified candidates for senior department positions and trying to fill them as quickly as possible. We’re also vetting them, and that’s part of this process that we do internally. And then once we have these individuals ready, vetted, then we can go take them to the Senate for their advice and consent.

    So this process is ongoing. We’re identifying people for senior management jobs and senior leadership positions. But I think it’s also important to stress that there’s a very capable diplomatic corps and Civil Service corps within the State Department. And many of these individuals have stepped into acting roles or remained in acting roles in order to provide consistency through the transition.

    QUESTION: Mark, in --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: In your answer to Nick’s first question on the EO --

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: -- you – I thought I heard you say that Iraq was removed for both reasons, but because they were also taking steps to address our concerns. Are you saying that they have not yet addressed the concerns?

    MR TONER: No, no, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to give some kind of time --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Some kind of --

    QUESTION: Because if they hadn’t addressed them, I might have asked why they were taken off in that --

    MR TONER: No, no, no, no, I apologize. Thank you for clarifying. No, they have taken steps.

    QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

    QUESTION: Mark, back to the travel ban. On --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll get to you.

    QUESTION: Sorry, is it okay? I don’t know how this works.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: No, of course. Of course. Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: This is very weird. But anyway --

    MR TONER: This is a very crowded briefing, so I’m doing my best to manage.

    QUESTION: Now that I have the floor – (laughter) --

    QUESTION: The floor is yours.

    QUESTION: So yesterday the administration, in this version of the executive order, to back it up mentioned these 300 refugees who are under investigation. So can you confirm whether even one of those 300 is from any of the countries that are named in the ban? And if not, why not even mention that yes, some of them are from the countries? I don’t understand why that would be such – even though these are under investigation --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- why would naming the country or countries be so sensitive?

    MR TONER: It’s a valid question. A couple points to make. One is – excuse me – these are individuals under active investigation by the FBI. So these are people who already have – theoretically, have already immigrated to the United States. So they’re not on our radar, so to speak, anymore. So I can’t really speak to what the FBI may be investigating, who they may be investigating, or really provide any details as to where these individuals come from.

    My understanding – but again, I would refer you to the FBI or to DHS for clarity – is that these were 300 individuals, globally speaking, i.e., not from the six countries that were targeted in this particular EO – they were speaking to 300 active investigations of people who’ve come over as refugees.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark, on China?

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Thank you. I have a couple questions on the EO. So in order to be taken off this list of six countries whose citizens aren’t really allowed to come here, they would have to provide the U.S. with greater cooperation, greater data sharing. I’m wondering how you expect countries like Syria and Libya, that are in the throes of violent conflict and many of their government functions really aren’t functioning – how do you expect those countries to actually comply with that request? And therefore, does it amount to basically a de facto eternal ban? I have a follow-up after that.

    MR TONER: Sure. So, recognizing that this is a challenge, certainly with respect to Syria, since we don’t exactly have bilateral relationship – relations with the Syrian Government, but with respect to Libya, there is a nascent government in Libya. We recognize, though, that the situation in both Libya and Syria is, to put it mildly, in perpetual crisis. The security situation in both those countries is dire. That’s part of the reason, frankly, why – given the fact that within these areas, within these countries, rather, in their borders, we have ISIS, and ISIS affiliates, and al-Qaida affiliates operating – that we need to be especially vigilant about the individuals that we’re admitting from those countries.

    I don’t want, though, to in any way, as you say, condemn any country to a perpetual travel ban. That’s not what this is about. I think with respect to where we can work with the government, however early days it is with respect to Libya especially, we are going to do so, with the eventual goal of trying to get the information that we feel we need in order to fully vet these individuals coming to the United States.

    QUESTION: And then I have a question specifically to Iran. So the number of people that are affected by this ban – Iranians are overly represented, you might say. Like I think it’s something like over half of the people who would be coming from these six countries are actually coming from Iran, or maybe perhaps even more.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: This government, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has sought to engage directly with the Iranian people, kind of going around the Iranian Government, which of course has a lot of enmity and animosity towards the United States or between those two countries. I’m wondering what you would say the message of this ban sends to the Iranian people, especially given that there isn’t that kind of violent conflict that you just referred to or the groups like ISIS or these sorts of like terrorist groups active inside Iran.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: As you might know yourself from the 2009 protest, it was evident that many of the Iranian people disagree with the actions of their government. And so what exactly does this sort of ban achieve when it seems to be preventing Iranians who are well disposed towards the United States from coming into the United States?

    MR TONER: That’s a very good question, and a couple points to make on it. First of all is that we always need to be driven by the safety and security of the American people. That’s not to say that we don’t eventually want to see Iran emerge as a constructive global player, regional player. That’s up to the Iranian Government, the Iranian leadership to make those kinds of decisions. Frankly, what we’ve seen in the past months and year – year, rather, or so since they signed the nuclear agreement is, by and – is continued bad behavior in the region.

    QUESTION: Would you say that’s being conducted by Iranian citizens or the --

    MR TONER: Well – well, again, I mean, this is – again, this is a country that is a state sponsor of terror and plays a destabilizing role in the region. And so again, when you’re looking at a country like that, it’s not – this is not about the Iranian people, it’s not directed to them, but when you’re considering the safety and security of the American people here in the United States, you have to hold them in a different class.

    QUESTION: With all due respect, I mean, the ban doesn’t bar IRGC or Qods Force members from coming to the United States. Obviously, they’re not barred, but it --

    QUESTION: Well, they’re under sanctions too.

    QUESTION: It’s – they’re under --

    QUESTION: I mean, it’s a totally separate category.

    QUESTION: Your answer doesn’t really address the heart of my question, which is banning the – an entire country and all of its citizens, when there is a lot of evidence that (a) engaging with the Iranian people has been the policy of this country going back into the Bush administration --

    MR TONER: Yeah, but I mean, my answer to your question is that this is a country that has shown itself --

    QUESTION: The government has, you would say.

    MR TONER: It doesn’t – but I’m not – but it has shown itself capable of exporting terrorists and terrorism abroad. As I said, they’re a state sponsor of terror. What they’ve done in Syria, what they’ve done elsewhere in the region, frankly, puts them in a class by themselves with respect to what they’re capable of. This has nothing to do with those Iranians who may want to come and visit the United States to develop a better understanding of the United States or to visit relatives here, but --

    QUESTION: And who are now unable to --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: I – but --

    QUESTION: They can’t come.

    MR TONER: Let me be very clear about this one more time.

    QUESTION: So are you saying till Iran’s not --

    MR TONER: No --

    QUESTION: -- a state sponsor of terrorism anymore --

    MR TONER: What I’m saying is --

    QUESTION: -- that the Iranian people won’t be able to come to this country?

    MR TONER: No. What I’m saying is that we have legitimate concerns about Iran’s actions. I understand there’s a difference between what’s happening in Libya, what’s happening in Syria, and what’s happening in Iran. But Iran has --

    QUESTION: Mark, when Iran sponsors foreign terrorism, they use Lebanese foot soldiers. Lebanon is not on this list. They send Hizballah to conduct these things. Why isn’t Lebanon on the list?

    MR TONER: But they’ve shown – look --

    QUESTION: But they send Afghan – Afghans to Syria.

    MR TONER: Again, again, what they have shown through their behavior is a consistent ability to create chaos, to sow chaos in the region, to create or to fund terrorists – terrorist activities in the region. And it’s because of that that they’re under – that they’re in this category.

    QUESTION: Well, but you’re saying --

    QUESTION: Do you think the Iranian Government regrets that the United States is now banning its citizens from coming to study in America and meet Americans? Do you think that --

    MR TONER: I missed the – I missed the first part --

    QUESTION: Do you think you’ve struck a blow against the terror-sponsoring Iranian regime by imposing this ban?

    MR TONER: No, David. I’m – let me just revisit this. My point about all of this is I understand the power of people-to-people exchanges and having Iranians come to this country and experience this country and the cultural exchange that that entails and the broader goodwill that that can build. But I think before all of that, we have to put the safety and security of the American people, and it’s because of that that they have been put – they’ve been added to this list.

    QUESTION: So to summarize your answer to this --

    MR TONER: One – yeah, one last question because we got a lot of questions in the room.

    QUESTION: I mean, I still don’t feel like you’ve addressed the heart of my question. I was at Dulles when a lot of these people were barred from coming in and then they were eventually let out. The vast majority of them were Iranian and they were not people who expressed a great affinity with the Iranian Government. What I’m saying is that your answer to the question is, I think, presuming that the people who are coming here who are Iranians are somehow affiliated with the Iranian Government or are carrying out their policy. I’m wondering if there have been any instances --

    MR TONER: Not at all, no, and I’m sorry if I’m not explaining that clearly. What I’m trying to say is that the government, their government, unfortunately is a bad actor in the region.

    QUESTION: Does the U.S. now equate all the citizens of a country with a bad-acting government?

    MR TONER: No, but what we do take under consideration through this executive order is the fact that we don’t believe that we can ensure the safety of the American people and security of the American people absolutely given the current procedures and vetting procedures that we have with people coming from Iran.

    QUESTION: So are you saying that until Iran is not a bad actor, in your words, any --

    MR TONER: No, I think that --

    QUESTION: Well, can I finish my question?

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Are you saying that until Iran is not a state sponsor of terrorism or cleans up its act in the region or you have less fears about the actions of the Iranian Government, that all of the citizens of Iran will not be able to come here, or ae you saying that they need better vetting procedures? Because they’re two different things: one is vetting procedures; and one is saying it’s a bad government, therefore we’re not letting their citizens in.

    MR TONER: So my answer to that is part of this review period is looking at where we don’t have sufficient vetting procedures in place. What are those countries? And then following up on that, we’ll then, where we can or able to, talk to those governments and express where there are these disconnects and these failings.

    QUESTION: Are you willing to talk to the Government of Iran to help strengthen those vetting procedures?

    MR TONER: I can’t speak to that at this time.

    QUESTION: May I follow? There was a Homeland Security report published last week that says that extreme vetting procedures are not helpful because people do not become radicalized when they arrive here; they are radicalized years, if not decades later; which undercuts the whole premise of keeping out people from many of these countries.

    MR TONER: Well again, I would – I would refer you to the DHS to speak to the contents of their report and the substance of their report. I think what this EO is focused on and where the State Department is focused on in implementing this executive order is on looking at how people are vetted from given countries and whether those procedures can guarantee to the degree – recognizing that we can never have 100 percent guarantee – to the degree possible that these people coming in are coming here without the intention to harm – do harm to the American people.

    QUESTION: Do you have reports from your embassies --

    MR TONER: And – sorry.

    QUESTION: -- as to how these executive orders, the first one and even the second one, are hurting the United State abroad with allies as well as in --

    MR TONER: Andrea, I would say that we’ve heard in – we’ve gotten a variety of opinions from a variety of governments, from a variety of countries, about these executive orders, and not all of them negative.

    But I think, again, we need to start from – and Secretary Tillerson spoke to this in his remarks yesterday – we need to start from the premise here, which is we’re doing this, we’re undertaking this effort, in order to guarantee as much as possible of the safety and security of the American people. And we hope that other governments, foreign governments, can appreciate that premise and take it under consideration. But --

    QUESTION: But there is no underlying threat that’s ever been established by any – any agency of this government involving these countries in particular or recent --

    QUESTION: Their citizens.

    QUESTION: -- terror activities from their citizens.

    MR TONER: Again, we can go into the criteria, but it’s all laid out in the EO of why these six specific countries were chosen to be a part of this executive order. Please.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark, you said in your last --

    QUESTION: Mark, can you speak briefly about --

    MR TONER: Nike.

    QUESTION: -- about why Syria was taken off a list of being banned independently on its – like why they’re now going to not be indefinitely kept out of the U.S. – Syrians?

    QUESTION: Refugees.

    QUESTION: Their refugees.

    QUESTION: Refugees, sorry.

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, I apologize, it was like – so the --

    QUESTION: Syrian refugees.

    QUESTION: The first (inaudible) had banned Syrian refugees indefinitely. The second version just includes them in the general refugee ban.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: Right, I’m frankly not – not certain why the rationale to put – to shift them other than that, I mean, obviously, they’re a segment of the refugee population that’s in dire need of support. But I don’t have any specifics as to why they were taken – moved from one list to the other. I’ll try to get back to you on that.

    QUESTION: May I ask you --

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Can we do China?

    QUESTION: Mark, you said the United States --

    MR TONER: Are we done with – are we done with the EO? Can we move on to a different subject? And then I only have about five more minutes, so.

    QUESTION: I have one.

    QUESTION: Mark, on China very --

    QUESTION: Mark, you said that the United States --

    MR TONER: Let’s – are we ready to switch to China? Are we done with the --

    QUESTION: Yes.

    QUESTION: Yes, on China.

    MR TONER: Okay, I’ll go to you and then you, Nike.

    QUESTION: Okay, Mark, on China real quickly. You mentioned that the – that Secretary Tillerson would bring with him a message of stronger implementation of current sanctions. Is the United States willing to go beyond asking China to confront North Korea, beyond implementation or beyond sanctions? And in particular, there was a Wall Street Journal report out last week saying that the United States was putting greater weight on a military or regime change option. Is that something that the Secretary is aware of or will be discussing in China?

    MR TONER: Well look, I don’t want to get into specifics of all the options that we’re looking at with respect to North Korea. How I would answer your question is that we are very concerned with the escalation of North Korea’s actions. The continuing testing and augmenting of its weapons program is of great concern, and it’s getting to the point where we need to do – we do need to look at other alternatives. And that’s part of what this trip is about, that we’re going to talk to our allies and partners in the region to try to generate a new approach to North Korea.

    QUESTION: Beyond sanctions?

    MR TONER: I think right now we’re focused on sanctions and implementing those sanctions to the fullest extent possible, but we’re looking at other possibilities as well. We always are.

    QUESTION: Mark, you said that part of --

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Please, in the back. Nike. Nike, and then two more questions after that. Please, Nike.

    QUESTION: Mark, thank you very much. You said that part of the goal of this travel is to generate new approach in dealing with the DPRK. Does that include direct or indirect diplomatic engagement with DPRK? And then could you please update the status of the policy review regarding North Korea? Thank you.

    MR TONER: Well, again, Nike, I would say that given North Korea’s recent behavior, we’re not at the point where we’re looking at direct engagement with them. We’re not rewarding that behavior in any way, shape, or form. I think what North Korea’s – and this is something we need to --

    QUESTION: (Sneezing.)

    MR TONER: God bless you. We need to convey to them in very clear terms is that this kind of behavior is only further alienating them from the international community and from the global community. They’re increasingly becoming a pariah through this kind of behavior that violates the international norms and international law. And how we convey that to them, how we get that message across to them, remains to be seen. We’re pursuing tougher and tougher sanctions, but we’re also looking at other means to make that message clear to them.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Dmitry, please.

    QUESTION: What is the future --

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Dmitry.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: As we know, the two sessions are being held in China, and recently China National People’s Congress spokeswoman Fu Ying said the mainstream of China-U.S. relationship is cooperation and China, a top legislature, will continue exchanges with U.S. Congress this year to boost understanding and communication. So what is your comments on her, I mean, remarks, and how do you see U.S.-China relations, especially during Trump administration? Thank you.

    MR TONER: Sure. I mean, I think China is an absolutely vital relationship for the United States. We want to build a more constructive relationship with China. As I said, the Secretary’s – two of Secretary Tillerson’s earliest meetings were with your foreign minister, or China’s foreign minister, and state councilor. And indeed, one of his very first trips is to Beijing. I think that speaks to the importance that the United States places on its relationship with China. And we’re going to look for areas that we can expand our cooperation, whether it’s economic, whether it’s with respect to North Korea or other multilateral issues; I think we want to build on our relationship with China.

    QUESTION: As for the “one China” policy --

    QUESTION: A very quick question back here.

    QUESTION: A follow-up?

    QUESTION: As for the “one China” policy, President Trump opposed “one China” policy. So how do you think how important is --

    MR TONER: There is no change to our longstanding policy on cross-strait issues. Secretary Tillerson spoke to that in his hearing in the Senate, and President Trump agreed to in his phone call in February – I think February 9th with President Xi – that he agreed to honor our “one China” policy.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Last question. Really, guys. It’s been an hour already.

    QUESTION: On Turkey?

    QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up?

    MR TONER: One on Turkey, and that’s it.

    QUESTION: On Turkey, I want to ask you --

    MR TONER: Turkey and Dmitry, and then I’m finished.

    QUESTION: Okay. And Michele Kelemen maybe?

    QUESTION: I’ve been back here (inaudible).

    MR TONER: Oh, sorry. Okay.

    QUESTION: I have a follow-up.

    MR TONER: Okay --

    QUESTION: I want to ask you about American --

    MR TONER: Elise, Dmitry, Michele.

    QUESTION: I want to ask you about an American citizen. His name is – a pastor. His name is Andrew Brunson. He was detained in Turkey on October 7th as a threat to national security. He was held and detained for 64 days without explanation or charge, and officially charged with membership in an armed terrorist organization on December 9th. I’d like to know what the State Department is doing about his release. Is there any concern about the case? It seems that this is a Christian pastor who has been living in Turkey for 23 years. I’m not sure really what the terrorist charge is.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: And before you say anything about privacy concerns, I have the Privacy Act waiver right here – (laughter) – and it’s signed by Mr. Brunson.

    MR TONER: Does he check the media box?

    QUESTION: The media box is checked, yes. (Laughter.) As well as the general public, employer, individual members of Congress, friends, and family.

    MR TONER: That’s impressive, Elise. That’s impressive. That’s a first. You’ve got to be feeling pretty good about that. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: I didn’t know if I’d get a follow up, so – I do actually, yes. (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: We are, of course, aware of U.S. citizens that have been detained in Turkey, indeed this case in particular. I’ll try to see what additional information I can get. But of course, we take very seriously this case and all cases of detained Americans overseas. We’re – obviously, we would offer all consular assistance to any individual who’s being detained.

    I think I can speak more broadly whether you think that he as a Christian or that Christians are being persecuted, the U.S. Christian community is persecuting – or rather the Turkish Government is persecuting the U.S. Christian community in Turkey. I would not agree with – we would not agree with that assessment. We’ve seen no clear evidence that Christians are being specifically targeted for their religious beliefs. But of course, the United States obviously strongly supports the right of all people in Turkey to exercise their freedom of religion and belief. And in Washington and Ankara we regularly engage the Turkish Government at all levels on the need to respect religious freedom.

    But with respect to this particular case, given that he has signed a Privacy Act waiver, I’ll try to get you --

    QUESTION: No, he has signed a Privacy Act waiver, which --

    MR TONER: I said given that he has signed a Privacy Act waiver, which apparently is news to our consular affairs folks – so I’ll get you some more information about that.

    QUESTION: He seems to be wrapped up in this – like, they seem to be targeting him as part of this Gulenist movement.

    MR TONER: Yeah. I’m aware of that.

    QUESTION: He maintains that he is not part of this movement. So given the fact that the government – this government in the past anyway, has voiced concern --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- about the kind of wide swath which the Turkish Government has rounded up people that they believe to be part of this movement --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- the fact that an American citizen is being charged --

    MR TONER: Absolutely. And let me just be very clear, that in the case of any American citizen charged overseas, that we offer assistance. We offer protections. We follow the case. We offer legal assistance where we can, or offer them access to legal counsel or access to legal assistance. We visit them in the detention facilities that they’re being held with – held in to assess their health and to assess their well-being. All of this, I can assure you, is being done in this particular case. But what I don't have is a specific answer to the charges against him, and I’ll try to get that for you.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Dmitry.

    QUESTION: Great to see you, sir.

    MR TONER: Good to see you too, man.

    QUESTION: Welcome back.

    MR TONER: Thanks.

    QUESTION: Listen, I believe I have very simple question.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: At least I believe so. Has there been a discussion between the State Department and the Russian foreign ministry on the possibility of Secretary Tillerson trip to Moscow, or extending an invitation to Foreign Minister Lavrov to travel here? In the near future, I mean.

    MR TONER: Yeah. No. I don’t have anything to announce in that regard and I’m not aware of any travel plans at this time. And I don’t mean to give you a kind of smushy answer like that, but that’s just where we stand.

    QUESTION: Instead of that --

    MR TONER: Smushy.

    QUESTION: Is that --

    MR TONER: It’s a very technical term. Yes.

    QUESTION: Instead of that, can you give me a readout of the Secretary Tillerson and Minister Klimkin meeting that --

    MR TONER: Sure. It was, of course, focused on, obviously, domestic issues within Ukraine but also our continued concern about compliance with Minsk. But it was a good meeting. They talked about reform efforts underway by the Ukrainian Government. And they talked about – and certainly Secretary Tillerson reiterated – the U.S. strong commitment to Ukraine and our commitment to ensuring that all sides fulfill their Minsk commitments, and that includes Russia.

    QUESTION: So the Ukrainian readout of this meeting says that Secretary Tillerson emphasized that the U.S. would further support Ukraine and the U.S. sanctions against the Russian Federation will stay in force until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented, the aggression is ceased, the Donbass and the Crimea are de-occupied. Would you say that that’s also accurate?

    MR TONER: I can say that – indeed, that with respect to the sanctions remaining in place until Russia complies, both with respect to eastern Ukraine but also with respect to --

    QUESTION: Crimea?

    MR TONER: -- Crimea, that that holds true, yes.

    QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Just one thing – one (inaudible) --

    MR TONER: Michele.

    QUESTION: Yeah. The – yesterday the White House put out a statement about ExxonMobil just an hour or so after Tillerson met with President Trump, and I’m wondering if that was part of his discussions or reason for being over there.

    MR TONER: Not to my understanding at all. I believe it was to talk about foreign policy issues and not ExxonMobil.

    QUESTION: Was the Secretary --

    QUESTION: Can you check (inaudible)?

    QUESTION: Can I have one quick follow-up on (inaudible)?

    MR TONER: I can check, but I assume --

    QUESTION: Was the Secretary surprised at that? Was that coordinated?

    MR TONER: Again, I’m just not aware that he was consulted on that at all.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I have a follow-up --

    QUESTION: Can you answer if he has --

    MR TONER: I mean --

    QUESTION: -- if he has fully divested all his stock?

    MR TONER: Yeah, I was actually going to speak to that. I mean, he is – as he made clear in his testimony to Congress, he’s committed to federal ethics rules and he’s continuing to carry out and meet the terms of this agreement.

    QUESTION: So he hasn’t yet?

    MR TONER: I think he has until May 2nd, I believe, to fully divest. And that’s the same.

    QUESTION: Mark, a follow-up on the “one China” policy, may I?

    MR TONER: Guys, last question.

    QUESTION: Real quick, yeah.

    MR TONER: This is truly the last question. I’ve been up here for over an hour.

    QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. What are U.S. “one China” policy included now?

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, what’s that again?

    QUESTION: What are U.S. “one China” policy including now? Because one – why I’m asking is because during Secretary Tillerson’s nomination hearing, he say, I quote, “I think it’s important that Taiwan knows we are going to live up to the commitment under the Taiwan Relations Act and the six issues accord.” Six issue accord normally we acknowledge is like the six assurance. I’m just wondering the – is six assurance play any role in U.S. “one China” policy under Trump administration now?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think it is the same “one China” policy that we had in the past, and there’s no change to our policy with respect to cross-strait issues. We do encourage the authorities both in Beijing and Taipei to engage in constructive dialogue, to seek a peaceful resolution of differences that are acceptable to the people of both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

    So I’ll leave it there. Thanks, everyone.

    QUESTION: When are we going to see you again? Can you announce the next briefing? Tomorrow?

    MR TONER: Sure. I think we’re going to do – tomorrow, it’s going to be a telephonic briefing, and then --

    MS TRUDEAU: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: Tomorrow’s on-camera, and then Thursday will be by telephone.

    QUESTION: Thank you, Mark.

    MR TONER: So you’ll see me tomorrow. Thanks, guys.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    (The briefing was concluded at 3:05 p.m.)

    DPB # 10

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 19, 2017

Thu, 01/19/2017 - 17:28
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 19, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing


    2:15 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: I really appreciate the Secretary coming in like that and for all his support. I do have a couple of things, if you’ll just stick with me, that I want to say as well, on my last day at the podium. I don't have any news toppers to give you, so if you’ll just allow me to close out by thanking you as well for the work that you do, for the context you provide to the popular understanding of complex foreign policy challenges, and for the difference that you make on a daily basis, not only in the education of the public but to the work that our diplomats do around the world.

    The truth is – and it took me a little while to understand this when I came over here – that diplomacy doesn’t lend itself to clear and definitive headlines. It doesn’t explain itself. As Secretary Kerry noted in an op-ed piece this morning, which you might have seen in The New York Times, and I quote, “Diplomacy requires creativity, patience, and commitment to a steady grind, often away from the spotlight. Results are rarely immediate or reducible to 140-character bites.”

    Very often the good work that our diplomats do in some pretty trying circumstances isn’t something that they necessarily want told in the first place. A delicate deal with a foreign leader, for example, whether it’s designed to bring a hostage home or improve human rights or advance trade – they can be undone, those delicate deals, with a mere word. So when that story is told, it matters greatly that it be done with skill and with precision by correspondents, independent reporters, who truly comprehend the intricacies, the risks at play, the historical setting, the cultural fabric of that time and this place. So look at the Iran deal, the situation in Syria, tensions in the South China Sea, climate change, refugee flow, Middle East peace. You know – all of you know – that these issues are not simple, and that’s why you work so hard to get it right. It’s why some of your colleagues are in harm’s way, as we speak, out there trying to pursue leads. That’s what good reporters do.

    Now, I can’t say that I have always agreed with everything you’ve filed any more than you can say that you’ve always appreciated my efforts up here. I know I’ve fallen short many times. I’ve been slower to get back to you than I would have liked on occasion and have certainly been less clear than I should have been on others. I have struggled to find the right words, and I haven’t always had proper command of the information. When I showed up here at State, I couldn’t find Burundi on a map of Burundi. (Laughter.) I didn’t know the difference between INL and EAP. And I didn’t fully appreciate the difference between “deeply concerned” and “gravely concerned.” (Laughter.) Frankly, I’m not sure that I do yet. (Laughter.)

    But I can say that in my short time here I have come to genuinely respect and admire the vital role that you play in scrutinizing and explaining American foreign policy. Indeed, I believe you do far more than just scrutinize. It’s a notion that was summed up well by a man named Thomas Bailey in a book that I have here today called The Man in the Street. And I’d like to read, if I could, just a small portion of it to you. I promise it won’t be long.

    “The foreign correspondent is an ambassador-at-large of the American public, for he is ready” – I’m sorry – “he is reporting not only to his superiors but to the people as a whole. He provides the facts upon which the newspaper bases its editorials and the news stories upon which the readers form opinions and as a result of which they may bring pressure to bear on Washington. It would be impossible to name a single trait desirable in the ideal ambassador which the ideal correspondent should not also have, including an ability to write incisive and readable English.” Man, I wish that last part was true. (Laughter.)

    But this book was written in 1948, The Man on the Street. And there’s not a single word in there that I just read – and actually, there’s a lot of great words in here – that isn’t also true today. Except – the only thing I would disagree with is it’s not just the American public that you serve. It’s a global audience you inform, global conditions that you labor to improve. As the Secretary noted, yours is a profession under strain right now, whether it’s media consolidation and shrinking budgets or online competition and fake news propagandists. You face intimidation, harassment, jail, even threats to your lives. And that’s just Mark Toner on a bad day. (Laughter.) It’s not – (laughter) – actually, that’s – he does that to me too. (Laughter.)

    It’s not just – it’s not easy being you, and I get that. But I hope you never let it be easy for us. I hope you never stop serving that public and facing those dangers. Democracy doesn’t function without a free and vigorous press, and a free and vigorous press doesn’t function without thoughtful, intelligent, thorough reporters – and Matt Lee. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Whoa.

    MR KIRBY: I didn’t know it at the time – (laughter) --

    QUESTION: Boom.

    MR KIRBY: I didn’t know it at the time, but I first fell in love with the idea of journalism when I worked as a sports clerk at the St. Pete Times, my hometown newspaper. The buzz in the newsroom, the excitement of the story getting called in – and yes, that’s – I had to – that’s how I learned to type, was taking dictation from reporters who were out in the field. The infectious humor that those sports writers exhibited late into every night, it captured me, and I never forgot it. I got fired soon after for goofing off – (laughter) – but when I heard a few months later that the sports department needed help, I begged to get that job back, not just because I needed gas money, but because I really did miss being around reporters.

    Now, the job I have now I can’t get back – (laughter) – I know that. Today is the last day. But I’m extraordinarily grateful to Secretary Kerry for taking a chance on me and trusting me and teaching me. He has given me a front-row seat to history and he has been more gracious and more generous than I deserve. And he didn’t fire me when I goofed off and I had – he had plenty of chances to.

    I also want to thank Jon Finer, who, as chief of staff, has also been a great friend, adviser, and teammate. You all know how brilliant and hardworking he is. What I also think we can all agree on is he is – that he is a good man who has doggedly pursued and informed our foreign policy agenda.

    I’m grateful to my predecessors – Jen Psaki, Toria Nuland, Marie Harf – who welcomed me and then stayed with me throughout, checking in on me from time to time and giving me great advice and counsel. All of them are professionals of the highest sort and they’re the finest of individuals.

    I will miss the great people here at the State Department – everyone in my bureau, the Public Affairs Bureau; my principal deputy, Susan Stevenson; Mark Toner, of course, who I shared many, many days with even before I got to this job and who has shared this podium with me and been just a terrific sounding board and friend. Of course, the tireless Elizabeth Trudeau, who downs about ten Diet Dr. Peppers a day – (laughter) – just to face the daunting task of prepping me to face you. And of course, the senior staff, diplomats, and Civil Service employees who make possible everything that American diplomacy makes possible for millions of people around the world.

    But I will miss all of you dearly as well. I will still miss being around reporters. This is the best part of my day, and you and --

    QUESTION: Really? (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: Not today.

    QUESTION: Wow. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: That is so pathetic. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: If this is the best part of your day, my God --

    QUESTION: That is – (laughter) --

    MR KIRBY: What I meant was --

    QUESTION: -- what is the rest of it like? (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: What I meant was the briefings are the best part of the day, not necessarily right now. And I believe that you are one of the best parts of this or any other democracy, so I’ll be cheering you on from afar. Thanks very much. (Applause.)

    Okay, Matt. Over to you.

    QUESTION: Thank you for those very kind words. Thanks to the Secretary as well. I’m just – I’ll be brief, because I know other people are probably going to want to say something too, but on behalf of the Correspondents Association and the people in this room, I want to say thank you, and it’s – you should be, I think, honored – take it as an honor and a privilege to be the last spokesman/briefer for the Obama Administration of any agency. So this is it, and I just want to say that your tenure here has been a good one, a great one, and a pleasure for all of us. You’ve always been professional, even when our exchanges got contentious, which was often – (laughter) – I would have to say.

    MR KIRBY: Thank you.

    QUESTION: But you were always professional and always acted with integrity, and I think even people who would disagree with the policy can’t – with policies that you were trying to explain can’t deny that.

    MR KIRBY: Thank you.

    QUESTION: So best of luck to you and --

    MR KIRBY: Thank you, Matt.

    QUESTION: -- as you go forward and Mark next week and beyond until – (laughter) – and even to the person who – he or she who eventually replaces you.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks.

    QUESTION: It’s been – it has been a wild ride with this Secretary over the course of the last four years, and of course, with you for the two or so years that you were here. So thank you for your service --

    MR KIRBY: Thank you.

    QUESTION: -- in the Navy, at the Pentagon, and in this role.

    MR KIRBY: Thank you.

    QUESTION: And it’s been much appreciated.

    MR KIRBY: Appreciate that. Thanks, Matt.

    QUESTION: Thanks. Does anyone else want to say anything?

    QUESTION: I’ll just --

    QUESTION: May I?

    QUESTION: I’ll just – I just want to echo what Matt said, and especially the fact that sometimes you came up there with not a lot to say – (laughter) – but that didn’t stop you from – you never shut it down; you never said “I don’t have anything for you.” You tried to offer something to help us understand what was going on and why, and that wasn’t – that isn’t always the case at the podium. And so you’ve been a true gentleman and you’ve always gotten back to us – maybe not in the most timely manner – but you’ve been available to us 24 hours, seven days a week, as you all are. And I just also want to thank you on behalf of the association for what you’ve done for us, what you’ve helped us understand – the foreign policy – and wish you luck.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks.

    QUESTION: Thank you. Do – does --

    QUESTION: Yeah, I want to say a couple words. Well, thank you for everything. Thank you for your service and thank you for being available. You have always been naturally courteous. You’re the perfect gentleman. It was really a pleasure to come and engage you day after day. I know all the issues we discussed are really difficult issues and those were very difficult times, and you handled yourself amazingly.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks.

    QUESTION: So I want to thank you for always being there, for always taking my questions, and as much as you can try to respond to them. And good luck. Godspeed.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks very much, Said. I appreciate that. Thank you.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Fire away.

    QUESTION: Enough with the thanks. Enough of this.

    QUESTION: And let me just add a thank you to your team and all those who are leaving with this Administration as of noon tomorrow. It’s all been, as I said, a wild ride.

    So I have a – just a very small bit on – that I want to ask about transition, because, as you I am sure are aware, they – transition team announced today that Tom Shannon will be staying on. Presumably, he will be the interim secretary until Mr. Tillerson is confirmed. And as well as him, Brett McGurk would be staying on and Susan Coppedge would be staying on. They’re among 50 – they are the State Department people who were named among about 50 that the transition said are – they want to stay on to ensure continuity.

    MR KIRBY: Right.

    QUESTION: Do you know, are there any others at the State Department? Are there assistant secretaries that are – or other under secretaries that are going to be remaining in place? Do you have a list of who has been asked to stay in their current position?

    MR KIRBY: No, I don’t. And these would be discussions that would occur between the incoming team and these individuals, so it’s not likely that we would have a list, because these are individual decisions and discussions that are happening. So there could be more, but I’m not aware of any others.

    QUESTION: Do you know – and I was – if the Secretary had taken questions, I would have asked him this, but do you know – does he have – has he met in the – this morning or this afternoon or plan to meet today or any time in the near future, that you know of, with his designated successor?

    MR KIRBY: He has not met with Mr. Tillerson. Of course, he’s – stands by and is ready to meet or even just speak with him over the phone, if that’s desired, as he – he’s made clear that he’s willing to do that at Mr. Tillerson’s convenience and interest.

    I think you may have seen some reporting this morning that Under Secretary Shannon did have a brief meeting with Secretary-designate Tillerson this morning in the transition offices out in town, not here at the State Department. I don’t have a readout of that meeting. I was told it was brief and cordial. Obviously, coming out of that meeting, we did get confirmation that as of noon tomorrow, in the assumption that Mr. Tillerson is not confirmed as the incoming secretary of state by noon tomorrow, Under Secretary Shannon will serve as the acting secretary of state until such time as that confirmation is finished.

    QUESTION: Okay. And have you gotten any – the incoming White House spokesman, Mr. Spicer, said that a decision would be made soon on the Syria meeting in Kazakhstan. Are you aware if this building has gotten any direction from them about whether to attend, and if so, at what level or who?

    MR KIRBY: No, I’m not aware that we’ve received any direction or guidance with respect to representation at the meeting in Astana. Our embassy in Moscow did receive an invitation delivered to them from the Russian foreign ministry, which they duly passed on to us here at Foggy Bottom, so we are aware that there is an actual invitation for the U.S. to participate.[i] But as far as I know, no decision has been made, and this is – as the Secretary said last week, this is something that would be up to the incoming team to decide; not him. I would remind you of what he said last week, which was that he encouraged the United States to be present at the conference, but ultimately, again, that’s the incoming team’s decision to make.

    QUESTION: Can I – can I ask one? On the whole idea of the transition and a lot of the career ambassadors, or most of the career ambassadors have – the political appointees, as we’ve talked about at the podium, have been asked to leave by tomorrow. Given the fact that, obviously, there’s a senior career person acting as charge, could you just talk a little bit about the operations that are going to go on at embassies? I mean, obviously, it’s business as usual for some functions, but can you just walk us through a little bit about what it – the life of an embassy is going to be until an ambassador is confirmed at these political posts?

    MR KIRBY: Well, obviously, each and every embassy in each and every location has different demands on it based on the countries that they’re working with and the leaders they’re working with. So no two embassies are ever perfectly alike. What I can tell you is that for those embassies who will not have an ambassador in place as of noon tomorrow, work will go on. In whatever form it has gone on today, it will go on tomorrow. We have exceptionally talented and professional deputy chiefs of mission who are career Foreign Service officers, who are trained and experienced to do exactly that, to step in for the ambassador when the ambassador is unavailable. And in this case, there won’t be, obviously, an ambassador available in many of these places come noon tomorrow. So they will step in as they have stepped in in the past to run the embassy, to perform all the functions that they – that are previously going on, and to perform the roles of the ambassador.

    So it will be very seamless; this isn’t the – this isn’t at all new to State Department professionals. They do this all around the world almost every day; it’s just that in this case, there will be many of them that will lose an ambassador come tomorrow. But again, there will be no stoppage, no change, no --

    QUESTION: Well, there will be some stoppage. I mean, look, there is going to be – obviously, the visa and consular functions will continue. But like, are decisions about business affairs and cultural affairs and – obviously, political affairs will be made by the next administration. So where’s the line between, like, the embassy holding events and continuing to function if there’s someone that’s – where are the decisions being made?

    MR KIRBY: Well, so you’re right, all the functions will continue. There will be some – obviously, when you have a new administration --

    QUESTION: So there’s some stoppage.

    MR KIRBY: No, no, no, I wouldn’t – not stoppage, but certainly, some of the foreign policy agenda items will change, of course, under a new administration. They’ll have, perhaps – perhaps – in some places, a different worldview, a different approach to bilateral relations with that country based on the president – President-elect and soon-to-be President Trump’s agenda and initiatives, and they’ll execute that as they always do.

    So some of the focus of the policies may change, but the work will go on. And a deputy chief of mission is – does and will continue to serve as the ambassador until an ambassador, in those instances where it’s going to happen, until the ambassador is confirmed and in place. The deputy chief of mission can represent the United States of America perfectly well.

    QUESTION: One more. Like, I mean obviously, there – that an ambassador may be confirmed, yes, in a while, but there’s not really even much of a foreign policy that – I mean, I think in some of these countries, particularly where there is a political appointee and they’re expecting such a radical change or there’s been some tension, such as – well, just name them.

    But there’s a long list of countries that have a political ambassador, that there have been issues during the campaign, and these countries are very anxious to have an interlocutor to deal with. But I mean, is the charge d’affaires really going to be empowered to have political consultations on a policy that hasn’t been formed and that they don’t know anything about? I mean, traditionally even, there’s been – while there may be some difference on tactics and stuff – largely throughout administrations, foreign policy has been pretty much consistent. And here, I think countries are expecting a kind of wholesale difference.

    MR KIRBY: Well, certainly, in those countries where perhaps policies may change and no chief of mission who is going to be acting as the ambassador is going to get ahead of the next White House. They know that. Functions will continue, work will continue, support to the bilateral relationship will continue, but to the degree there are questions over policies, obviously, our ambassadors and our deputy chiefs of mission know to check back with Washington and get guidance. And if there is no guidance, then obviously, you don’t make decisions and you don’t pursue initiatives until you’re sure you’ve got healthy guidance. And that will come in time; this is not a new thing. There have – whenever administrations change there’s a period of where you have a change out in personnel and you have also changes to policies that are being crafted and formulated and disseminated, and that will happen. But in the intervening time, the bilateral relations will continue and our deputy chiefs of mission will represent, fairly and appropriately, the United States and our interests.

    QUESTION: Kirby, I wanted to follow up, but also wanted to say personally, I will miss you.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks.

    QUESTION: Integrity was the word to describe you.

    MR KIRBY: Thank you.

    QUESTION: And also, thanks for respecting our role as the press and what we do, so --

    MR KIRBY: Thank you.

    QUESTION: The – a follow-up to what Elise is asking about. Who will actually make the decision on the Astana talks? Would it have to be Tom Shannon? I mean, those talks are next week, so who would make that decision and does --

    QUESTION: They’re Monday, aren’t they?

    QUESTION: Yeah, and does Ratney stay on in the position as envoy --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- and he’s the likely person --

    MR KIRBY: Well, he is obviously still serving as the envoy. I don’t know of any changes to that position going forward. As for who decides who’s going to attend, obviously, my understanding of this would be that Ambassador Shannon, as acting Secretary of State, will consult appropriately with the new National Security Council leadership, because they will certainly – I would expect will certainly want to have a vote and a say in whether we participate and at what level. So I’m sure that Ambassador Shannon will consult appropriately with the new White House about what they would like to do.

    And then, if the answer is yes, participate, then they’ll have to decide who and at what level and how that’s going to be and whether Mike Ratney is the person or not. I just – I know of no change to his status, but I don’t want to get ahead of the new team. Okay?


    QUESTION: One on --

    QUESTION: And – can I just follow up? You don’t know if Shannon – if Tom Shannon spoke to Mr. Tillerson about this today?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t. I know that they discussed, as I said, and were able to confirm the transition team’s desire that Ambassador Shannon stay on in – as acting in the interim, but I don’t have any more details from the discussion. And as I understand it, it was a short, cordial meeting. I don’t – I think it was more a chance to meet one another and to --

    QUESTION: Are you aware that – if the Secretary sought a meeting with Mr. Tillerson and we couldn’t – you couldn’t make that happen?

    MR KIRBY: As I said, the Secretary made very clear that he was willing to meet with Mr. Tillerson and, as I understand it, they just weren’t able to get it on the schedule. So – but he did speak to him on the phone once. I think I read that out to you. And I – I’m sure the Secretary remains ready, willing, and able to have conversations with Mr. Tillerson even after tomorrow if it’s so desired.

    QUESTION: If I might on that, so they couldn’t get it on Secretary Kerry’s schedule?

    MR KIRBY: I think there was just --

    QUESTION: Because obviously Ambassador Shannon met with him this morning, so did Kerry – the Secretary not have time on his schedule this morning?

    MR KIRBY: I think it was trying to work both men’s schedule. As you know, the Secretary also went on a week-long trip, so he – they worked to try to – to make it happen, and they just weren’t able to get it on both men’s schedule at a time that was mutually convenient for both of them. But --

    QUESTION: So you’re just emphatic that this was an issue of scheduling and not that Mr. Tillerson was not interested in meeting with the Secretary?

    MR KIRBY: I can’t speak for Mr. Tillerson or the incoming team and their view of the meeting. I can tell you that the Secretary was ready, willing, and able to have such a meeting --

    QUESTION: Was he ready, willing, and able to meet him today?

    MR KIRBY: -- and they were trying to get one scheduled and they weren’t able to. I won’t characterize what the other side’s view of scheduling the meeting was. As I understand it, it was – they simply were not able to work out the --

    QUESTION: Well, was the Secretary available to meet with him this morning?

    MR KIRBY: He remains willing and able to have discussions with Mr. Tillerson.

    QUESTION: I – I hear that, but was he able to meet with him this morning?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any more detail about the Secretary’s schedule to read out with respect to today.

    QUESTION: Could you take the question?

    MR KIRBY: No, I don’t think – look, he’s had a full day today, and the – Ambassador Shannon had a chance to meet with Mr. Tillerson. Secretary Kerry remains willing to speak with Mr. Tillerson going forward, even after inauguration, if it’s so desired.


    QUESTION: Yeah, let me go to your favorite topic --

    QUESTION: Hold on, Said, I got one more transition question.

    QUESTION: Sure.

    QUESTION: But this is extremely brief. So Senator – either – I can’t remember which one it was, either Corker or Cardin – during Mr. Tillerson’s confirmation hearing made mention of the fact that they were trying to work out some kind of a compromise or something on political appointed – politically appointed ambassadors who were seeking extensions for personal reasons in office. Do you know if any of those were – if there were – if any resolution was found to that for some or all --

    MR KIRBY: To do extensions?

    QUESTION: -- of the ambassadors who were seeking to stay at posts a little bit beyond?

    MR KIRBY: I am aware of one case where a politically appointed ambassador who asked to extend was granted. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t more; I only know of one. But that was an example of a case-by-case – individual case that was approved.

    QUESTION: Which case was it?

    MR KIRBY: Costa Rica.

    QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, that there was follow – do you know, was that done between the committee – the Foreign Relations Committee – or a specific senator, or was it --

    MR KIRBY: No. As I understand this, this was done --

    QUESTION: It was done between the transition and --

    MR KIRBY: It was done between the ambassador and the transition team.

    QUESTION: Okay. So --

    MR KIRBY: That was the – the request was made to the incoming team, and they approved it.

    QUESTION: Right. Okay. So no extensions for anybody then did not stay the --

    MR KIRBY: Well, if you have one exception, it’s hard to say that --

    QUESTION: Exactly. Right.

    MR KIRBY: -- it’s hard to say that it’s a hundred percent.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: But --

    QUESTION: Do you know how long?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t. And that’s an individual decision and an individual discussion that the ambassador had with the team. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speak to it.


    QUESTION: Yes, sir. Yesterday, the President in his last press conference – President Obama – said that the moment may be passing for the two-state solution, echoing what the Secretary of State has been saying in the last couple – few weeks and so on. In retrospect or in hindsight, would it have been more effective – these steps that were taken and these statements that were said – would they have been more effective, let’s say, had they been done or said or taken back in 2014 during the long negotiation session, the nine-month and so on?

    MR KIRBY: Well, no --

    QUESTION: Or thereafter? Is the feeling in this building – or your own feeling as you go through the – could it have been more effective and maybe saved the two-state solution?

    MR KIRBY: The Secretary has already spoken to this, and his answer was no, that it was clear after the 2014 discussions that leadership in the region were not ready to move beyond where they were, and that trying to do this would have – would not have been more successful at the time because of the tenor of the discussions themselves.

    QUESTION: And, moving forward, does the Secretary feel or do you feel that these steps that were taken lately and so on will have some sort of an impact on the policies of the coming administration and so on?

    MR KIRBY: Well, that’s hard to know, Said. I mean, the incoming administration will have to determine for itself how they want to approach the issue of Middle East peace and the tensions that continue between Israelis and Palestinians and where they want this to go in terms of a viable two-state solution.

    All I can tell you is that this Administration and certainly Secretary Kerry worked very hard to try to get us there, because he fervently believes that a two-state solution is the right answer, and that where – and that the direction that leadership has taken in the region is not getting us any closer to that. But it’s very difficult to predict or to know what the work this Administration has done, what Secretary Kerry has tried to do, and the decisions that – and frankly, the framework that he laid out in his speech over the holidays – it’s difficult to know what impact that will have on the incoming administration’s chances and opportunities.

    We – what the Secretary would tell you is that we did everything we could to try to get – to try to get to that outcome, to try to see a two – a two-state solution better realized. But in the end, even as in 2014, the leadership there in the region wasn’t willing to make the right decisions and to move forward in the appropriate manner.


    QUESTION: In the last few hours, Senegal and Nigeria have confirmed they’re moving troops into The Gambia on behalf of the newly sworn-in President Barrow to try to dislodge the defeated President Jammeh. Does the United States support this military intervention?

    MR KIRBY: We do support it, and we support it because – and we’re in touch with officials in Senegal. And we support it because we understand that the purpose is to help stabilize a tense situation and to try to observe the will of the people of The Gambia. Obviously, we’re going to stay in close touch. This just – as you rightly pointed out, Steve, this – this decision was just recently made. So we’re going to be watching this very, very closely.


    QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? There’s – what’s your understanding of the ground situation? I mean, are there actually Senegalese troops there? And also, I see the State Department has just put out a warning for U.S. citizens of what they should be doing.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah. I don’t have a lot of tactical information in terms of what’s going on on the ground. Obviously, it’s very, very tense. And you’re right; we have advised all U.S. citizens to shelter in place due to the risk of armed conflict, the risk of armed conflict, and we – and carefully – ask them to carefully evaluate the security situation before attempting to resume any normal activities. We also stated very clearly that U.S. citizens who are able to leave The Gambia are advised to do so. The embassy is temporarily closed to all non-emergency services as of noon yesterday. It remains closed today and it will be closed tomorrow. And again, we have a number for any citizens requiring emergency services. They can call the embassy at 220-437-5270.

    QUESTION: And just out of curiosity, I mean, the ambassador there, I assume, is a career person, so he’s not – he or she is not – is still there?

    MR KIRBY: That’s my understanding. Yeah.

    QUESTION: John.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah. Go ahead, Dave.

    QUESTION: Okay, just to follow up on that one. You say the United States supports the intervention. That’s diplomatic support at this stage. Do you – if they request any logistical or military support in this operation?

    MR KIRBY: This is an ECOWAS decision and an ECOWAS mission. I know of no request or desire for U.S. military assistance. When I did say “support,” thank you for asking me to clarify that. Yes, I meant diplomatic support for this; I didn’t mean to indicate that the United States military was getting involved in any way. I know of no such plan to do that.

    QUESTION: And in previous ECOWAS deployments of this sort – I remember I was in one in Liberia once – there were – transport aircraft were provided to help the ECOWAS mission. It was civilian aircraft organized by contractors paid by a U.S. Government agency. I’m not sure whether it was this one or one over the river. That’s not the case in this deployment?

    MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of, no.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: And again, this just started. So we’ll monitor it closely, we’ll stay in touch with Senegalese leaders, and we’ll see where it goes.

    QUESTION: John?

    MR KIRBY: Laurie.

    QUESTION: Yeah. I first of all would like to join in the appreciation that others have expressed for you. And I’d like to add appreciation of your unusual thoughtfulness and trying to consider and look beyond the noise of daily events, so thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Thank you.

    QUESTION: My question: A Turkish prosecutor has asked for a prison term of 142 years for the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP. And the EU has called that outrageous. What’s your comment on that?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, we have seen reports, and we’re deeply concerned that the prosecutors requested the sentence of 142 years in prison for the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP. We’re obviously going to follow this issue closely as well. We’re also concerned by the aggressive use of judicial inquiries to curb free speech and political discourse in Turkey. So again, we would note the importance of transparency and respect for due process as Turkey investigates allegations related to the dissemination of terrorist propaganda. The United States continues to support freedom of expression there in Turkey, and we oppose any action to encroach on the right of free speech.

    QUESTION: And --

    MR KIRBY: Pardon?

    QUESTION: And a second question. A leader of the Syrian PYD told the Russian press that the PYD, the pro-Kurdish PYD in Syria, would open an office in Washington, and there were negotiations about that. And we --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- we asked you that earlier this week and you didn’t have any information, but I wondered if you had any information today on that.

    MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I don’t, and I’d have to refer you to PYD representatives to discuss that. I don’t.


    QUESTION: The Trump transition has named their third ambassador nominee or designate, Woody Johnson, to the UK, to the Court of St. James. I don’t imagine you have a specific reaction to his appointment, but can you say anything about how important that appointment to the UK is? We’ll all probably be writing about it today.

    MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, you’re right, I won’t comment on the incoming team’s nominees. That wouldn’t be appropriate. These are obviously decisions for them to make and to discuss. But the special relationship is special, and we talk about it being special for that very reason. Our bilateral relationship with UK is perhaps the closest one we have with any other nation anywhere in the world, and for good reason. We share common values, common interests. We have shared many hardships together, and we’ve known many successes together in our bilateral relationship. By and large we share the same language. So there’s – it’s a very deep, very long, very strong relationship, and therefore the individual who represents the United States in London also has a special place and special responsibilities to safeguard that relationship and to keep it vibrant going forward.

    So it is one of the most consequential ambassadorial posts that an incoming administration can make. Obviously, there are many others, but that is certainly right up there at the top of the list as one of the most consequential.

    QUESTION: And with the Brexit vote, is it a particularly difficult or consequential time in that relationship?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, certainly there’s no question that at least for the next several years Brexit is going to – the relationship is going to be done in the context of that, no question. But our relationship is much bigger than this and much bigger than the UK’s decision to vote for Brexit. As we said at the time, this is a decision that the British people made, and we respect that, but it’s not going to change the fundamental, strong, and vibrant nature of our bilateral relationship.

    QUESTION: Can you characterize, John, on your last day, the strength of this transition with the incoming Trump administration – how many people you have had in that transition office, how strong the communication has been? You all obviously were prepared with a bunch of memos from the incoming administration. How many of those memos actually got read? How confident are you that, come Monday, many of the tasks that have been routinely done here will get done? For instance, do you expect there to be a briefing on Monday or Tuesday?

    MR KIRBY: A press briefing?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t know. Ask Mark. (Laughter.)

    So look, I’ve been very scrupulous about not characterizing our communications with the transition team or describing or characterizing their efforts, Gardiner, so I’m going to keep – I’m going to stay there today. There is a team here at State. As far as I know, it’s been a pretty consistently manned team. In other words, I don’t know that there’s been a lot of turnover or changes in their numbers. But they’ve been here since very soon after the election. We have literally daily interaction with them, and it takes the form in many different ways – face-to-face briefings, the passing to them of information papers, and obviously, plenty of phone calls and email. So there’s a very vibrant communication with the team.

    What they have done with the information that they have been provided or the context that we have given them is really for them to speak to, and the degree to which they feel prepared and ready for duty tomorrow, again, is really for them to speak to.

    What I can tell you is this: that Secretary Kerry was clear we were going to do everything we could to make it seamless and effective for them, and he leaves office tomorrow knowing that he did that, that he opened up this building to them and to whatever they needed and made it very clear that we were going to be open and transparent with them. And we were.

    The second thing that I can say is that the incoming team – it’s not like this building’s just going to go away and everybody in it. The incoming team will inherit an unbelievable cadre of career Foreign Service officers and civil servants and contractors that are here at the State Department that are just as dedicated to seeing them succeed as they were when Secretary Kerry came in and Secretary Clinton before him. They’re an amazing bunch. I mentioned them a little bit in my opening comments because some of them work for me, and I can tell you that you won’t find finer patriots or more dedicated Americans than the people that work here, and they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work tomorrow.

    QUESTION: One last thing, John. The Secretary couldn’t find time or they couldn’t find time together to meet with the incoming secretary-designate. He’s – Secretary Kerry is also not going to the inauguration tomorrow. How do we not sort of put these dots together to suggest that there’s hard feelings there?

    MR KIRBY: There’s no hard feelings. Look, I don’t – on the schedule – meeting with the secretary-designate, they did speak on the phone. I think that’s important to remember. They actually did have a phone conversation.

    QUESTION: Once.

    MR KIRBY: They tried – they tried to meet face-to-face, and the schedules didn’t align. That’s – and again, I don’t want to characterize Mr. Tillerson’s view of that. I can tell you that the Secretary remained willing and able to do that, and the schedules didn’t align.

    As for the inauguration, I think you guys know it’s – there’s no expectation that the outgoing Cabinet is going to attend the inauguration of an incoming administration. So I think I’ve seen some press coverage on the fact that the Secretary’s not attending, and I think – to be quite blunt, I think it’s been a little bit overblown. I mean, he never had any expectation of going. That’s really for the incoming administration and for their cabinet and for their officials, and what he wanted to be focused on was making sure that the incoming team was ready to go on day one.

    And I think as he gets ready to leave here – leave office tomorrow – he’s confident that he did that and that the team here did that and that the team here will continue to do that going forward. But again, on the inauguration, there simply was no expectation from either side that he or any other Cabinet official from the outgoing Administration would be in attendance.

    QUESTION: What about the (inaudible)?

    QUESTION: Where will he be at noon tomorrow?

    MR KIRBY: He’ll be enjoying personal time – (laughter) – as a free – as a private citizen.

    QUESTION: In D.C. or Boston?

    QUESTION: John. Just --

    MR KIRBY: John.

    QUESTION: Just as a comms pro, do you have any parting wisdom to your future successors? You’ve obviously had a lot of experience in communications in an age of diplomacy that is increasingly digital in nature, and is probably only going to be increasingly digital, given the habits of the future president.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Just parting words about dealing with sensitive geopolitical issues in – to pass down?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t – I won’t take it upon myself to give advice or counsel to the incoming team or how they want to communicate. What I will say though, John, is when I first got this job, I came from the Pentagon, where we brief twice a week. And usually the briefings are much shorter there than they are here. And I – Mark will tell you – I actually asked the question, should – and I asked Matt and Elise when I met with them: Should we continue the daily briefing? Is it necessary? Because it seemed to me, when I first got here, that it was a little excessive. They’re almost an hour long, and it’s every single day. There’s an awful lot of churn that goes into getting this book ready – I mean, look at the size of this beast. So I asked the question. And the resounding opinion I got back was, “Yeah, they’re important.”

    So I decided to let it go for a little while and just see what – how that transpired. And obviously, I didn’t make any changes, because it was – I very quickly learned and appreciated the importance of this interchange. Now, obviously, we talk to you on email and phone calls and we answer your questions in many other ways, but the briefing’s really important, because it’s live, it’s on camera, and it gets transmitted all around the world, and it’s digested almost in real time. And it shows that we are not afraid to be held to account for our policy decisions, even when they’re complicated, even when they’re hard to answer, even when the questions are very, very tough. So I would – if I may be allowed to say this one thing, I would hope that the daily briefings continue and that they’re just as open and fair as the ones we’re having right now. I think that’s really --

    QUESTION: Maybe not as long.

    MR KIRBY: Maybe not as long, but I’m – but I think it’s really, really important to have – to be on the record. And I’m proud that the State Department and the White House do this every day. And there’s not many governments that do that, that hold themselves to account and open themselves up to this scrutiny. The scrutiny that you provide, the critical analysis that your stories offer to these very complex challenges – that makes the pursuit of the agenda more credible. The idea that you can be more credible by going around the press is false. It’s not borne out by reality. By working with the media – not through, but with – and allowing for your policies, when they’re written about, to have quotes and anecdotes from people who don’t believe in it and who don’t think it’s right – that balance, that nuance, provided in a given piece, I think makes the policy agenda actually more credible and authentic.

    QUESTION: Could you hold that book one more time? (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: I think they’re calling me to quit.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: I’ve got time for just a couple more.

    QUESTION: John?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: We certainly hope your successor will be making the briefing room fun. You know your sense of humor is very well received among Asian media. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Who have difficulty understanding American sense of --

    MR KIRBY: Especially when I was not trying to be funny.

    QUESTION: (Laughter.) They think you make the briefing room fun. So my question for you: What is the most memorable point – memory that when you travel with Secretary to China and in your dealings with a Chinese official?

    MR KIRBY: I think with – when I traveled with Secretary Kerry the last – the second to last time we were in Beijing, we had a lengthy back and forth with Foreign Minister Wang Yi over North Korea and trying to get these new sanctions on board. And the give and take and the sheer honesty of it was refreshing. Everybody thinks that when you sit down with the Chinese it’s formulaic, and there’s probably – there’s a little script to it; there’s no question about it. But when you get down to the brass tacks of an issue as complicated as the DPRK, and watching the Secretary and the foreign minister really have an honest, unscripted discussion – and they didn’t agree on everything when they had initial discussions about sanctions. Obviously, China signed up to those sanctions. But it was really refreshing to see that.

    QUESTION: John?

    MR KIRBY: That there’s passion on both sides.

    Yeah, Janne. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Can I follow that? Some (inaudible) issues, okay.

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: First of all, you have worked hard as our State Department spokesperson. I give you hard time sometimes – (laughter) – are you okay? But I appreciate --

    MR KIRBY: You give me a hard time every day.

    QUESTION: I deeply appreciate it, okay. So you are free from your stress for North Korean issues.

    Now I ask two questions for you. South Korea and then United States intelligence report said that North Korea is ready to launch two new ICBM. Can you confirm on that?

    MR KIRBY: No, I can’t. And you know I wouldn’t discuss intelligence matters, one way or the other.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: I leave here knowing that I have continued to leave you unsatisfied.

    QUESTION: Okay. One more. I’m sorry. One more. North Korea has restarting a plutonium production reactors. Do you have anything on this? So --

    MR KIRBY: I mean, look, we’ve seen reports of that too, Janne, and I’m not going to confirm intelligence matters or speak to that one way or the other. I would just, again, reaffirm our call that it’s time for the DPRK to stop these provocative actions and to do the right thing for the region and for its people.

    QUESTION: One last one. China is threatening with economically and military retaliations against the South Korea THAAD deployment. How will the United States response on this?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I wouldn’t get ahead of responses at this time. That would be premature. Let me just remind that there will be no reason to have the consultations with the Republic of Korea about the THAAD system if the DPRK wasn’t engaged in these provocative actions in pursuing ballistic missile technology and a nuclear weapons program. And I would also remind that THAAD is an air defense system and a defensive system only. But there would be no reason to have these consultations if the North would stop these provocative activities.

    I’ll go here, and then – and really, I got to go. One more.

    QUESTION: Okay. May I follow the U.S.-China relation? As we know, this is the last press briefing of State Department during Obama Administration. So how do you evaluate the relationship between U.S. and China in the past eight years? If the full mark is ten, what kind of score would you like to give, based on the performance of --

    MR KIRBY: Of my performance?

    QUESTION: -- U.S. cooperation? Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: No, look, the President and Secretary Kerry both said it’s one of the most consequential bilateral relationships in the world today, and I think we leave office realizing that it is. And there have been many areas where we have cooperated very productively with China – on climate change, for instance. And China was at the table for the Iran deal. There are other areas where, obviously, we don’t see eye-to-eye. There are still tensions over activities in cyberspace. And obviously, there are still tensions in the area of the South China Sea.

    So it’s a complicated relationship. It covers a broad range of issues, not just regional issues. We continue to welcome the rise of a peaceful, productive China. And we continue to believe that having a meaningful and effective and cordial bilateral relationship with China is important going forward. But we’ll – the next team will have to make a decision for themselves on how they want to manage that relationship.

    QUESTION: So that’s a – that sounds like a six. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: As for the “one China” policy, are you going to give any advice to the next administration, as for the “one China” policy?

    MR KIRBY: No, I’m not going to give them advice. But I was just – on one China, obviously we continue to believe that that policy is relevant and right. And for our time in office, we have abided by that. We think that it is appropriate for moving that relationship forward, as well as regional security and stability. Okay?

    QUESTION: John --

    MR KIRBY: I got to go.

    QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Thus ends eight years of Obama Administration foreign policy from the State Department podium. Thank you and good luck.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks, Matt. Thank you, everybody.

    QUESTION: Thank you.


    (The briefing was concluded at 3:05 p.m.)

    [i] The invitation was officially extended by Kazakhstan.

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 17, 2017

Tue, 01/17/2017 - 16:44
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 17, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing


    2:14 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: Hello, everybody.

    QUESTION: Hello.

    MR KIRBY: A couple things at the top, and then we’ll get right at it.

    We want to extend, on behalf of the State Department of the United States, our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who were killed and injured in a plane crash – I’m sorry – Sunday outside Bishkek. We, of course, stand with the people of the Kyrgyz Republic as they observe a national day of mourning, and we offer our support to the government as they recover from this tragedy.

    On the Green Climate Fund – and you’ll see a statement from me after the briefing as well – but today, the United States is announcing that it has made an additional $500 million grant to the Green Climate Fund. This grant follows last year’s initial grant of 500 million as part of the $3 billion pledge to the GCF made by President Obama in 2014. The GCF, the global climate – I’m sorry – the Green Climate Fund is a critical tool that helps catalyze billions of dollars in public and private investment in countries dealing not only with the challenges of climate change but the immense economic opportunities that are embedded in the transition to a lower-carbon economy. The United States is pleased to have played a leading role in the establishment of the GCF, and we are also pleased to be making this significant grant.

    With that, Matt.

    QUESTION: Well, that’s a bit of a surprise. I was going to start with something else, but since the incoming administration, which will take office in three days, is adamantly opposed to the Green Climate Fund and thinks that it’s a waste of money, why on – and you guys say you’re committed to a smooth transition, why would you do this $500 million now?

    MR KIRBY: Well, it’s – first of all, it’s a continuation of --

    QUESTION: In the last --

    MR KIRBY: -- an initial 500 grant of a $3 billion pledge.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Right.

    MR KIRBY: Okay. So it – this is a continuation of this Administration’s --

    QUESTION: I understand.

    MR KIRBY: -- policy support and financial support to climate change initiatives.

    QUESTION: When was the – the initial payment was made on, what, January 17th last year? Is it that? Is that why it’s coming today?

    MR KIRBY: I’ll have to get to you the exact date of --

    QUESTION: It just seems a bit surprising to offer up or to give out a pretty significant amount of money that people on the Hill, as well as people in the incoming administration, have said they’re not going to --

    MR KIRBY: There’s plenty of support on the Hill as well for climate change initiatives and this fund in particular. I’m not saying that everybody in Congress obviously supports --

    QUESTION: Well, there’s been some pretty strenuous objections from Republicans, and they now control Congress.

    MR KIRBY: And there’s also been some strident support from the other side of the aisle, Matt.

    QUESTION: Yes, but now – they’re in the minority now, and --

    MR KIRBY: But this Administration has committed to this fund, in fact helped stand it up, establish it. And it is entirely in keeping with the work that we’ve been doing across the interagency to try to look for ways to stem the effects of climate change. And this fund helps other economies, other countries, develop their own initiatives and help them deal with this.

    QUESTION: Right. I understand that. And your reaction to my question is that you think that I am taking this personally. I’m not. I’m just wondering --

    MR KIRBY: No. (Laughter.) I don’t think you’re taking it personally.

    QUESTION: -- how it is – I’m not – but the fact of the matter is, is that this Administration is leaving office on Friday and this is a program that the incoming administration has raised serious questions about, if not outright opposition to.

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: And it doesn’t seem to be fitting, in the spirit of a smooth transition, to put – make this kind of an outlay three – two and a half days, three days before --

    MR KIRBY: Well, it’s not being – it’s not being – it’s not being done to try to provoke a reaction from the incoming administration or to try to dictate to them, one way or the other, how they are going to deal with climate issues.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: But I mean, to take your argument to the extreme – and I’m not taking it personally, but to take it to the extreme that would me that we – for the entire time that this Administration is in office we simply don’t start – we don’t continue to execute and implement our own policy agenda items, and this is one of them. I mean just like we continue to --

    QUESTION: Well, right. But --

    MR KIRBY: Just like we continue to meet our commitments under the Iran deal.

    QUESTION: Right. But this is really kind of the question of timing. I mean, there’s – was there something preventing you from doing this in, say, November or December? Why wait until January 17th?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I – there was no concerted effort here to wait until two or three days to do this. It is a continuation.

    QUESTION: Okay. Because --

    MR KIRBY: This is an investment that had been long planned. I don’t --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t believe there was any nefarious desire or intent to do it just two days before.

    QUESTION: Okay. Well --

    QUESTION: John, was this permitted under the – was this legitimate in any way under the continuing resolution for the last budget? Was there any – wasn’t there some attempt to try to prohibit continued spending on this? Or am I wrong?

    MR KIRBY: No, actually. Congress provided $4.3 billion in funding for the Economic Support Fund, that account in Fiscal Year 2016, which is used to fund environmental programs and many other foreign assistance programs and is a primary account through which the Administration requested this particular funding. So while over one-half of the account is earmarked for specific programs or activities, the remainder is available for other programs to carry out the ESF authority in the Foreign Assistance Act.

    So for the Global – for the Green Climate Fund – I keep saying – want to say – I keep wanting to say global. For the Green Climate Fund, the Administration is using a portion of the Fiscal Year 2016 ESF account, not earmarked by Congress and is consistent with past president for – past precedent for providing funds to support this particular fund.

    QUESTION: So last year, it came from the same pot of money?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, it’s from the – it’s from the Fiscal Year 2016 appropriation. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Past precedent.

    MR KIRBY: What did I say?

    QUESTION: President.

    MR KIRBY: Precedent.

    QUESTION: You’re not the only one who --

    MR KIRBY: Thank you for the enunciation assistance.

    QUESTION: You’re not the only one who’s made that – and just last thing.

    MR KIRBY: That was not a Freudian slip.

    QUESTION: So is this money – is this – this money is out the door? It can’t be taken back, should the next administration decide it does not like this program?

    MR KIRBY: Well, that’s certainly a decision that the incoming administration could – they can discuss it. I can tell you though that the funds have been obligated and expended to the trust fund, the GCF trust fund.

    QUESTION: So it’s gone?

    MR KIRBY: And now they are controlled by the GCF board --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: -- which includes the United States, to decide how to use them effectively.

    QUESTION: Well, okay. Do you know – does the board – could the U.S. representative to this board say, all right, no, you can’t have this money anymore?

    MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, the United States is represented on the board and therefore has a voice on the board. I can’t speak to what board discussions or what administration discussions might occur after the 20th. Certainly, this is something they can discuss. But the money has been provided to the board now for use.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: And did you pay it at the same time last year?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t know, Carol.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: I’ll have to get back to you on that.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Said.

    QUESTION: Can we go to Syria?

    MR KIRBY: Wait.

    QUESTION: No. Well, that was just this one issue. I want to – kind of about Syria but also just about transition in general, has there been a decision made on who will be the acting or interim secretary, should the president-elect’s nominee not be confirmed by Friday?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that --

    QUESTION: Or Friday afternoon?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that there’s been that decision made. That’s a question really better put to the Trump transition team.

    QUESTION: Okay. And then along that line and having to do with Syria, has there been a decision made on participation in the Kazakhstan conference on the 23rd?

    MR KIRBY: Again, that’s a decision that should be posed to the Trump transition team. I’m not aware that they have made a decision --

    QUESTION: Okay. But so the – on neither of those there has – or there – yes or no? Has there been any contact between the current Administration and the transition team on either of those issues?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not – well, as you know, I try not to talk about our communications with the transition team. I’m not aware of any specific discussions or where those discussions have fallen out.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Obviously, the – I’m given to understand – excuse me – that the transition team is certainly mindful of succession responsibilities come the 20th, should the nominee not be confirmed. But I’m not aware that they’ve made any final decisions with respect to that, and that’s really for them to speak to.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: On the conference, again, I’m not aware that there’s been any specific communication with the incoming team about this. But as you know, the conference begins next week, and so therefore it would be entirely up to them to decide whether to participate and at what level.

    QUESTION: Right. Now, you – has this Administration been in any contact with the Russians or the Turks about whether – the Russians say that they have invited the new – the incoming administration to participate. The Iranians, on the other hand, have said basically over my dead body; they don’t want any U.S. participation in this. Has there been an invitation that you’re aware of, through this building, to the occupants of the offices in this building post-January 20th?

    MR KIRBY: What I – I think the Secretary spoke to this over the weekend. We are certainly aware of reports of an invitation to the incoming team. And again, that makes perfect sense, given the calendar and when this conference starts. I’m not aware of any specific communication to or with us now with respect to attendance at the conference. But this is a decision that has to be made by the incoming administration.


    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Have you encouraged the next administration to participate should they --

    MR KIRBY: Well, the Secretary --

    QUESTION: -- issue an invitation, like he said --

    MR KIRBY: The Secretary said so publicly over the weekend that he would absolutely encourage them to participate in the discussion. But again, it’s their decision to make.

    QUESTION: I want to ask you about what --

    QUESTION: Could I --

    QUESTION: -- is going on, the assault on Deir al-Zour at the present time. There is – ISIS is conducting an assault on the Syrian town of Deir al-Zour.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: They’re saying that this was made possible because many of the fighters fled Mosul and they were actually basically – they go in essence that you did not attack them on – en route or anything like this. Do you have any comment on that? And could you update us on what the status is as far as the Deir al-Zour assault is?

    MR KIRBY: Well, no. Actually, Said, I can’t give you an update on the status of Deir al-Zour or what’s going on on the ground. I simply – we don’t have great visibility in terms of tactical operations one way or another. Certainly mindful that ISIL has a presence there, mindful of reports that the regime, backed by their supporters, is trying to deal with that. But I would refer you to the regime and to their Russian backers to speak to specifically what’s going on on the ground there.

    QUESTION: But you reject the notion that you looked the other way and basically allowed them? You reject that notion, that you looked at these fighters flowing from Mosul to Syria, you looked the other way, the coalition fighters or airplanes did not attack them?

    MR KIRBY: I think any suggestion that – any suggestion that the coalition has not taken seriously opportunities to continue to pound Daesh from the air and to continue to support effective fighters on the ground who are going after Daesh is – obviously flies in the face of facts. The fact is that Deir al-Zour has been in an ISIL-dominated area of Syria for quite some time. It’s not new that they’re there. And we’ve had this discussion about Mosul in the past. And yes, we knew that ISIL fighters would leave Mosul as the campaign started. Not at all surprised that some of them would run away. And the coalition has – and you’ve seen the reports out of the Pentagon – has taken advantage of opportunities when they can to hit these guys. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get every single one, and I can’t say definitively that none of them fled to Deir al-Zour. But to say that that hasn’t been part of previously ISIL-dominated areas in Syria, again, is just not – it doesn’t comport with facts.

    QUESTION: And my last one on this one. Foreign Minister Lavrov said that you – that the United States tried to utilize the emergence and the attacks by Daesh as a way – as a useful tool, maybe, to bring down the regime in Syria. Do you have any comment on that? Can you respond to that?

    MR KIRBY: There’s --

    QUESTION: You probably saw the --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, no, I saw his comments. We have talked about this before.

    QUESTION: But this is also new today.

    MR KIRBY: What we want to see in terms of the civil war in Syria is a political solution, and that’s why the Secretary worked so hard in his tenure to try to get a transition in place, a ceasefire that can be meaningful, humanitarian aid, and political talks resume, so that we can have a political solution actually discussed and realized.

    The fight against Daesh – there is a military component against that, against Daesh. And that is the purpose of it, to go after Daesh. We’ve long said in terms of the civil war, there’s not going to be a military solution; it’s got to be political. But the activities that the coalition conducts in Syria is against Daesh and Daesh alone. And any suggestion that we have in any way used that effort to try to spur some outcome, a separate outcome in the civil war, again, just doesn’t jive with the facts on the ground.

    QUESTION: Can – as long as we’ve – we’re talking about what Lavrov said, he also said that the United States had tried to convert some of its diplomats here in Washington to spies --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- at one point dropping $10,000 into a car. And it denied that there had ever been any harassment of U.S. diplomats, said it found no evidence of that.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, look, I --

    QUESTION: Can you respond to that, please?

    MR KIRBY: What I can tell you is – I mean, I’ve seen the foreign minister’s comments, and I think he can speak to allegations all he wants. I’m not going to – I’ve got nothing more for you on that. The only thing I would say, and is what we’ve said so many times before, that over the last year or plus we have seen an increase in the harassment of our diplomats. You saw the very dramatic video yourself of one of our employees literally being assaulted as he was trying to enter the embassy grounds.

    And it is because of that increase in harassment, one of the reasons why, the President just in the last couple of weeks sanctioned some additional entities and individuals in Russia and declared persona non grata on some 35 Russian diplomats, and shut down two facilities which we know where we – which we know were – had intel – some intelligence purposes to them. So we’ve laid pretty clear, and it’s been – at least in – you’ve – in terms of the incident I just talked about, you can see for yourself the harassment that our diplomats have faced. But I’ll let Foreign Minister Lavrov speak to the specifics of whatever allegations he wants to make. But again, I think we’ve been very clear about where we are.

    QUESTION: Is that a denial that you attempted to turn diplomats into --

    MR KIRBY: I’m – I’m going to leave it – I’m going to leave it where I did.


    QUESTION: John? Another version or stories also involve $10,000 while the other – the version is involve the medicine and apology from Secretary Kerry. Was there any apology from Secretary Kerry in regard to that?

    MR KIRBY: Look, again, you can talk to Foreign Minister Lavrov about his views and what he said. I’ve made clear. The harassment that our diplomats have been facing for more than a year has been obvious; you’ve seen it for yourself. The President took action a couple of weeks ago; and again, I’ll leave it there.

    QUESTION: So there’s absolutely no apology from Secretary Kerry on this?

    MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered the question.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    MR KIRBY: Yes.

    QUESTION: Iran has appointed a new ambassador to Iraq and the Kurds seem to like him better than the previous ambassador for various reasons. Do you share that view about the new ambassador or have a different view or any view on him?

    MR KIRBY: We actually don’t have a view on this. These are decisions that sovereign nations make and they should speak for them.

    QUESTION: Well, what if they appointed a terrorist to be ambassador? Would you have any problem?

    MR KIRBY: Again, this is an issue for these two nations to speak to. We’re not going to take a position on every ambassador by every nation to some third-party nation.

    QUESTION: And a question on Turkey. They arrested the shooter in the night – New Year’s --

    MR KIRBY: The alleged shooter, yeah.

    QUESTION: The alleged shooter in the New Year’s attack on the Istanbul night club. Turkey’s deputy prime minister said that it appears that that attack was quote, “not just a terrorist organization’s action, but there was also an intelligence organization involved.” Do you know anything about that? Have any more --

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any additional information on the investigation into this attack. We condemned it very, very, very clearly when it occurred. And our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to all of those that were affected by it. But this is a Turkish investigation; Turkish authorities need to speak to what they’re learning at whatever pace they’re comfortable doing.


    QUESTION: John, there are reports suggesting that the Syrian Kurdish group PYD will open an office here in Washington for its representative. I was wondering if you’re aware of this or if this topic came up in official meeting – the diplomatic --

    MR KIRBY: Not aware of it. Haven’t heard anything about it, no.

    QUESTION: Okay. But if they open, there is no restriction on that, right? I mean --

    MR KIRBY: I haven’t heard anything about it. I just don’t have any information for you guys on that, I just don’t. Never heard it.


    QUESTION: The Balkans. Can you confirm that U.S. imposed sanctions on Mr. Milorad Dodik, who is president of smaller entity in Bosnia Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, the embassy – its embassy in Belgrade said something about that, but not too openly. And I would like to know, can you confirm that please?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, let me --

    QUESTION: And why?

    MR KIRBY: Give me one second. Okay, Elizabeth, where is it? I’m going to take the question for you, okay? I’ll have to get back to you.


    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: A WikiLeaks question. Has the State Department ever asked Britain or Ecuador to take action against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks?

    MR KIRBY: I think I addressed this back in October, Catherine. There was some reports out there that Secretary Kerry had asked – specifically asked Ecuadorian officials to, quote/unquote, “shut down” his – Mr. Assange’s access to the internet, and we were – and we denied that, obviously, very clearly. It wasn’t – just the allegations weren’t true. So then we – Secretary Kerry and the State Department – did not take any overt action in terms of shutting down his access to the internet.

    That said, we have been nothing but clear since WikiLeaks started several years ago, in many diplomatic channels, on many levels, and over the years in many instances about our concerns about the harm that continues to come from the information that is – that WikiLeaks obtains and WikiLeaks then publishes to – certainly to our national security interests. So this is an ongoing issue for us, and we are certainly engaged and continue to be engaged diplomatically on it.

    QUESTION: I just want to decode that a little bit.

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: So is that senior State Department leadership speaking through backchannels to their counterparts in Britain, Ecuador, other countries?

    MR KIRBY: Well, without getting into the details of diplomatic discussions, I think you can safely assume that on many levels here at the State Department – and I would venture to say across the interagency – there are constant, ongoing discussions about – and it’s not just WikiLeaks, but since we’re on WikiLeaks, certainly about the harm that continues to come from the information that this organization gets and then publishes.

    QUESTION: Just one more follow-up.

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: Do you think that’s been effective? Because for 10 years and to this day, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange continue to release information that the U.S. characterizes as harmful to national security.

    MR KIRBY: Who I think – I think we would all admit that we’d like to be able to find better solutions here. And it’s not that we aren’t frustrated by the ability of this organization to continue to leak harmful information, information that hurts not only our national security interests, but in some cases, the national security interests of our allies, friends, and partners. And it is damaging, and I think it is not just an American problem; it’s an international problem. And we continue to have discussions, as I said, with our allies, friends, and partners about how to deal with this. But obviously, the group’s ability to obtain information and to publish it persists, and that’s a problem, and we have worked on it.

    QUESTION: I just have one more follow-up there. Has – do you think the most significant damage has been to the relationship between the United States and other countries, in terms of other nations losing trust that the information is safe?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I would let, I think, other countries speak to that themselves. I can’t characterize how each and every other nation may have been affected or may have reacted to leaks of information. And I think you can certainly look, in recent years, to the way Germany reacted, for instance, in one case. And they’re really better postured --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: -- to speak for their own. Certainly, there have been instances when these leaks have caused tensions. There’s no doubt about that. But I think, as we get ready now to transition to a new administration, that we’re comfortable that whatever tensions had been caused have been worked through, and we’re going to – and we continue to have strong bilateral relationships with many of these nations, and we expect that that will continue.

    QUESTION: Just one final if I could: With hindsight, do you think more pressure could have been brought to bear by the United States?

    MR KIRBY: I think this is a global – this is an international problem, Catherine. It’s not – it isn’t just about the United States. And we continue to take this very, very seriously. We continue to have meaningful conversations with international partners. But obviously, you can’t control each and every individual or actor, whether it’s a state actor or a non-state actor, from providing information to Mr. Assange, who then he determines to publish.

    It is damaging. It’s harmful. And we’d all like it to stop. And we’ve worked hard with our partners to do the best we can. And some of that stems from trying to have better cyber security methods in place. It’s a dangerous dynamic realm, and it’s not perfect. So I think, obviously, we’d be the first to admit that we’re not happy to continue to see leaks of harmful information being provided to him – information of a harmful nature being provided to him, which he then publishes. And I think we would all agree that, certainly, more should be and should continue to be done. Okay?

    QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Yeah. Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Thank you. Can we go to West Africa? First, Gambia or the Gambia – the outgoing president has declared state of emergency. I’d like to have your reaction to that. And he’s accusing of foreign interference. To your knowledge, which countries is he talking about?

    MR KIRBY: He’s – I’m sorry. Say that last part again.

    QUESTION: The outgoing president is accusing of foreign interference. To your knowledge, is --

    MR KIRBY: Foreign --

    QUESTION: Interference.

    MR KIRBY: Oh, interference.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: Look, I mean, he’s – President Jammeh is losing opportunities to respect the will of the Gambian people and to peacefully hand over power to the president-elect, which is supposed to happen on Thursday. Doing so would allow him to leave office with his head held high and to protect the Gambian people from potential chaos. Failure to do so will put his legacy – and, more importantly, the Gambia – in peril, and we have been clear about this.

    I don’t know what interference he’s referring to, but we obviously want to see the Gambia succeed and we want to see the president-elect properly installed and to have in place a government which is responsible for and responsive to the needs of the Gambian people.


    QUESTION: And – sorry, another one – another country in West Africa: Nigeria. Are you aware of this bombing by accident by the Nigerian air force against a camp --

    MR KIRBY: All I saw was press reports on that. I would refer you to Nigeria for more information. I don’t have anything on that. All I saw was a headline here before I came out today.

    QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up on that?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Do you have any information about what support the U.S. is still providing the Nigerian Government as far as going after Boko Haram? I know in the past that there had been logistical, equipment, training.

    MR KIRBY: We do continue to provide some counterterrorism assistance, but Abbie, let me have the bureau get back to you with details on what that looks like. I don’t – I just don’t have that handy.


    QUESTION: John, the Government of Belarus has arrested Israeli-Russian blogger Alexander Lapshin based on request from Azerbaijan because the Government of Azerbaijan accuses this blogger for visiting Nagorno-Karabakh and also for some public statements that were not favorable for the Azerbaijani Government – particularly, as they phrased it, because there were public calls against the state by Lapshin. Now the Government of Azerbaijan also demands the extradition of Lapshin.

    Israeli Government resisted this. Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov again resisted extradition today in his public statement. And the Committee to Protect Journalists from New York also called for unconditional release of the blogger. I was wondering if the Department of State follows the situation with arrest of the blogger.

    MR KIRBY: First, I’d say this is really something for the relevant countries to speak to, especially when you’re talking about extradition requests. That’s really for them to speak to. Obviously, press freedom is important to us, and we talk about it all the time. I don’t have any specific information with respect to this case, but I’d refer you to the relevant countries to speak to that.

    QUESTION: But you are concerned with the issue of free journalist movement --

    MR KIRBY: We are always concerned with the issue of press freedom. That is something that we speak to almost every day, sadly. We have to speak to it every day. So certainly, our concern over the freedom of journalists to do their jobs remains very robust, but I don’t have any specific information on this case. And as for – you’re talking about foreign extradition requests. I don’t have – I just don’t have any knowledge of it, and that’s really not something that would be appropriate for the State Department to speak to anyway.


    QUESTION: Very quickly on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. But first of all, could you inform us of any kind of other content of the conversation between the Secretary of State and the prime minister of Israel in terms of maybe whether the Secretary of State requested that the Israeli Government refrain from excessive, let’s say, activities that may hinder the peace process as he laid it out in his vision, which is to accelerate settlements, maybe enforce more checkpoints, and so on?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any additional detail from the conversation that the Secretary had with Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, he did speak in broad terms to it when we were in Paris, and he made clear that the conversation was largely to provide some basic information about the conference as --

    QUESTION: About the conference itself.

    MR KIRBY: Huh?

    QUESTION: Yeah, about the conference.

    MR KIRBY: About how the conference was proceeding, and also to assure the prime minister that, as we have so many times in the past, that we were going to work to make sure the communique was properly balanced. And we felt that it was.

    QUESTION: And are you disappointed that the British Government seems to have lobbied against the adoption of the communique by the European Union?

    MR KIRBY: That’s something for the – that’s for the UK to speak to, Said.

    QUESTION: Okay. I have just a couple more. The reason is because today, despite the objection of the attorney general of Israel, the Israeli Knesset passed a law allowing for the West Bank Military Court verdict to be admissible in Israel. Some think that this is really a prelude to annexation. Do you have any comment on that?

    MR KIRBY: Actually, I do not. We’re – we don’t have a comment on this.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: Oh, wait, wait. I got one – I got two questions on the same thing, same country: Bahrain.

    MR KIRBY: How is that the same country?

    QUESTION: What? I have two questions about Bahrain.

    MR KIRBY: Oh, about the same country. Oh, okay.

    QUESTION: Bahrain and Bahrain. Those are the two countries.

    MR KIRBY: All right, I thought you were talking about Israel.

    QUESTION: No, no, no, no.

    MR KIRBY: And that’s why I was confused how a question on Bahrain – how that has to do with Israel, but now I understand.

    QUESTION: Right. One is: Do you have any reaction to the execution of three prisoners that happened, I believe, either yesterday or the day before?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, we – we’ve seen the Bahraini Government’s announcement that it executed three people. Violent attacks against the police, such as the one that took the lives of the three officers in this case originally are reprehensible, of course, and deserve condemnation. We’ve also seen allegations that the individuals facing execution were victims of torture, and that the evidence used against them in court was extracted, in part, through coerced confessions.

    So we’re concerned that these executions occurred at a time of elevated tensions in Bahrain. We continue to call on all parties to show restraint and to contribute to a climate that is conducive for dialogue and reconciliation. And again, we call on the Government of Bahrain to return urgently to the path of reconciliation, and to work collectively to address the aspirations of all Bahrainis. This, we believe, is the best way to marginalize those who support violence and bring greater security and stability to the region.

    QUESTION: So your concern is that they would – that the executions took place at a moment of tension?

    MR KIRBY: We’re concerned that we’re – as I said, we’re --

    QUESTION: But you don’t have a problem with the reports of the – of the forced confessions of --

    MR KIRBY: No, I think we have expressed our concerns about these executions and the way in – and way – and the information in which we have about the way these individuals were detained and were coerced into confessions.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR KIRBY: And we have raised those concerns repeatedly with the Bahraini Government.

    QUESTION: Right, but it sounded like – maybe I did not hear it correctly, but it sounded as though your main concern was that the execution – not that the executions took place, but that they took place at a time when there was heightened tensions.

    MR KIRBY: We are concerned that they took place. We’re certainly also concerned about the context in which they took place.

    QUESTION: All right, okay. And then the other one is the closure of the opposition newspaper.

    MR KIRBY: Opposition newspaper. You’re talking about Al-Wasat Online?

    QUESTION: Mm-hmm, the online version, yeah.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah. We are concerned by the decision of the Government of Bahrain to suspend the online version of the independent newspaper, Al-Wasat, as we’ve consistently maintained – and I just talked about this a minute ago – a free press that is allowed to peacefully voice criticisms of the government plays a vital role in inclusive pluralistic governments and societies.


    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Said.

    QUESTION: A quick one on Yemen? Sorry, very quickly. The UN yesterday said that 10,000 people have been killed in Yemen since the start of the war, that half the population has no food security, aid is not getting in nor medicine, and so on. Do you have any comment on that? Is the Secretary doing anything?

    MR KIRBY: I can’t confirm the UN report of casualties. Clearly, the issue of civilian casualties, the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Yemen has long been a concern. That’s why the Secretary has spent so much time --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR KIRBY: -- and effort on this issue as well. I can’t confirm those numbers, but obviously, what we – nothing changes about what we want to see there, which is a peaceful resolution to this conflict so that Yemenis don’t have to fear the potential for attacks on them or their infrastructure, and we can get humanitarian aid to so many Yemenis who are still in need.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:49 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 12, 2017

Thu, 01/12/2017 - 18:44
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 12, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ
  • CUBA


    1:44 p.m. EST

    MR TONER: Hey guys.

    QUESTION: Hello.

    MR TONER: Welcome to the State Department. My name is Mark, and I’ll be your hostess tonight. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Seriously, that’s the way you want to --

    MR TONER: No. Welcome to the State Department. I don’t have anything at the top, so I’ll turn it over to your questions. Matt?

    QUESTION: Okay. I don’t really have a lot either because things seem to be in a big state of flux. (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: And I’m not exactly sure why --

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: -- but in a week or so I think we’ll know. I do have one small thing, and that is --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- or it’s not small necessarily, but I don’t know how much you’ll be able to say about it. Yesterday you guys announced the Secretary’s travel, his --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- presumably his last trip as Secretary of State. And I’m interested in particular in the stop in Paris and the Mideast conference that the French are hosting there. What is it that you guys expect to get out of this meeting, given the fact that there’s only – at that point there will be less than a week left in your holding of the reins --

    MR TONER: Yeah, I mean --

    QUESTION: -- or of this Administration’s holding of the reins.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: And less than a week, presumably, of – given comments from the president-elect and his team, less than a week of the current policy.

    MR TONER: Sure. Well – sorry, I don’t mean to talk over you.


    MR TONER: Obviously, we recognize the short amount of time remaining in this Administration’s tenure. That said, this conference is going to take place with us or without us; and I think the Secretary, given his dedication and commitment to Middle East peace process and his engagement on the issue, feels obliged to be there because we have an interest in advancing a two-state solution, and we also have an interest in ensuring that whatever happens in this conference is constructive and balanced.

    QUESTION: Constructive and --

    MR TONER: And balanced.

    QUESTION: -- balanced. How so?

    MR TONER: Well, I think in terms of – we’ve said this before – we don’t want to certainly see anything come up that attempts to impose a solution on Israel. We want to see a constructive approach. And I’m not trying to predict that this is going to go one way or the other; I’m just saying we need to be at the table, and we need to be part of that discussion to ensure that our concerns with regard to whatever emerges on a two-state solution is aligned with our ideals or our concerns.

    QUESTION: Are you saying – you’re saying then that the Secretary, the Administration more broadly, feels obliged to go to protect Israel from a one-sided statement? Is that --

    MR TONER: I think we just – again, I think we feel obliged to be there, to be part of the discussions, to help make them into something that we believe is constructive and positively oriented towards --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- getting negotiations back up and running, and doesn’t attempt to in any way kind of dictate a solution or --

    QUESTION: Right. It’s just – I don’t know, it’s a little bit odd --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- to hear you say that you want to be there to make sure that it’s not one-sided, because critics of the Administration – including the man who has been nominated to succeed Secretary Kerry – have been very critical of the Administration’s most recent actions, the abstention at the UN on the Security Council resolution and then the Secretary’s speech saying that that – they say that it was a betrayal, that you stabbed Israel in the back. And now you’re saying that you want to go to this conference, or you feel like you have to go to this conference in order to protect Israel from a one-sided result. Do you see that there is a bit of a dissonance there?

    MR TONER: So – no, let me – I’ll attempt to respond to several different aspects of that question. First of all, we stand by our abstention. We’ve made very clear the reasons why we did it; that it wasn’t, we believed, one-sided against Israel; that it did, in fact, call out Palestinian actions that are also – run counter to what our ultimate goal is, which is a two-state solution. And we don’t want – I don’t want to re-litigate that now, but we stand by that decision.

    Also, I don’t want to attempt to – forgive me if I was trying to – if I sounded a little bit too negative about this conference. I think we just want to be – any time there is this level and this type of gathering, I think it’s important that the U.S. be at the table. And certainly, the Secretary feels this way, given the importance of the issue and, as I said, his level of engagement on Middle East peace. And I think he wants to be there to ensure that U.S. interests and concerns are addressed. And I don’t want to – I’m not trying to prejudge the outcome of this.

    QUESTION: Okay. Well, I mean, you would acknowledge though that those U.S. interests and concerns that he is there to preserve and are – seem that they’re going to change significantly after next Friday at noon, right?

    MR TONER: Again, though, I mean, I don’t think that just because we’re in the waning days here --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: -- doesn’t, I think, allow us to abdicate our responsibilities.

    QUESTION: All right. One – French officials --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- have said that one reason that they want to have this now and have it before the inauguration is to send a message to the incoming administration. And they have suggested that in whatever document this conference produces, in the final document, that there could be a reference or a warning about – to the incoming administration about moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Is that something that this Administration is prepared to support if it does, in fact, come up?

    MR TONER: I mean, first of all, our position on moving the embassy to Jerusalem is – hasn’t changed and is very well known.

    QUESTION: Yeah --

    MR TONER: Secondly --

    QUESTION: -- but you can concede --

    MR TONER: But secondly – secondly, I don’t want to also deal with what may or may not come out of this conference. I think we just have to wait and see. And let’s wait and meet and see what comes out of it. We’re not going in there with any kind of intent to in any way box in the incoming administration. Again, our goal writ large with the new administration coming in is to be helpful in the transition. That said, we’ve been very clear where we stand with that issue.

    QUESTION: But just two very brief things on that.

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: You would concede, though, that that that longstanding position of yours on the embassy, if you judge by the statements that have been made by the president-elect and members of his team, is not – is going to change on Friday, right?

    MR TONER: Again, that may very well be the case, just judging by what he has said publicly.

    QUESTION: Okay. Secondly, to take it out of the realm of the hypothetical and perhaps put you more on the spot in a position where you actually have to – can’t duck the question because it is a hypothetical: Would the United States block an attempt to include a warning about moving the embassy in the final statement?

    MR TONER: Still technically a hypothetical.

    QUESTION: No, it’s not.

    MR TONER: (Laughter.) Look, Matt – let’s let – and I’m not trying to --

    QUESTION: I distinctly avoided the word “if.” (Laughter.) That means that it is not a hypothetical.

    MR TONER: It’s conditional, I guess. Look --

    QUESTION: Will the United States --

    MR TONER: I don’t want to attempt --

    QUESTION: How about – forget about “would.”

    MR TONER: Yeah. Will the United States block --

    QUESTION: Will the Administration – will Secretary Kerry, speaking on behalf of this Administration, block an attempt to warn the incoming administration against moving the embassy to Jerusalem in a final document that is produced by this conference?

    MR TONER: I think Secretary Kerry, as have others in this Administration, been very clear on their views about moving the U.S. embassy, relocating the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the possible implications that could have on Palestinian-Israeli peace but also on tensions writ large. I am not going to attempt to either characterize what may or may not come out of this conference before they’ve actually met or prejudge it or to attempt to say that this is something that’s going to come out of it. I think we’ve been very clear on where we stand with regard to relocating the embassy. But I’m not going to, like, say – I’m not going to in any way affirm some of the actions that may come out of this conference. Let’s let it happen.

    QUESTION: It’s going to be interesting when I ask you the same question on January 23rd what your longstanding position has been, but I’m not sure I understand why it is you can’t --

    MR TONER: I’ll have a different hairstyle. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: -- why you can’t say that you would or wouldn’t block it.

    MR TONER: I just – partly, Matt – look, it’s not – I mean, we know what our --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: We know what our position is.

    QUESTION: But you have evinced two competing ideas here. One is that the Administration’s longstanding position and previous administrations’ longstanding position is that moving the embassy is – would be a bad thing.

    MR TONER: Correct.

    QUESTION: And at the same time, you’ve said – take that, one. Two, the incoming administration, the president-elect and his team, have said that that’s not their position, that they are going to move it, and that it’s going to happen. And then you also say – part two of this is that you don’t want to do anything to box in the incoming administration. So if you want to do two, number two, I don’t see how you can --

    MR TONER: The only thing I’m saying, Matt, is that we --

    QUESTION: -- cannot block – how you can stay true to --

    MR TONER: There’s only one president at a time.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: And as of January 20th, there’s going to be a new president.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: Till the end of this Administration, it will be our policy that moving – relocating the embassy to Jerusalem would be a mistake, would be --

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: So does that mean that you would not see a document that comes out of this that warns the incoming administration against moving the embassy – you would not see that as boxing them in?

    MR TONER: I – again, it depends on what the document looks like and what comes out of this. That’s partly my reluctance, is I don’t know what’s going to come out of this meeting.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: I think what we want to see come out of the meeting – if I could put it this way and try to put it in a little bit different manner, but what we want to see come out of this meeting is constructive and balanced.

    QUESTION: Well, going into the meeting --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- would you be willing to support a warning to the incoming administration that --

    MR TONER: I don't have an answer for you on that.

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Well, to follow up on that, given that you feel that you – obliged and you need to be at the table, what exactly is the Secretary’s message to the meeting going to be? Don’t do anything rash? Wait for the new administration? Talk to them? What exactly --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- would you see is his --

    MR TONER: Well, again, I feel like so much of this has already been – I mean, the Secretary’s views on where the Middle East peace process stands and the challenges that are facing it are, as we all know, very public, coming out of his speech a couple weeks ago. I think that, as I just explained to Matt, he’s going to Paris to participate in this conference because he believes it’s worth our while to have a seat at the table when any large group of leaders, his counterparts, are sitting around to talk about the future of the Middle East peace process to make sure, as I said, that U.S. views are expressed and heard.

    I just don’t want to prejudge the outcome of this conference. We just don’t know what’s going to come out of it. I think we’re looking for – and we’ve said this many times about this Paris conference, because it’s been, frankly, talked about for some time – is that we just want to see whatever comes out of it to be constructive and balanced and not try to prejudge any kind of outcome. And so --

    QUESTION: Is there --

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: I mean, the way you put it now, I mean, is there a – what exactly is your concern, that they could rush off and impose things that might change the dynamic without a proper conversation?

    MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I think that the Secretary just wants to make sure – I mean, we – look, we’ve got – we’ve been very clear, and it was talked a lot about in the context of this abstention from the UN Security Council resolution, that we don’t want to see any action in the UN Security Council, for instance, that would attempt to impose a solution on Israel. We don’t know if that’s the plan coming out of this. We don’t know what the plan is for further action. I think we’re going to listen and to provide our viewpoint.

    QUESTION: Also following up on what Matt just said, I mean, would you stand – would the U.S. take a hard position if there were indications from the Europeans that they could move on such things, such as sanctions against Israel if they continue with the settlements?

    MR TONER: I think that, as a friend and ally of Israel, we always have – we’re always aware and will oppose any one-sided actions against Israel.

    Yeah, Steve.

    QUESTION: On the Secretary’s travels --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- Vietnam is also on the agenda. There are reports that ahead of his arrival there --

    MR TONER: He’s there. Sorry, go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- that a dozen or so activists have either been put under house arrest or detained. I believe this has happened previously. What’s this department’s response on that? And does the Secretary plan to meet with any opposition figures in Vietnam?

    MR TONER: So we’re not aware at this time of any arrests or detentions of activists in conjunction with his visit to Vietnam, but of course, we continue to urge Vietnam – and I’m sure the Secretary will do so in his meetings – to make continued progress on human rights, and that includes releasing all political prisoners. And as I said, he’s going to make a point of this, as he does everywhere. But certainly in Vietnam, he’ll make a point of raising our concerns with Vietnamese leaders.

    QUESTION: Is he only meeting with government officials or anybody from civil society?

    MR TONER: That is a – that’s a very good question. I believe he will, but let me take that question and get back to you.

    Wait, I’m sorry. I’m looking at both of you. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Two questions, one on shutting down an NGO called the Yazda organization, which is supported by Nadia Murad – I don’t know if you’re aware of – in Dohuk by the Kurdish Government. I don’t know if you are aware of that and if you had any statement. It’s been, like, a couple weeks. They just closed and shut it down for no obvious reason. That center is providing service for IDPs, and I think it’s something political, the Kurdish Government closing --

    MR TONER: This is in the Kurdistan region of --

    QUESTION: Yeah, Kurdistan region. They closed down the Yazda organization office, and the facilities, they’re taken over by the Kurdish KRG forces in Dohuk. I don’t know if you can also take the question and --

    MR TONER: Apologies. And this is --

    QUESTION: The Yazda organization. It’s supported by Nadia Murad.

    MR TONER: No, I apologize. I don’t have anything on it. I’ll take the question --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: -- if we have any comment on it.

    QUESTION: So the second one is on the Syrian refugees. I know that in the Fiscal Year 2016, you got – you increased your manpower and also the budget to bring more Syrians, that as a result you brought, like, 12,000 of them, and this year also until now, you brought over 3,000 of them. My question is going to be: Is the money allocated for this fiscal year – is going to the program, is going to continue to bring Syrians to United States? Or it’s up to the incoming administration to continue?

    MR TONER: Sorry, is the – your – the last part of your question? I apologize. I didn’t catch it.

    QUESTION: Is --

    QUESTION: The numbers that were announced by the White House --

    MR TONER: The numbers that were announced by the White House are going to continue through this fiscal year?

    QUESTION: Yes. Will – or is it up to the incoming administration to --

    QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

    MR TONER: Well, I think it – I mean, I think it’s ultimately up to the incoming administration as to whether they’re going to maintain or fulfill those numbers. As you know, we increased the number of refugees writ large, but also Syria, and obviously, last fiscal year – and we met that challenge, but – and it was a pretty intensive effort, frankly – all the while ensuring that these – all of these refugees, Syrian included, were fully vetted through all the various security aspects of that process.

    But as for what will happen as of January 23rd, I can’t predict whether they’ll change the number in terms of target of refugees that are coming into the United States.

    QUESTION: And you haven’t got anything from their transition team --

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: -- if they want to continue it, anything like that?

    MR TONER: No, no. Nothing I can announce or speak to, no.


    QUESTION: Yeah. I have several questions on Syria, Turkey, and the Kurds in Syria.

    On Tuesday, you said that the PYD should be part of any political settlement in Syria. And yesterday, the Turkish deputy prime minister responded to you, “And what business does a terror group have at the peace table?” Do you have a response to him?

    MR TONER: Sure. Look, I saw that there was a lot of commentary about some of my remarks – I guess it was Tuesday. We’ve long said that there needs to be a political solution to the Syrian crisis and that that is a Syrian-owned and Syrian-led process that can bring out – bring about a more representative, peaceful, and united Syria. And that’s the only reason and the only context that I was trying to put in my remarks of Tuesday. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 says very clearly the Syrian people will decide the future of Syria. And we believe that all Syrians – and that speaks to Syrian Kurds, Syrian Arabs, Syrian Turkmen, all groups – will have to have a say in that process. So I wasn’t speaking about necessarily who would be at the table should there be follow-on discussions or should the negotiations in Geneva get back up and running. I was simply stating the fact that whatever comes out of this political process will need to be something that is accepted by all Syrians. All Syrians will have to have a voice in that. That’s my only comment.

    QUESTION: Are you – was this a change in the U.S. position?

    MR TONER: Not at all.

    QUESTION: Not at all.

    MR TONER: We’ve been saying this for months.

    QUESTION: And on Tuesday you also said the U.S. was, quote, “poised to provide additional support to Turkey’s offensive on al-Bab.”

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Is there anything new in that?

    MR TONER: Not at all. We talked about the fact that we’re now providing ISR – what we call ISR, which is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support to our Turkish partners, and we’re poised to provide additional assistance to them in and around al-Bab as needed.

    QUESTION: Okay. And there have been numerous reports of human rights abuses in PYD-controlled territory in Syria. The Washington Post in a recent story mentioned them in general terms, in December there were three missing members of the Kurdish National Council who were found burned to death. What is your comment on such behavior?

    MR TONER: We’ve seen those reports – I think you’re specifically talking about these individuals who were burned. Obviously, it goes without saying we’re concerned by those kinds of reports. I don’t have anything to confirm them. At this point in time we would condemn any human rights abuse by anyone operating in that area.

    QUESTION: Would that cause you to question whether they qualify as a legitimate party to the Syrian political process if they’re engaged in such abuses?

    MR TONER: I just don’t think we have enough detail or granularity on who was behind this attack – and I looked into this before coming out here – that we would be able to make any kind of judgment on who was behind it. So we’re watching it closely, we’re obviously concerned by it, and, frankly, disgusted by it, but if we get more information, we’ll make a judgment.


    QUESTION: I just wanted to ask a question about the sanctions that came out today on the Syrian regime for association with chemical weapon use. Is there any more as to the timing of these sanctions, why it is that these sanctions are being brought now instead of --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- in October when the report came out?

    MR TONER: Sure. I mean, I think it’s – and I – frankly, I saw Josh got this same question over at the White House. It’s – as you know, shocking news here, but we are a bureaucracy. But in any kind of sanctions-related activity, there’s a process that needs to take place, and certainly Treasury is the one who handles that. But in order to fully vet these and to ensure that these individuals – that there is a case to be made against them, and also to move to designate them for sanctions, takes a little bit of time. But what I think it shows just overall is that – is a positive thing, which shows that we’re holding individuals and entities that we believe are behind both the weaponization of chemical weapons, but also the use of chemical weapons in Syria, accountable for their actions. And we’re going to continue to do that and a lot of this is a result of the so-called JIM – I think it’s the Joint Investigative Mechanism – at the UN that’s also produced very strong evidence of this kind of behavior.

    So there’s nothing to the timing; I wouldn’t link it to the fact that we’re all trying to – the fact that there’s only one week left in this Administration. I think and I would hope that the next administration would continue these efforts. I mean, use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria is inexcusable, and I think that it’s a nonpartisan issue and, frankly, it’s a global issue of concern.

    QUESTION: Another Syria question?

    QUESTION: Hold on. Just on --

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: It doesn’t mention – I was just reading it now – it doesn’t say that this is necessarily related to chlorine attacks or attacks with chlorine. Is that what this refers to or is it more – is it more broad?

    MR TONER: It’s going – I think it’s broader than that. It’s going after this – the Organization for Technological Industries, which is this state-run entity --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- that’s looking – that’s behind some of the – excuse me – the weaponization of these materials. I don’t think it’s specifically focused on chlorine, although that’s one element of it.

    QUESTION: Okay, well --

    MR TONER: But I think it’s coming out of the JIM report.

    QUESTION: Yeah, but if that’s the case that it’s not specifically related to chlorine, that it’s related to broader use of chemical weapons, doesn’t that call into question again the Administration’s consistent line that the deal that was done to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons didn’t work?

    MR TONER: So I’m just looking, and I’ll get to that question in a second, because Secretary – because Ambassador Power also I think released a statement. But I’m also looking at some of the materials that I have in front of me that this – out of these findings that the Syrian regime used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people. So it does look like it is focused on --

    QUESTION: Okay. That’s in her --

    MR TONER: -- specifically the use of industrial chlorine.

    QUESTION: That’s in her comments. That’s not in the --

    MR TONER: It’s in – I apologize. It’s in the Treasury release on this.

    QUESTION: Oh, okay. All right.

    MR TONER: I apologize. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Obviously, in the State Department. Okay, thank you.

    QUESTION: On Syria, the talks in Astana are supposed to begin on the 23rd of January. Will you have a role in them?

    MR TONER: I don’t know if we’ll have a role in them, and I’d refer you for any details about that to the organizers, who are Russia and Turkey. We haven’t gotten an invitation yet.

    QUESTION: Have they told you anything about these talks?

    MR TONER: Well, I think the Secretary’s in – as he’s said himself, is in contact with both his counterparts in Russia and his counterparts in – counterpart in Turkey, talking about the situation in Syria. So of course, he’s up to speed on what’s happening with regard to these talks, but we are not an organizer of these talks.

    Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: Are the talks actually taking place? I thought I saw --

    MR TONER: I think they – I think I saw the Russians actually announce them, but – announce the date. That’s my understanding.

    QUESTION: I thought I saw yesterday they have been postponed.

    MR TONER: I think that’s my understanding. I think they gave a date for January 23rd. But I mean, again, as we’ve said before, we would support any kind of talks that attempt to get a political process, negotiations back on track. And if we can see the ceasefire be strengthened and sustained, that’s a good thing.


    QUESTION: Yes. Prime Minister Abe is in the Philippines, and I was wondering if you were coordinating at all in terms of messaging and trying to rebuild relations with Philippines given the tensions that the two countries have had.

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, you – I missed the first part. Who is in the Philippines?

    QUESTION: Prime Minister Abe of Japan.

    MR TONER: Oh, Abe. Okay. I’m sorry. I missed it. I mean, we’re obviously always in close coordination with Japan and – on a range of regional matters. I can’t say as to whether we’ve consulted with him prior to his visit to the Philippines.

    With regard to our own bilateral relationship with the Philippines, we still continue to work on a government-to-government level, on a military-to-military level with the Philippine Government, and are going to continue to do so. It’s an important bilateral relationship for us.

    Yeah, Steve.

    QUESTION: Just if I can go – apparently, there’s been a fresh security message issued for U.S. citizens today in Gambia. Do you have a readout on that? I’m just seeing it that – dated January 12th.

    MR TONER: Don’t think I --

    QUESTION: Citizens not advised to travel east of the Denton Bridge into central Banjul.

    MR TONER: No, I don’t think I have that update with me. But obviously, it’s a very sensitive situation right now in the Gambia, and it sounds to me, hearing it from you, that there is some kind of information that the embassy is aware of about a disturbance or some kind of unrest, and that’s perfectly typical that we would send out a security message to resident U.S. citizens there.


    QUESTION: Wondered if you had any readout from the U.S.-Cuba meetings that were being held today, and also whether or not --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: Think they are. In fact, I think they’re – well, it’s today. They’re being held today. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Whether or not --

    MR TONER: It’s the government-to-government on claims.

    QUESTION: -- you had heard anything from the Cubans regarding the comments made by Secretary of State nominee stating he was going to review the criteria for placing – or removing Cuba from the state sponsor of terror list. Has there been any expressions of concern to this building after that statement?

    MR TONER: So I don’t have a readout of the meetings. As I said, they’re ongoing. The U.S. delegation to those meetings is being led by our legal adviser, Brian Egan. I mean, the intent of these meetings is to build upon previous discussions, exchange views on technical details and methodologies regarding outstanding claims, which is one element of our restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

    I don’t know – I just don’t have a readout – whether other views or other opinions have been shared with that group. If I get anything, I’ll obviously let you know.

    QUESTION: Can I have one more on that?

    MR TONER: Yeah, of course.

    QUESTION: Are you hoping to button up or finish these discussions on claims and human trafficking, other such discussions, before the end of this Administration?

    MR TONER: I – without being in the meetings, I think it would be highly unlikely that we would resolve all these outstanding claims by the end of next week. I think we’re going to continue, as I said, up to January 20th to pursue our foreign policy agenda across many different fronts, but certainly on Cuba, and with the hope that the incoming administration will see the merit in those efforts and continue them.

    QUESTION: I’ve got a couple related to the nominee’s testimony yesterday – separate issues, but not (inaudible). One, on China, Mr. Tillerson made some rather strong comments about China and its behavior in the South China Sea, and said that China should – at one point said that China should not have access to these manmade islands that are going up. I’m just – I’m not going to ask you to speak on his behalf or on behalf of the next – the incoming administration, at least until you are up there representing the new administration. (Laughter.) But I want to – I mean, I’m curious to know if you – if this current Administration, if your embassy in Beijing or here at the department, if you’ve heard anything from the Chinese about those comments.

    MR TONER: I don’t believe so, but I will check on that.

    QUESTION: And then two other things. Senator Rubio, among others, repeatedly pressed Mr. Tillerson on two topics: one, on whether the – Russia, and in particular President Putin, is guilty of war crimes for Russian military activity in Syria. I know that the department – and he got no response; the nominee was not prepared to say that. He said he needed more information. But to your knowledge, beyond the accusation that war crimes may have been committed in the – in certain bombings of hospitals and civilian areas in and around Aleppo, has this Administration actually made a determination that the Russians committed war crimes?

    MR TONER: To my knowledge, we have not made that determination. We have condemned strongly their indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure and civilians. But we have not made that determination, no.

    QUESTION: But you have – but you have suggested that they may have happened?

    MR TONER: I believe – well, I believe – not to borrow a line from our – from the secretary of state designee, but I believe that’s a process, that’s a legal determination --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- that involves detailed analysis and investigations. Yeah. So we have not made that determination.

    QUESTION: Okay. So you would say – and again, I’m not asking you to speak for him --

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: -- but you would say that his position is – from what you heard yesterday, is not dissimilar to that of what this Administration has come to, at least in terms of definitive conclusions?

    MR TONER: Without attempting to speak on his behalf, I would say that, while we strongly condemn Russia’s actions, especially in and around Aleppo, we have not made the determination yet that they would constitute war crimes.

    QUESTION: Okay. And then the other issue that Senator Rubio and some others pressed him on was the Philippines --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- and whether or not President Duterte and his government have committed human rights abuses in their war against narcotics and other drugs. And again, as with – in the case of Russia and Syria, Mr. Tillerson said he was not – he didn’t have enough information to make that determination. Has this Administration, this building, made a firm determination that, in fact, human rights abuses are being committed in the Philippines in this war on drugs?

    MR TONER: So, no. We are very concerned by reports of extrajudicial killings by or at the behest of the Philippine – or government authorities in the Philippines. And we have called for thorough and transparent investigations into these allegations, these credible allegations – any allegation of extrajudicial killings, we believe, and strongly urge the Philippine authorities to ensure that its law enforcement’s – law enforcement officials act in a way that’s consistent with international norms and laws. But we have not made a determination yet that this is indeed what’s happening.

    QUESTION: Okay. So --

    MR TONER: That said, we’ve been very concerned by allegations, credible allegations of --

    QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, on these two issues – and specifically on the Philippines --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- and Russia-Syria, the nominee’s testimony yesterday is not at odds with what this current Administration has concluded?

    MR TONER: I – again, I’m --

    QUESTION: Based on what you heard. Now, don’t tell me you didn’t watch. (Laughter.) I know you did – all nine hours of it. (Laughter.) Based on what you heard in your very careful listening, which I --

    MR TONER: Yes. With regard to those issues --

    QUESTION: His responses do not --

    MR TONER: -- directly oppose or run counter to --

    QUESTION: -- or run counter at all to --

    MR TONER: -- to --

    QUESTION: -- what this Administration has come to in terms of conclusions about human rights abuses in the Philippines and about war crimes in Syria. Is that correct?

    MR TONER: It is – from what I heard, it appears that they were consistent.

    QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

    QUESTION: Can I ask about the war crimes thing too?

    QUESTION: I have a follow-up (inaudible) --

    QUESTION: The follow-up is --

    MR TONER: I’ll get to you in a second.

    QUESTION: -- have you actually begun to look at assessing whether it is a war crime? Is that an ongoing process, or is it something that somebody has to direct?

    MR TONER: That’s a good question. I mean, I know that there are entities out there. And I know part of the work that the JIM and other types of investigative bodies have been looking at is amassing the evidence. I mean, what we’ve long said about this with regard to Syria is that ultimately these are determinations that we believe are in the interests of the Syrian people to make.

    Some – at some point, we hope to be – and partly we’re at a stage now where we’re collecting, and by “we” I mean collectively the UN, as well as separately the United States, are in the process of collecting this information, of collecting evidence, of gathering evidence, so that in the future we can hold these people accountable.

    But as we’ve said in other instances, we believe these kinds of determinations have to – let me back away from that and come at it a different way – that it’s up to the people who have been affected by these terrible acts to make the determination of how and for what crimes these – the guilty perpetrators should be held accountable.

    QUESTION: Thanks.

    MR TONER: Yep, please.

    QUESTION: Can I get back to China? Yeah.

    MR TONER: Back to China.

    QUESTION: Yes. Mr. Tillerson didn’t mention about the three joint communique, but Taiwan Relation Act and six assurance during hearing yesterday. And then, Chinese has already claimed that what he said is inconsistent with the “one China” principle, their “one China” principle. I’m just wondering, do you get – does current Administration get complaint from Beijing from your counterpart?

    MR TONER: I’ve just seen – I’ve seen the same public comments that you have. I’m not aware that we’ve received any private – or through diplomatic channels any such complaints. But I am aware of the public remarks, certainly.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Said, and then I’ll get back to you. I’ll get to you.

    QUESTION: Sure. Just staying on the Tillerson hearing. Apologies for --

    MR TONER: No worries.

    QUESTION: -- being late. I don’t know if you addressed this, but he also spoke of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and so on belong to a – what he described radical Islam. And later on in that evening, a new law was – or a new proposal was submitted by Senator Cruz and so on to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. I know that you guys have looked at their past activities in the past when this came up, and you said that there was no evidence that they had departed – moved away from their stated anti-violence position.

    I wonder if you would comment on this. Has there been anything, from your view, that the Muslim Brotherhood has done to basically make it – or to list it under the – as a terrorist organization?

    MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, I certainly don’t have anything to forecast that we’re going to change our assessment. As you know, when – any kind of determination like that, it is – it is a process to reach that conclusion. And it’s not just – it is a legal determination, and so it takes some time and takes analysis. I’m sure that we’re constantly looking at Muslim Brotherhood in that regard, but I don’t have anything certainly to announce.

    QUESTION: And one other thing. I know you talked about the Palestinian-Israeli issue, but that was --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- regarding what he said. He put the blame basically, or mostly, on the Palestinian leadership that it was not able to reduce the violence and so on. Do you share that assessment that the Palestinian Authority did not coordinate? Because I thought they were coordinating on security matters with Israel to prevent violence. Do you share that assessment?

    MR TONER: What we’ve talked about before is, with regard to Palestinian actions, that they could take positive, affirmative actions that they could take to calm the situation as well as to avoid escalatory actions and to avoid the kind of rhetoric that leads to incitement. That’s always been our beef. And we were actually – one of the reasons that we abstained rather than veto the UN Security Council resolution was because we felt it did contain that element. So I think our view writ large is that, just as we’re concerned about Israeli actions with regard to settlement activity, we’re also concerned about Palestinian actions with regard to incitement, with regard to inflammatory rhetoric and actions such as that that only exacerbate tension.

    QUESTION: But he seems to suggest that there was – or maybe he’s unaware – that there is some sort of security coordination between the PA and the Israeli Government. To the best of your knowledge, they have not stopped coordinating on security matters.

    MR TONER: To the best of my knowledge, they have not stopped coordinating.

    Please, sir, in the back.

    QUESTION: Sir, thank you. Sir, yesterday, a State Department spokesperson talks about the missing of professors, journalist, and human rights activist in Pakistan. It’s now been a week that these bloggers are missing. Sir, many of the Pakistani’s journalists know where these missing persons are, but, sir, you always talk about the freedom of speech. Will you send any strong message to Pakistani authorities on this?

    MR TONER: Well, we’re very concerned by reports that several Pakistani bloggers and activists have been reported missing and we’re going to continue to monitor the situation. We of course welcome that the interior ministry, I believe, announced that it’s going to investigate the disappearance of one of those individuals, Salman Haider, and we also appreciate the fact that both members – or, rather, members of both houses of parliament have voiced their concern and called for an investigation into all four disappearances.

    Of course, we value freedom of expression. That’s something we take very seriously and are going to continue to monitor the situation in Pakistan.

    QUESTION: Sir, a couple of days ago, the Secretary of State John Kerry has said that Pakistan was among the countries in which the United States built state-of-the-art security operations center --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- the tactical security operations center. Sir, what really is the function of this security center, then? Who is heading this center? Thank you, sir.

    MR TONER: Sure. It’s – I think he referred to tactical operations centers, yeah. And there’s one of them – there are several, I think, in – of our embassies worldwide. It’s an embassy operations center. I don’t know if you’re aware of what the operations center does here at the State Department. I’m a veteran of the operations center. It’s basically monitoring worldwide activity 24/7 in order to – if something happens in anywhere in the world that affects our people or affects American citizens or is a crisis that it has to involve the Secretary of State or, rather, the interagency, the operations center is, if you will, the first responders to any kind of activity like that, to any kind of crisis.

    These function along the – kind of along the same lines. They are – the embassy operations center are kind of a central location – is a central location to kind of coordinate security and emergency events as well as monitor threats to the embassy or its personnel and it allows for real-time communications with Diplomatic Security and department officials in Washington. It also allows us a way to connect directly with host government officials. So we have one of these in Pakistan, we have them elsewhere in the world as well.

    QUESTION: Sir, I have one more question --

    MR TONER: Yeah, of course.

    QUESTION: -- about the Guantanamo Bay prison. Sir, despite his promises, President Obama failed to shut down the Gitmo. You know about it. But he’s still trying to release as much as he can before January 20. And it feels like it’s a race against time, but the question is that here – that in different surveys, it said that 30 percent of the released prisoner are back into the battlefield and joined the bad guys. So the question is there, sir: Whenever you release a prisoner from Gitmo, who is responsible for the security of those and – the country releasing them or the country where they transferred?

    MR TONER: So, to the first part of your question, as you noted, the President has made clear – everyone knows this – that he believes that a continued operation of Gitmo or Guantanamo Bay detention facility weakens our national security. It does that by draining our resources, but it also does that by damaging our relationship with key allies and partners, and we believe emboldens violent extremists. So we’ve been taking steps to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo Bay, and we’ve been doing that steadily throughout the past eight years. I think I’m looking at the current numbers since --

    QUESTION: Fifty-five?

    MR TONER: Right, but I’m looking at – so when President Obama took office, the detainee population at Guantanamo was 242. Since that time, we have moved 183 detainees to 42 countries for repatriation and resettlement, and also for prosecution. So that’s a significant reduction.

    With respect to what you said – re-engagement of some of these and who watches that – we work, we take any kind of incident of re-engagement very seriously, we work very closely through military intelligence, law enforcement channels, and diplomatic channels, of course, to mitigate re-engagement and to take follow-on action when necessary.

    So in short, what we try to do is first thoroughly vet any detainee that we’re going to release to a third country and we’re, let me just say, very grateful for the many governments around the world who have stepped up to take these detainees and relocate them. But we also are going forward very closely with the governments, as I said, through all the channels I just mentioned to try to prevent any kind of re-engagement by these individuals. We recognize and certainly these governments also take steps to prevent that as well, but it’s something we always try to stay vigilant about.

    QUESTION: Sir, do you have any details of how many prisoners are going to be released before Jan 20?

    MR TONER: I don’t. I cannot predict that. I know that they’re hard at work until the transition takes place.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Thanks. Yeah, man.

    QUESTION: I’ve got a really quick question on the --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- Palestinian-Israeli issue.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: There’s been a marked increase in home demolitions and so on in the last few days especially in the aftermath of the attack in Jerusalem. I wonder if you have any comment on that or have you been in touch with Israeli authorities to urge them to scale back or not to do such?

    MR TONER: Yeah, Said, I – first of all, we – and I put out a statement on Sunday, I believe, condemning the very terrible truck attack on Israeli soldiers. But we’ve been very clear that we have seen – and I don’t know, it might – I don’t know if it’s increased since Sunday, but we have seen the acceleration of demolitions of Palestinian structures in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and we’re very concerned about it and we’ve made those concerns clear to the Israeli Government.

    QUESTION: There has been an increase today, I mean, in the amount – in the amount of violence on --

    MR TONER: I’m aware, but I – anyway – I mean, we’ve – they’re aware of our concerns.


    QUESTION: And I have one last question.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: Also, Israel is trying to pass a law to prevent BDS activists from entering the country, including Palestinian Americans. Do you have a point of view on that?

    MR TONER: Well, we’ve discussed this legislation before. A couple points that I think I’ve made before – one is that our strong opposition to boycotts and to sanctions of the state of Israel is well known, hasn’t changed. That said, as a general principle, we value freedom of expression and believe that even when we don’t agree with the political views necessarily that are expressed, we believe that individuals should have the right to peacefully protest.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: So wait a second, just – I want to follow up on that, because I – when --

    MR TONER: This always gets you. I knew he was waiting.

    QUESTION: No, no, no, no, when the question --

    MR TONER: Sure, I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: -- when the question was raised the first time – I think it was several months ago – I asked the same thing. But you also would not – you would not argue or even quibble with the idea that Israel can decide who it wants to – or any country can decide who it wants to allow into its country.

    MR TONER: I mean, ultimately, it is a sovereign state and we can only express our view that people should be allowed to – excuse me – peacefully protest.

    QUESTION: Right, I understand that, but I mean, it is their prerogative to decide who they want to come in and into the country --

    MR TONER: Ultimately, yes. Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- just as it is the United States’s prerogative.

    MR TONER: Of course, of course, yes.

    QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

    MR TONER: Thanks, guys.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:35 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 10, 2017

Tue, 01/10/2017 - 15:49
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 10, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ


    1:37 p.m. EST

    MR TONER: Greetings, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. A couple of things briefly at the top, and then I’ll move on to your questions, if you have any.

    First off, I just wanted to note the United States is deeply saddened by the passing of former German President Roman Herzog. Doctor Herzog led Germany with foresight and courage, helping to bring economic modernization and social change to make German reunification successful. His commitment to the rule of law and the pursuit of justice was evident in his approach to facing Germany’s past as well as his long service to Germany’s constitutional court. The United States extends its condolence to Doctor Herzog’s wife – or widow, rather, Alexandra, as well as his two children, as well as the German people.

    Also, I wanted to note our strong condemnation of this morning’s terrorist attack on the parliamentary buildings in Kabul that killed 38 Afghans and wounded more than 70 people. An attack on parliamentarians is, frankly, an attack on democracy. We extend our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured.

    We’re also – and you’re probably all of you tracking as well – we’ve also seen reports of an additional attack in Kandahar. We’re still gathering all the facts, looking into it. I don’t have anything to confirm at this point, but as we do get more information in, we’ll obviously share that with you. But in short, I can say that the United States stands strongly with the people of Afghanistan and remains firmly committed to building a secure, peaceful, and prosperous future for Afghanistan.

    Please. Hey.

    QUESTION: Yes, hey.

    MR TONER: Hey. How are you?

    QUESTION: Secretary Kerry said today in his remarks that he had not met with Rex Tillerson yet, but he sort of implied that he would soon. Do you have any indication of whether that meeting would be this week or next week, or when that might happen?

    MR TONER: I don’t. I think they’re still looking into it and looking at the logistics, frankly. The Secretary’s been very busy himself, and obviously Mr. Tillerson’s in town for his confirmation hearing tomorrow. But obviously, both individuals – well, I can’t speak on behalf of Mr. Tillerson, but I know Secretary Kerry’s very willing and eager to sit down with him and talk more. They’ve spoken once by phone already. So I don’t have anything to confirm. Obviously, when we do, we’ll let you know.

    QUESTION: Is there – so there’s nothing on the books right now? No --

    MR TONER: Nothing on the books right now. Still trying to figure it out.

    QUESTION: Okay. And what would Secretary Kerry hope to accomplish in a meeting with Mr. Tillerson? What does he kind of want to impart?

    MR TONER: Sure. I think in – I know Secretary Kerry’s spoken about this. I think it’s just a chance for him to have a one-on-one conversation to consult with him on what he views as the major issues, and to share with him his viewpoints on some of these major issues. I mean, all of you have heard how he feels about some of the major muscle movements of this Administration in terms of foreign policy, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s the Iran nuclear deal. But I think the Secretary certainly would value the opportunity to sit down one on one with Mr. Tillerson and really talk about some of the challenges that he sees going forward.

    QUESTION: Is it simply a question of scheduling, or is there some reluctance --

    MR TONER: No, I think it’s – I mean, as far as I know, it’s simply a matter of just aligning the two schedules.

    QUESTION: But if there isn’t a meeting today, it won’t happen before the nomination hearing?

    MR TONER: Without divulging the Secretary’s schedule, he may be out of town for a few days, so they would have to align all of that. We may have more to say about that in – later today, but at this point it’s just trying to align the schedules of two very busy individuals.

    QUESTION: Do you have any plans to divulge the Secretary’s schedule?

    MR TONER: (Laughter.) As soon as I have something to announce, I will forthrightly announce it.

    QUESTION: Thanks very much.

    MR TONER: Yeah, no worries.


    QUESTION: Afghanistan.

    MR TONER: Afghanistan.

    QUESTION: I have one on Kerry real quick.

    MR TONER: Oh yeah, sure. Of course. We’ll stay on it.

    QUESTION: If that’s okay.

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead. Of course, sorry.

    QUESTION: He mentioned at the talk that there hasn’t been a lot of high-level exchange between the transition team and the State Department. Is the Secretary worried about that, about the transition, how smoothly it might be going?

    MR TONER: I don’t think, John. I think you saw from his response he didn’t seem particularly concerned about it. I think he was just remarking that – which is not uncommon with these kinds of transitions. But as a nominee is confirmed and certainly that process is moving forward – as I said, he’ll have his hearing tomorrow – then the rubber hits the road and transition in earnest can – those kinds of exchanges can begin. I think what we’ve seen thus far – and I’m hesitant to speak in too much detail; I’d refer you to the transition team itself – but what we’ve seen thus far is the transition team trying to get a sense of the breadth and scope of what the State Department does in terms of personnel, in terms of budget, in terms of different bureaus and what activities and programs they’re doing. But I think you’re going to see that obviously intensify over the last 10 days or so – or next 10 days or so.

    Yeah, Steve, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Following up on your comments about the --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- attacks in Afghanistan, I’m assuming you have no reports of any U.S. personnel wounded in either of these attacks. Looks like we have some dead diplomats in the Kandahar blast and this apparent targeting of parliamentarians and a guest house where there were diplomats. Does this seem to indicate a further escalation in the sophistication of the attackers? And are you more concerned now about the safety of diplomats and NGO workers and others in Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Sure. And I can, I think, without being able to speak to the situation in Kandahar, I believe all chief of mission personnel are accounted for and were not harmed in the Kabul attack. To my knowledge, there was no – there were no – chief of mission personnel, rather, on the ground in Kandahar. But again, if that – any of that changes or as we get updates, we’ll certainly let you know.

    And in response to your broader question, I think we’re always concerned. Look, there has been a consistent trend of these kinds of senseless acts of violence on the part of the Taliban. I know they’ve claimed responsibility for the attack in Kabul earlier today and we don’t have any reason, frankly, to question that claim. But we’re always mindful of the security threats not just to chief of mission personnel, not just to diplomats, but certainly to any NGO personnel or individuals who are living and working in Afghanistan. Can’t speak to any change in our posture. That’s something we’re always assessing, always fine-tuning, certainly mindful of these attacks. But it is concerning, to be frank.

    QUESTION: The war in Afghanistan’s --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- gone into its 16th year and for eight of those years, President Obama has been President. He leaves office now. How content is he with the situation on the ground in Afghanistan? Is this in the success column?

    MR TONER: I think it’s in the work in progress column and I think the President and indeed the Secretary have spoken frankly about the fact that we don’t want to see Afghanistan slide back into what it was. We – and by “we,” I mean not just the U.S., but the international community, NATO, and its partners on the ground, and indeed, the Afghan Government and the Afghan people have worked far too hard to see those gains slip away. It’s about building the capacity of the Afghan security forces and consolidating their strengths. I mean, ultimately, much as we’re trying to do now in Iraq, we’re trying to build the capacity of the Afghan security forces to determine and to provide for the security of the Afghan people, we’ve also, as you know, worked hard to foster a Afghan-led peace process, which, again, ultimately is, we believe, the way forward, and we encourage that.

    Are we always – I don’t think that we can possibly look at it, though, and say mission accomplished. We would certainly not say that. But at the same point, we’re not going to say – we’re not going to encourage any kind of walking away from the situation there.

    QUESTION: And you say you don’t want to see it slide back into what it was. Do you mean in the sense of a threat to United States interests outside of Afghanistan because of a base of terror?

    MR TONER: I think you could – look, you can make the argument --

    QUESTION: Or do you want it to be --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- a stable, nice place for Afghans to live in?

    MR TONER: I think the two are mutually reinforcing. I think we don’t – from purely a national security viewpoint, we want to see a strong, stable, democratic Afghanistan that can never again be – provide a safe haven for al-Qaida or any other terrorist organization.

    QUESTION: Just to follow up?

    MR TONER: Yes, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Mark, these attacks are coming just weeks before the new administration comes in. You think somebody behind them or the terrorists are sending some kind of messages to the current Administration – I mean this building – and also to the upcoming administration?

    MR TONER: It’s a fair question. I just can’t get in the minds of the kinds of people who carry out these senseless attacks. I don’t know if there’s been – I’d have to look in – whether there’s been an uptick in these attacks coming up to inauguration. I think you’ve still got at least a segment of the Taliban who are dead-set on carrying out terrorism as a way to achieve political gain. And again, it speaks to, I think, the importance of our resolve, of the international community’s resolve, and the Afghan Government’s and security forces’ resolve to not let that happen.

    QUESTION: Any message for the upcoming administration as far as these attacks in the region are concerned?

    MR TONER: Well, I have no doubt that the – that the incoming administration understands the stakes in Afghanistan. I don’t think any American who’s been around for the last 15 years cannot be aware of the stakes in Afghanistan.

    Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: We’re going to stay in Afghanistan. Okay, let’s finish up.

    QUESTION: Okay, so Government of Afghanistan say that these terrorists are able to strike at whenever they want to because of the existence of safe havens – terrorist safe havens inside Pakistan. And do you agree with their view? And secondly, do you acknowledge that even after eight years from this podium U.S. has been insisting Pakistan to close down these safe havens, they continue – that U.S. hasn’t been able to convince Pakistan further?

    MR TONER: Well, it continues – so the short answer to your first question is yes, and I think we’ve been very frank and very open about publicly saying to – to Pakistan that it needs to not provide any safe haven to groups that will or are intent on carrying out attacks on Afghanistan. We’ve seen some progress, we’ve seen them take some steps to address these safe havens, but clearly the problem persists and it’s something that’s part of our ongoing conversation, our ongoing dialogue, our ongoing cooperation with Pakistan. We’re willing to help them. I mean, it’s part of – and again, we’ve talked about this before – the realization that Afghans – Afghanistan’s security, Pakistan’s security, indeed India’s security, they’re all interconnected. And so as much as they can work in tandem or work in a partnership on counterterrorism operations, I think it’s for the betterment of the region.

    QUESTION: But given that the Pakistan’s reluctance to act against these safe havens, do you think there’s need for the – to review the U.S. policy itself towards Pakistan because it’s not working?

    MR TONER: I don’t want to – I’m certainly not going to announce anything. I don’t have anything to – in that regard to speak to except to say that it is an ongoing issue of concern. It’s something we raise regularly with Pakistan’s leadership. Part of it is, one could argue, the difficulty of going after some of these safe havens given the remote areas that they’re in and providing – or ensuring that the Pakistan military has the capabilities to do so, but it’s a persistent problem.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: On Friday, we discussed here the U.S. guarantee of a $1 billion loan to Iraq. And you very helpfully clarified that it was a loan guarantee and not a loan, so thank you for that.

    MR TONER: It was Kirby who did that.

    QUESTION: Well, I mean in general.

    MR TONER: He’s smarter on that stuff than I am. No --

    QUESTION: The – the plural you. Okay.

    MR TONER: Yes, that’s right. (Laughter.) The royal you.

    QUESTION: Yes, because you’re royal folks. Okay.

    MR TONER: Go ahead, I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: But the second part of the question, there was – there’s a problem in the answer, because it is – and that question, just to remind ourselves, was what assurance was there that the Kurdistan region would receive its fair share. And the answer assumed an agreement on budget sharing, but Iraq’s national assembly – Kirby explained that this budget law had referred to sharing revenues, but there is no real agreement on the budget sharing, because when the national assembly passed that law, it changed the language in such a fashion as – so as the Kurdistan region will receive more revenue if it does not reach an agreement with – does not abide by this agreement with Baghdad. If it just sells oil on its own it’ll get more revenue from that. So why get less money from Baghdad? So there is in reality no agreement about budget sharing, which means that the Kurdistan region won’t see any part of any loan that the Iraqi Government might conclude which the U.S. has guaranteed.

    So my question: Are you involved in any effort to resolve this dispute between Baghdad and Erbil and are you hopeful of a resolution?

    MR TONER: So these discussions between Baghdad or between – well, frankly, Baghdad and the KRG on budgetary issues are an internal matter – an internal Iraqi matter – and so, I have to refer you to the Government of Iraq. I think we’re encouraged by what we would view as the unprecedented cooperation that’s been shown between Baghdad and the KRG in the fight – in the overall fight against Daesh and the liberation of Mosul, which is ongoing, as you know. And we believe that the sovereign loan guarantee will help the Government of Iraq meet its – the needs of all Iraqis, and by all Iraqis I mean including those in the Kurdistan Region.

    So to sum up, internal matter for them to discuss, but we hope that this – as I said, this arrangement would benefit and meet the needs of all Iraqis, including those in Kurdistan Region.

    QUESTION: Well, if one had a less benign view of the – what Baghdad might – might do and was not hopeful that it would share the money with the Kurdistan Region, are there other ways to address this problem? Because the need of the Kurdistan Region is not less than that of Baghdad, and maybe something like guaranteeing a loan to – would you consider guaranteeing a loan to Erbil just like you did to Baghdad?

    MR TONER: I don’t think we’re at that point. I don’t think that’s something we’re necessarily looking at. Look, I mean, as I said, we’ve signed this loan. We believe it should be to the benefit of all Iraqis, and that includes the citizens or the people of the Kurdistan Region. But as you well know, the United States has also taken measures to help the Kurdistan Regional Government and the people there. I think we’ve provided over $1 billion in humanitarian emergency assistance through the – our Bureau of Population, Migration, and Resource – or Refugees, rather. And the majority of those funds have gone to the Kurdistan Region.

    But we’re not talking about another loan guarantee at this point that I’m aware of. We expect this to be resolved internally.

    QUESTION: Well, let me formulate – last way of formulating it.

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Because, as the United States did guarantee this loan, assuming that Baghdad will, in fact, get a considerable loan from someplace guaranteed by the United States, is it your intent to use your influence with Baghdad to make sure that that money is also shared with the Kurdistan Region?

    MR TONER: Well, as you note, it is an – it is a loan, and that does give us some degree of influence on how it’s used. I think I would just stay where I was, which is I thought I was very clear on the fact that we believe that this money should be shared and should be available to all Iraqis, and that includes the Kurdistan Region. Okay? I’ll stop there.

    Please, sir.

    QUESTION: On Syria?

    MR TONER: Yeah, please. Yeah.

    QUESTION: During yesterday’s briefing on the context of political transition in Syria, Kirby said that it’s a UN-led process, and opposition and the regime begin to have a discussion about what a political transition can look like in Syria. I was wondering where PYD stands for State Department in this process.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Like, do you consider PYD as a part of opposition? And also if State Department would support PYD to take part in any meeting organized by UN-led process.

    MR TONER: Okay. Sorry, so just to make sure I heard – so you’re talking about how the PYD would fit into any kind of a political process.

    QUESTION: If it’s opposition and the regime --

    MR TONER: Yes, of course. And then the other question was whether we would participate in that.

    QUESTION: Whether you would support PYD taking part --

    MR TONER: -- if we would support --

    QUESTION: -- in this process.

    MR TONER: Ah-ha, of course. I see. Well, look, first of all, as we’ve said very often over many, many, frankly, years, we believe that a UN-sponsored political solution is the only way to resolve the conflict in Syria and end the now six-year-old war there. And our position has not changed. So we would like nothing more than to see this political negotiations back up and running in Geneva, because ultimately, as I said, that’s what’s going to, we believe, lead to some kind of process and political transition that is in the interests of the Syrian people.

    Now, who participates in that, that’s really for the groups involved and the Syrian people to determine. What our position has been, broadly speaking and addressing your specific question, is that the Syrian Kurds – that this process has to include all Syrians, and that includes the Syrian Kurds.

    QUESTION: So you are saying the PYD can take part on the table?

    MR TONER: At some point, they have to be a part of this process, is our consideration.

    QUESTION: And one more question.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Washington Post published an article couple days ago on training program of Syrian Democratic Forces.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: The article points that during the training program, recruits must learn the ideology of Abdullah Ocalan, who is the leader of the terrorist group PKK. I would like to know if State Department aware of how these classes on this training program have been designed.

    MR TONER: Sure. So I’m not aware of the – I’m aware that the – of the article, and the different vignettes or stories conveyed in it. I can’t speak to whether in fact that’s the case or not. I can’t verify that. What I can say is – with regard to the question of whether we provide support to the Kurdish military groups, the YPG and the PYD, we provide some support, but it’s tactical support to Syrian Democratic Forces, and that’s focused on defeating Daesh – nothing else.

    Go ahead.

    QUESTION: But the article also points that during the classes, the American advisers also present the same. So basically, the American advisers that are being sent by the Washington also takes part in the class, during the class.

    MR TONER: Well, again, what I can say is that we do have advisers on the ground. We’ve talked about that before, and they are working – I said, as providing support, some of it tactical support, for these different groups who have been very effective at going after Daesh and destroying it and dislodging it from the territory it’s holding in northern Syria. But – and I think Kirby was very clear on this the other day – we regard the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization, and we support Turkey in its efforts to confront that organization. And we strongly condemn the PKK’s actions to harm or kill Turkish security forces.

    QUESTION: One last one.

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: Have you received any report from these advisers that during the classes, very strong anti-Turkish rhetoric is used in these training programs? Have you received such reports?

    MR TONER: I have not. I’m not aware of it personally. I just don’t have that sense of it. Again, I think it’s important, and I just want to make very clear that – because – and it’s not just some of the things in this article, but other things we’ve been seeing circulating – we do not provide weaponry, weapons to the YPG. We provide them with tactical support, air support for some of their operations. We do that out of our belief that they are a very capable fighting force, as are other Syrian groups, like the Syrian Arabs and the Syrian Turkmen, in going after ISIL and going after Daesh. There is no other secondary reason for any kind of support we would offer these groups. And we’re mindful – sorry, just to finish – and we’re mindful of the sensitivities. Obviously, we’re mindful of Turkey’s concerns about this group. Sorry, go ahead.

    QUESTION: And no weapon, but is State Department also aware of the curriculum of these training programs, I mean, what’s being taught to recruits?

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, one more – one last time?

    QUESTION: I was wondering if State Department aware of the curriculum, the schedule of these training programs, what’s being taught to the --

    MR TONER: I wouldn’t be able to speak to that. I just don’t know. It might be a question better directed to the Department of Defense.

    QUESTION: Follow-up?

    MR TONER: I’ll get to you. Yeah. I’ll get to you, I’ll get to you. Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: Thank you. Follow-up. Few months ago, Secretary of Defense, Mr. Carter, was on the Hill. And he was basically telling I think Senator Graham that U.S. ended giving weaponry support to Syrian Kurds. Do you think there is some --

    MR TONER: No, I’m sorry. I don’t have his testimony in front of me. I think what we have done is we’ve provided equipment to some of the vetted Syrian Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces. And that equipment has included ammunition, other tactical equipment, to assist in their counter-Daesh operations. But those are vetted Syrian Arab groups. We’ve not provided that I’m aware of any military hardware of weaponry to Kurdish forces.

    QUESTION: On Syria. Turkish forces and Turkey-backed forces are still sieging al-Bab.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: It has been I think four weeks now. Do you have any update on the coordination with the Turkish forces around --

    MR TONER: Sure. I do – actually, a little bit more detail I think I can provide. As you know and you noted, we have been supporting Turkish operations in northern Syria to help secure its border, to help counter the flow of foreign fighters, and that’s been pretty successful. In fact, the Secretary was citing this in his remarks earlier today. And that’s been through airstrikes, intel – critical intelligence – and we’ve also partnered with Turkish forces on the ground. But specifically with regard to al-Bab, the coalition has now provided intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support – what we call ISR support – to Turkish – to our Turkish partners, but to Turkish forces. And we’re poised now to provide additional support as these operations continue.

    We’re consulting with our Turkish counterparts on this, how to do it on a regular basis and to maximize, I guess, the overall effect of our operations to counter ISIL on as many fronts as possible, because that’s part of it. We want to put as much pressure as we can collectively on Daesh or on ISIL to ensure their rapid military defeat. So we’re committed to defeating ISIL in al-Bab and helping support Turkey and Turkish forces as they conduct those operations.

    Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Final question on Turkey: There’s a – these wide-ranging constitution changes right now are being debated at the parliament. I think so far one or two articles passed, and there is a criticism that this is basically changing the system but also the regime of the country, especially on the separation of powers. What’s your view on those changes?

    MR TONER: I would say that obviously we’re watching it closely as a partner and as an ally of Turkey’s, but I’m not going to wade into what is an internal matter between the Turkish parliament and the people to decide.

    QUESTION: A question about (inaudible)?

    QUESTION: But if the --

    MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.

    QUESTION: The criticism is that basically the regime change in Turkey – the democracy is about values, and as far as we know, the partnership between Turkey and U.S. and NATO and the Western community is based on also the values. If these changes are changing and basically making a different country, isn’t that something about universal values and --

    MR TONER: I mean, sure, and we’ve talked about this before. The value of Turkey’s democracy, as we’ve said, matters to us, and I think it matters to the Turkish people, and we’re mindful of that. And I also don’t want to – we don’t want to attempt to sway what is a democratic process right now, a debate ongoing in the country, but of course we’re mindful of Turkey’s democratic values and our desire to see those maintained.

    Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah, just to follow up on the --

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: -- what you were saying before about the support for the Kurdish fighters and the SDF.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: If the PYD is not the PKK, why won’t you arm them? You’re arming the --

    MR TONER: It’s a fair question.

    QUESTION: You’re arming the Arab elements of the SDF --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- but the majority are Kurds. You’re not arming them --

    MR TONER: It’s a fair question.

    QUESTION: -- so you must have concerns about them.

    MR TONER: Sure, sure. Sure, sure. Well, a couple of points, but I think overall – and we’ve said this all along – is that while we believe that the focus of the YPD is on defeating Daesh, and we’re helping them as we – as they take that on, as I said, through tactical support, we’re also mindful of others’ views – and by “others” I mean the Turkish Government’s viewpoint – and the sensitivities around the YPD.

    QUESTION: An additional follow-up to that?

    MR TONER: Of course. Please. I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: Yeah. You answered the question earlier about the PYD involvement in the Syrian political process, and you said there needs to be all Syrians involved in this political process --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- including the PYD. Are you aware or what’s the position of other members of the Syrian support group, like Turkey, Iran, Russia on that issue of PYD representation? Is it the same or is it different?

    MR TONER: I don’t want to speak on behalf of or on the part of other members of the ISSG. Look, they weren’t part of this vetted Syrian opposition, moderate opposition that was put forward. You remember early on in the ISSG process there was this group that was put forward. But I think it’s always been our consideration – and, frankly, it’s just kind of, if nothing else, a realistic assessment of the fact that the YPG is – YPD, rather – is a force on the ground, is a representative group, and their voice will need to be heard in any kind of long-term solution to the situation in Syria. And it’s in that spirit that we say that if there’s going to be…a political process that leads to a political transition, a more democratic one, that’s going to have to be accepted by all of the Syrian people.

    QUESTION: But have you discussed this with any of the other members of the ISSG yet?

    MR TONER: I mean, I – I can imagine it has been talked about, yes.

    QUESTION: Mark, can you --

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: -- Asia, please?

    MR TONER: Sure, sure.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: No hurry. I’m here all week. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.) On the China, South Korea, Japan.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: And over 10 of Chinese military aircraft infiltrated the Air Defense Identification Zone of South Korea and Japan yesterday on violation of Chinese Government. How do you comment on this?

    MR TONER: On – I’m sorry, what were you talking about? The --

    QUESTION: Chinese military aircraft, they infiltrate nation’s – the Air Defense Identification Zones of South Korea and Japan yesterday.

    MR TONER: Yeah, I think we’ve seen reports about this. I don’t have any particular comment on it. Obviously, we’d have to look more into the incident and to determine who was at fault.

    QUESTION: Do you think that this is the military demonstration against U.S., maybe China --

    MR TONER: Do I think it’s what? A Chinese --

    QUESTION: Do you think, yeah, this is a Chinese military demonstration against the United States and Japan?

    MR TONER: Again, I’d have to look more into the incident to find out what exactly happened. Again, I’m aware of reports. Look, I mean, I would hope not. As we’ve been very clear about our operations in the Pacific, we believe in freedom of navigation, we believe in the right for any government to fly, sail, whatever, in international waters, but we also don’t want to see any kind of escalation of tensions in the region. In fact, just the opposite; we want to work with all parties and all governments in the region to try to de-escalate and create mechanisms by which any kind of assertion of territorial aggression or whatever would be determined through a diplomatic process.

    QUESTION: Why United States didn’t look at it clearly? Because this is very serious issue because China is actually --

    MR TONER: Again, I just don’t have – I apologize, I just don’t have details in front of me. I’m aware of it; I just don’t have any reaction for you. If we do, I’ll let you know, okay?

    QUESTION: All right.

    QUESTION: May I have another follow-up?

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: Yeah. There’s also another report said that the Chinese aircraft carrier is heading back to its base, but sailing through, passing through, the Taiwan Strait. Are you aware of it?

    MR TONER: You’re talking about the aircraft carrier that --

    QUESTION: Yes, the Liaoning.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Again, I’m not particularly aware of that. I would just almost say the same thing, which is that the United States recognizes the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and the airspace that’s guaranteed to all countries in accordance with international law. So provided they’re in accordance with those laws and operating within international waters, we wouldn’t have a problem.

    QUESTION: Do you see this operation as escalating or de-escalating tensions?

    MR TONER: As I said, I hope not. Part of our overall strategy within that area of the Pacific and Asia is to try to de-escalate, is to – we want to, as I said, create mechanisms for governments, for countries, to talk through some of these issues that they have with – regarding claims and whatever, and to try to create, as I said, diplomatic mechanisms to deal with these issues. We certainly don’t want to see shows of force or any kind of escalation.

    QUESTION: Is Taiwan Strait sort of the international sea, from your perspective?

    MR TONER: I’m not sure.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Please, yeah.

    QUESTION: One final on North Korea.

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: At the event this morning that Secretary Kerry spoke at, former Secretary of State Albright, talking about North Korea, referred to Kim Jong-un as, quote, “a nutcase.” How does the current Administration characterize the North Korean leader?

    MR TONER: I’ll refrain from that kind of colorful assessment, but I think, obviously, we’re very concerned about both the North Korean leader’s behavior, but the behavior of his regime writ large, its intent on pursuing nuclear capabilities that is creating instability, to put it mildly, in the region, and raising the concerns – legitimate concerns of not just along the Korean Peninsula, but among other countries, notably China, indeed the U.S., Japan, and others. And so we’re – it’s one of those issues that, when this Administration transitions to the new administration, is going to remain a serious concern and a serious challenge that we need to address.

    QUESTION: India.

    QUESTION: No, one more on North Korea.

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure, go ahead.

    QUESTION: North Korean high-ranking officials, defectors – his name is Thae Yong Ho – recently, he confessioned and have also a news conference in South Korea. He said the Six-Party Talks is not working for the – remove – give up North Korean nuclear weapons. Do you think we need still Six-Party Talks? Is --

    MR TONER: Do I think we need to --

    QUESTION: Six-Party Talks for the result of the nuclear --

    MR TONER: I’m sorry, just the nut of your question: You’re saying do I think we need to move beyond that --

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: -- or to leave it behind as a – as kind of a --

    QUESTION: For – to Six-Party Talks --

    MR TONER: Yeah. I don’t think any – I don’t think we’re quite there yet. I don’t think we’re ready to do that. I think that we’re trying to address the challenge of North Korea along multiple lines of effort, one of which, as you know, is sanctions. We’ve now got the most rigorous sanctions regime in place against North Korea ever, but as we often say too, it’s – they’re only as strong as they are implemented, and so that’s what we’re working specifically with China to address, but with all countries so that these very strong sanctions – they feel the pinch, so to speak.

    We’re still hoping – the Six-Party Talks are a mechanism that could potentially bring North Korea back into discussions about its – addressing international concerns about its nuclear program. So I don’t want to claim that structure as – is dead and needs to be shelved; far from it. But I think – and then again, of course, providing for the security of our allies and partners in the region and sending a clear message that we’re committed to providing that security. I think all of these efforts are worth pursuing. Which of them may ultimately turn North Korea around and convince the regime that it’s in its interest to address the international community’s concerns, I can’t say.

    QUESTION: He also said that Kim Jong-un is the nuclear weapon, so – Kim Jong-un never give up nuclear weapons, never give up to develop the nuclear weapons.

    MR TONER: I mean, again, I just – we’re very concerned about North Korea’s bad behavior and --

    QUESTION: Therefore we have wasting time for the Six-Party Talks because we give them – they have plenty of time to develop nuclear weapons since 1993.

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think we’re – I wouldn’t say we’re wasting time. We’re looking at a variety of ways to make them see the light, but thus far, we’ve been unsuccessful. I agree.

    QUESTION: India?

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Mark, Madam Nisha Desai is in India meeting with high-level Indian officials, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the President of India Mukherjee. And she praised the U.S.-India relations and also, because of her efforts and hard work as far as relations between U.S.-India, she was today – actually, India time – confirmed or awarded for the highest award anybody can receive under the administration.

    And also, yesterday, at the Indian embassy, Ambassador Sarna and the panelists, they praised the Indian and U.S. relations and also what they said, that Rich – Ambassador Richard Verma also doing a great job. My question here: Any comments as far as her award from the Indian Government and also her efforts or the Ambassador Verma’s efforts? And where do we go from here, after two weeks, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned?

    MR TONER: I’m sorry. Who received the award? The person – I didn’t hear the first --

    QUESTION: Madam Nisha Desai, Nisha Biswal.

    MR TONER: Okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, I mean, it’s – that’s wonderful that she was given that award. I think that U.S.-India relations have been strengthened throughout these past eight years of the Obama Administration. It’s obviously a key – a core relationship for the United States. And I think in terms of where that relationship goes, the sky’s the limit, both economically, security, what have you. I think Ambassador Verma’s done a tremendous job as well. And I think the new administration was clearly recognizing – you’ve even seen some comments from the president-elect – of the importance that India plays not just in the region but in the global mix. And as I said, it’s resource-rich. It’s playing an outsized role in global issues. And so I think we’re going to continue to work hard to strengthen that relationship going forward, no matter who’s president.

    QUESTION: And finally --

    MR TONER: Yeah. Let’s --

    QUESTION: -- Ambassador Verma also, in his end of the year or review of the year relations, also he emphasized how important the two countries have gone during this Administration and during his leadership at the U.S. Embassy in India. Any word for him or his leadership?

    MR TONER: As I said, I know Richard. He’s a very good man and a very good ambassador. And I can’t think of anyone who could do a better job at strengthening that bilateral relationship.

    Please, David.

    QUESTION: Yesterday you added a number of names to the Magnitsky list of sanctions.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: The Russians, obviously, protested angrily. The – I don’t know whether you want to counter-protest their protest, but two of the names that you – on the list, Mr. Lugavoi and Mr. Kovtun, were accused by the British Government of having poisoned Mr. Litvinenko, a freelance former spy in London 10 years ago. The British inquiry also named the man who ordered – or it said approved of the assassination – Mr. Vladimir Putin. Was any discussion made about putting Mr. Putin’s name on the Magnitsky list? This is your last chance. (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: So as with all designations, the U.S. Government relies on multiple credible sources of information. Look, I think – how will I put this? – I think we’ll continue to examine this and other cases involving gross violations of human rights, determine whether we have any – enough sufficient information indicating that other individuals linked to these cases meet the Magnitsky Act’s criteria.

    QUESTION: But they’re acting on behalf of a Russian Government, which has --

    MR TONER: I understand. I think I’ll leave it there. I think we’re going to continue to look hard at – and as you noted, we did publish I think five new individuals added to the list yesterday.

    QUESTION: And that’s like an annual update, isn’t it?

    MR TONER: It is. It is.

    QUESTION: So that’s the last --

    MR TONER: It is.

    QUESTION: -- batch that this Administration will put on.

    MR TONER: It is. It is. It is. I mean, I’m tempted to be – to respond to the first aspect of your question, which was – you had mentioned – well, you had mentioned the Russian Government’s – I think the Kremlin’s --

    QUESTION: And the individuals themselves in Moscow.

    MR TONER: -- indignation about the state of U.S.-Russia relations and the kind of implication that we’re just doing this, striking out at Russia, to further harm U.S.-Russian relations. And frankly, I find this kind of like look back in sorrow act and rhetoric a little bit overblown and hard to stomach. I mean, we’re carrying out sanctions – the Magnitsky Act, the actions we took a week ago, two weeks ago, regarding Russia’s cyberattack on U.S. electoral processes and continued harassment of our diplomats, and then going back further, the sanctions that we have about – or have still in place regarding Ukraine and Crimea are all taken for a reason. And it’s not just to poke a stick at Russia. It’s meant to draw attention to some of their actions that we believe run counter to international law and the international community’s standards. And we’re not backing away from any of those actions that we’ve taken. And in fact, it’s been Russia that has taken actions specifically that have damaged bilateral relations, and we talked a little bit about them when we took – when we announced some of the actions two weeks ago – that they’ve closed down all of our American spaces; they’ve harassed our diplomats; they’ve shut down some of our bilateral exchanges, like the Flex Program, which was a hugely successful high school student exchange program, for no reason other than, I think, just to strike back.

    And so I don’t want to overplay this or whatever, but – or overstate this, but I think it’s a bit hard to listen to some of the rhetoric that we’ve heard from various Russian spokespeople about our intentions here. Our intentions, as I said, are to use these sanctions, to use some of these actions, to call attention to Russia’s bad behavior but also to respond to Russia’s aggressive actions in the cyber area and against our diplomats. So I’ll leave it there.

    Thanks, guys.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:24 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 9, 2017

Mon, 01/09/2017 - 17:13
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 9, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAN
  • LGBT


    2:05 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: Hey everybody.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: Hello, Kirby.

    QUESTION: Good afternoon.

    MR KIRBY: Good afternoon. All right, couple things to go through at the top if you’ll bear with me. Some – some logistics, that kind of thing. As you know, the Secretary is up north today. He went to Cambridge, Massachusetts and delivered a speech at MIT on climate change innovation and the global transition to a clean energy future. Following that, he was joined by the deputy secretary and participated in a roundtable discussion with members of MIT and policy experts on the future of work. And as I noted last week, that discussion was focused on how rapid advances in technological innovation can impact the future of jobs and transform economies. The roundtable was part of our Innovation Forum here at the State Department, which convenes senior policy makers and industry experts for discussions on issues at the intersection of foreign policy and innovation.

    He also will be participating in some open press events tomorrow that I want to highlight for you in Washington and in Annapolis. First, the Secretary will lead off the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Passing the Baton 2017: America’s Role in the World event at 9:30 tomorrow morning, where he’ll be discussing our nation’s top foreign policy priorities that – under the Obama Administration and, of course, challenges that could lead into the next administration. Judy Woodruff from PBS’s NewsHour will be moderating his discussion in front of the audience. That’s an open press event.

    Then later in the day, a little after noon, he will go to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, where he will deliver an address to midshipmen, faculty, and staff at the Naval Academy. He’ll be reflecting on his time in the Navy and what his Navy service – how that impacted his public service throughout his life as well as his views on foreign policy. And I suspect he’ll also talk about some of the challenges that the United States will continue to face in global leadership going forward.

    And then finally, tomorrow night the Secretary will be joined by former Secretaries of State Albright, Colin Powell, and Hillary Clinton as they deliver all remarks – as they all deliver remarks at a reception celebrating the completion of the construction of the U.S. Diplomacy Center’s main pavilion. So if you go down on 21st Street, you’ve probably seen that structure is now done. And they’ll be sort of formally opening that or commemorating the end of the construction. The Diplomacy Center’s not open for business yet; there’s still quite a bit of work on exhibit design and construction that needs to be done. This is just marking the formal completion of the construction of the main pavilion. And that too will be an open press event. As I said, each former secretary, as well as the Secretary himself, will have a chance to say a few words.

    On Portugal. The United States is saddened to hear of the death of former Portuguese president and prime minister Mario Soares, a lifelong champion of human rights, self-determination, and democracy. Soares endured years of imprisonment and exile, but throughout his lengthy career remained committed to fighting for the people of Portugal. Portugal and the United States share a close and longstanding relationship, and we extend our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Mr. Soares as well as to the people of Portugal.

    And then finally, on Mexico, because I know that all of you have been tracking this over the weekend and I just want to get a couple of comments out of the way at the top. As you know, the Secretary issued a statement yesterday on the arrest of a suspect in the heinous attack against our Foreign Service officer colleague in Guadalajara. Always and continually the safety and security of U.S. citizens and our own diplomatic staff overseas are among our highest priorities. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family, and we’re wishing him, obviously, a speedy recovery. Given that it’s an ongoing investigation and it’s now being taken up by the FBI, I do not have additional information on the motive, I cannot provide any more information about the victim due to privacy concerns. I’m simply not going to be able to give you much more information on this today. We continue to – obviously, to monitor as best we can the medical condition of our consular officer – I’m sorry, our Foreign Service officer colleague. And if and when there is more information that we can provide, we’ll do that. But right now it is an active, ongoing investigation by the FBI.

    So with that, Matt.

    QUESTION: Just before we get into substance, I want to ask just a logistical – did you say what time that event was tomorrow evening?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t --

    QUESTION: And if you didn’t, can you say what time --

    MR KIRBY: 5:30 p.m.

    QUESTION: Okay, and then --

    MR KIRBY: I did say.

    QUESTION: You did? Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Sorry, I missed it. And then, do you know, were the other living former secretaries of state invited as well?

    MR KIRBY: Yes.

    QUESTION: And they were unable to attend for some reason?

    MR KIRBY: Yes. And I understand, it was scheduling concerns.

    QUESTION: So Kissinger --

    MR KIRBY: Yep.

    QUESTION: -- Rice --

    MR KIRBY: Every living --

    QUESTION: -- they were all – what, Shultz --

    MR KIRBY: -- former secretary of state was invited --

    QUESTION: Okay. And --

    MR KIRBY: -- and not everybody is able to make it.

    QUESTION: Okay. All right. I’ve got a – unless someone has more on that – I’ve got a couple things on Iran, if I could.

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: The first has to do with the passing away of the former Iranian President Rafsanjani. Over the weekend, there was a comment attributable on background to U.S. or a State Department official offering condolences for his passing. Do you – can you put that on the record for us?

    MR KIRBY: Sure. I mean, former President Rafsanjani has been – or was, excuse me – a prominent figure throughout the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and we do extend our condolences to his family and to his loved ones.

    QUESTION: So there have been some people who are highly critical of the Administration on Iran policy in general, but also on this specifically, taking issue or questioning, rather, the appropriateness of offering condolences to Mr. Rafsanjani given activities that Iran was involved in in terms of supporting terrorism back when he was in charge and also in his roles in the Iranian parliament. What do you have to say about that?

    MR KIRBY: Well, look, I – no question, as I said, he was a prominent figure, and the history’s complicated. We’re not going to debate the history, and I don’t think it’s valuable for us to try to comment on the potential internal implications of his death, of the potential impact on Iran today. He was consequential in terms of the recent history of Iran and we send our condolences to the family and loved ones. And whatever there is to say about his complicated history, you’re still dealing with a family that’s dealing with grief and dealing with a loss, and so it’s not inappropriate for us to simply offer our thoughts to a family that’s grieving right now.

    QUESTION: Okay, but – but, I mean, this is a guy who when he was in senior leadership positions repeatedly did and said things that this --

    MR KIRBY: Absolutely.

    QUESTION: -- that this government, whether this Administration or previous administrations --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah. Sure.

    QUESTION: -- have adamantly rejected – his position on Israel, for example – and condemned.

    MR KIRBY: Sure. Sure. Sure. Absolutely.

    QUESTION: And so you don’t see any – you --

    MR KIRBY: But should we – so we should hold the family and loved ones accountable for things that he did in his past that we didn’t like? I mean, the man died; we offered condolences to the family. We went through this, I think, when Fidel Castro passed too. I mean, no question – another individual with a history of actions and decisions and policies and rhetoric that we didn’t approve of in many, many ways, but you still have a family that’s grieving. And again, I don’t think we should make more of this than needs to be made. We offered our condolences, thoughts, and prayers to the family, and we think that’s appropriate.

    QUESTION: All right. Secondly, on this incident that happened on the Strait of Hormuz with the Navy – and I realize this is a Pentagon thing or a Navy thing altogether, but I’m just wondering – previous incidences involving the U.S. Navy and Iranian patrol boats has – have drawn some kind – some diplomatic intervention, as it – shall we say. And I’m just wondering if that has happened in this case.

    MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any specific intervention on the State Department’s behalf with respect to this recent incident.

    QUESTION: Or plans to? Because, I mean, one of the side benefits of the Iran deal --

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- which has been talked about is this channel between --

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif. That has not been or was not contemplated to be used in this case to tell the Iranians to knock it off?

    MR KIRBY: I wouldn’t rule anything out right at this point. I’m not aware of any plans for the Secretary to intervene at this point, but I certainly would not rule anything out. I just know that there’s been no communication on a diplomatic front on this issue, and I think the Pentagon has obviously spoken to the incident itself.

    QUESTION: Okay. And then lastly on Iran, you probably have seen a story that my colleague wrote out of Vienna about the P5+1 procurement committee approving the shipment of 116 metric tons of natural uranium --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- to Iran. People look at this and wonder exactly why it is that this kind of a shipment would be approved. Do you know what it’s for and why it was approved?

    MR KIRBY: Well – so a couple of thoughts there, Matt. I think you know that I’m unable to speak about specific proposals that are subject to the procurement working group confidentiality, so I – there’s a limit here. However, and more generally, the JCPOA does permit Iran to import natural uranium, and such transactions were always anticipated throughout the process of working towards the deal. Natural uranium is an internationally traded commodity. It’s not usable in its natural form for building a nuclear weapon. Iran can use any natural uranium it acquires only within the other limitations of JCPOA, so the – all the limits of the JCPOA still are in place. So I think – and you know this – for example, they cannot have more than 300 kilograms of enriched material, and it cannot enrich that material to a level more than 3.67 percent. And again, natural uranium can – is not in its natural form usable. Any natural uranium that would be transferred to Iran would still remain subject to the enhanced verification and transparency measures of the JCPOA and under the terms of that arrangement for 25 years.

    QUESTION: Yeah, but – okay, which is fine. So if it’s not usable, why would they want it?

    MR KIRBY: Well, again, they’re allowed to bring in natural uranium. I would let – I can’t – sorry, there’s – I cannot confirm these reports. I think you know that. So – but there’s no prohibition on bringing in natural uranium. They are still – regardless of that, they are still held to all the limitations of the Iran deal. That doesn’t change. And we still have the most robust inspection regime in place.

    Without confirming this procurement, I’d refer you to Iranian authorities for discussion of whatever desire they might have to bring in natural uranium. But if you’re going to have a civil nuclear power program, you can see that there might be a need for a product like that. But again, I can’t speak to it specifically.

    QUESTION: Well, is it not correct, though, that after – or tell me, I mean, if they hold onto this, if they store it away for 25 years, can they then not take this 116 tons and then do whatever they want with it?

    MR KIRBY: Well, the – first of all, I really hate – I hate hypotheticals --

    QUESTION: Or whatever the quantity --

    MR KIRBY: -- particularly the ones that go out two and a half decades from now, but --

    QUESTION: Look, the – your whole point is that don’t worry, this is going to be subject to inspection and verification --

    MR KIRBY: Which – which --

    QUESTION: -- under the JCPOA, but those – that expires at some point.

    MR KIRBY: There are – there are --

    QUESTION: So after those limitations expire, is it not correct that they could do whatever they want with it?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not going to speculate one way or another here about something that --

    QUESTION: I don't know that --

    MR KIRBY: -- may or may not happen 25 years from now, Matt. There’s a strong inspection regime in place --

    QUESTION: Now.

    MR KIRBY: -- to – and for well into the future to prevent Iran from --

    QUESTION: For 25 years.

    MR KIRBY: -- to prevent Iran from ever being able to achieve a nuclear weapon, and that’s on page – by the way, not 25 years. The deal says Iran will never achieve nuclear weapons capability, but let’s get beyond that. I’m not going to speculate about what might or might not happen 25 years from now.

    QUESTION: Well --

    MR KIRBY: I just don’t think that’s a useful exercise.

    QUESTION: Well, it may not be a useful exercise for you, but I mean, if you’re looking at this from the perspective of other countries in the region – Gulf, Arab countries – I mean, 25 years isn’t that long, is it not?

    MR KIRBY: Well, for you and me, it might --

    QUESTION: It might be for us.

    MR KIRBY: It might be for us.

    QUESTION: But we’re talking about --

    MR KIRBY: Look, I --

    QUESTION: -- generations of --

    MR KIRBY: Matt, I do understand where the question’s going. There’s no prohibition under the deal now for them to bring this material in in its natural form. It cannot be enriched – it cannot be used, I’m sorry, for a weapon. There is a very strong inspection regime in place for a very long time. And oh, by the way, in the deal, Iran said they would never achieve nuclear weapons capability. So I can’t – I don’t think either of us can predict what things are going to look like 20 years from now or 25 years from now or what the inspection regime continues to find and continues to be able to see 25 years from now. But we’re confident that the deal makes the region safer, makes our allies and partners safer, will prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability. And I think that’s probably the best place to leave it.

    QUESTION: John?

    QUESTION: Kirby --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: The --

    QUESTION: You’re going to ask on the same thing?

    QUESTION: Yes, on the same thing, yeah. So they’re permitted to bring in natural uranium, as you say, but the Associated Press story that Matt referenced seemed to suggest that this particular batch was – has been permitted by some kind of decision. Now, without confirming that, as you say you can’t --

    MR KIRBY: Right.

    QUESTION: -- do they have to inform their partners in the JCPOA when they do bring in natural uranium?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not – I’m going to have to take the question. I don’t know. As – and again, I want to be clear: I cannot confirm the press reporting on this and I’m not going to speak about the working group’s – anything that would violate the working group’s confidentiality. But as a matter of procedure, I’d have to ask. I don’t know. Okay?


    QUESTION: Can I change the subject to Taiwan?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: So I don’t know if you’ve commented on it over the weekend – I don’t think I saw anything – the Taiwanese president met the Republican lawmakers during a stopover on Sunday. Has there been any formal complaint by the Chinese on this? There was a report in a Chinese state tabloid that’s warning the next administration about it, but as of today, was there any kind of formal --

    MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of.

    QUESTION: -- complaint of it?

    MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of.

    QUESTION: So --

    QUESTION: And how do you see that visit? I mean, is it – those discussions, does it complicate anything in the last two weeks?

    MR KIRBY: Well, so, a couple of things. First of all, nothing’s changed about the “one China” policy or the United States support for it. Number two, the president’s transit through the United States is based on a longstanding U.S. practice. It’s consistent with the unofficial nature of our relations with Taiwan. These are undertaken, of course – I think I talked about this Friday – out of consideration for the comfort of the traveler, safety, convenience, that kind of thing. But there’s no change to the “one China” policy.

    Now, as for discussions that the president had, I would let those who were party to those discussions speak to them in terms of content. We had no role. We did not – we didn’t encourage, we did not establish, we did not organize those discussions. But again, this was unofficial transit for safety and comfort only, and again, nothing’s changed about the “one China” policy.

    QUESTION: And nothing’s complicated your life?

    MR KIRBY: Nothing has changed about the “one China” policy.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: And again, I think the participants in those discussions should speak to what was discussed.


    QUESTION: Thank you, John. On North Korea, are you ready? (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: I’m always ready for questions about North Korea from you, Janne. I mean, but I’m – as you rightly pointed out Friday – (laughter) – I’m not informed, so I’ll do the best I can.

    QUESTION: All right. She said you’re not an expert.

    MR KIRBY: She’s – that’s right, she said I’m not an expert.

    QUESTION: I’m sorry. Okay. North Korea announced the second time – Kim Jong-un announced the second time this year that North Korea will soon launch the ICBM – intercontinental ballistic missile – anywhere, anytime. What – do you have any comment on this?

    MR KIRBY: It would be exactly the same thing that we have said when they have made these sorts of provocative statements in the past. I mean, now is the time – and we’re well past time for Pyongyang to prove that they’re willing and able to return to the Six-Party Talk process and to stop their provocative moves, their destabilizing moves to develop – continue to develop ballistic missile capabilities as well as a nuclear program. And as we’ve said before, the – that the entire international community is aligned against them in terms of exerting more pressure. We’ll – we take his comments seriously. We have to. Regrettably, we have to. But I’m not going to get into our own estimate or assessment of where he might be with respect to progress on this most recent threat.

    QUESTION: Is the United States ready to shut down North Korean ICBM this time?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not going to speculate about future tactical developments one way or the other. I would just tell you, as I said last week, that in addition to the international pressure being applied through a very robust sanctions regime, and the fact that we’re not ruling out additional sanctions if required through the UN, that the United States maintains a significant deterrent capability militarily in the region. That’s all been part and parcel of the Asia Pacific rebalance. And we’re confident that we have the capabilities in the Asia Pacific region to protect our interests.

    QUESTION: But a launch of North Korean ICBM is a threat to South Korea and United States. So hopefully U.S. have military action to – this time, so --

    MR KIRBY: Well, Janne, you know better than probably anybody in this room that when I say “our interests,” I also mean the significant interests and commitments that we have on the peninsula itself through a rock-solid defense alliance with the Republic of Korea. That hasn’t changed. And we have – still have a very significant military presence there on the peninsula, all of which is designed to act as a deterrent. But also if – and nobody wants to see this come into open conflict – but of course to be ready should it. And our forces on the peninsula are in fact some of the most ready that we have anywhere in the world.

    QUESTION: Thanks.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: I have a question about Asian missile technology. It’s not North Korea, though, so --

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: All right. Pakistan launched a submarine launch – well, what they said was a submarine-launchable nuclear-capable cruise missile today.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Does this have any concerns in terms of balance in the region or any existing agreements? Is this something that is an issue for the United States?

    MR KIRBY: What I can say is we’ve seen reports of this missile launch – submarine-launched missile. We continue to urge all states with nuclear weapons to exercise restraint regarding nuclear and missile capability testing and use, and we encourage efforts to promote confidence building and stability with respect to those capabilities.


    QUESTION: Can we go back east between South Korea and Japan? So I know you said last week that the comfort women statue that was erected in Busan, like – that the State Department didn’t have a direct comment on that. But last week, they – Japan pulled out the South Korean ambassador because it was erected.

    MR KIRBY: Right.

    QUESTION: I was wondering if you have any response to that action.

    MR KIRBY: We are aware of the – of reports that the ambassador was recalled. I think we would leave it to those two countries to speak to that decision. I mean, as you know, it’s not an uncommon practice with respect to moving diplomats in and out, and I think I’d let those two countries talk about that action. Okay?


    QUESTION: On Syria, President Assad gave a new interview. He made some comments that at peace talks he put everything on the table, even discuss the possibility of elections being held in the country. Does any of this seem realistic or give you any sense of optimism?

    MR KIRBY: I think you have to take his comments in the context of things he has said in the past and even not – in the not so distant past about taking – he also said he was going to take back his whole country and we’ve seen the manner in which he sees fit to do that. So I think it’d be difficult to take any stated commitment to him about elections very seriously. What needs to happen is what we’ve said all along needs to happen, and that’s a UN-led process whereby the opposition and the regime begin to have a discussion about what a political transition can look like in Syria, a transition that incorporates the voice of the Syrian people – all of them. And we continue to want to support that process and that process alone.

    Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Russia. You probably know that the intelligence report, the one that was made public about Russia’s alleged meddling in the U.S. election through leaks, does not provide any evidence for the public to see. The report claims high degree of confidence. Do you think the public should have the same high degree of confidence without seeing the evidence?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think that we should be surprised that in an unclassified version of a highly classified assessment and report that we would be protecting sources and methods. And that all our intelligence communities came to the same basic conclusion over and over again, that they testified publicly to those conclusions last week and that they backed up that testimony in private briefings to some members of Congress, as well as to President Obama and President-elect Trump, I think should give people confidence in their assessments. But nobody – I don’t think anybody should be surprised that in an unclassified version, the intelligence communities protected sensitive information, particularly sourcing and methods; that it would it have been irresponsible for them to have provided – to reveal that sort of information. And we rely on them, as we should, to make that determination for themselves in terms of what information was appropriate to put out publicly.

    QUESTION: Sir, it was with high degree of confidence that the intelligence community said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, which led to a disastrous war based on that false assessment. Do you think the public does not deserve to see the evidence in the case of Russia?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think – I don’t think many people would doubt that – the responsibility of the intelligence community to protect sources and methods. I think most of the American people understand that, that they have a responsibility to protect that information for the future. And I don’t think that trying to compare what happened back in 2001 to this assessment is very relevant. The President, Secretary Kerry, as well as every other cabinet official that has spoken on this has spoken to the trust and confidence that they have in the assessment that was made by all 17 intelligence communities. All of them came to the same basic conclusion: That Russia interfered with the U.S. election.

    QUESTION: But that’s about the agencies. What about the public? Should the evidence be relevant for the public to see, or should they just take the agency’s word for it?

    MR KIRBY: There is a fundamental responsibility not to reveal sources and methods and we leave it to the intelligence community when they make unclassified information such as this to make that determination for themselves on what is appropriate to put out there. And I think you and everybody else can understand they have a responsibility to protect our nation’s secrets so that they can continue to protect us going forward.

    Now, you heard the Secretary last week – very clear in his firm admiration for the men and women of the intelligence community in the United States, and the work that they do, and the manner in which they protect the American people day in and day out. And there are hundreds of ways they do that that never sees the light of day, that never gets a headline, and that’s just fine with them. So I think – well, I don’t think. The Secretary believes strongly that they handled this matter in the appropriate way in terms of how it was – how it was analyzed, how it was presented, and how it was briefed to those who needed to see a deeper level of the information. Okay?

    QUESTION: Can I just ask you about – about one thing, not specifically about this. But why is it that you say that what happened in 2001 is not relevant to this? I mean, it seems to me that past performance is an indicator of --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, Matt. Look – I mean, look. Nobody is saying that there weren’t mistakes made in 2000, 2001. But that was, what, 15 years ago and a lot has changed in the Intelligence Community since then. We’ve learned a lot. We’ve become much more integrated. Back then, the intelligence communities, as you well know, were much more stove-piped. There wasn’t the level of cooperation that we – I mean, we have moved on. We have learned a lot from those mistakes.

    I’m not suggesting that the Intelligence Community – that every bit of intelligence is always 100 percent. In fact, you know yourself that oftentimes – and they are appropriately very careful about that – which makes it all the more remarkable that in this case they were so uniform in their opinion and their high confidence in the role that Russia played.

    QUESTION: But in terms of – you say you’re drawing a distinction between then and now because of --

    MR KIRBY: I think it – I think it --

    QUESTION: Because the intelligence agencies have gotten bigger and better?

    MR KIRBY: I think to paint them with the same brush that was used in 2001 is highly unfair and actually wholly irrelevant and inaccurate to the kinds of gains that have been made in intelligence gathering and analysis since then. I mean, we’re talking 15 years.

    QUESTION: Right. So --

    MR KIRBY: I mean, should they --

    QUESTION: Well, you were just talking about 25 years with Iran.

    MR KIRBY: Should that be the benchmark for everything?

    QUESTION: Well, I – I don’t know. I’m asking you why you think it’s not relevant, what happened then is not relevant now.

    MR KIRBY: Because of what’s happened over the last 15 years.

    QUESTION: So the improvements and --

    MR KIRBY: Improvements in integration, coordination, analysis capability. I mean, we’ve moved on.

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR KIRBY: Okay?

    QUESTION: I have another one about history. You said you didn’t want to debate history.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t.

    QUESTION: And I won’t ask you to. But I’m just curious, in light of that, on Iran --

    MR KIRBY: Well, then why are you asking me?

    QUESTION: Well, no, because of this apology that Secretary Kerry put out to the LGBT community.

    MR KIRBY: Right.

    QUESTION: I’m just wondering, 11 days left in the --

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- in his time. Why?

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: Why now? And if he felt this strongly, why not do this early on?

    MR KIRBY: Sure. No, it’s a fair question. Look, I think this issue of what is known as the Lavender Scare was in relatively recent weeks brought to our attention as a matter of concern by some members of Congress, mostly recently Senator Ben Cardin, who I think we talked about his correspondence directly with the Secretary just last week. And so the Secretary appreciated them expressing their concerns over those events in the ‘40s and ‘50s, took a look at the historical record and decided that it was appropriate to issue this apology, and so he did.

    QUESTION: Okay. But it wasn’t until – but the reason for now is because members of Congress were seeking it?

    MR KIRBY: It was – it was because several people brought it to his attention here in recent weeks, to include some members of Congress.

    QUESTION: Okay. So he wasn’t – I don’t want to suggest that he didn’t – was clueless about it before, but I mean --

    MR KIRBY: I think – look, look.

    QUESTION: This wasn’t, like, high on his --

    MR KIRBY: Well --

    QUESTION: -- agenda? Because I mean, in the statement he talks about --

    MR KIRBY: His record.

    QUESTION: Exactly.

    MR KIRBY: His record.

    QUESTION: In the statement he talks about his – his record of support.

    MR KIRBY: His record on these issues, LGBTI rights, is longstanding as a member of Congress as well as Secretary of State. He has done a lot to advance those causes.

    QUESTION: John, now you’re being defensive. I’m not trying – I’m just trying to figure out if he – was this something in the back of his mind that got moved to the front because of what --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah. I mean, he certainly --

    QUESTION: -- what he – the people are bringing it to his attention now?

    MR KIRBY: He certainly knew the basics of the history of the Lavender Scare.

    QUESTION: Okay, okay.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think he considered himself an expert on it. It was brought to his attention in recent weeks, and he felt it was appropriate to issue the apology.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: On Syria, a couple questions on Syria. One is that President Assad’s claim that he’s willing or he will take back the country, the whole country. So would – in a case of like that or Bashar Assad or any other forces tried to undo what you have done with the SDF or other forces that you’re partners in Syria, would you tolerate any actions against these forces to undo what you have done? Because it’s not just militarily you are helping them. Also there are some humanitarian assistance to these area --

    MR KIRBY: I’m not really sure what you mean by “undo” what we’ve done.

    QUESTION: Like retaking the area. I mean, just kicking out every force, like your partners, SDF, everyone from Manbij, for example, Kobani.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think it’d be useful for me to speculate or hypothesize about what might or might not happen. The support that the coalition provides to the Syrian Democratic Forces is designed for one goal and one goal only, and that is to defeat Daesh. That’s the effort. We have long said that what needs to happen with respect to the civil war in Syria is a political solution, and that’s what the Secretary has labored so hard for. He will stay focused on that for the next couple of weeks. But I’m not able to predict or speculate what might happen if Bashar al-Assad moves into those areas. What Bashar al-Assad really needs to do is stop bombing his own people, allow for humanitarian assistance to get in, and prove that he’s committed to participating in UN-led political talks in Geneva to end the war.

    QUESTION: On the refugees program, I got some information from the State Department that in Fiscal Year 2016 you have got over 12,000 Syrian refugees to the United States, which was meeting the goal even more than what President Obama said, like, at least bringing 10,000. What is the status for this year? Are you trying to keep the same goal or – because you have allocated money for that program for this year too, so if you --

    MR KIRBY: Well, the President said for Fiscal Year ’17 that we were going to shoot for a goal of 110,000 total refugees – not just from any one place. There has not been a goal set by the President for Fiscal Year ’17 with respect to refugees specifically from Syria.

    QUESTION: So any – do you have any idea that how is the status after – like, since October is the fiscal year – the new fiscal year, so do you have --

    MR KIRBY: I can – we can get that for you. I don’t have an exact number of what’s been brought in thus far in the fiscal year, but we can ask and see.

    QUESTION: Okay. So can I switch to Iraq or --

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Okay. The – couple days ago of Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim visited Iraq and he met with Kurdish and Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and Erbil. One of the topics they talked about is the military and deployment – Turkish military deployment in Iraq and that issue. So if you would just comment on that – on the visit in general and on were you involved in any way, because you – previously you have asked both sides to de-escalate the tensions they had over the --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, we --

    QUESTION: -- Turkish army --

    MR KIRBY: I think I talked about this last week. I’m not going to – I don’t have a readout to offer to you. We weren’t party to these meetings. Certainly, as we’ve said over and over again, we respect the sovereign right of the government in Baghdad to meet and discuss and have dialogue with neighbors and partners in the region, including Turkey. We obviously look favorably on dialogue between Turkey and Iraq on a number of issues, but I’d leave it to leaders from both those countries to speak to what was discussed and what the outcomes were.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: That’s not for us to speak to. But I said all that last week, so that’s – I’m not giving you anything different.


    QUESTION: I’m Kawa from Kurdistan 24.

    MR KIRBY: From where?

    QUESTION: Kurdistan 24.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: Yeah, I came on behalf of Laurie. I will ask a question if you allow me about the same case of the Turkish minister while they were talking about the very important and sensitive case, which is PKK in Sinjar. And also, United States also been concerned about this case and ask the PKK to get out from Sinjar, but it looks like from the last information that the PKK are showing a kind of resist and rejecting for getting out. In case if they insisted of getting out from Sinjar, which is a part of threat for the area – and also the United States needs the area to get stable and for the sovereign of Iraq too – what will be the advice of the United States for Turkey and the Iraqi Government and the Kurds to react in this situation?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I wouldn’t get ahead of diplomatic discussions that haven’t occurred and for all I know might not occur, okay, so I don’t want to speculate. That was a long windup in your question. Only thing I would say is that the PKK remains a foreign terrorist organization. We consider them a terrorist organization. We recognize that the threat that they pose in the region and specifically to Turkey, and we continue to support Turkey in their counterterrorism efforts. Okay?

    I got time for --

    QUESTION: I – I have a very brief logistical one, but someone else can go first.

    MR KIRBY: Okay, you and then Matt, and then that will be it.

    QUESTION: Yeah, on the same thing in Sinjar. I don’t know if you’re aware of the situation in Sinjar. There are PKK and there are some other forces which is also they are in conflict with the Kurdish forces, but they have, like, the support of Baghdad – the Yezidi forces there. I don’t know how you are involved, if you are aware of the conflicts or the tensions between the KRG and also these forces that are there in Sinjar, because that situation is very delicate and the residents – the IDPs, they are not returning to their places because of the having multiple forces in the area. If you just – I don’t know if you are aware of anything --

    MR KIRBY: Is there a question there?

    QUESTION: -- anything. Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: I mean, I think I’d refer you to the – to DOD to speak to a specific situation on the ground. Obviously, we’re well aware --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR KIRBY: We’re well aware of the tensions in and around Sinjar. We’re well aware of the PKK’s influence. I’ve already stated our view of the PKK and who they are and what they are, but for specifics about the situation on the ground, I think I’d point you to DOD as a much better source. Okay?

    QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

    QUESTION: Sorry, I just wanted to – the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is in town. He’s going to be up on the Hill later this afternoon. I know the Secretary is not back yet, but he will be back tomorrow, obviously, although it seems like he has a busy day.

    MR KIRBY: He’ll be back this evening, but there are no plans to --

    QUESTION: But I just --

    MR KIRBY: -- meet with the foreign minister.

    QUESTION: Okay, but would anyone else? Do you know if Mr. Johnson – Foreign Secretary Johnson --

    MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any meetings --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: -- that the foreign minister will be having here at the State Department.


    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Thanks, everybody.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:44 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 6, 2017

Fri, 01/06/2017 - 18:20
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 6, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing


    2:16 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: What’s on the scarf?

    QUESTION: USA Hockey.

    MR KIRBY: Okay. All right, that’s acceptable.

    QUESTION: It’s from the winter Olympics from --

    MR KIRBY: Really?

    QUESTION: Remember the winter Olympics in Sochi.

    MR KIRBY: I do remember the winter Olympics, yes.

    QUESTION: I had to special order this.

    MR KIRBY: Did you really, Matt? It’s very sporty. That’s okay. So would a NASCAR driver-- that would have been okay as well. USA Hockey.

    QUESTION: Guess you didn’t watch the game, Kirby.

    MR KIRBY: What game? That game? (Laughter.) I grew up in south Florida. So while I can appreciate the athleticism of hockey, I don’t really spend a lot of time watching it.

    QUESTION: You’ve got two teams.

    MR KIRBY: Is there only two teams in all of hockey? (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: No, in Florida.

    MR KIRBY: Two hockey teams in Florida. Yes, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy watching it.

    QUESTION: Sacrilege.

    MR KIRBY: Look, any sport that has the word “ice” in it is not going to attract my attention. (Laughter.) Can I get on with the briefing? (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Talk about hockey.

    MR KIRBY: So a couple just at the top. One, I’d like to just provide a brief readout. I think you know that the deputy secretary met yesterday with his counterparts from the Republic of Korea and Japan. We issued a fact sheet about that meeting – a communique, if you will – which I can point you to on our website. But the Deputy Secretary, as he said afterward, quote, “We share a common purpose in addressing the region’s most acute threat: North Korea. The United States is committed to protecting ourselves, defending our allies, meeting our treaty obligations, and providing extended deterrence guaranteed by the full spectrum of U.S. defense capabilities,” end quote.

    So since April 2015, inaugural – I’m sorry – since the April 2015 inaugural trilateral meeting in Washington, our three countries have coordinated responses to the growing nuclear ballistic missile threat from North Korea. We’ve joined efforts to address a range of other regional security issues, and we work together to forge innovative approaches to global priorities such as space security, cyber security, cancer research, development assistance, and women’s empowerment. So it was a good full day of discussions. And again, we can point you to our website and the fact sheet for more detail on that.

    A trip note just briefly. On Monday, the Secretary will be heading up to Boston. He will highlight climate change, innovation, and the global transition to a clean energy future during a speech at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That will be at 10:30 on Monday morning.

    Following the speech, he will be joined by the Deputy Secretary to participate in a roundtable discussion with members of MIT and policy experts on what is being called “the future of work.” The discussion will focus on how rapid advances in technological innovation, including digitization and automation, are impacting the future of jobs and transferring economies all around the world. The roundtable was part of the department’s Innovation Forum, which convenes senior policymakers and industry experts for discussions on issues at the intersection of foreign policy and innovation.

    And with that, we’ll go to Matt.

    QUESTION: Are you going?

    MR KIRBY: I will not be making the trip on Monday.

    QUESTION: Because you know what they have in Boston?

    MR KIRBY: A lot of snow and ice. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: A hockey team, too.

    MR KIRBY: Yes, I know. I’ve heard that they play hockey up there, yes.

    QUESTION: That’s probably why you’re not going, right?

    MR KIRBY: It’s not – no, I’m – it’s not because of the hockey. The snow and ice, that’s another issue. That may be factoring into it.

    QUESTION: All right. Listen, I don’t have anything huge to start with, but I did want to follow up on something the Secretary mentioned yesterday when he was asked about Syria by Samir. He essentially said you’re not giving up. You’re continuing to encourage this process that is now effectively being led by the Turks and the Russians. He said that he had still been in contact, and in contact in recent days, with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Turkish foreign minister. Do you – can you be a little bit more specific about that? And has he also been in touch with Gulf – his Gulf counterparts specifically about the ceasefire that took effect on the 30th and the prospects for getting some kind of negotiation back on the – started?

    MR KIRBY: The – yeah, the most recent discussion that he’s had with Foreign Minister Lavrov was just after Christmas on the 27th, and the last time I show him speaking to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu would be on the 20th of December, so --

    QUESTION: Okay, so this is not that recently.

    MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, if it was – not in the last --

    QUESTION: Like two weeks, but it wasn’t --

    MR KIRBY: -- couple of days but, yeah, in recent days, in recent weeks.

    QUESTION: Okay. And so what is the – in terms of the – what the Administration – we know – I think it’s been explained what the Administration is hoping for, hoping that this can work and that you would be supportive of anything that could bring about a political resolution. But in terms of your – the Administration’s involvement directly in this, how would you describe that?

    MR KIRBY: In the --

    QUESTION: Ongoing --

    MR KIRBY: -- bilateral work that --

    QUESTION: No, not necessarily the bilateral work, the multilateral work that’s going on that the Turks and Russia --

    MR KIRBY: Russia, Turkey, Iran?

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah. We are not actively involved in those discussions.

    QUESTION: Can I --

    MR KIRBY: We’re not actively involved in those discussions. They are being coordinated by those three countries in particular. We’re not at the table. We’re not involved in the planning, and we’re obviously not speaking to whatever outcomes are – that are coming out of these discussions. That’s point one.

    Point two – and I think the Secretary talked about this yesterday – is that while we are not at the table and, by the way, have not been invited to participate – he has and fully intends to stay, at least for the next couple of weeks, in touch with his counterparts on whatever outcomes are being arrived at through these discussions. So he’s staying in touch with that – with foreign leaders with respect to what they’re doing.

    And then the last thing I would say is that while I understand the focus on these multilateral discussions, first of all, we still subscribe to what we believe should be a UN-led political process. And so while he said yesterday and said it again today that we support discussions – if it’s in Astana, that’s fine, support those, but to the – within the context of them eventually leading to and being folded into the Geneva process, the UN-led process by Staffan de Mistura. And that’s where – so nothing’s changed about our policy with respect to that.

    QUESTION: Right, but I guess the question – and this may have been addressed while I was away, but the question is since October, essentially, you guys have ceded what had been a pretty major leadership role in the ISSG and trying to convene – trying to convene the talks that de Mistura was leading. And now it seems as though you’ve just given up, at least in term – not in terms of hoping what the outcome will be, but in terms of your actual participation. Is that a comfortable position for the Administration, for the Secretary to be in as he closes out his time?

    MR KIRBY: Well, a couple of thoughts on that. I would disagree that we’ve ceded anything. It’s not the first time --

    QUESTION: Well --

    MR KIRBY: Hang on, Matt. It’s not the first time that there have been multilateral discussions about ceasefires and humanitarian aid where we weren’t invited and didn’t participate. So we – and the Secretary, I thought, was very forcefully eloquent yesterday about his intention – and again, at least for the time that he’s left in office – of staying fully engaged. And U.S. leadership on trying to find a diplomatic solution in Syria has not stopped, has not waned, and will not while he’s – at least as long as he is Secretary. That doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that there are multilateral efforts going on and discussions that we’re not participating in. The – so we haven’t ceded anything in that regard.

    The other thing I’d say is that if those discussions with or without us can lead to a better outcome on any one of those three things, then we obviously support that.

    QUESTION: Yeah. I guess my question – and I’ll stop after this – is I just don’t understand how it is that if you’re not participating, let alone not inviting – not invited, how it is exactly that you’re showing any kind of leadership role. Don’t you have to be at the table or a part of the --

    MR KIRBY: There --

    QUESTION: -- of the process in order to be able to push things in the direction that you want them to go when the players actually sit down?

    MR KIRBY: Well, we still are at the proverbial table. We may not be at the table in Astana, we may not be at the table in Moscow.

    QUESTION: But you were --

    MR KIRBY: I understand that. But it’s not like we are walking away from Syria. It’s not like we’re stopping our engagement. It’s not like we’re still not part of the ISSG or that the ISSG doesn’t exist.

    QUESTION: It doesn’t exist.

    MR KIRBY: Of course it does. We are still --

    QUESTION: When was the last time it met in any kind of way, shape, or form?

    MR KIRBY: No, it’s been a long time, several months, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been disbanded. I mean, there’s a UN --

    QUESTION: Right, so --

    MR KIRBY: -- Security Council resolution that codifies the ISSG.

    QUESTION: Does that mean that the League of Nations still exists too? I mean, it still --

    MR KIRBY: It still exists.

    QUESTION: It does? (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: No, not the League of Nations. (Laughter.) The ISSG still exists. So, Matt, look, I mean, the larger point is we’re not giving up --

    QUESTION: Can you explain exactly what it is that you’re doing that constitutes leadership in a process that you’re not at all involved in?

    MR KIRBY: We’re not involved in this particular process, but it doesn’t mean that that is the only level of discussion that’s going on on Syria. You’re right; there haven’t been any recent ISSG meetings. You would also be right if you were to say, well, there hasn’t been any political talks in Geneva for a while, and – whether it’s opposition/regime-related or multilateral-related with respect to a ceasefire. Totally, all that’s fair, but it doesn’t mean that we have stepped back off the stage in terms of trying to exert some sort of influence to get to a better outcome. And as the Secretary said yesterday, if we can get to that outcome and the United States is not at the table, then he’s okay with that --

    QUESTION: Right, but that’s --

    MR KIRBY: -- because that’s what --

    QUESTION: -- that’s ceding it. That’s stepping it --

    MR KIRBY: It’s not --

    QUESTION: That’s backing away from the stage.

    MR KIRBY: Well, we’re certainly – first of all, we weren’t invited to the stage, so it’s – you can’t back away from something you weren’t invited to. So it’s not about – and we’re not ceding leadership.

    QUESTION: Okay. Well, then you’ve been excluded.

    MR KIRBY: No, but --

    QUESTION: Excluded. Right.

    QUESTION: Maybe you haven’t ceded it.

    MR KIRBY: But you asked the other question, which I want to get to.

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR KIRBY: This is the – is he comfortable? No, he’s not comfortable. Of course he’s not comfortable with where we are on Syria. Is he uncomfortable that there are meetings going on where we’re not in attendance? No, that – as he said yesterday, that doesn’t particularly bother him, because he is staying in touch. We are aware and we are still involved in the process – the larger diplomatic process.

    QUESTION: But --

    MR KIRBY: But is he satisfied with where we are in Syria? Is he at all comfortable with what’s going on? Of course we’re not.

    QUESTION: Okay, and this is the last one, which is the other phone calls like Gulf, Arab.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any --

    QUESTION: Any – how about any call on Syria --

    MR KIRBY: Well, again, we’re just coming off the holidays, so I don’t have any recent calls to --

    QUESTION: All right, I understand. But you can make phone calls over the holidays.

    MR KIRBY: Yes. So there were – I mean, I’ve got --

    QUESTION: So I’m just wondering if there has been any – this engagement --

    MR KIRBY: There has been.

    QUESTION: -- that you keep talking about.

    MR KIRBY: There has been.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Over the course of the holiday period, I’m looking at several calls to Gulf allies. Yes.

    QUESTION: Okay, so those have been made.

    MR KIRBY: Yes, over the course of the holidays.

    QUESTION: Kirby, is anyone from the U.S. going to go to the Astana? I mean, are you have – he might not have been invited or --

    MR KIRBY: I am aware of no U.S. participation in those discussions.

    QUESTION: Do you think --

    QUESTION: So – and then de Mistura said – or the UN said today that they were going to go ahead with the February meeting in Geneva. What about those meetings?

    MR KIRBY: Well, they haven’t – we haven’t been a party to them. Those are UN-led, UN-brokered discussions between the opposition and the regime. I think in the past, we have had somebody go as an observer – Special Envoy Ratney, for instance. I don’t – I wouldn’t – I don’t know whether that will be the case in February. We can try to get an answer for you. I would expect that, as in the past, we would have at least somebody there sort of at a distance and observing, but not participating.

    The whole purpose of those talks is to have the opposition and the regime both fairly represented, both involved in some sort of level of dialogue. The farthest they’ve been able to get was what we call “proximity talks” where they’re not actually in the same room, but being – discussions being brokered by Special Envoy de Mistura.

    I don’t know what the format in February is going to look like. That’s really for him to speak to. But I certainly couldn’t rule out that there would be some U.S. attendance as an observer only, not to be participating. That’s never been the design.

    QUESTION: And then as these three countries get together – Turkey, Iran, and Russia – to discuss what’s going on in Syria, and maybe the end product of it, which could be a transition from Assad or maybe he stays. Is – does the U.S. – I think it goes back to what Matt’s saying – does the U.S. not feel uncomfortable that these discussions and decisions are being made about a country where you have an influence – I mean, and you have – you’ve got planes flying – airstrikes going on? I mean, is there not – I mean, how do you – you’re not part of those, those discussions. Is there not some kind of --

    MR KIRBY: Well, first of all, the military efforts in Syria are Daesh-related, not related to the civil war. And to the discussions that happen if it – in Astana or elsewhere without our participation, they have no impact on the coalition efforts to counter Daesh inside Syria. Those are not connected in that way.

    But look, of course we’re concerned by the discussions. Of course we are interested in whatever outcomes. And that is why, as the Secretary said, he’s going to stay in touch with his Turkish and Russian counterparts going forward here – has and will continue to – at least for as long as he’s in office – about whatever outcomes and results and whatever comes out of these meetings, he will certainly stay in touch on that. We are interested in that and we do have concerns about whatever those outcomes are.

    That said, Lesley, we continue to stand solidly behind a UN-led process here, which is enshrined in our UN Security Council resolution which codified itself the ISSG process. And that is still the operative process and that is what we will continue to support. And so, as the Secretary said yesterday, if they want to meet in Astana, that’s perfectly within their right to do it. And if that discussion in Astana can lead us to a quicker result or more progress in Geneva under UN auspices, well, that’s all to the good as well. It’s not like – so it’s not like – while we aren’t connected to this piece of it, it’s not like we’re pulling out from the whole puzzle.

    QUESTION: Yes, but then what do you do if they agree that Assad should stay?

    MR KIRBY: Our policy on Assad has not changed and I don’t expect that it will change for as long as this Administration is in office. That we continue to believe he cannot be part of the long-term future of Syria. As I have said for many, many months, the – his role in a transition will be determined – should be determined by those political talks. We want the Syrians to decide that. That’s the way it’s been set up. Our view, what we want to see as the end result, is not changed, but ultimately the discussion of how and what his role is in the transition is going to be – should be the byproduct – not just the byproduct – the product of those political talks.

    QUESTION: John, let me just follow up. Do you have any comment on this – the apparent scaling back of Russian military presence in Syria? Have you heard those announcements?

    MR KIRBY: I did. I mean, we – I’ve seen the reports that they’re pulling back, I think, some artillery units is my understanding. I can’t confirm the veracity of that. The Russian defense ministry should speak to that. And I also think that whether they pull out these units or not, it’s pretty apparent that they continue to pursue a pretty robust military presence in Syria and continue to pursue military strategies to bolster the Assad regime. And as the Secretary said yesterday, those strategies will only lengthen the war, attract extremists, fling more people into refugee status, and perhaps put at risk and prolong any useful political talks that could lead to a lasting peace.

    QUESTION: How do you read this announcement if it is true? Because we’ve heard months back the Russians also announced some scaling back, but then they went back in again and, you know, bolstered him. So how do you – is this like --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, I’ve also seen them announce scaling back when it’s really just rotational deployments. I mean, so, again, you’d have to talk to the --

    QUESTION: And is it possible that it is rotational deployment?

    MR KIRBY: It could be. I don’t know. You’d have to talk to the Russian defense ministry. We’ve seen them say, well, we’re pulling troops out, when really all they’re doing is they’re just rotating. They’re pulling people or pulling equipment and units out that need to go back home for refurbishment. So I don’t know what they’re up to here. They should speak to that. If this reduction actually is intended to and does lead to a change in calculus more towards political outcomes than military outcomes in Syria, well, then that would be to the good. But again, it’s just too soon to know.

    QUESTION: Okay. Let me just follow up with a couple of more things on the ceasefire. It seems to be holding. That’s what Jan Egeland said today, but he said that humanitarian assistance – trucks, convoys – something like only 5 of 21 slated convoys got to the people that need it. Do you have any comment on that?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I can’t confirm reports that it’s holding. Again, we’ve – I’ve seen mixed reporting over recent days about the degree to which there is or isn’t a ceasefire, and that should come as no surprise to anybody. First of all, information isn’t perfect coming out of there, and in the past it’s been very difficult to have a ceasefire announced and then maintained for any great length of time because Russia won’t meet its commitments to the international community.

    On the humanitarian assistance, while I can’t confirm those specific numbers, we certainly don’t take issue with the notion that it is still in desperate need and has not reached anywhere near the numbers of Syrian people that it needs to reach.

    QUESTION: And lastly, I want to ask you about comments made by the Turkish Minister of Defense Fikri Isik. And when you say – he described your policy in Syria or your strategy in Syria as a total failure and disappointing, and he said we look forward to the – we hope that the next administration will be able to cooperate and coordinate better on the Syria situation. Do you have any comment on that?

    MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments, Said. Again, I would just say that, obviously, no one is content here by the situation in Syria. But to label it as a U.S. failure is to miss so much of the larger context about what’s going on here. I mean, the Secretary would be the first to tell you, and I think he told you yesterday, that he’s frustrated by what’s going on and by the fact that we haven’t been able to get there. But it’s not for lack of trying and it’s not for lack of U.S. leadership that there has been a general failure by the regime, certainly with its backers in Moscow and Tehran, to do what was required of them – requirements that Russia codified themselves in I don’t know how many communiques and what was in a UN Security Council resolution about trying to reduce the level of violence.

    So yeah, there’s been failings there, but to label – to place it all at the feet of the United States simply doesn’t comport with the facts. And as I said, for the remainder of the time – and we’re all – we all recognize it’s two weeks here – the Secretary’s going to stay engaged. Okay?


    QUESTION: I wanted to follow up on something that Secretary Kerry said yesterday. He argued that Obama had not abandoned the red line set in Syria because – but instead it was the perception that he had abandoned it that really hurt. I just wanted to clarify that a bit because it seems like there was a report released in October of last year saying that there were three chemical weapon attacks in 2014 and 2015, and there wasn’t any U.S. military engagement. So I’m just trying to understand, are you going to argue that it’s just the perception that it was abandoned?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I can’t speak for the specific reports about chemical weapons attacks in – at those times. I mean, we do know that they have continued to use chlorine as a weapon, and maybe that’s what that refers to. I don’t know. But we do know that all of the declared – declared – this was – and we’ve said this all along – the declared chemical weapons stockpiles and chemical material stockpiles were removed safely. We also said at the time – and I think I said this even in my prior hat at the Pentagon – that we knew that there could be undeclared stockpiles that he could have hidden somewhere, and we certainly have been nothing but open about the use of chlorine as a weapon, which they’ve done now. It’s an industrial agent; I get that. But the weaponizing of it, or the using it in an attack, is against international law, and that has still happened.

    The Secretary was – what he was referring to was that the President never took off the option of military options. He went to the Congress, didn’t get the permission to go forward, and decided that that wasn’t prudent at that point. But we still got the result of what – and maybe a better result than had military action actually occurred. And that’s the Secretary’s larger point.

    QUESTION: Very small, very quickly on something that he said yesterday, because apparently with his reference to the British parliament and its role and so on, he’s getting a lot of criticism and flack out there (inaudible) --

    MR KIRBY: Unfairly so, too, if you look at what he said, absolutely unfairly. I mean, he – all he said was that the President’s decision to consult Congress was done in the context of the same discussion that Prime Minister Cameron had with parliament. I mean, that had happened before the President’s decision to go to Congress, but it helped inform the President’s decision to go to Congress. It wasn’t a – the reporting --

    QUESTION: He’s not laying the blame on the --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, the reporting, the shrill headlines I’ve seen coming out of some of the British press on this are – it’s absolutely not founded by what he was trying to say.

    QUESTION: “Shrill?”

    MR KIRBY: Shrill. Shrill and hyperbolic.

    QUESTION: How is a headline shrill?

    MR KIRBY: Oh, come on, Matthew. (Laughter.) You’ve never seen a headline shrill?


    MR KIRBY: No?

    QUESTION: I’ve heard people read a headline in a shrill voice. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: I’ve heard it in a shrill way.

    QUESTION: I’m sure that you’ve heard it lots (inaudible).

    MR KIRBY: I have read headlines in a shrill voice. I am guilty of that. But --

    QUESTION: In italics. Underlined in italics in, like, some weird font, I’m not sure. Is it (inaudible) --

    MR KIRBY: A headline that claims that the Secretary blamed the UK and Prime Minister Cameron for the redline issue is shrill, hyperbolic, and untrue.


    QUESTION: Can I ask one question about Taiwan?

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: So what --

    MR KIRBY: You can ask about anything, not just Taiwan. Is there something else on your mind?

    QUESTION: Hockey. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Yeah. Dr. Tsai will make a stopover in Houston and San Francisco during this week – this weekend about her transit to Central America. Will any current U.S. officials contact with Tsai in any forms, even as private citizens, including personal meeting, phone call, text message, or social media? (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: Post card – look, I don’t mean to make light of your question. I’m simply not able to speak for the details of discussions that might occur.

    QUESTION: But do you encourage the current officials to contact with her?

    MR KIRBY: The – it is a longstanding practice to provide a transit opportunity for the comfort of the traveler, and whatever discussions that that leader intends to have is really for them and their staffs to speak to, not me.

    QUESTION: So will she receive a different treatment or reception at U.S. border and customs from her previous travels?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not going to talk for the customs and border service. This is something – this is a longstanding practice that we have provided in the past for her travel, and that’s – there’s nothing unusual about that. It really is for comfort, and I’d let her and her staff speak to how she intends to follow through and implement those comfort stops. Okay?

    QUESTION: So – last question.

    QUESTION: John --

    MR KIRBY: Are you still on this?

    QUESTION: Have you – have State Department proactively given any advice or caution his – Trump’s team about the Taiwanese?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not going to talk about our communications with the Trump transition team. I’ve made it a pretty hard and fast rule not to do that.


    QUESTION: Excuse me, John, can you explain this --

    QUESTION: John, is there --

    QUESTION: -- situation with the ambassadors, the political appointee ambassadors, the career service ambassadors, and how long they can stay after – or whether they can stay after the January 20th?

    MR KIRBY: So look, I think I can break this down pretty easily, as I’ve seen the press coverage on this as well. All political appointees for the Obama Administration were directed to submit their letters of resignation, and the due date was December 7th, and the resignations are to take effect at noon on January 20th. All political appointees were directed to do that. That is common, typical practice. And when you’re a political appointee for this or any other administration, you have no expectation of staying beyond the inauguration of a new administration. That’s the way it works. For career Foreign Service officers, there this year has been no such directive, no such expectation for them to have to submit resignations at the end of the term.

    Now, I can’t speak for the incoming team, but all political appointees – and frankly, even careers as ambassadors or military admirals and generals – you serve at the pleasure of the president. So the incoming team can make decisions on their own about who they want in what chair and for how long. But all political appointees under this Administration, including a knucklehead like me, you have to submit your resignation and be prepared to have January 20th be your last day in office. You serve at the pleasure of the president, and when your president – his terms runs out, you have every expectation that your term will run out. That’s the way it works.

    QUESTION: And John, in the past there have been exceptions made for personal reasons. This time there was a blanket denial. Why was that?

    MR KIRBY: Well, you’d have to talk to the incoming --

    QUESTION: So the --

    MR KIRBY: -- the Trump transition team to discuss --

    QUESTION: John --

    MR KIRBY: Hang on, please. I’m still in my mid-sentence here with Carol. We will – I got all day, so we’ll get to you, I promise. And I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be asking me about this.

    You’d have to talk to the Trump transition team about why they decided to not be willing to broker exceptions or waivers, requests to extend. I can’t speak to that. That’s really for them. But – hang on. But you’re right that in the past there have been a handful, a small number, of extension requests granted, but that is totally in the prerogative of the incoming team. And for – it’s for them to determine whether they’d be willing to accept or deny individual requests to extend. It’s really for them to speak to.

    QUESTION: So what happens? Let’s say an ambassador leaves. Is the DCM the – or the – is the DCM --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, yeah.

    QUESTION: -- left in charge?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Is that a civil – is that a civil servant?

    MR KIRBY: That’s exactly the way it works.

    QUESTION: Is he a political appointee also?

    MR KIRBY: That’s exactly the way it works. That’s why you have deputy chiefs of mission who are extremely competent and professionals – extremely competent professionals who are trained to be in those jobs and are expected to be able to fill in and step in for the ambassador at other times of absence as well. So yes, in those cases where we have a politically appointed ambassador who will be leaving office of the 20th on the afternoon of the 20th, those duties will fall to the DCM, as appropriate, until such time as a new ambassador can be confirmed and appointed – or appointed, confirmed, and put in office.

    QUESTION: And you’re saying that the extensions in the past have been afforded to only a handful of people?

    MR KIRBY: As my understanding is, looking at the past two transitions, only a very small number. I don’t have the exact number, but I’m told it’s very small.

    QUESTION: Can you get that?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not going to promise you an exact number. I’m given to understand it’s been a very small number of extensions have been approved by incoming administrations, and typically they are for very specific family reasons. It’s not – it’s not intended to be a stopgap. They’re temporary as extensions are and for extenuating circumstances. But it’s up to the incoming team.

    This is – this is nothing new. This is the way the system works. You serve at the pleasure of the president. When your president’s term ends, your term ends and you are – and you are directed to submit your resignation. That’s the way it works. That’s – frankly, that’s in keeping with the whole electoral process in this country. The American people voted. They spoke. They elected Donald Trump as their president, and therefore they have elected his worldview. And so the incoming team will, by design, be able to fashion that worldview around the staffing of certain individual diplomatic posts, to include ambassadors. That’s the way the system works.

    QUESTION: Can I just ask you for one clarification on this? You said that all political appointees are required to submit their resignation. But career diplomats are political appointees if they are appointed ambassador or assistant secretary or under secretary. You seem to make a distinction by saying that the career – career diplomats who are now serving in ambassador positions were not required to submit resignations, but they are, by definition, political appointees as well.

    MR KIRBY: They are presidential appointees for their job, but they are – so let me be --

    QUESTION: So --

    MR KIRBY: Let me try to be more clear.

    QUESTION: So are you saying that in this year, career Foreign Service Officer Ambassador X serving as ambassador to Country Y was not asked to submit a resignation letter?

    MR KIRBY: That is correct. The ones who were asked this year to submit letters of resignation are political, non-career political appointee ambassadors.

    QUESTION: Do you have the numbers, how it breaks down? How many ambassadors are --

    MR KIRBY: Roughly, roughly, 70 percent of our ambassadorial cadre are career Foreign Service ambassadors. The remaining roughly 30 percent are politically – are political appointees. That’s the lexicon that we use.


    QUESTION: Do you – on Iraq, the U.S. is --

    QUESTION: Can we stay on Ambassador?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, we’ll stay on this issue. I’ll come back to you. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah, a knucklehead like me would like to ask some follow-up questions. So all the politically appointed ambassadors were directed to leave by December 7th. Who directed – who made the mandate? Is that from the White House --

    MR KIRBY: The White House.

    QUESTION: -- or from the transition?

    MR KIRBY: The White House.

    QUESTION: The White House. And so I just want to clarify – so 70 percent are career diplomats and ambassadors. They are --

    MR KIRBY: Roughly 70 percent of our ambassadors are career Foreign Service officers, yes.

    QUESTION: John --

    QUESTION: They were not asked to leave; they can stay?

    MR KIRBY: They were not asked to submit letters of resignation like political appointees were, but as I said, look, the incoming administration also gets to make decisions about how they want to staff embassies and posts. And to Matt’s point, I mean, even career Foreign Service officers as ambassadors are presidential appointees.

    And so the incoming administration will have to take a look at and see if the 70-30 split is what they want or if they – how they want to staff these posts, but I can’t speak for them. All I can tell you is what we’ve done and this year, career Foreign Service officers that are serving as ambassadors were not asked to submit their letters of resignation with the outgoing Administration. Political appointees – purely political appointees – were.


    QUESTION: John, are you going to stay – after January 20th, are you going to still stay here or are you move?

    MR KIRBY: No, I will not be staying.

    QUESTION: So you go different position?

    MR KIRBY: I expect I’ll be unemployed for a little while. (Laughter.) If you have any ideas, I’m open to them, but I’m planning on taking a nice long nap. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: You’re leaving?

    MR KIRBY: Huh? What’s that?

    QUESTION: Sorry. So how we continue? Are you staying in this building or --

    MR KIRBY: (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.) -- up from that podium.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: It’s a fair question.

    MR KIRBY: Well, I mean – I’ll – (laughter) – I’m not sure how to answer that one.

    QUESTION: It is definitely Friday. (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: I will be – I’ll be around for a little while, as I said, sleeping.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR KIRBY: And we could – after this is over, I’m happy to give you my personal contact information. (Laughter.) I don’t want to do that from the – I don’t want to do that from the podium. I will say, though, if you want to call and talk about an issue like the DPRK, I am not your guy, because – (laughter) – I will not be informed. On the 21st of January, all my knowledge will go out the window, so I won’t be much help.

    QUESTION: You are not DPRK expert. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR KIRBY: That is classic. So I’m not even informed now is what you’re saying. I love it. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: I’m not even discussing or talking about – not for DPRK. (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: Well, I – (laughter) – let’s go to Iraq.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, let’s go to something light: Iraq.

    QUESTION: The United States is loaning Iraq – you are loaning Iraq $1 billion.

    QUESTION: After all this time.

    QUESTION: Is there any understanding, formal or informal, about allocating part of that loan for the benefit of the Kurdistan region?

    MR KIRBY: All right. So let me unpack that just a little bit. There wasn’t a loan to Iraq of a billion dollars. What there was yesterday was that the United States signed a loan guarantee agreement with Iraq for up to a billion dollars. And a loan guarantee is much different than a loan. What this does is it makes it more affordable for the Government of Iraq to be able to borrow money from international capital markets. And it will help Iraq achieve its longer-term economic goals and reform goals, quite frankly, that the prime minister has been pursuing.

    On your specific question in terms of allocation – so this – let’s put that off the table, because it isn’t a loan. It’s just a guarantee. It doesn’t put anything, by itself, into the bank. But back in December, just last month, the Government of Iraq did approve a budget that would provide for the KRG to receive federal revenues consistent with Article 121 of the Iraqi constitution and requirements in the budget law. Proceeds from the United States-guaranteed loan – the guarantee – will benefit there for all of Iraq because of their own budgeting law, because of their own budget that they passed. Does that make sense?

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: John, I have --

    MR KIRBY: You have another one?

    QUESTION: I have another question on Iraq.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: It has to do with the Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki who has been in Tehran, and he’s made several very strong points claiming Iran was the only country to provide arms to Iraq when it needed them, and he’s attacked – Maliki has attacked, while he’s been in Tehran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He says they’re hatching plots to disintegrate the region, and he attacked Israel. And he also said that the Hashd al-Shaabi should be – could be deployed to Syria if it was needed. What is your comment on this? How do you understand what Maliki is doing? Do you think he’s just appealing to a sectarian audience?

    MR KIRBY: I would refer you to Vice President Maliki’s office to characterize his comments. I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s really for him to speak to. I would just tell you that we remain proud of the support that we are offering to the Government of Iraq in Baghdad – military support, economic support, some of which we just talked about, certainly the political support to the reforms that the prime minister is pursuing. So I mean, I just can’t speak to everything – all the criticism that he made. I can just speak for what we’re doing and how strongly we feel about continuing that level of support going forward.

    QUESTION: Well, it’s – among the things that Maliki said while he was in Tehran was that Israel is the greatest terrorist threat in the region. Is it? The United States is supporting the Baghdad government, and he’s the vice president of the Baghdad government. How do you feel about someone saying something like that?

    MR KIRBY: Well, we certainly don’t agree with the sentiment.

    QUESTION: Do you condemn it?

    MR KIRBY: We certainly don’t agree with the sentiment that Israel is a terrorist threat. I mean, that just flies in the face of fact. And there’s just – but I – I’m not – again, I’m not going to try to characterize everything he said. It’s for him to speak to.

    Look, Iraq’s got lots of neighbors, and many of those neighbors are involved in efforts in Iraq to counter Daesh. Iran is one of those countries. And what we’ve said many times before still holds today: We understand that Iraq’s neighbors would be interested in the security situation in Iraq – whether it’s Turkey or whether it’s Iran, Jordan. And all we require is that those nations who are going to be thus involved, that they do it in a way that supports the legitimate, democratically elected government in Baghdad, and does so also in a way that doesn’t inflame sectarian tensions.

    And again, I can’t speak for the motivation behind those comments. I can just reaffirm, as I said before, our strong view that the government in Baghdad needs to continue to be supported in ways that it has deemed appropriate and fit to the fight that they’re under right now. Some – at least in terms of the United States, we still talk about our presence in Iraq like it’s our decision. It’s their decision. They – the – Prime Minister Abadi, he’s the one who approves whether or not there are foreign troops on his soil and what they’re doing. And that’s the way it should be; it’s a sovereign state.


    QUESTION: Can we go to the Palestinian issue?

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: On the issue of Jerusalem. The Secretary of State told CBS News that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be explosive. Is that something that he concluded after conversations with the leaders of the region? How did he arrive at --

    MR KIRBY: I think that’s a conclusion the Secretary came to certainly from – certainly informed by his discussion with the foreign leaders, by their public statements – and there have been some public statements by some foreign leaders in the wake of media reports that the embassy was going to be moved. It’s also informed by the Secretary’s long, long career in public service, and particularly in the Senate, supporting Israel through, I don’t know, countless votes. I mean, the Secretary doesn’t need a primer on the situation there. He’s stepped in it. He understands. Okay?

    QUESTION: Let me just follow up also on his speech. He said that if the occupation continues, millions of Palestinians will continue to live under Israeli rule separate and unequal. And will Israel accept that? Will the United States accept that? Will the world accept that? I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what he said.

    So should there be a sort of a timetable as to when this becomes a point of no return, where – when the occupation ought to end? Should there be, like, saying within five years, 10 years, or something like this before this can happen?

    MR KIRBY: I think that’s a question for the leaders in the region to ask themselves, Said.

    QUESTION: I’m asking --

    MR KIRBY: I know you’re asking me, but that’s a question really that’s better put to them.

    QUESTION: I’m sorry, John, but it was the Secretary that said if the occupation continues, millions of Palestinians will continue to live --

    MR KIRBY: I know.

    QUESTION: -- separate and unequal. I mean, I’m talking about what he said.

    MR KIRBY: I understand that’s what he said, but he didn’t put a timeframe on that.

    QUESTION: I’m saying: Should he?

    MR KIRBY: I think the Secretary was very careful in how he characterized it, and I’m not going to put words in his mouth in terms of timeframe. I mean, I think he was speaking about a fact based on trends. And he wasn’t trying to predict out how long that should or would take.

    But the larger point is the whole purpose of his speech was, as a friend of Israel – and he is a very strong and enduring friend of Israel who believes in the importance of a two-state solution – that to achieve that goal, you need leadership. You need leadership there in the region to move forward. And again, I think the whole – one of the main – the purposes of his speech was to show that there hasn’t been that leadership, and that’s been lacking, and that’s what’s needed.

    QUESTION: Yesterday, the House voted overwhelmingly 342 to 80 to undo – I don’t know how they would do that – take measures to undo UN Resolution 2334. Is that really disappointing to the Secretary of State who, when the President took the decision to abstain and so on, or --

    MR KIRBY: The Secretary is, as I think he’s said many times since the vote, more than comfortable in our abstention. Now look, we also recognize that Congress has every right to express their views, and he respects that. As a former member of Congress, he certainly respects that. But as we’ve said many times, the vote in the UN was about preserving the two-state solution, which we continue to believe is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and a democratic state – living side-by-side in peace and security with a viable and independent Palestinian state.

    QUESTION: And lastly, he also mentioned that he will be making a couple of trips before he leaves office. Are we to expect that he will participate in the Paris talks, the Paris peace conference?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any additional detail to what the Secretary said. Today I was able to announce his trip to Boston on Monday, and if there’s additional trips and visits to speak to, we’ll do that in due course. I just don’t have anything additional today.

    QUESTION: I wasn’t going to ask about this, but I’m curious about your use of the phrase about the resolution. What does that mean the Secretary was “more than comfortable in our abstention?”

    MR KIRBY: Meaning that he supported the decision by --

    QUESTION: I guess I’m just wondering – I mean, an abstention is not voting at all.

    MR KIRBY: It’s still a decision. You just – it’s a decision to abstain --

    QUESTION: Yes, but I mean, if you support the resolution enough to allow it to go through, why don’t you just vote yes?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think it’s – I don’t want to re-litigate the decision to abstain, Matt. He’s --

    QUESTION: Well, I just want to know --

    MR KIRBY: My point was that he very much supported the decision to abstain; that we couldn’t, in good conscience, approach it in any other way.

    QUESTION: But – I know, but you talk about leadership and you talk about decisiveness, and an abstention is really – I mean, why isn’t an abstention a cop-out here? You allowed it to go through, yet you didn’t vote, yet you clearly – or it would seem that you supported it, because you didn’t veto it. So why not take a stand for what you apparently believe in and vote --

    MR KIRBY: Well, look I mean, I --

    QUESTION: -- and vote yes? Or no if you disagree with it.

    MR KIRBY: I’ll give you – we – there was a lengthy explanation of vote put out by Samantha Power. I would --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR KIRBY: I would point you to that to justify it. I don’t know that it’s worth us re-litigating that here.

    QUESTION: Okay. Well, I don’t want to re-litigate it, I just wanted to – you put on a – you talk about leadership and you’re taking an active role, and then you essentially vote present.

    MR KIRBY: It’s --

    QUESTION: Which is – it doesn’t seem to be taking a leadership position on something. Anyway.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, again, I think --

    QUESTION: I mean, either a for or against – not in between, right? Anyway – I don’t want to re-litigate it, so --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, I don’t either, but look, I – only thing I’d say is we abstained on a resolution that makes clear both sides have to take steps to preserve the two-state solution. You talk about leadership and I just talked about leadership, the leadership in the region that’s important. And we believe the resolution is consistent with longstanding bipartisan U.S. policy as it relates to our opposition to Israeli settlements – and our opposition as well, and condemnation of incitement and terrorists.

    QUESTION: Well, it sounds like you supported it, so why didn’t you vote yes?

    MR KIRBY: Above all – about – well, obviously, we had significant disagreements with the way that things are characterized in the resolution too. I mean, that --

    QUESTION: Then you should have voted --

    MR KIRBY: That’s what led to the abstention.

    QUESTION: Then you – but then you should have voted no.

    MR KIRBY: Well, look, there’s a decision – you have three ways here when you come up with a resolution: You can either vote yes, no, or abstain. We chose – and it was an active choice – to abstain. And again, I’d point you to the explanation of vote.

    QUESTION: I don’t know how brave a choice it is.

    MR KIRBY: I’ll point you to the explanation of vote.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: Right.

    QUESTION: You could’ve written your own resolution and you’d be happy to vote for --

    QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: I think Matt is done. Matt’s done.

    QUESTION: No, no, no.

    QUESTION: You suggested three options; I was suggesting a fourth.

    MR KIRBY: What’s your fourth?

    QUESTION: You could vote yes, no, abstain; or you can write your own resolution if you have the backing.

    MR KIRBY: I’m not going to revisit this whole thing.

    QUESTION: John, do you have a reaction to the installation of a statue commemorating “comfort women” in Busan?

    MR KIRBY: Look, I think our view on this situation has not changed and --

    QUESTION: The installation of a statue in Busan, South Korea?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything on the statue specifically. I’m not aware of that. But when it comes to the “comfort women” issue, back in December, I think you know, of 2015, both the governments of Japan and Korea showed – Republic of Korea, excuse me – showed courage and vision in announcing an agreement regarding this sensitive historical legacy issue, which we believe was an important milestone toward reconciliation. We believe that that agreement has served to strengthen relations between the two countries and multifaceted cooperation over the last year, and that these deepened ties will in the future, going forward, help both governments continue to approach historical issues in a way that promotes healing and reconciliation. I don’t have anything on this particular statue issue, but that’s where we are on this particular one.


    QUESTION: Also on South Korea, I was wondering if the meeting between Deputy Secretary Blinken and South Korean Deputy National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong actually happened today and whether or not you have a readout of that.

    MR KIRBY: They did meet for what is known as the fifth round of the U.S.-ROK Strategic Consultations on DPRK Policy. During today’s productive discussions, the Deputy Secretary and Ambassador Cho reaffirmed the importance of our close coordination in responding to North Korea’s destabilizing behavior. They also discussed the success of breaking new ground together by sustaining the international community’s response to the DPRK’s violations of various UN Security Council resolutions, and they reviewed progress in holding North Korea accountable for its unlawful actions.

    Okay. Thanks, everybody. Have a great weekend.

    QUESTION: I have another one on (inaudible).

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: I was wondering if you have any comment on the Okinawan prefectural government’s opposition to the restarting of retraining – training for refueling for the Ospreys.

    MR KIRBY: No. Have a great weekend.

    (The briefing was concluded at 3:09 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 4, 2017

Wed, 01/04/2017 - 15:55
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 4, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ


    2:10 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: Well, well, well, look who’s returned.

    QUESTION: I have returned.

    MR KIRBY: Daddy Lee. And how is the little one?

    QUESTION: She’s great, thank you.

    MR KIRBY: You getting any sleep?

    QUESTION: Not a lot. (Laughter.) But more than my wife is. Not a lot.

    MR KIRBY: Well, congratulations again.

    QUESTION: Thank you very much.

    MR KIRBY: And it’s great to have you back.

    QUESTION: Thanks. Happy New Year.

    MR KIRBY: And to you.

    Just one opening set of comments here on Libya. We note with deep concern today renewed fighting between Libyans in the central region of the country, fighting which we believe will only benefit Daesh and other violent extremists there. Obviously, we urge all parties to exercise some restraint here. The truth is that to date, Libyan forces have made progress against Daesh in Sirte and in eastern Libya, and that’s what makes this renewed fighting here of concern.

    So we continue to encourage all parties to support the Government of National Accord – the GNA as it’s known – as it works to address the country’s critical challenges, to preserve its unity, and oversee a transition to a new government through peaceful elections that are stipulated in the Libyan Political Agreement, otherwise known as the LPA.

    So obviously, we also urge all parties to renew efforts for national reconciliation through political dialogue, and we reiterate our strong support for the GNA and the LPA. This is, as we have said before, the time for all Libyans throughout the country to come together for the benefit of their nation and their fellow citizens.

    With that, Matt.

    QUESTION: Right. So I don’t have a lot because I’m still trying to catch up on everything that I missed in December, which apparently was pretty much nothing, right? Nothing happened, no news?

    MR KIRBY: It was very quiet. Do you want to rehash it all?

    QUESTION: No. No, no, I don’t.

    MR KIRBY: We could do a two- or three-hour briefing today.

    QUESTION: I don’t. But I’m still trying to --

    QUESTION: I wanted to follow up on Libya --

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- if you don’t have anything, Matt.

    QUESTION: No, I don’t have anything.

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah. General Haftar said that he received a promise from Russia to receive arms from the Russians. Do you have anything on this?

    MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments, so I’m afraid I don’t have a reaction to them. I just haven’t seen that. But stepping back, as I said in my opening statement, we believe now is the time for all Libyans – all Libyans – to come together and to support the GNA, as the international community has done. That’s really where we want the focus to be. And so fighting each other in any part of the country is counterproductive to the larger effort of going after Daesh. But I don’t have any particular reaction or comment to those remarks because I haven’t seen them. Okay?

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: That would be a breach of the embargo, though, if weapons were sent to Haftar?

    MR KIRBY: Of course it would, right.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: But I just haven’t seen the comments.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: So can I ask you, just to follow up on I guess what was the main topic of discussion here yesterday, on North Korea?

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: Is there anything new to say about this apparent threat?

    MR KIRBY: No, I don’t have anything to add from what we said yesterday. Look, I think you know these were comments he made in an annual New Year’s speech.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR KIRBY: But as we’ve also said, we are forced by his actions in the past to take his rhetoric seriously, and we do. I wouldn’t discuss intelligence issues one way or the other in terms of what we – what assessment we might make of where he is on this particular issue, but obviously, it’s something we’re watching very closely.

    QUESTION: All right. And then I just want to – I have one other thing that I – last month – or last year, the end of last year, did nothing to improve the relations between this Administration and the Israeli Government, in particular the prime minister of Israel. And in light of the fact that peace is not breaking out all over there, and in light of the tensions that do exist, is it safe to assume – with that backdrop, yesterday there was legislation introduced by three senators that would require the movement of the U.S. embassy currently in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and require the Administration to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Given your past – or this Administration’s past feelings, am I right in assuming that this current Administration would oppose that?

    MR KIRBY: Yes, you are correct in assuming that.

    QUESTION: Okay. But given the fact that this Administration is going to be out in two weeks, roughly two weeks, and that Congress will probably – if it does pass, it will be presented to a president, now president-elect who has said he’s in support of those things. And I’m wondering: Would the Administration be prepared to begin preparations to do such a thing if this legislation advances, or is that something that you guys want nothing to do with and you’ll just – it’ll be up to the incoming administration to proceed?

    MR KIRBY: You mean if it passes before we’re out of office?

    QUESTION: No, no, no. No, even if it looks like it’s going to go someplace, or if – and I don’t want to couch this as an “if,” but – because that’s hypothetical --

    MR KIRBY: Right. No, I --

    QUESTION: But should the incoming team say, “Hey, as part of the transition, we want to do this as quickly as possible, and to do that we need to get things going,” is this Administration prepared to help implement what the next administration says its policy will be with regard to the --

    MR KIRBY: Right. The short answer is no, Matt. I mean, you have one president at a time and in our --

    QUESTION: Right. But this is just planning.

    MR KIRBY: I know that. I know that. But we continue to believe – it’s our policy and it’s been – and it was policy of previous administrations as well – that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is not a good idea. It’s not constructive to the overall peace process. It could actually put some of our people, some of our troops, those that work at the embassy, in harm’s way, and needlessly so. So we don’t support that move. We stand by the policy that we’ve been supporting now. And if the next administration wants to move forward, that’s certainly their prerogative, but under President Obama – and he’s still President of the United States – we don’t support that. And we at the State Department here wouldn’t support efforts to move in that direction while we’re still in office.

    QUESTION: Okay. So you wouldn’t – I just want to make sure then that should a request come in to say, as part of the transition, as part of planning for the smooth transition that everyone says they want, including the Secretary and the current President, that the department would not go ahead and --

    MR KIRBY: We would not. That said, I don’t think that puts at risk a smooth transition. The transition is about giving them the context and information that they need to make their own decisions and not necessarily to --

    QUESTION: So you’re saying you would argue against it?

    MR KIRBY: -- move forward with decisions before they’re inaugurated.

    QUESTION: Well, yeah, but you’re not moving forward. It’s just a preparation and planning thing because it’s probably not just as easy as taking a sign that says “Embassy” and putting it on the consulate in Jerusalem, right?

    MR KIRBY: Correct, correct.

    QUESTION: So there’s going to have to be some planning done. Anyway, I think you answered my question. But what --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, the answer is no.

    QUESTION: What did you – what did you mean by “could put our troops,” some of our troops, “in harm’s way”?

    MR KIRBY: I just meant you’ve got --

    QUESTION: Marine guards?

    MR KIRBY: You’ve got Marine embassy guards and --

    QUESTION: How would moving them --

    MR KIRBY: Because again, we think that – we think that putting it there in Jerusalem is not – it’s not constructive and conducive to the peace process, and because it could – a move like that could exacerbate tensions.

    QUESTION: So – but – or do you think that they would be more at – in harm’s way in Jerusalem rather than in --

    MR KIRBY: It could exacerbate tensions not just there but elsewhere in the region too, because it could exacerbate the tensions that already exist between Israelis and Palestinians.

    QUESTION: So in other --

    MR KIRBY: There and elsewhere in the region.

    QUESTION: In Arab countries like in Jordan or Egypt or Saudi --

    MR KIRBY: Perhaps.

    QUESTION: -- you think that there --

    MR KIRBY: Perhaps, perhaps. Correct.

    QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

    QUESTION: Could I follow up on that?

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: In your conversations with your allies like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and so on, the Arab countries, have you been sort of warned or counseled against moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? And why is that --

    MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any specific warning, Said. This has been a longstanding policy even before this Administration.

    QUESTION: Right. But it would be perceived – if such a move would take place, it would be perceived as a provocative action, you think?

    MR KIRBY: Again, I think I’ve answered the question. It could potentially be provocative there and elsewhere in the region. And more importantly, we just don’t believe that it’s conducive to moving the peace process forward.

    QUESTION: Let me ask you a couple more questions on – if we can stay on this issue very quickly. An Israeli court sentenced two 13-year-old boys to two years in prison. There was a stop-and-search, and they claimed that they found knives on them. Do you find this to be a bit severe to sentence two 13-year-olds that were 12 at the time when they were arrested?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have the details on this case.

    QUESTION: Okay. Would that be – in fact, one of the boys has already spent more than a year in prison, so – but they are not going to count that as part of it.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have – I can’t comment on that case, Said. I simply don’t have any information.

    QUESTION: Okay. And my last question – I don’t know if you’re aware, there is the Israeli soldier who was convicted of manslaughter, of killing a Palestinian after he was wounded last year. The person that took the video is claiming that he’s been threatened by the family and so on. Should the Israeli Government give the person who filmed the episode, Emad Abu-Shamsiyah – should they give him protection, do you think, seeing that the – if they don’t give him protection that his life would be in jeopardy? Because he claims that the family of the soldier broke into his house and they demanded that he go back to the court, that he go to the court and change his testimony.

    MR KIRBY: Okay. I’m not aware that that occurred. And really, an issue like that is really one for Israeli authorities to speak to and to make decisions for, not for us.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Staying with Israel, Mr. Netanyahu has apparently told his diplomats that their focus in the next couple of weeks should be to do everything they can to prevent the substance of Mr. Kerry’s speech coming before the UN in a resolution form, and the fear apparently is that at this French conference it might be codified in some way that could then be presented to the UN not by the United States but perhaps by others. Would the U.S. – I know that Mr. Kerry has said there’s going to be no more UN activity, but would the U.S. rule out another abstention especially if it was his policies that was being voted on?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think it would be helpful for me to speculate one way or the other about potential future actions.

    QUESTION: Can I just --

    MR KIRBY: Dave.

    QUESTION: -- follow up on this? Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Oh, no --

    QUESTION: No, no, no, no, no, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Mine’s a different thing.

    QUESTION: No, I just wanted to follow up because I think I asked a little bit about this yesterday. But you are not ruling out if there is a conference in mid-month – mid-January there is a conference in Paris – you are not ruling out the participation of Secretary Kerry, are you?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not – I don’t have anything on the Secretary’s schedule to speak to today.

    QUESTION: You’re not ruling in or ruling out?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything on his schedule to speak to today.

    QUESTION: Thank you, David.

    QUESTION: This is a procedural thing. I’ve never covered a transition before. Will the incoming Secretary of State be prepared by this department for his nomination hearings at the Senate?

    MR KIRBY: We have – we continue to provide the transition team information and context at their request. As I said earlier, I’m not going to get into what that information is. But he is being prepared for his confirmation hearing by the transition team.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Okay?

    QUESTION: And that’s typically how it would work?

    MR KIRBY: That’s my – I’ve never been through one of these here at the State Department, but in my past experience, yeah, that’s not unusual.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Assuming a new secretary is not confirmed by Inauguration Day, could you explain how the acting Secretary of State will be chosen? There’s speculation that Mr. Shannon – Under Secretary Shannon would step into that role as the two positions above him, I believe, are likely to be vacant at that time.

    MR KIRBY: Look, the way – I mean, there’s a line of succession – Secretary, Deputy Secretary, Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, Under Secretary for Political Affairs – we can get all this to you, Steve. On Inauguration Day, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon would be the most senior career officer in the line of succession. But ultimately, decisions about that, about if the secretary-designate is not confirmed – ultimately decisions about who would be acting would be really up to the transition team, to the new – at that point they would be the new administration.

    QUESTION: They can appoint someone else outside of the line?

    MR KIRBY: I’m being very precise here.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: I’m telling you that the Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon would be the most senior career officer in the line of succession here in the building – will be on the 20th, but ultimately these kinds of decisions about acting, that’s – those are questions the new administration have to answer. Okay?


    QUESTION: Turkey. Related to attack that happened over the weekend in Istanbul, President Obama ordered his team to provide necessary and appropriate assistance to Turkey with regard to this attack. Did Turkey ask for any assistance? If did, what kind of assistance did you provide?

    MR KIRBY: I’m not aware that there has been a request for specific investigative assistance.

    QUESTION: Okay, one more question. Do you have any evaluation in terms of the suspect, whether he’s an ISIS militant or just a person radicalized by the ISIS propaganda?

    MR KIRBY: I think that’s a question for Turkish authorities who are investigating this attack to work out, not for us.

    QUESTION: Staying on Turkey?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: So is it the position of the United States Government to support Turkey’s efforts to recapture al-Bab from ISIS?

    MR KIRBY: I think my colleagues at the Pentagon have already talked about this. We have provided support to Turkey for operations to clear its border area of ISIL, and that includes some support for their efforts in and around al-Bab. There are ongoing discussions about support going forward that the military’s having with Turkey, and I’m not going to get ahead of that.

    QUESTION: And the Turkish defense minister today, I believe, complained that the amount of support for a NATO ally was insufficient. Do – how do you – would you respond to those comments or, I mean, is – do you feel that that characterization is fair?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think it’s valuable for us to deliberate this in public. We have supported Turkish operations along their border. We have provided some support. With respect to al-Bab, again, the Pentagon has talked about that and there are ongoing discussions now about support going forward. And I think I’m going to leave it there.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: Do you have any numbers on the support that you gave, like area strike or ground --

    MR KIRBY: You can contact --

    QUESTION: Can you give some numbers?

    MR KIRBY: You can contact the Defense Department. I don’t do military operations anymore.


    QUESTION: I just wanted to ask you if we can figure out who – which groups are you supporting now in Syria in the fight against ISIS? What – who are the groups, the moderate groups? Are you supporting, let’s say, the Free Syria Army? Are you supporting other groups and so on? Because --

    MR KIRBY: Said, I don’t have – as I’ve said, we’ve talked about this many times. I don’t have an exhaustive list for you. We refer to the Syrian Democratic Forces writ large, and there are many parts to that – to them, and they have proven to be very capable fighters, and again, that’s the – that’s the entity through which – or that the coalition supports.

    QUESTION: Because yesterday, apparently the Fateh al-Sham, who morphed from al-Nusrah, they were saying that --

    MR KIRBY: They didn’t morph from al-Nusrah. They slapped a new name on.

    QUESTION: Right, they just slapped – okay.

    MR KIRBY: So let’s – yeah.

    QUESTION: All right, so they’re – they just put on a new name – and they claimed that they lost 25 fighters as the result of an air raid, but they’re saying that it was the U.S.-led coalition that conducted that air raid. Are you aware of that claim?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, we talked about it yesterday and I pointed you to the Defense Department.

    QUESTION: Any more – any more information on that?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t, no.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Did you also yesterday talk about – I haven’t read the entire transcript from yesterday. My apologies. It is scintillating reading, however, I can assure you. Did you talk about the – what seems to be violations or beginning of the end of this truce that was negotiated?

    MR KIRBY: We did talk about it. I don’t have any updates from yesterday. It does – as it was yesterday, it appears to be breaking down in areas.

    QUESTION: And this is not a surprise to you, or it is?

    MR KIRBY: Well, as I said yesterday, we wanted to see it succeed. But sadly, we’ve also seen this exact thing happen before many, many times – even ceasefires or cessations of hostilities that we had nothing to do with announcing, they quickly break down, because as we’ve seen in the last 24 to 36 hours, the regime takes advantage of the – of whatever lull in the fighting there is to continue to pound the opposition, and that’s what we’re seeing again happen here.

    QUESTION: Do you have any comment on what Staffan de Mistura said, that he will not attend the Astana negotiations and he would wait --

    MR KIRBY: No, those are decisions that --

    QUESTION: -- he would wait for Geneva?

    MR KIRBY: Well, those are certainly his decisions.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR KIRBY: I would tell you that from our perspective, we continue to support his efforts, which is sanctioned by the UN, to lead the political process forward. He is the designated representative of the United Nations to move the political talks forward, and if he has decided that he’s not going to attend, then that’s certainly within his – it’s in the scope of his responsibilities to do so. We – our support for him and his efforts have not changed.

    QUESTION: Any phone call between Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov?

    MR KIRBY: Nope, I don’t have any more discussions to read out.

    QUESTION: And for clarification too, is the U.S. delegation still in Geneva or Geneva process and the delegation is --

    MR KIRBY: In terms of – in terms of a dialogue and process of moving forward on a cessation of hostilities in Geneva, no. Do we have personnel that work in and out of Geneva? Yes, but nobody is working on this issue from a U.S. team perspective in Geneva.


    QUESTION: The Turkish prime minister is expected to visit Baghdad to mend ties with the Abadi government. Do you support that move?

    MR KIRBY: Do I support him traveling?

    QUESTION: To Baghdad. It’s a rare visit by the Turkish prime minister to Iraq. He’s trying to mend ties with --

    MR KIRBY: Well, I wouldn’t comment one way or another about the travel of a foreign leader to a neighboring nation. Turkey’s a part of the coalition to counter Daesh, and so it wouldn’t – it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the prime minister may want to go to Iraq to have discussions about that fight. And as we’ve said long – many, many times, that we’ve encouraged bilateral dialogue and discussion between Turkey and Iraq on a whole range of regional issues. So there’s no concern here, but it’s not for us to comment or approve or disapprove one way or the other.

    QUESTION: Can I ask one more question about Iraq?

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Thanks.

    MR KIRBY: I think the silence gives you the go-ahead.

    QUESTION: Okay, thank you. (Laughter.) So in Mosul, reportedly, the coalition has destroyed almost all the bridges inside the city of Mosul. So this has raised a concern for the – that might restrict freedom of movement for civilians, especially those who wish to escape ISIS. Do you share that concern or --

    MR KIRBY: We have long had concerns about the humanitarian efforts that were going to be required as the Mosul campaign started, and those are – those – we’ve been long in discussions with the Iraqi Government about how to deal with that, and we talked about this at length yesterday in the briefing. I’ll point you back to the transcript in terms of what we’ve done on the humanitarian front. I would remind you – and again, I’m not going to get into a lengthy dissertation here on the military operation itself – but those bridges were avenues of resupply and resourcing by Daesh and so were, in fact, legitimate military targets. That they might impede the movement of internally displaced people is certainly beyond doubt, of course. But we have and have for many months factored in trying to support internally displaced people as best as possible.

    And the other thing I’d tell you is that – and one of the reasons why the campaign to Mosul took as long as it did and was carefully thought through was because they were also – there was also a lot of planning, remains a lot of planning on post-campaign stabilization and rebuilding the infrastructure. So there is a lot of effort on that. It’s not as if people aren’t thinking about not just bridges, but other civilian infrastructure – schools, hospitals, housing, all of that stuff has to be considered and is being considered by the Iraqi Government as it moves forward, okay?

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR KIRBY: Okay. Thanks, everybody.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:33 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - January 3, 2017

Tue, 01/03/2017 - 16:20
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 3, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ


    2:09 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody, and Happy New Year to you. Hope everybody had a good holiday season, a chance to take a break. My break, my gift to you for the New Year, is that I do not have an opening statement. So we will get right after it.

    Go ahead, sir.

    QUESTION: I’d like to start on North Korea. Kim Jong-un, in his New Year’s address, said that North Korea was in preparations for doing an ICBM test, were reaching the final stage.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: I wondered if you had any reaction to that and if you’ve any indication that a – that test is – a missile test of some sort is in the works.

    MR KIRBY: Well, as I think you know, generally we don’t talk about intelligence matters or intelligence assessments with respect to specifics about the capabilities that they continue to pursue both on the ballistic missile side and, of course, on the nuclear side. So I’m not going to get into characterizing or confirming the veracity of the comments in his New Year’s speech.

    What I will do though is, as we have before, continue to call on the DPRK to refrain from provocative actions and inflammatory rhetoric that threaten international peace and stability. And we want them to make the strategic choice to fulfill their international obligations and commitments and return, frankly, to the Six-Party Talk process.

    There have been multiple UN Security Council resolutions that explicitly prohibit North Korea launches using ballistic missile technology. They are still in effect. And we continue to call on all states to use every available channel and means of influence to likewise make clear to the DPRK and its enablers that launches using ballistic missile technology are unacceptable, and of course, also to take steps to show and to prove that there are consequences to this unlawful conduct.

    So we’re certainly aware of what he said. We’re obviously aware of the capabilities they continue to pursue. And that’s why the United States continues to work with the international community to hold Pyongyang to account for the pursuit of these capabilities and for the instability that they are contributing to.

    I would remind that the sanctions regime put in place recently is the most stringent over the last two decades and that they are being implemented. So I guess we’re just going to have to – we’re going to have to, obviously, watch this going forward. But the international community is clearly galvanized like it hasn’t been before.

    QUESTION: Do you have any way to convey these ideas directly to North Korea at this point?

    MR KIRBY: Well, you know we don’t have direct diplomatic relations with the North. But frankly, I mean, in a sense, I’m – we’re doing it now, as we do when we talk about this publicly. And we certainly have made these exact concerns and these exact statements well known and clear through the UN, though the UN and the UN Security Council.

    QUESTION: Kirby, can I follow up on that one? So Blinken is meeting with his counterparts from Japan and South Korea.

    MR KIRBY: Later this week, yes.

    QUESTION: Those talks were already scheduled before, before the statement.

    MR KIRBY: Yes.

    QUESTION: But is there anything that this – this – is there anything you can do or the way the discussion could go given this latest statement?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, first of all, Lesley, I – I think it’s safe to assume that North Korea will be on the agenda in these trilateral talks. And this is, I think, the sixth round of these deputy foreign minister trilateral talks, and the deputy is very much looking forward to it. No question that tensions on the Korean Peninsula will be a topic of discussion. Where that’s going to take us, what’s going to be said, especially in light of Kim Jong-un’s speech, I don’t know. I can tell you that we’ll obviously be providing a readout of the discussion. And so when it happens on Thursday after it’s over, we’ll be happy to do that.

    QUESTION: And then what is the U.S. assessment? I know you say you don’t talk about intelligence, but what if he’s lying? I mean, what if this is just an empty – empty threat? What is your assessment? I mean, is he close to – is this the last stage, or he is just --

    MR KIRBY: I think the intel – my understanding is that – again, we don’t talk about intelligence issues, so that’s one. Number two, we do continue to believe that he continues to pursue both nuclear and ballistic missile technologies. I mean, that’s pretty apparent. We do not believe that he, at this point in time, has the capability to tip one of these with a nuclear warhead. That’s as far as I’m going to go in terms of assessing. But we do know that he continues to want to have those capabilities and he continues – the programs continue to march in that direction, which is why, quite frankly, that the whole international community is as galvanized as it is to try to deter and to stop that.

    Now, yes, there’s a very stringent sanctions regime in place; no question about that. Sanctions take a long time to work; we know that. Sanctions are only as good as they are enforced, and in past sanctions regimes it hasn’t always been uniformly enforced. China has said they will enforce these, and that’s our expectation that they will, that they will do that.

    I will also remind that we also – we – that there is a military component to the Asia Pacific rebalance that the United States has pursued, and we have the majority of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific region. We’ve moved special radars into place. We have missile defense capabilities of our own in that part of the world. So it’s not as if – it’s not as if we’re relying solely on simply sanctions regimes to exert the proper pressure on Pyongyang. We’ve obviously taken and will continue to take the kinds of measures that we believe is important for our own national defense.

    QUESTION: And since the statement on Sunday, has there been any discussions with China in the meantime about – about this?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any discussions with China to read out with respect to this particular speech, but if that changes we can let you know.

    QUESTION: John, can we move on?

    QUESTION: John, the apparent --

    MR KIRBY: We’ll stay on --

    QUESTION: -- apparent determination --

    MR KIRBY: I think we’re staying on North Korea. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah. The apparent determination of Kim Jong-un to pursue the ICBM in despite of what you described as a stringent sanctions regime, is that because the sanctions didn’t convince him or because they haven’t been adequately enforced?

    MR KIRBY: I can’t get inside his head and tell you what --

    QUESTION: But do you feel they’ve been adequately enforced?

    MR KIRBY: They are being enforced. And we’re – what I would say is we’re constantly monitoring the enforcement across the international community. I can’t stand here and tell you that they’re being perfectly enforced by every single nation, but the general sense is that they are being implemented. It is a kind of thing that constantly needs to be evaluated, monitored, and discussed at the UN, and I know that it is. For our part, we certainly are and we expect every other nation to do the same.

    What’s – what decision matrix Kim Jong-un is using to continue to explore this technology, I really can’t speak to. But what I can speak to is as he continues to pursue those, the international community is going to continue to stay galvanized against that, because it’s not just destabilizing for the peninsula; it’s destabilizing for the region and the world.

    QUESTION: But if they are being adequately enforced and it hasn’t stopped him, then you need stronger sanctions or another option.

    MR KIRBY: Well, we haven’t ruled out the possibility of additional sanctions. In fact, in light of the most recent test, there were discussions at the UN. And I’ve certainly – and first of all, let’s not – let’s not get ahead of where we are. We’ve seen a speech and we’ve seen some rhetoric. I’m not in a position to say one way or another that that leads to something imminent right now, so we need to stay where we are, where things are. And we know that he continues to pursue this, so we will certainly continue to explore options to increase, if needed, the international pressure on Pyongyang.

    The second thing I’d say is that – and you know this – sanctions take time. He has obviously proven impervious to sanction pressure in the past because he continues to explore these capabilities. But it doesn’t mean that, at least for the United States’ part, that we’re simply relying on sanctions and sanctions alone. As I said, there is a robust U.S. military presence in the Pacific region, in the north Pacific region specifically. We have ironclad security commitments there on the peninsula with Republic of Korea allies that we take very, very seriously. So I mean, it’s – the entire U.S. Government here is rightly, as we should be, focused on this growing threat.

    QUESTION: You called for a return to Six-Party Talks. Obviously, the Iran nuclear deal came out of multilateral talks, but parallel to that, as we now know, the United States engaged directly with Iran. And it was seen by many outside observers that the bilateral ties between Iran and the United States were what bore fruit and brought around the P5+1 deal for the JCPOA. Has there been any discussion about direct contacts between Washington and Pyongyang on this issue?

    MR KIRBY: I would say, just in answer to that, that our focus continues to be on returning to the Six-Party process.

    I’ll go to --

    QUESTION: Six-Party Talks?

    MR KIRBY: You want to go to that? And then I’ll go to you, James. Are you still on North Korea?

    QUESTION: I’m on North Korea. Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: Okay. So Steve and then James.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Following up on Six-Party Talks, you mentioned – you called for them to return to that process. Is that without preconditions?

    MR KIRBY: It has always been. I mean, we want them to return. And the – but the condition is that they have to commit to a verifiable denuclearization of the peninsula. That’s always been the case, if that’s what you mean by preconditions. Nothing’s changed in that regard. They’ve got to be able to commit to denuclearization of the peninsula, and they have proven, obviously, unwilling to do that and unwilling to return to the process.

    QUESTION: Just a few different categories on this subject, if you would. First, is it the view of the department that China is doing all it can do to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions?

    MR KIRBY: Chinese officials have made clear that they intend to implement the resolution, and we’re engaged with an ongoing dialogue with them to that end, as well as our allies and our partners, on how to best curtail the DPRK’s pursuit of nuclear ballistic missile and proliferation programs.

    QUESTION: I didn’t ask if it is the view of the Department that China is doing everything it can to comply with the resolution. I asked if it is the view of this Department that China is doing all it can do.

    MR KIRBY: No, I understand the question. I’ll leave my answer as it is.

    QUESTION: (Laughter.) Is it fair to say that China is doing nothing on the North Korean problem --

    MR KIRBY: No, I would --

    QUESTION: -- as the president-elect tweeted?

    MR KIRBY: I would not – we would not agree with that assessment.

    QUESTION: The Chinese foreign ministry said today, apparently in response to the president-elect’s tweet, that, “We hope all sides can refrain from speaking or doing anything that can aggravate the situation.” Is it the view of the Department that the president-elect’s tweets are, in fact, aggravating the situation?

    MR KIRBY: We’re not taking a position on the president-elect’s tweets with this or any other issue. What we are concerning ourselves with, James, is continuing to see international pressure being applied to Pyongyang to make the right decisions. And as I said, the international community is galvanized like it’s never been before. Does that mean that every country is implementing every single one of the sanctions that are in place on any or every given day? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to see that happen. And it doesn’t mean that the sanctions that are being implemented are, in fact, still the most stringent that have been in place in the last 20 years.

    So it is – what I will say about China is that it is clear that they are absolutely concerned about the direction that Pyongyang is taking, and one shouldn’t be surprised by that. I mean, the DPRK is a southern neighbor and they share a border. They have been concerned about sanctions in the past because their southern provinces do direct business in North Korea. But they did sign up to these very robust sanctions, and they have publicly committed to implementing those sanctions, and that’s going to be our expectation going forward.

    QUESTION: Two last questions: To your knowledge, has any official inside the Obama Administration, at any point, taken any steps to initiate direct diplomacy with North Korea?

    MR KIRBY: Not to my knowledge, James.

    QUESTION: Lastly, is it the view of the department that – or let me rephrase that. Does the Secretary of State proceed from the assumption that Kim Jong-un is a rational actor?

    MR KIRBY: (Laughter.) Does the Secretary of State presume that --

    QUESTION: Proceed from the assumption that in attempting to deal with this regime in whatever mechanisms we use, that he is dealing with a rational actor?

    MR KIRBY: It is – it’s difficult when you look at the decisions that he is making, the programs that he is pursuing in the face of international will against him – it’s difficult to understand, as I said to Dave, the rationale in making those decisions and in pursuing those programs, which are clearly coming at the expense of his own people, clearly coming at the expense of security and stability around him and his own citizens and in the region.

    But I don’t believe that we are pursuing the options that we are pursuing based on a litmus test or a view or a personal assessment of his psychology and the degree to which he’s rational on any given day. We are, however, pursuing these options based squarely on what we see in his actions. It’s hard to get inside his head, but it’s pretty easy to see from his actions – I mean, this is a man, mind you, that executes his own officials using antiaircraft gunnery.

    QUESTION: And what does that tell you?

    MR KIRBY: It tells me that – and I think it tells the world that – he is – that he is utterly brutal and continues to rule with an iron fist. And because of what you can gather from his actions and the brutality, obviously, that he’s capable of and continues to demonstrate that we have to take him seriously when he issues threats, and we do. We always do.

    So I know I didn’t perfectly answer your question, because I didn’t – it’s not that we’re looking at this from a psychological perspective, but we certainly are judging him based on his actions, and his actions bespeak utter brutality. And we have to assume that that is the basis of the decisions that – that that is at least a part of the basis of his decisions going forward.

    QUESTION: Can we move on?

    QUESTION: Yeah. Please.

    QUESTION: Sorry, North Korea.

    QUESTION: Can we move on?

    MR KIRBY: Are we done with --

    QUESTION: A different thing.

    MR KIRBY: Are we done with Korea?

    QUESTION: Just one more.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: So has this recent statement accelerated anything, as far as THAAD deployment?

    MR KIRBY: I have no operational decisions to read out to you, one way or another. I would refer you to my counterparts at the Defense Department to speak specifically to that, because I’m just not – I’m not really informed enough to know where the discussions are on THAAD. You’d have to talk to the Pentagon.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Okay. Still on Korea? You have one more?

    QUESTION: John, you mentioned that the U.S. doesn’t believe that North Korea has the capability to --

    MR KIRBY: To tip one.

    QUESTION: -- put a nuclear warhead on one of its missiles.

    MR KIRBY: To tip one. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Does that mean any kind of missile, a short-range missile, a mid-range?

    MR KIRBY: I think I’m just going to leave it at that. I’m going to leave my statement where it was.

    Yeah, Said.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Thanks. I want to go the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: Since we haven’t had a chance to discuss the Secretary’s speech last week, for which you’ve gotten a lot of flak. But I want to ask you, absent any mechanism to --

    MR KIRBY: I would also say, Said, there’s been an awful lot of international support for the Secretary’s comments, including from Arab countries.

    QUESTION: That’s true. That’s true. A lot of international support.

    MR KIRBY: So certainly, in your statement, I know there’s been some criticism. There’s been an awful lot of international support.

    QUESTION: I understand. And I think there’s been overwhelmingly international support, but we’re talking about this town. This town has been very scarce in giving you the kind of support that you --

    MR KIRBY: Well, again, I don’t know that I’d agree with that, but go ahead.

    QUESTION: Okay. Fine. Of course, the speech came in the aftermath of Resolution 2334, which said that the settlements were illegal and so on. But I reviewed all the settlements that preceded it, which is 446, 452, 465, 478, and they are all – they all had much stronger language, but the reasons the settlements went unabated and with such vigor is the fact that there was no mechanism. So would you recommend – either would you take some steps now in the remaining time that this Administration has, let’s say between now and the 20th, to perhaps introduce a mechanism to make these – to make good on these UN resolutions? Or would you recommend to the coming administration – suggest a roadmap on how you can come up with the kind of mechanism to give teeth to these resolutions?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any future actions to read out or to discuss on this issue. The Secretary’s speech, which came on the heels of the resolution, was very clear about the concerns that we have about the viability of a two-state solution. And he laid out principles in there in that speech about how – a framework, if you will – about how we can better achieve a two-state solution. But specifically beyond that, I don’t have anything to discuss with you.

    QUESTION: Well, you mentioned that the point that he made – and he made six clear points and so on, and in fact they probably find their root in the six points that were made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back in 2009. The point is, absent any mechanism or absent the will and the desire to sort of say if you don’t do this, we will do this, as introducing sanctions, whether it’s against Russia or Iran or Iraq and so on – absent that kind of mechanism, what good – the – first, the pronouncements of these principles are or even issuing resolutions at the United Nations is?

    MR KIRBY: Well, Said, I think the resolution speaks for itself and I think the Secretary’s comments also speak for themselves, I mean, in terms of our continued deep concern about the viability of a two-state solution. I don’t – I understand your question. I don’t have any additional actions to speak to today. I think we’re all aware about the calendar and all aware that we’re not going to see a two-state solution achieved in the next three weeks. I think everybody recognizes that. And the next administration will have to make decisions and move forward in the way they deem fit.

    But the President and the Secretary believed it was important to make clear our concern because we want to see peace there. We – it was important for us to lay out – for the Secretary – excuse me – to lay out what he believed were the proper principles for trying to get there. So I think – I know this isn’t a perfect answer to your question, but I think that’s the best way to leave it.

    QUESTION: One last question on this, if I may. Now, we know that the Secretary has always been quite vigorous in pursuing his own initiatives and so on. Are we likely to see anything on his part --

    MR KIRBY: The Secretary pursues the President’s initiatives in foreign policy.

    QUESTION: Absolutely. I’m saying but also the Secretary has in implementing U.S. diplomacy and U.S. vision. So are we likely to see added impetus, let’s say, over the next couple of weeks to see the Secretary perhaps go to this peace conference in France, if it takes place, and so on, or would you have new ideas and so on to discuss at the – maybe at the UN or other forums?

    MR KIRBY: Well, without getting ahead of the Secretary’s schedule or his specific intentions on this or any other issue, I said and I’ve said many times in the last several weeks that until he is no longer Secretary of State, this is an issue that’s going to be important to him and that he is not going to stop focusing on. Last week, you saw that, I think, very clearly and in a very eloquent speech about our concerns over the situation. So I’m not going to speculate one way or another about how he’s going to spend each of the days that he has left in office on this or any other issue, but I can tell you, because I’m confident what I said weeks ago, that until he is no longer in this seat, this will be something that he continues to work.

    Dave, did you have something?

    QUESTION: Well, that answered my question on Paris.

    MR KIRBY: That was your question?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    All right. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: My question is about President Hollande’s visit to Erbil yesterday, and it’s got two parts. First part: The visit was very cordial and President Hollande met with President Barzani and they – President Barzani took the French president to the front lines. He – President Hollande praised the Peshmerga and their fight against Daesh, promised them continued – and promised them continued support. Do you have any comment on this visit of President Hollande?

    MR KIRBY: We typically don’t comment on the travel of foreign leaders of other countries. I mean, what I can say is we welcome France’s contributions as part of the coalition to counter Daesh and certainly welcome the continued support that has been voiced by President Hollande for the fight against Daesh there in the region.

    QUESTION: Okay. And the second part: In these meetings, the Kurdish leadership stressed the enormity of the burden that they bear in hosting 1.8 million displaced people. And President Hollande himself arrived with 38 tons of aid in his plane. Is the U.S. looking into this issue perhaps?

    MR KIRBY: Into the --

    QUESTION: The issue of the burden that the Kurdistan region bears because it has – it’s supporting 1.8 million displaced people from other parts of Iraq.

    MR KIRBY: It’s not that we are looking into it. We have been concerned with this issue for a long, long time. We continue to work closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government in helping to facilitate the well-being of those displaced people – the people that were displaced internally by Daesh. We also work with other Iraqi provincial governments and the Government of Iraq in Baghdad to better foster the conditions that will allow these people to return home safely eventually.

    It’s part of the – it’s all part of the larger effort – I got you, just let me finish, I’m just getting warmed up here – it’s all part of the larger effort to deal with this problem. And we’re mindful of the toll that displaced people do have on local economies and local infrastructure. All of us can do more. I would also remind that the United States has provided more than a billion dollars in humanitarian aid since 2014 alone. We’ve also rallied the international community, other nations, helping secure pledges just this summer of over $2 billion from partners for humanitarian assistance, stabilization, demining, all in the run-up to the Mosul operation.

    And we’re actively working with our humanitarian partners, nongovernmental agencies to prepare for the immediate shelter needs of a large-scale displacement or continued large-scale displacements. And just as of late November, approximately 12,200 is the number I’m given here of shelter plots across eight sites remain ready to receive households that were displaced from Mosul and surrounding areas with additional plots now under construction, all with U.S. help and assistance.

    So it’s not as if we’re just now looking into this. This is something that we have long been concerned with since the very beginning of coalition operations against Daesh, okay?

    QUESTION: But it sounds like despite the U.S. generosity and help with this, it’s not really enough, that more is required, even.

    MR KIRBY: As I said, I think, when we addressed this issue more specifically about Mosul not long ago, we’re always analyzing, always assessing, and always willing to contribute more if more is needed. That’s part of – part and parcel of the discussions that we are actively having with local, regional, and national government figures there in Iraq.

    Okay. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Recently, there was a dialogue held between Russia, China, and Pakistan on Afghanistan – last week. Does the U.S. welcome this dialogue or what are your thoughts about it?

    MR KIRBY: I mean, look, we – I’ll say what we welcome is any international effort to help Afghanistan become secure and more prosperous. And we continue to support, as we always have, an Afghan-led reconciliation process. We still believe that’s the right way to go here going forward. That hasn’t changed. And our support for President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah remains steadfast.

    But nation-states and Afghanistan as a nation-state has every right and every responsibility, quite frankly, for the betterment of their own people to have, whether it’s multilateral or bilateral, discussions with neighboring nations and nations that aren’t neighboring that are interested in the same goals that we are.

    QUESTION: So you are saying that without Afghan Government being present there at the discussion – and they did lodge a protest about it as well, their foreign minister, that --

    MR KIRBY: I wasn’t – we obviously weren’t there either, so I can’t speak to the specifics of this meeting. But to the degree that countries are meeting to discuss the same secure, safe, prosperous Afghanistan that we all want to see and they can come up with ideas to pursue that, in keeping with mandates from the international community and in particular NATO, those can be – they could be constructive.

    QUESTION: One of those efforts with regard to bringing peace in Afghanistan is about the recent deal that the government made with Hekmatyar’s party. And according to some report, the government has sent a letter to the United Nations to remove his name from the terrorist list. What is the U.S. Government’s stance going to be about removing his name from the --

    MR KIRBY: Well, sanctions --

    QUESTION: Is the U.S. going to be okay?

    MR KIRBY: Sanctions committee consultations are confidential and we don’t talk about them, so I have nothing to provide you on that.


    QUESTION: Do you know or do you have some readout about Secretary call or talk with Pakistan’s Finance Minister Dar on Indus Water Treaty?

    MR KIRBY: I can confirm that he did speak on the 29th of December with Finance Minister Dar. I’m not going to read that out in any great detail. The Indus Waters Treaty has served, I think as you know, as a model for peaceful cooperation between India and Pakistan for now 50 years. We encourage, as we have in the past, India and Pakistan to work together to resolve any differences.

    QUESTION: Has the U.S. offered to mediate on this issue between India and Pakistan? As you know, there are some disputes between the two countries on this issue.

    MR KIRBY: As I said, we encourage India and Pakistan to work together bilaterally to resolve their differences.

    QUESTION: Has he talked to the Indians also on this issue?

    MR KIRBY: We’re in regular communication with the Indian and Pakistani governments on a wide range of issues. I just don’t have any more details for you.

    QUESTION: But not at his level, right?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any more detail for you.

    QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

    QUESTION: I’ve got a small question on the same thing.

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: China recently invited India to be a part of the CPEC. What is the U.S. recommendation or suggestion to India on this issue?

    MR KIRBY: This is an issue between India and China. I don’t have a U.S. reaction to that right now.


    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: I have a quick question on Egypt --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- regarding Ahmed Maher. He is the cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement. He was arrested a couple years ago and was supposed to be released today. There has been no word about his release. I wonder if you have any comment on that or if you would urge the Egyptian authorities to release him.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything for you on that, Said. We’ll have to take that question and get back to you. I’m just not prepared for that.

    QUESTION: Okay, and the other thing is – since we are on human rights – yesterday, the UN Human Rights Council was formed and elected Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, China, Cuba, Iraq, Qatar, Burundi, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirate to the council. I guess you know they pick members on the basis – on the merits of their own record of human rights. Do you have any comment on that?

    MR KIRBY: I think I would just – broadly speaking, we’re pleased to be a member to the UN Human Rights Council after completing a mandatory year off in 2016. Since joining it, we’ve made remarkable strides toward helping the council realize its full potential, working in partnership with a wide range of member-states, and often in spite of council members that have poor human rights records.

    We’re proud of our successes at the Human Rights Council since we joined the body, including the creation of commissions of inquiry for Syria, North Korea, and Burundi; for country-specific resolutions on Sri Lanka, Iran, and Burma – ground-breaking resolutions that were focused on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of assembly and association; and the first ever resolution in the UN system which created an independent expert on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

    So we’re going to look forward to continuing to work with other members of the council to strengthen and protect human rights around the world. And we’re not bashful about calling it like we see it when it comes to human rights violators wherever they sit.

    Okay. Steve.

    QUESTION: Yes, the deputy commander of Russia’s Pacific fleet in Manila has announced plans to hold joint military exercises with Philippines navy, which I think mostly consists of a couple of old U.S. Coast Guard boats at this point. In light of the security treaty between the United States and the Philippines, does the U.S. welcome this sort of cooperation between the Philippines and Russia?

    MR KIRBY: The first thing I would say is that the defense relationship between the United States and the Philippines remains very, very strong. We do have security commitments, alliance commitments that we take very, very seriously. And that defense cooperation has always been provided at the request of Philippine administrations, so our overall mil-to-mil relations remain robust, they remain multifaceted, and that’s the way we want to see it continue.

    I think I’d let the Philippine Government and the Russian Government speak to the degree of their bilateral defense relations and how that is taking shape. I’ve said many times – and this is a good example of it – that foreign relations aren’t binary. Right? And these choices that countries have to make are not binary choices, and every nation-state has the right to pursue bilateral relations of its own choosing. And so again, I would leave it to both of their governments to discuss it. What it – what I can promise you is that it won’t affect how we view the importance of our bilateral relationship with the Philippines.

    Okay. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Do you have any update on Senator Cardin’s letter to the Secretary a few weeks ago about the request to formally apologize to State Department personnel who were fired during the “lavender scare” in the 1950s. Any update on that?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update specifically for you on a response to the senator. We are – we will, of course, respond to the senator appropriately about that. Look, we all recognize that this was a troubled part of our history here at the State Department, but beyond that I don’t have a specific update for you. And when we do and when we can speak to it, we’ll let you know.


    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Syria? Any comment on the so-called ceasefire there and the preparations --

    MR KIRBY: Well, you said it best – “so-called,” right? I mean, look, as before, we wanted to see this one succeed because we think it’s important to get back to political talks – UN-led political talks. And you’re not going to be able to do that if bombs continue to be dropped on the opposition. So we would have liked to have seen this latest ceasefire be a success.

    As far as I know, at least before coming out here, there are areas where it does appear to be holding and there are areas where it doesn’t. That is not at all atypical of what we’ve seen in the past with prior ceasefire/cessation of hostilities attempts, whether we were involved with those announcements or not, and we weren’t always involved with every one in the past. But we sadly have seen this one begin to unravel pretty much as quickly as they have unraveled in the past.

    QUESTION: And is there any coordination with the Russians regarding the Astana talks?

    MR KIRBY: Not that I’m --

    QUESTION: Did the Secretary talk to --

    MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of.

    QUESTION: -- Mr. Lavrov?

    MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of, no.

    QUESTION: Has he spoken with him on any issue related to Syria --

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any recent --

    QUESTION: -- in the last few days?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have any recent discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov to read out.

    QUESTION: Okay. Are you – I mean, seeing that Mr. Lavrov was the person to call for tit-for-tat with the expulsion of the Russian diplomats – it was Mr. Lavrov that called for a tit-for-tat and it was the Russian president that actually held back. You have any comment on that? I mean, considering that --

    MR KIRBY: I’ve seen press reporting on that, Said, but I can’t confirm the veracity of the --

    QUESTION: Can you – you cannot confirm that he had, in fact, wanted --

    MR KIRBY: -- internal Russian deliberations. Hmm?

    QUESTION: He – you don’t have any confirmation that he, in fact, wanted American diplomats to be expelled?

    MR KIRBY: No, I can’t confirm what the foreign minister’s views were about the President’s decisions last week. We all saw President Putin’s statement, which you have to assume speaks for the Russian Government. What deliberations and discussions they had internally prior to the – President Putin issuing his statement, I simply have no idea.

    QUESTION: And there has been no conversation between the Secretary and the foreign minister on the issue of the diplomats?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have – let me just make sure that I’m checking this correctly here. No, I don’t have any recent calls with Foreign Minister Lavrov to read out with respect to the President’s decisions last week.

    We’ll take the last one. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: On Syria. Do you have any information about an airstrike that happened today in the north of Syria in Idlib province? The Fateh al-Sham Front is saying that 20 people were killed.

    MR KIRBY: I’ve seen some very early press reporting on that. I don’t have any update for you. I was just apprised of that myself just before coming out here. I would encourage you to reach out to my Defense Department colleagues for more information on that, okay?

    QUESTION: Fateh al-Sham is the same as Nusrah, correct? So their claim – you don’t take their claims?

    MR KIRBY: Don’t take what claims?

    QUESTION: I mean, they are the ones that claimed 20 people were killed. You do understand that --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, no, I know that and I know who they are and --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: -- al-Nusrah is how we still refer to them. I just don’t have any specific information on this, and again, I think the Defense Department is probably better to speak to it than me.


    (The briefing was concluded at 2:49 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - December 27, 2016

Wed, 12/28/2016 - 11:50
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 27, 2016

Index for Today's Briefing


    2:53 p.m. EST

    MR TONER: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Okay. I’m sorry, first of all, to be – not even a little late – quite late. I apologize. I can guarantee you it’s not because I was sleeping off my holiday feast. But let’s get started.

    Welcome, everyone, to the State Department. Just – I have one thing to announce at the top, and indeed, it’s been a question on quite a few of your minds over the past couple of days, but I can announce that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will deliver remarks on Middle East peace tomorrow morning, on Wednesday, December 28th, 2016 at the U.S. Department of State. In this speech, the Secretary will lay out a comprehensive vision for how he believes the conflict can be resolved in the Middle East. And all of his remarks, of course, will be open to the press and this event will be livestreamed at

    That’s all I have at the top, believe it or not, for being that late. Where are we starting? Lesley, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah. So – and where is the speech going to take place? Do you have details?

    MR TONER: We’ll get to that to you. We’re going to – we’ll put out a Notice to the Press. I just wanted simply to announce the speech would be tomorrow morning.

    QUESTION: And I gather he’s going to talk about the UN resolution on --

    MR TONER: He will touch on that. I – but I don't want to – so he will touch on that, certainly, but he’ll talk more broadly about, as I said, coming to the end of his term as Secretary of State – but indeed, this is an issue – Middle East peace – that he’s worked on for many, many years, so he’ll talk about his view, I think, on the way forward and where he sees it going.

    QUESTION: Well, the tensions being --

    MR TONER: Where to begin, right? (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: I felt a little bit the same way. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, tensions have been increasing since the UN vote on Friday. I’m sure you’ve seen all the reports and heard a lot of the words. The Israeli officials are now being quoted as saying that they have evidence that they will lay out to the Trump administration of – in which the U.S., specifically Kerry, had discussions with the Palestinians before the vote, a few weeks before, during a visit to Washington where Saeb Erekat was around, and basically that he pushed them to go to Egypt and to move ahead with this resolution. That’s one of the things.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: So the question is: Was the U.S. hiding behind this other group of countries to submit the resolution? Were those discussions ever taken place? Because the Israelis feel that they’ve got evidence that there was meddling by the Americans.

    MR TONER: Excuse me. Forgive me. (Coughs.) I picked up a cold over the weekend too, unfortunately, so I apologize.

    So you’re right. We’ve obviously seen the same reports, an amalgamation of different allegations that somehow this was U.S.-driven and precooked. What I’ll say – excuse me – (coughs) – is that we reject the notion that the United States was the driving force behind this resolution. That’s just not true. The United States did not draft this resolution, nor did it put it forward. It was drafted and initially introduced, as we all know, by Egypt, in coordination with the Palestinians and others. When it was clear that the Egyptians and the Palestinians would insist on bringing this resolution to a vote and that every other country on the council would, in fact, support it, we made clear to others, including those on the Security Council, that further changes were needed to make the text more balanced. And that’s a standard practice on – with regard to resolutions at the Security Council. So there’s nothing new to this.

    You look like you’re pouncing on me, but go ahead.

    QUESTION: No, we just --

    MR TONER: No, we’ll continue. I can continue, but if you have a – do you have a follow up?

    QUESTION: No, no. Let’s just keep going with this.

    MR TONER: Okay, sure. And this is a really important point. We also made clear at every conversation – in every conversation – that the President would make the final decision and that he would have to review the final text before making his final decision. So the idea that this was, again, precooked or that we had agreed upon the text weeks in advance is just not accurate. And in fact --

    QUESTION: But we know that --

    MR TONER: Go ahead. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: No, we know that the U.S. didn’t draft it or put it forward. But was the U.S. in any way coaxing on any – another group of countries to move ahead and go and move ahead with this resolution?

    MR TONER: Well, again, these are – I mean, again, I think it’s important to have the proper context, in that all through the fall there was talk about – and we often got the question here and of course we replied that we’re never going to discuss hypotheticals in terms of what resolutions or what is circulating out there – but of course, there has been for some time in the fall talk about this resolution or that resolution with regard to the Middle East peace and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

    So of course, in the – of course, in the course of those conversations, we’re always making clear what our parameters are, what our beliefs are, what our – what we need to see or what we – in order to even consider a resolution. That’s part of the give-and-take of the UN.

    QUESTION: But surely these countries, before they would move ahead, would want to get the view of an influential member of the Security Council of the UN of who – of what their position would be on this.

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think we – of course, as the draft or the text was circulated, we said to those on the Security Council that – what further changes were needed to make the text more balanced. And in fact, we ended up abstaining because we didn’t feel it was balanced enough in the sense of it didn’t hit hard enough on the incitement-to-violence side of the coin.

    Go ahead. You look perplexed. (Laughter.) Go ahead, Said.

    QUESTION: At what stage did you intervene to try and balance? Was it after Egypt said they’d withdraw it?

    MR TONER: I think it was once – yeah, I mean, once – I mean, I don’t have a date certain. It was once the Egyptians and Palestinians made it clear that they were going to advance this text or bring this resolution to a vote and that, in fact, it would be supported by other countries.

    QUESTION: Does that date predate Mr. Erekat’s visit to the State Department?

    MR TONER: I don’t know the date of his visit. But again, I’m not – I’m not exactly – and I’m not necessarily excluding that when he did visit to the State Department that they didn’t discuss possible resolutions or anything like that in terms of draft language. But again, there was no – nothing precooked. There was nothing – this was not some move orchestrated by the United States.


    QUESTION: Could you be clear what you just said? I heard a double negative in there. You’re not precluding that they didn’t discuss it. Are you saying they – that when the Palestinians were here --

    MR TONER: I don’t have a readout. Yeah, I don’t have a readout of that meeting in front of me. I just – but I said I can imagine that they talked about Middle East peace broadly and efforts to reinvigorate the process. I don’t know that they discussed the possible action at the UN. But of course, as we – as I said in answer to Lesley’s question, that was something that was in the mix for some months now in New York at the UN that there might be some action taken there.

    QUESTION: And what about New Zealand, when the Secretary was there before Antarctica?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: And also I believe he had a meeting here with Mr. Shoukry at some point in early December.

    MR TONER: Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: Was the resolution discussed at either of those meetings with those diplomats?

    MR TONER: Again, I can’t specifically say whether the resolution – but certainly, if a resolution or action at the UN was discussed, it wasn’t discussed in the level of detail where there was some final text. We always reserved the right with any text that was put forward, drafted and put forward, to veto it or to not take action or abstain, which is what we ended up doing.

    QUESTION: But you advised them on how to put together a motion that the United States would feel comfortable abstaining or voting in favor of?

    MR TONER: Well, I think what we said is – and this is not just unique to this process, but once a text, a draft text is to the point where it’s going to be put forward to a vote, of course we would provide input on what we believed were – was language that didn’t pass or didn’t allow us to vote for it or --

    QUESTION: You see what I’m saying?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: You didn’t just say bring whatever motion you like up and we’ll vote however we feel about it. You were encouraging them to bring forward a motion that you would feel comfortable not blocking.

    MR TONER: Well, but we have to be really careful in how we’re talking about this because what the allegations --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: No, I know and I understand that. But no, no, but I’m saying that some of the allegations out there, frankly, are implying that this was somehow some – as I said, some orchestrated action by the U.S. to pass a resolution that was negative about settlement activity in Israel, and the fact is that that’s just not the case. Of course, we would always provide, when the final text was going up for a vote, our opinion on where the red lines were. But I think that – I think this is all a little bit of a sideshow, to be honest, that this was a resolution that we could not in good conscience veto because it condemns violence, it condemned incitement, it reiterates what has long been the overwhelming consensus international view on settlements, and it calls for the parties to take constructive steps to advance a two-state solution on the ground. There was nothing in there that would prompt us to veto that type of resolution.

    QUESTION: But there was nothing in there --

    MR TONER: And in fact --

    QUESTION: -- because you told them not to put anything in there that would cause you to veto it.

    MR TONER: But that – but again, not at all. And I said we did not take the lead in drafting this resolution. That was done by the Egyptians with the Palestinians. But again, in any kind of resolution process, of course there’s moments where – or I mean, it’s not like our views regarding settlements or regarding resolutions with respect to Israel aren’t well-known and well-vetted within the UN community. There’s been many times in the past where we’ve not – or we vetoed resolutions that we found to be biased towards Israel. But that’s another point here is that there’s nothing – the other canard in all of this is that this was somehow breaking with longstanding U.S. tradition in the UN Security Council, when we all know that every administration has vetoed – or rather has abstained or voted for similar resolutions.

    QUESTION: But it’s true then that you had opportunities to ask them not to bring it forward at all and didn’t take them.

    MR TONER: I’m not sure what you’re --

    QUESTION: Well, instead of saying why not write the motion this way, you could have said please don’t bring a motion.

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think when it was clear to us that they were going to bring it to a vote and that every other council – every other country on the council was going to support that resolution, that draft text --

    QUESTION: When did it become clear to you that it would --

    MR TONER: I don’t have a date certain for that.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: I think it was last week or so.

    QUESTION: Mark, give me just a follow-up, please, quickly.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Now, you said that everything in the resolution really is consistent with your position, and in fact, it did include language that was very strong against incitement and violence and so on. So why did you vote against it? Why would you not --

    MR TONER: Because --

    QUESTION: I mean, not --

    MR TONER: Yeah, yeah. That’s okay.

    QUESTION: Why did you abstain?

    MR TONER: Yeah. So --

    QUESTION: And why not vote for it?

    MR TONER: No, no, it is – and I think others have spoken to this, but we believe that the resolution didn’t put sufficient emphasis on the violence and incitement and terrorism that is also eroding --

    QUESTION: What would be – in this case, what kind of language? I mean --

    MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to draft it off the top of my head, but we felt it wasn’t sufficiently strong.

    QUESTION: But you must have very clear points at what these terms or these phrases would be exactly for you to vote for it, right? What are they? What are these points and phrases that would have made you vote for it?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think – and forgive me if I’m not specific enough, but I think our criticism in past draft resolutions has been that they are not – that they’re one-sided, that they unfairly target Israel. In this case, there was language in there regarding incitement and basically making the point that both sides need to do – to do more in order to create a climate conducive to what we believe is the way forward, which is direct negotiations. So what – it’s important to remember what this resolution is and what it isn’t.

    I mean, what it was was simply a recognition that the dynamics on the ground, in particular on the Israeli side with regard to the growth and increase in settlements, the marked increase in settlements, settlement activity, over the past years is making the viability of a two-state solution more and more impossible. It recognized that. It also noted, as I said, the fact that the Palestinian side also is partially to blame for incitement to violence for creating an atmosphere, again, not conducive to what we all agree needs to happen, which is direct negotiation. So this wasn’t in any way an attempt to prejudge or to promote a certain outcome in that negotiation. It was simply recognizing what we believe are dangerous trends.

    QUESTION: Let me ask you about what – seeing how this resolution lacks sanctions, it lacks any kind of really a roadmap to implement it and so on. What should the steps – in your view, and I understand how this Administration is departing – on review – in your view, what steps can be taken to ensure that the spirit and the letter of the resolution is somehow --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- implemented and translated into reality?

    MR TONER: Well, I think that’s, frankly, something that Secretary Kerry will – hopefully will address and make clear in his speech tomorrow. I think he’s going to kind of take that – what we need to see in terms of next steps – in his speech tomorrow. This resolution – you’re right. It doesn’t – it certainly doesn’t have an impact in terms of sanctions or actions that would directly negatively affect Israel. I think what we’ve said is it’s a call to action. It’s a recognition that international opinion is noting the fact that Israeli settlement activity is an impediment to a negotiated two-state settlement.

    QUESTION: Mark, (inaudible)?

    MR TONER: That’s okay. We’ll go to Carol and then you, Michel. We’ve got time.

    QUESTION: There was a – there’s a report in an Egyptian newspaper (inaudible), about the meeting between Secretary Kerry, Susan Rice, Saeb Erekat, and Faraj. And they’re reporting that Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Rice said that they were – the United States was ready to support a balanced resolution in the Security Council, and there also was some discussion about moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and that Saeb Erekat said if that happened that throughout the Arab world, Americans would be kicked out. Is – can you confirm or discuss whether this conversation, in fact, happened?

    MR TONER: I apologize. I can’t, Carol. I just don’t know. I don’t have that level of detail. I just got a roadie note here, though. Sorry. (Laughter.)

    But just an update, because I was deliberately vague because I did not have a readout – but in fact, we did not discuss any language or give any indication whatsoever about a U.S. position on a settlements UNSCR in either the meeting with Erekat or in New Zealand. So that just --

    QUESTION: Let me just take you back to Thursday, because we had --

    MR TONER: Correct the record there.

    QUESTION: -- a great deal of discussion right after the Egyptians went through their drafts of a resolution. And I asked a question at the time whether you were disappointed, because that was the impression that you were giving. So were you glad to see that these four countries had the intention and then they actually, in fact, did submit the resolution once again? If – am I clear in what I’m saying?

    MR TONER: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. You’re asking whether we, in essence --

    QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I mean, were you actually, because it seems like it’s the last – sort of the last effort or the last conceivable effort.

    MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, Said, I don’t want to attempt to characterize it. I think I’ll just leave it where I thought I put it, which is that there was nothing in this resolution that we could so profoundly disagree with that it would lead us to veto it. It was, in essence, a recognition that, as I said, that – a recognition of the trends that many on the Security Council and around the world have been concerned about regarding the viability of a two-state solution, and that is the marked increase in settlement activity. I mean, you and I, Lord knows, have discussed this in great detail. And you also know that our policy, our public statements about settlements are well known. And so there’s no surprise to the reason that we chose to abstain from this vote.

    QUESTION: Can I follow-up on that one?

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: So what comments – what is your reaction to the news today that a – that a Jerusalem municipality is due to consider a request for construction of new homes – of settlements today?

    MR TONER: I mean, I saw it. We obviously saw the reports of those actions. I’ll go back to what I just said, which is we would hope that the UN Security Council resolution that was passed on Friday would serve as a wakeup call, as a call to action, as an attempt to alert both sides, but certainly Israel, that its actions with regards to settlement activity are, as I said, are a detriment to moving forward with a – toward a two-state solution.

    QUESTION: Has the Secretary, since the vote, spoken to anyone about that --

    MR TONER: Hitting my --

    QUESTION: -- prime minister – about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to it and his anger and his --

    MR TONER: I apologize. What – you’re saying has he spoken with --

    QUESTION: So has he spoken since the vote to Prime Minister Netanyahu?

    MR TONER: He has not. No, not since the vote. No.

    QUESTION: Not since the vote?

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    MR TONER: No, he spoke with him last on December 22nd.

    QUESTION: And would you say this Administration is surprised by his – by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction of anger and towards the Administration?

    MR TONER: I don't know if – I don't know if I’d term it “surprised.” I mean, certainly, they feel aggrieved – that’s apparent – by their reaction. But – and I would refer folks in this room who weren’t there to the Secretary’s remarks at the Saban Forum, where he talked in great detail and great personal experience about the fact that we have a relationship with Israel that is so strong and so close that sometimes we need to be able to tell them difficult things. And through our abstention on this resolution, we were conveying our concern about Israel’s future. We want to see Israel succeed and prosper as a Jewish and democratic state. And we believe that if the present settlement activity is allowed to continue and intensify, that it’s – it will render the possibility of a two-state solution, which we all agree is the ultimate goal here, an impossibility. And that was part of the message that we hope was conveyed.

    QUESTION: So the Israelis are saying --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- apart of Prime Minister Netanyahu is that you cannot have a – that actually this resolution makes it more difficult for peace talks to take place, that they feel that the Israelis would not be seen fairly or treated fairly in those discussions. Would you agree with that?

    MR TONER: I wouldn’t. I don't want to delve too deep into hypotheticals, but that’s between the parties. This isn’t something – and we’ve said this very clearly – that we want the UN in any way, shape, or form to decide the outcome of a negotiated settlement. That’s between the Palestinians and the Israeli Government.

    QUESTION: And just a last question.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead and I’ll --

    QUESTION: Just a last question on the – is Secretary Kerry or anyone from this Administration going to the Paris talks --

    MR TONER: I don't have an answer for that.

    QUESTION: -- on that?

    MR TONER: Yeah. Not that --

    QUESTION: Did you notify the Israelis ahead of time before you’d vote? And if so, can you tell us when and --

    MR TONER: How we were going to vote?

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: I’ll take that question and see if I can get an answer for you.

    QUESTION: Mark, Israel’s foreign minister has suspended all working ties with the countries that voted to pass the resolution, and it summoned the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Do you have any readout for that meeting? And what’s your reaction to --

    MR TONER: I don't have a particular readout for that meeting. Obviously, you can guess the topic. Look, I don't want to overstate Israel’s reaction. I think that no one – and certainly not the United States, or the United States least of all – wants to see Israel isolated in any international forum. And so, of course, we’re concerned when we see Israel take actions that we fear will further isolate it – proactive steps that will isolate it within the international community. But it’s not for us to really speak any more to what Israel decides to do.

    Again, our – we took the actions we took last week – the action we took last week, rather – in an effort to, along with the others who voted for the resolution – an effort to send a clear message about our concerns regarding settlement activity as an impediment to a negotiated peaceful settlement – no more, no less. We don’t want this to create a diplomatic firestorm, in fact just the opposite. What we want is – are actions that create a climate that is conducive to a return to direct negotiations.

    QUESTION: And my --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: -- my last question on this: And how do you think this resolution will help the two-state solution?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I spoke about the fact that sometimes – to use a colloquial American expression – you have to call a spade a spade. And when we see activity or actions on the part of Israel or Palestine – or Palestinians rather in this case, with regard to incitement, we call it like we see it and we’ve done that in this case. It is, I think, important for us to have any credibility as a neutral hand, if you will, in any negotiations which we’ve offered to play going forward and we’ve played it in the past. You’ve got to be honest and we’re trying to be honest.

    QUESTION: Mark, the --

    QUESTION: Mark.

    QUESTION: Should we see tomorrow’s speech as the last word from the Obama Administration on this issue, a summary of where we are? Or is this the start of a three-and-a-half-week push to create a new framework for negotiations?

    MR TONER: That’s a very good and a very fair question. I don’t want to predict anything and nor do I have anything to announce coming up. Certainly this Administration is going to continue to work until January 20th.

    QUESTION: The morning of January 20th.

    MR TONER: January (inaudible) 20th – important point. But I don’t want to lean into it that there’s going to be some kind of a push behind this. I think this is, again, his – Secretary Kerry sharing his vision for how we can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

    QUESTION: I have just a couple more. Ben Rhodes noted in the press conference call that this Administration has been probably the friendliest of all administrations towards Israel --

    MR TONER: Yeah, he did.

    QUESTION: -- noting, like, they – most recently given them aid and to the tune of $40 billion and so on.

    MR TONER: Yeah, the MOU.

    QUESTION: Do you – are you disappointed in the kind of rhetoric that is being thrown at this Administration in its final days by the Israelis, by the Prime Minister of Israel, by others in this town who are friends of Israel, some even calling the President of the United States anti-Semitic and things like this?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean --

    QUESTION: How do you react to all this?

    MR TONER: Yeah, Said – I mean, you have to be thick-skinned in this game we call diplomacy, as you know. So I don’t want to say that we’re upset over it, but the facts speak for themselves, as you noted. No administration, no American administration has arguably done more for Israel’s security. As you noted as well, just a couple months ago, we concluded a $38 billion MOU, which is the largest military assistance package in U.S. history, worked on Iron Dome to strengthen that.

    We’ve done a lot of things, the Obama Administration, to strengthen U.S.-Israeli ties, which we – and of course, that’s on the security front, but we also – and this Secretary of State led a very hard-fought effort to get negotiations back on track early in this second term. And of course in the first Obama Administration – or term, we also had a pretty serious effort led by George Mitchell to get these negotiations back up and running.

    So it’s not like we’ve been standing idly by the side and not caring about this issue or simply giving everyone a free pass – far from it. We have been and continue to be a staunch defender of Israel’s best interests and it’s in that spirit that we feel the resolution that was passed on Friday is in that same vein.

    QUESTION: Another thick skin question.

    MR TONER: Another what?

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: Thick skin question – the diplomacy.

    MR TONER: Oh, thick skin. Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: President Erdogan accused today the coalition of supporting ISIS. Do you have any reaction?

    QUESTION: Before we – do we have a time for the speech tomorrow?

    MR TONER: I think it will be late morning; I don’t have a time specific. We’ll put that all in the notice to press. It’s a fair point. I deliberately fudged that because I don’t have a certain time. I wanted to announce his speech, but I don’t have it.

    I’m sorry, your question was about --

    QUESTION: President Erdogan’s remarks, yeah.

    MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, it’s ludicrous, to be honest. No basis for truth, as you can all imagine. I don’t think anyone could look at our actions on the ground leading the coalition in northern Syria, in Iraq and say anything other than that we’re 100 percent behind the defeat, destruction of Daesh, and even beyond Syria and Iraq, seeing its networks dismantled, destroyed around the region – or outside of the region around the world. I can give you a rundown on what we’re doing. You don’t need to hear it. You know what we’re doing in terms of the coalition, and in fact, we’re working constructively with Turkey to lead those efforts. And Turkey is playing a part and we have constant dialogue and discussion with Turkey about how we can better leverage both of our efforts.

    QUESTION: Did you contact with the Turkish officials?

    MR TONER: I don’t know – you mean regarding these remarks?

    QUESTION: Regarding these remarks.

    MR TONER: I don’t know. Honestly, I didn’t have time to check on it.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: I’ll take – I’ll see if we’ve made contact.

    QUESTION: So the point – yeah, the point is al-Bab. I mean, he’s criticizing coalition for not supporting the Turkish armed forces’ offensive in al-Bab. I mean, do you have any reason why the coalition is not support Turkey in this operation?

    MR TONER: Sorry, you’re talking about al-Bab?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Sorry, I’m hitting the mike. I apologize. I mean, a couple of things. First of all, we’re obviously in close contact and discussion, dialogue, near constant with the Turks about their efforts in northern Syria. They’ve been very efficient and very successful. We’re talking about them about how – we’re talking to them about how we can support them more closely. Brett McGurk is in contact with them. I don’t know when he was last in Turkey, but it was fairly recently.

    We’re aware that it’s a tough fight that they’re facing, and that’s all being still discussed. We have provided support to Turkey for operations to clear its border of ISIL, and that support is ongoing. But as I said, they’re now driving on al-Bab. It’s a tough fight. We’re talking about – to them about how we can help them in their efforts. I don’t have anything to announce. I’d have to refer you to the Department of Defense to --

    QUESTION: But would you advise them to hold back from al-Bab until you’re ready to help them? It seems that they’re going to fight --

    MR TONER: That’s their – I mean, look, that’s – David, that’s – far be it for us to provide strategic military advice or tactical military advice to the Turks.

    QUESTION: But you just said you’re members of the same coalition.

    MR TONER: Well, I understand that. But I’m just saying, like, that we support their efforts. We have supported their efforts along the border to clear it of ISIL. We’re in dialogue with them about possible next steps we can take in terms of al-Bab. I mean, and we don’t – certainly don’t want to see them enter into al-Bab without sufficient support. But again, these are discussions we have on a daily basis with the Turks.

    QUESTION: How many --

    QUESTION: Doesn’t that relate to Turkey’s attacks on U.S. – the U.S. ally, the YPG, as in Manbij, and at that point there were all sorts of tensions developed between the United States and Turkey, and the U.S. military let it be known that Turkey had gone past what was authorized in al-Bab? But the core of it was Turkish attacks on the U.S. ally, the YPG, fighting in northern Syria and around Manbij and other areas. Wasn’t that the core of the problem?

    MR TONER: Well, we have – you’re right in that Turkey has – and they’re partner forces, which is I think what you’re referring to – have made progress in securing the border and liberating large swaths of the area, a number of towns and villages. And as I said, they’re driving on al-Bab. We’re mindful, of course, of some of the tensions that exist obviously between these Turkish-supported forces and the YPG and other forces that we’ve been supporting in that area, and those are tensions – again, that’s the reason why we’re working closely, having these discussions, and trying to coordinate with them.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible) if you want U.S. support, you shouldn’t attack U.S. allies?

    MR TONER: No, there’s no --

    QUESTION: No lesson?

    MR TONER: No. (Laughter.) Look, no, I don’t want to give that impression at all. Turkey is a NATO ally and a strong partner in the anti-Daesh coalition. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that we’re trying to send a message.

    QUESTION: Can we press you just a little bit on --

    QUESTION: So the President himself (inaudible) then?

    MR TONER: (Laughter.) I won’t touch that.

    QUESTION: Could I just press you on what Erdogan said? I mean, he – he was very clear. He said U.S.-led coalition forces give support to terrorist groups including ISIS, including YPG, PYD. They were accusing --

    MR TONER: Well, look, I mean --

    QUESTION: Wait a minute. They

    MR TONER: Okay. So let’s --

    QUESTION: They were accusing us of supporting Daesh.

    MR TONER: So let’s – let me address that.

    QUESTION: I mean, he was very clear.

    MR TONER: Sure. Let me address that. So we do provide tactical support to the Syrian Democratic Forces. There’s no surprise there. We’ve been very transparent about that. That’s to help us all achieve our shared goal of defeating Daesh. The Syrian Democratic Forces have, as we’ve said many times, proven to be a very capable force against Daesh, and our support for them – again, our tactical support for them will continue. As we’ve also said before, we’ve never provided weapons to the YPG. And we have provided equipment to vetted Arab elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces. This equipment has – (cell phone rings). Someone’s waking up? This equipment has included ammunition and other tactical equipment to assist the coalition’s counter-ISIL operations. But let me be clear that we reject any group providing support to the PKK or enabling its terrorist campaign within Turkey.

    QUESTION: Or Daesh. Because he’s saying that you guys gave support to Daesh.

    MR TONER: Daesh – I said that from the outright. That’s just ludicrous. I don’t know where that comes from.

    QUESTION: Two more questions. Two --

    QUESTION: Okay, is it about Turkey?

    QUESTION: Yes. Same subject. Thank you, Mark. Today there are some reports that Russia in these – gave some air support around al-Bab. Do you have any information on that?

    MR TONER: I don’t. I don’t have any information on that. I mean, I’ll look into it, but obviously the Russians and Turks have been talking, talking about coordination, but I don’t have anything to confirm.

    QUESTION: In the past, very recent past, you defined these Turkey moves around al-Bab as uncoordinated and not constructive. Do you still see al-Bab offense as uncoordinated and not constructive, or what’s your view on it?

    MR TONER: No, I’d say now we’re in regular discussions with Turkey on the operations around al-Bab. We want to help it defeat Daesh. I think there was a recent visit by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs – excuse me – Dunford, who met with Turkish chief of staff – or chief of defense, excuse me. And as I said, Special Envoy McGurk, Brett McGurk, also visited Ankara before the holidays to talk about the overall campaign to defeat Daesh. So I can’t – I don’t want to discuss ongoing operations, but we’re obviously coordinating with them.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: One more talking point, that on Turkey pro-government made very awful news and cited that the President-elect Trump stated that the President Obama and his Administration founded ISIS and supported ISIS, so that the Turkey now repeating this. What’s your respond to this allegation?

    MR TONER: I don’t know where those claims are coming from. Maybe some comments from the campaign. I honestly don’t know what they’re referring to. I don’t think President-elect Trump has ever made that allegation. And as I said, if he did, it was probably from a long time ago, and I don’t think he’s made it again. But again, I can’t speak for the president-elect’s team.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: The final question.

    MR TONER: I’ll get to you next. I promise.

    QUESTION: Turkey, Iran, and Russia are going to convene these new Syria talks in Astana, Kazakhstan --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- early 2017. Have you been invited?

    MR TONER: I don’t believe so.

    QUESTION: And how do you view those talks?

    MR TONER: So I mean, we talked a little bit about this before when they were first announced. Look, we’re not against any effort to coordinate more closely on the multiple conflicts taking place in Syria – and by multiple conflicts I mean obviously destroying and disabling Daesh but also the civil war and of course the terrible fighting around Aleppo over the past few weeks – as long as it produces results. We talk frequently with the Turks. We talk frequently with the Russians. We’ve also long said that in order to reach some kind of resolution to the conflict in Syria, all the stakeholders need to agree and need to talk to each other. So the fact that Turkey and Russia are holding these kinds of talks is not necessarily something we would disapprove of.

    QUESTION: But the U.S. won’t be on the table and --

    MR TONER: I understand that. But as I said, we’re obviously talking closely with and communicating frequently with both Russia and with Turkey.

    QUESTION: And in this regard, Mark --

    MR TONER: I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: -- Russia’s foreign ministry has said today that Minister Lavrov has discussed a peace plan for Syria with Secretary Kerry today. Do you have any readout for this phone call?

    MR TONER: No, they did speak earlier today. I didn’t get a full readout from that conversation. I’m not sure that – frankly, that they discussed Syria, so I’m not sure if it was today or a previous conversation.

    QUESTION: That what they said, that they discussed --

    QUESTION: That’s what they said then.

    MR TONER: That’s what he said?

    QUESTION: -- a peace plan for Syria.

    MR TONER: I – honestly, I got a very partial readout. I apologize, but I don’t believe Syria was mentioned. If that’s incorrect, I’ll raise it or I’ll --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: Well --

    QUESTION: Was it about Syria?

    MR TONER: I think they talked about Libya.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: About Libya? Because this – the ministry had also said that Lavrov informed Kerry that a U.S. decision to ease some restrictions on arming Syrian rebels may lead to more casualties. They’ve also said that it could open the way for the delivery of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

    MR TONER: Yeah, this is – I mean, look, this is something that was in the – I think the consent was or the language was in the National Defense Authorization bill that they’ve been – is this what we’re – they’re referring to? I believe so.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: That’s right, yeah.

    MR TONER: We’ve been very clear. I can --

    QUESTION: I’ve heard of that (inaudible).

    MR TONER: Yeah, I mean, I – I mean, my point is this is not a new allegation that we’ve seen from them, and the fact is is that we’re not providing any kind of MANPADS or anything to the Syrian opposition.

    QUESTION: And they consider this as a hostile act, as the foreign ministry – Russian foreign ministry has said.

    MR TONER: Right, but again, we’ve seen this before – this language before, or this kind of rhetoric. I mean, our position on MANPADS has not changed. We’re – we would have a very deep concern about that type of weaponry getting into Syria.

    QUESTION: Can we move to Asia?

    QUESTION: No. Well, PKK question – on the PKK. There have been repeated stories over the past month in the Iraqi and Kurdish media that Baghdad is paying the PKK in the Sinjar area to train local fighters, the Sinjar Resistance Units. Today, it’s reported that Baghdad and Ankara are discussing that and Baghdad has agreed to stop paying them and help get the PKK out of Sinjar if Turkey withdraws from Bashiq. Since you’ve said and KGR officials have also said the PKK shouldn’t be in Sinjar, have you pressed Baghdad to stop paying those salaries or providing any support to the PKK?

    MR TONER: So I – excuse me, I apologize – (coughing) – I don’t want to speak necessarily to the direct allegations that they’re somehow – they’re paying these groups. We believe that the PKK, which is a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, should have no role in Sinjar. We regard their presence there as a major obstacle to reconciliation, as well as to refugee return, to the return of internally displaced people. And we urge all groups active in Sinjar to facilitate political reconciliation so that these IDPs, these internally displaced people, can return and that the communities that they were driven from can begin to rebuild. And we urge continued close cooperation between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to defeat Daesh and to resolve any other outstanding issues between them.

    In terms of whether Baghdad supports the PKK – I mean, that’s something – that’s a question you’d have to ask the Government of Iraq. We believe that the government shares our concern over restoring stability in Sinjar and oppose the PKK presence there.

    QUESTION: Asia.

    MR TONER: Let’s go to Asia. Let’s finish up and --

    QUESTION: Mark, just – yeah --

    MR TONER: Okay, one more, and then we’re going back to this patient crew back here.

    QUESTION: Okay, thank you. About these remarks blaming U.S. for supporting ISIS, this debate has started --

    MR TONER: Oh, okay. Sorry.

    QUESTION: -- has started two weeks ago, if you remember. And the Turkish foreign ministry official talked to the Turkish press and he said that U.S. also accused Turkey in the past for supporting ISIS, and then they give some documentations and it’s turned out that those documentation are false, and then Secretary Kerry apologized to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu personally.

    MR TONER: Does this have something to do with the ISIL oil --

    QUESTION: Oil smuggling, yeah.

    MR TONER: Yeah. In fact – and again, I’m an aging man who doesn’t have quite the memory that he used to have, but I felt like we pretty strongly pushed back on the notion that was repeated by some journalists who aren’t here today that this was somehow some conspiracy that involved the highest levels of the Turkish Government, who were buying ISIL oil. And in fact, we had a senior State Department official who is very expert in energy and oil reserves and how this would work and be smuggled come down and basically sit down with some of you in this room, I know, and basically picked that argument apart about how it would make no economic sense. And in fact, most of the oil that ISIL was able to draw from the ground was sold to third parties immediately, and was kept mostly within Syria. And we were pretty adamant about pushing back against the notion that there was some – as I said, somehow that the Turkish Government was aiding and abetting ISIL in selling off the oil that it was extracting from Syrian wells that it had captured. To the contrary, we said that, again, most of the oil that they pull out of the ground immediately goes into the trucks of smugglers who then oftentimes would sell it back to the Syrian Government or the Syrian regime.

    So I don’t know where that --

    QUESTION: The thing is, this debate that you – this – the questions coming from the journalists who are trying to understand what’s going on happened after the Russian jet incident at the end of 2015. But this official is referring to a conversation between the two leaders – to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu and Secretary Kerry at the end of 2014. Because Secretary Kerry gave a testimony in the U.S. Senate and he said that U.S. – ISIS is selling its oil to some neighboring countries to Syria and one of them is Turkey. And then, Cavusoglu asked an explanation from the Secretary Kerry regarding to the Turkish press, and the Secretary Kerry gave some documentations based on these allegations. And then Turkish intelligence looked at this documentations and they turn out it’s something else, not an ISIS facility or oil facility, but totally different – something total different. And then Secretary Kerry apologized for this.

    MR TONER: Well, I’m not aware of that – that he apologized in any way, shape, or form. What I can say is that this is something that we’ve looked at in great detail and I think while we’ve said that you can never say 100 percent that no oil is being smuggled across the border of Syria and Turkey, certainly not in the last several years, certainly not in the last probably – these are centuries-old smuggling routes that are hard to simply shut down completely. But the allegations at the time were that this was somehow condoned or even involved the complicity of the Turkish Government, and I don’t think – across the board we were always --

    QUESTION: But there is no apology?

    MR TONER: I don’t know. I’m unaware of one if there was.

    QUESTION: Asia?

    MR TONER: Yeah. You, sir, in the middle.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Yeah, I’m just going to ask in a moment President Obama and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are going to attend event at the Arizona memorial. So Abe said that he will not offer apology and the Japanese officials quoted him saying he believed Obama did not offer apology at Hiroshima, so it’s okay for him not to apologize at Pearl Harbor. So the question is how do the U.S. think it’s appropriate, not appropriate to compare these two? And is the U.S. still expecting apology to Pearl Harbor attack from future Japanese leader or are you actually just put an end to this part of history, as Abe said?

    MR TONER: Well, what we’ve long said about these types of – or these events that took place is that since the end of World War II, the U.S. and Japan have forged a very strong alliance and partnership that has, frankly, brought a measure of peace, stability, and prosperity to the Pacific region that’s never been known before. We have built out of the ashes of that terrible conflict a stronger U.S.-Japan relationship and it’s in that spirit that, whether it was the President’s visit to Hiroshima or whether it was – whether it’s Prime Minister Abe’s visit today to the site of Pearl Harbor and the site of the Arizona – the USS Arizona, that we do so in a spirit of looking forward with a mind on what happened, certainly. We remember what happened, but we want to look forward in this relationship and we want to build on this relationship. We want to make it stronger, partly out of – frankly, out of the memory of those who died in that conflict.

    QUESTION: But do you think the past has been settled? Obviously, a year ago, 200 Western historian, many Americans – including, like, Ezra Vogel from Harvard – asked the Japanese Prime Minister Abe to face squarely about history, especially the atrocities in Asia. I mean, so this obviously – and the Chinese foreign minister spokesman also said if Japan does not have a peaceful – peace reconciliation with the China and other victimized country in Asia, Japan can never leave this part of history behind. So what’s your thought on that?

    MR TONER: Well, again, we always --

    QUESTION: Are we putting a period on that or not?

    MR TONER: I mean, we always call for – and it’s not with just respect to Japan, but any country – that we always call for – an historical accounting of past events is always important to moving beyond those events. But look, again, I think the strength of the U.S.-Japanese relationship speaks for itself. We are honored to have the prime minister visit the site of Pearl Harbor, and I’ll leave it there.

    Please. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Yeah. China has sent their first aircraft carrier toward to the South China Sea (inaudible). Are you aware of that? Do you have any comment on that?

    MR TONER: We are aware of this – China’s, as you said, first aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. I don’t have any particular comment. As we often say, we recognize the rights of – and freedoms and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all countries in accordance with international law. As former Admiral Kirby will say, whales and icebergs – or not just for – what’s his thing? Not just for whales and icebergs. Anyway, sorry. I’m blowing it.

    QUESTION: Freedom of navigation is not just for --

    QUESTION: But this --

    MR TONER: Not just for – freedom of navigation is not – thanks, man.

    QUESTION: And – but this --

    QUESTION: But do you --

    MR TONER: Freedom – I want to say it for the record: Freedom of navigation is not just for whales and icebergs. Otherwise I’ll have an email from him later. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Okay. And this operation is close to the Japan and Taiwan. Do you – is it good timing for operation for the freedom of navigation from your perspective? Do you have any concern for the peace and stability in the region?

    MR TONER: Well, look, I – again, I don’t – I don’t believe that this was – this was in international waters, and again, as we often make the case with our own naval vessels sailing – in all seriousness, sailing in those same waters, that it’s freedom of navigation, that they – if they are in international waters, they have the right to sail there. And so this – if it holds true for the United States, it should hold true for China, it should hold true for other countries as well.

    That it? Last question.

    QUESTION: The 2017 national authorization act actually highlight U.S. military exchange with Taiwan. Could you shed some light why this is so this time given the timing? Is that there is more tension between the mainland across strait and Taiwan?

    MR TONER: (Coughs.) Excuse me. I’m not sure – what was the first part of your question?

    QUESTION: So, obviously, the National Defense Authorization Act this year for 2017 highlights the military exchanges between Taiwan and the U.S. So why you think this is a highlight this time given the tension across the strait?

    MR TONER: Well, I don’t know that there’s a – I mean, we’re not seeking to highlight tensions and cross-strait tensions. Our policy with regard to Taiwan is exactly the same, hasn’t changed. We believe in a “one China” policy. There’s been no change to that policy. I don’t have any particular details to add to your question, though, except that we obviously have a strong security relationship with Taiwan.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I just have a last question on --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: Just go back to the – Secretary Kerry’s speech tomorrow. What does he hope to achieve through this speech? Is it just things that he felt he hasn’t had time to say or, I mean, is he hoping that it would be picked up and taken forward through – into a Trump administration, which is unlikely?

    MR TONER: Well, I think that’s always – I mean, that’s always the hope. I think – look, I think he feels it’s his duty in his waning weeks and days as Secretary of State to lay out what he believes is a way towards a peaceful two-state solution in the Middle East. And as we’ve said about other proposals, it’s always important to try to keep the process moving forward, to lay out constructive visions for the future, but also to underscore the fact that we haven’t given up on this and we don’t want the Palestinians or the Israelis to give up on this either.

    QUESTION: And lastly – Mark, last one. Can you take this apology question? I mean, can you collect by --

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure. I’ll get back to you if we have anything to say about it.

    Your last one on South Sudan.

    QUESTION: Thank you so much. So the other resolution last week was an arms embargo on South Sudan at the UN.

    MR TONER: Yep, yep.

    QUESTION: I’m wondering if you can give some insight as to why the U.S. wasn’t able to convince any other Security Council members to vote in favor of it, especially Japan which has peacekeeping operations there. And I guess more broadly, how does that vote reflect on the international community and the Security Council as a whole?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, we did strongly support a Security Council resolution to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan as well as additional targeted sanctions on those who have engaged in actions or policies that threaten the peace, the security, the stability of South Sudan. Obviously, there’s very credible reports of growing violence, refugee outflows of South Sudan, and I think just rising concern over the situation there.

    I think that, unfortunately, certain members of the council made the decision to protect some of the parties to the conflict and send a message that they support the status quo in South Sudan. What we don’t want is that the results of this vote be misinterpreted by the perpetrators of violence in South Sudan. We’re going to continue – we, the United States – to be watching their actions closely. We’ll continue to work and demand their accountability. We’re going to work to stop the flow of weapons, and we’re going to work to help prevent violence against civilians there.

    Thanks, guys.

    (The briefing was concluded at 3:50 p.m.)

    DPB # 219

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - December 21, 2016

Wed, 12/21/2016 - 17:12
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 21, 2016

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAQ


    2:09 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: Afternoon, everybody. We’ll wait for Lesley to get seated – (laughter) – and begin. I don’t have any opening comments, so we’ll hit it over to you, Brad.

    QUESTION: I don’t have a whole lot either, but I did want to ask you about the Kremlin’s remark that U.S.-Russian ties are essentially frozen now --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- or nonexistent, if you will.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Do you have a response to that statement?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know exactly what to make of that comment. Obviously, we don’t agree and have issues with Russia on a variety of issues, but dialogue has not been broken. We talked yesterday about the Secretary and his phone call with Foreign Minister Lavrov after their meeting on Syria in Moscow. The – I think the Defense Department acknowledged earlier today that they too held a de-confliction VTC, as they’ve been doing, with respect to operations in Syria. So certainly on the major issues and the issues that matter most, I mean, there continues to be a dialogue. So I’m just not sure what to make of his comment; that’s certainly not reflective of the way we see communications between Moscow and Washington.

    QUESTION: Given that when there was the period that the United States said it was cutting back bilateral engagement with Russia, you still maintained the de-confliction, is there any other process right now you can point to where there is kind of strong U.S.-Russian engagement? I mean, they’ve excluded you just recently from this latest Syrian effort. Is there something going on otherwise that you can point to?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I would push back on this idea that they’ve excluded us from Syria. Yes, we weren’t in the meeting in Moscow, but it’s not as if we haven’t had communication with them before and then right after that meeting. So there’s been no exclusion of the United States with respect to the issue of Syria. You’re right; DOD keeps the de-confliction channel open, and they just used it again today as I’m given to understand. And then there’s just a range of other issues where dialogue continues with Russia, even on Ukraine and our concerns about where the Minsk agreement is and their implementation of it. So even on an issue like that where clearly we’re not in agreement on everything, we’re still – there’s still dialogue. And then just the normal give and take on a day-to-day basis. We have an embassy there, an ambassador who engages with his counterparts every day and on all manner of issues.

    QUESTION: John --

    QUESTION: Mr. Kirby --

    QUESTION: Just one more, just – and then I’m done. Since we’re on this broader U.S.-Russian relationship and levels of interaction, has there been any recent conversations involving anyone from the State Department on the cyber matter? Whether it was Mr. Painter or someone else, has there been any cyber talks involving the State Department?

    MR KIRBY: By cyber, are you referring to the intel community’s assessment of hacking during the election?

    QUESTION: However you want to categorize it.

    MR KIRBY: I’m not aware of any specific bilateral discussions with respect to cyber issues of late. There was, as we said even back in the fall, communications between this Administration and President Putin about our concerns over indications that we had prior to the election that they were involving themselves in cyber issues with respect to electoral confidence here in the United States. I’m not aware of anything in just recent days or weeks.

    I would remind, though, that the President did order a review. That review’s ongoing. He wants it on his desk before the end of his term of office, and so we’re – that’s what our focus is on – on cyber issues with Russia specifically, that’s the focus area.


    QUESTION: Kirby, can I ask, have you sought clarification from the Russians on what he meant by that statement?

    MR KIRBY: No.

    QUESTION: Nothing?

    MR KIRBY: No.

    QUESTION: And --

    QUESTION: Isn’t it self-evident – he’s not talking about break in the relations. He is speaking about a freeze, about how the contacts became pretty minimal. I mean, the Bilateral Presidential Commission is frozen and almost all high-level contacts are gone. He is not speaking about break; he is speaking about how it’s all one nosedive.

    MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered the question. You have the foreign minister of their country and the Secretary of State of the United States just speaking yesterday, and you have --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR KIRBY: -- let me finish – you have the Defense Department acknowledging that they held another VTC on de-confliction in Syria, what, today, I think. I – as I said at the outset – and maybe you didn’t hear what I said – I said I don’t know what to make of his comments. I think you should ask Mr. Peskov what he means by his comments. What I can tell you is from our perspective, there’s no break in the dialogue and communications are not frozen. That’s not the way we would describe it.

    Now, that doesn’t mean that we agree on everything. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t tension between the United States and Russia on a range of issues. Brad talked about cyber. That’s clearly an issue of tension. Ukraine is an issue of tension. What’s going on in Syria and Aleppo – obviously, an issue of tension. But the dialogue, the communications, haven’t been frozen. That’s not the way we would describe it. You should ask Mr. Peskov what he meant by his comments. I’m not clear I understand what he meant by his comments.

    QUESTION: I’m not trying to argue this point, and I agree with you, and I agree with him. What I’m saying is it’s – I mean, it’s not a big deal, the way I see it, and this is – this is sort of becoming another stumbling block where it’s not even needed. I mean, something seems to be lost in translation, and maybe I’m wrong.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t know. I don’t know if you’re wrong or not. As I said, I don’t know what to make of his comments either. But look, there’s a lot of issues where dialogue and communications between the United States and Russia remains important, and for our part, we remain committed to that dialogue and that communication. Again – and it doesn’t mean that we’re not always going to agree and it doesn’t mean that there’s not going to be tensions. But as far as we’re concerned, communications is – are not frozen and dialogue is still happening. Differences are still being discussed, debated, and there continues to be, obviously, issues of concern. But again, I would point you to Mr. Peskov for a greater clarification of what he meant, because it wasn’t clear to me.

    QUESTION: Could the sanctions that were imposed yesterday have anything to do with that? Do you think that was a reaction?

    MR KIRBY: You’d have to ask Mr. Peskov. I don’t know.

    QUESTION: Well, in your assessment – in your assessment, could the sanctions – I mean, there is a great deal of anti-Russian sentiment that is going around town and so on, and there is added sanctions. Could that, in a way, exacerbated the --

    MR KIRBY: Said, I really couldn’t get inside Mr. Peskov’s head and tell you that. You’d really have to talk to him.

    QUESTION: Okay. Let me just ask you a couple more questions. Can you sort of name a time where the relations between – Russian-U.S. relations have been this bad since the Cold War?

    MR KIRBY: I think we’ve actually had this exchange a while ago.

    QUESTION: We discussed it – right, right.

    MR KIRBY: I’m not a historian to the degree that I can – or to any degree, but certainly to the degree that I can walk you through the history since the end of the Cold War. But obviously, there’s been times since the wall came down that there have been heightened tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation. And there have been times when those tensions have been eased and we have been able to work constructively with Russia on things like climate change and on – like the – on the Iran deal, and up until recently, on Syria. So I just don’t know. I’m not expert enough to tell you that this is sort of the nadir of the relationship between the United States and Russia, and nobody’s looking for that. As tense as things are and can be, we still believe it’s an important bilateral relationship and it’s important to keep working on it.

    QUESTION: And my last one on this: I mean, I am an old-timer and I remember during the height of the Cold War there were still delegations being exchanged in science and other areas. Almost on a daily basis, there were things that are going on. There are – today, they’re just not there, or at least we don’t see them.

    MR KIRBY: I think I kind of touched on this with Brad. I think that’s not necessarily correct, Said. I mean, there are daily interactions. We do have diplomatic relations with Russia. There are exchange programs. There are Russian students here and American students there. I mean, there is – there are ongoing exchanges and interactions between the United States and Russia, between our two governments, and between our two peoples, and that’s healthy. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to agree on everything, and we don’t. But there’s been no break in dialogue, there’s been no break in diplomatic relations, and those things continue.

    Yeah, in the back there, because I’m guessing you’re going to ask about this too, right?

    QUESTION: Well, I’m actually going to ask about Aleppo.

    MR KIRBY: Okay.

    QUESTION: Repeatedly from this podium, when asked about the situation in Aleppo, you have advised people here to turn on their TVs, watch American television. Do you stand by that? Do you still recommend people do that if they want to learn credible reports about what’s happening in Aleppo?

    MR KIRBY: Oh, I think you’re grossly mischaracterizing my comments. I didn’t say that the only way to get informed about Aleppo is to turn on your TV. I was referring to questions about people dancing in the streets. And I didn’t deny – unlike what’s been out there on Twitter, I didn’t deny that there aren’t images of people that were – may have been happy about what happened in Aleppo. I said I hadn’t seen them, which at the time I hadn’t. But I also encouraged people to look at news coverage – the broad swath of news coverage – about what’s going on in Aleppo. And I think you can see that through the imagery that’s being conveyed, mostly by television news coverage but not only, you can see the devastation that’s being wrought on the people of Aleppo and the innocent men, women, and children that are still there, that still are trying to get out, and still haven’t received any humanitarian aid.

    So let’s not oversimplify what I said.

    QUESTION: Well, let me ask you, one of the things that was highlighted on American television was these final messages from people, right? They were tweeting out this is their final message, as soon as the city is liberated we’re going to be killed, and these messages turned out to not be final messages. I mean, not a single one of these people ended up being – being slaughtered. So is it still credible to watch American media?

    MR KIRBY: Boy, talk about a loaded question. So I don’t know, maybe you have specific knowledge about every person that sent a tweet as --

    QUESTION: I have some specifics here if you want to get into that.

    MR KIRBY: No.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: If you’ll let me finish --

    QUESTION: Sure.

    MR KIRBY: -- then we can have this conversation. Maybe you have more knowledge about the individuals tweeting. I don’t. And my goodness, if every single person that thought they were going to die at the hands of the Syrian armed forces with the support of Russia didn’t die, you’re going to – are you claiming that’s a bad thing? I think that’s a pretty darn good thing. So I can’t speak for the fact that some may have survived and some didn’t. But the fact that they believed it at the time and were honestly scared about their lives and the livelihoods of their friends and family seemed pretty legitimate to me based on the social media interaction that I saw. If that didn’t happen to them, then I think that’s terrific, obviously, and we should all be rejoicing in the fact that they were able to survive the onslaught and the siege and the surrender tactics of the regime and its backers.

    Now, as for the American media, yeah, I think – I think the reporting coming out of Aleppo, some of what we’re seeing is pretty darn courageous reporting, pretty brave.

    QUESTION: Well --

    MR KIRBY: And I think it’s pretty important. And I always advocate, whenever anybody asks me about media coverage, to read and digest a broad array of media – not just U.S. media but foreign media as well. Take it all in, take all those sources and make your own judgments. But absolutely, I think it’s important that independent, third-party media coverage of whatever the issue is – we’re talking about Aleppo; it could be anything – is vital. It’s vital to the public so that they can better understand what’s going on. So if you’re asking me if I think that following the U.S. media with respect to what’s going on in Syria is important, the answer is absolutely yes.

    QUESTION: Well, one of the journalists who was – who was quoted and featured across American mainstream media is Bilal Abdul Kareem. Here he is being interviewed. And this individual, we also have some of his other journalism, and here he is with someone – this is what he, in his words, describes as an explosive vest, and this is an interview he did with a fighter in an explosive vest. He reports, “The fighters are now preparing to leave the city. This is an explosive belt. This is what many fighters are wearing because they don’t feel they can trust the regime.” Is this an unbiased, credible source, this person standing next to what looks like a potential suicide bomber?

    MR KIRBY: Look, I’m not going to speak to every single news account that you can sit there and cite, sir. What I can tell you is, as I said, I think the broad swath of coverage about what’s going on in Syria is worth people paying attention to, and people have to decide for themselves what they’re going to find credible and what they’re not going to find credible. But if you’re – if by the tone of your questioning or by the questions themselves you’re trying to imply that what’s going on in Aleppo is more – nothing more than a liberation festival or a parade of proud, happy people that they’re being liberated, I think that is ludicrous and I think it is not backed up by any stretch of normal, independent reporting that we’ve seen coming out of there.

    Now, I’m not going to debate each and every account with you. I’m not going to get into an argument over each and every story that’s been filed. But I think the – I think the travesty that has become Aleppo is clearly and should be squarely put on the regime’s doorstep as well as their backers in Russia and Iran.

    QUESTION: Now, this man is in an explosive vest --

    QUESTION: No one denies there’s carnage --

    QUESTION: This man in an explosive vest --

    MR KIRBY: Steve. Steve.

    QUESTION: He’s not in charge of the American media. Let’s move on.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: Steve.

    QUESTION: Following up on Aleppo, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that the city itself is now firmly in the hands of Assad’s troops and the last rebels have left the city. A UN official there in Syria says the evacuations are still ongoing and cannot confirm that the last fighters have left. What information do you have at this hour as to the state of Aleppo?

    MR KIRBY: It’s unclear to us as well, so I don’t think we can say definitively one way or another. We have been concerned that UN monitors have not been allowed in to do exactly that, to try to see for themselves what the situation is and who might be left and who might still need to go. So that’s a concern to us. So I don’t think we could go any further than the UN on this. Okay?

    Lesley, did you have something?

    QUESTION: No, I was going to ask a question as well whether you can confirm – the British Observatory is saying that --

    QUESTION: I just want to follow up --

    MR KIRBY: I just can’t. I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: -- on the carnage in Aleppo, and it is visible by all accounts. But going – moving forward, because there was also a statement made by the United States and other governments and so on about somehow in the future addressing some war crimes and so on. How would you go about vetting the evidence on these crimes considering that it seems to be – at least to all this imagery, it seems to be coming out from certain sources related or connected or somehow reporting on the opposition. How could you at the end say this is unrefutable evidence that war crimes have been committed on this day and in this fashion?

    MR KIRBY: I think there is a lot of imagery that I think needs to be part and parcel of whatever accountability measures are taken up, and I think the Security Council is actually talking about this as we speak – about pursuing some sort of measure to ensure accountability, which we obviously would support. But I think it’s going to be, as it would be in any such case, an array – a range of evidence and material that would be collected to be able to provide that assessment.

    QUESTION: And on the humanitarian aid, any update on whether humanitarian aid is being --

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, I’ve seen no reports of aid getting in. I mean, as of coming out here, I’m not aware of any aid still getting in to the people of Aleppo. Go ahead, I’ll give you one more.

    QUESTION: Just one?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Wow, that’s generous. John --

    MR KIRBY: Yes, it is – (laughter) – especially since you’ve already had one and there are people here who haven’t had any.

    QUESTION: Okay. All right. I wanted to go back for a second to an interview that Secretary Kerry gave to The Globe, The Boston Globe, in which he admitted that the deal with the Russians over Syria was basically killed here because of the divisions within the Administration. Who was that – what was the agency that killed the deal? Was it the Pentagon?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think that that’s what the Secretary said. I think the Secretary acknowledged what we’ve long acknowledged; there was nothing new in this interview. He’s been very open and candid that even amongst the interagency here in the United States we haven’t all agreed on the way forward in Syria. I’m also not sure why that should be shocking to anybody. Every federal agency has a different view --

    QUESTION: I wasn’t saying it’s shocking.

    MR KIRBY: Every federal agency has a different view when it comes to those, or at least with respect to foreign policy issues, that have purview over foreign policy issues. And there is a robust debate that happens, and then the Commander-in-Chief makes decisions. And that’s the way our system works.

    The Secretary was simply acknowledging what he has long acknowledged, that there was a robust interagency debate about Syria and our policy going forward, and we are where we are. So I don’t read it the way you do, and I’m certainly not going to start today making a habit to read out interagency discussions and who held what position or whose advice and counsel was on a particular side of an issue.

    Back here. Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: Yeah, I’m wondering if you can give an update on the transition. It’s been a month now since the landing team was named. What’s been going on in general? What sort of information are the team members asking for? And then, has the Secretary had an opportunity to either meet with or at least talk on the phone for an extended period with the designee by --

    MR KIRBY: The Secretary’s not met with members of the transition team here. Now, as I said, I’m not going to read out our daily interactions with them. I’m going to still hew to that rule. But I can tell you the Secretary hasn’t met with him. However, and I think you saw this, he did speak to the president-elect’s nominee for secretary of state, Mr. Tillerson. They had a nice chat where the Secretary had an opportunity to congratulate him. And there might be future conversations going forward. We’ll just have to see.

    The transition team that’s here at the – I won’t speak for them, but obviously we continue to provide them information and context and material that they are requesting. And I can tell you that having gone through a transition myself a few years ago, without getting into detail I can tell you that the kinds of things, the kinds of material, the kind of information that they are asking for is very much in keeping with what I’ve seen in at least the one previous presidential transition that I lived through when I was at the Pentagon. It’s, again without speaking to detail, very much in keeping, nothing out of the norm, and very much in line with their need to better understand the bureaucracy of the organization that they’re about to lead.

    QUESTION: Okay. If I could follow up just briefly, the – do you know when that conversation with Mr. Tillerson was and approximately how long – and I assume by phone; is that right?

    MR KIRBY: It was – don’t have the date on it. We did a readout of it. We can get you the date or you can get on our website and find it. I don’t have it handy, but it was just in the last few days.

    QUESTION: Okay. And then regarding the types of things that they’re asking for and that they’re in keeping with transitions past, this administration coming in seems to be very interested in finding out what’s been going on with climate change research. Certainly they did at the Department of Energy. How aggressive have they been in trying to find out and ferret out what the Department of State has been doing on that issue?

    MR KIRBY: Again, I really want to be careful not to speak for them and for what information needs they have. That’s really for them to speak to in terms of what they’re looking for. We have been very, I think, strict about not reading out their information needs, and I don’t want to violate that today.

    I would just – let me put it this way: It is – in my experience, it is normal, it’s expected, it’s not at all unusual for transition team members to want to have a handle on the way the organization is staffed, it’s manned, and it’s resourced, because this is a big bureaucracy. And there’s a lot of people here who work hard every day and do a lot of things that may not be obvious on day one. You have to kind of learn more; you have to spend some time soaking in what people do here. And again, nothing that I’ve seen and nothing that we’re aware of falls outside the lines of what would be a normal – normal inquiries about the institution that they are about to lead and take over. I think that’s really as far as I can go.

    QUESTION: Can we go to Asia?

    MR KIRBY: Can we go to Asia? Sure.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Taiwan terminated diplomatic relation with Sao Tome and Principe. So I wondered, do you see any, like, tension escalating between the two side of the Taiwan Strait?

    MR KIRBY: I would say we’re aware of reports that indicate Sao Tome and Principe have announced that they’ll end diplomatic ties with Taiwan. For our part, we have a deep and abiding interest in cross-state – cross-strait, excuse me, stability, and we believe that dialogue between the two sides has enabled peace, stability, and development in recent years. We urge all concerned parties to engage in a productive dialogue that supports cross-strait stability and to avoid destabilizing moves, but obviously, this is a decision that Sao Tome and Principe have to speak to.

    QUESTION: So do you see the status quo has been changed or not?

    MR KIRBY: Hmm?

    QUESTION: Do you think the status quos has been changed or not?

    MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered the question.

    QUESTION: A follow-up?

    QUESTION: The first time Sao Tome has ever been mentioned --

    QUESTION: Has been mentioned in --

    QUESTION: -- from podium probably ever. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: We have a transmitter, so --

    QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up?

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead, sure.

    QUESTION: Yeah, I just wonder if U.S. has information – this is an effort from China to further isolate Taiwan, or this is independent decision by --

    MR KIRBY: Again, this is a question for Sao Tome and Principe to speak to, not for the United States. I’ve already said what our policy is with respect to cross-strait relations and stability, and that hasn’t changed and this is for them to speak to.


    QUESTION: And for the Taiwan’s president to transit next month in the U.S., do you have any information?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything with respect to travel.

    QUESTION: Not yet?

    MR KIRBY: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Just a quick – one follow-up to yesterday’s question. Did you talk with a lawyer to find out which specific international law you were referring to?

    MR KIRBY: I did not, and I said we can try to get back to you on that. But look, I don’t want to revisit this whole dialogue with you. It’s our property. We got it back. That’s all that matters, and there’s – while I can try to see if there’s some sort of specific regulation here to point you to, it’s really not relevant to the larger discussion, okay?

    QUESTION: Can I --

    QUESTION: Can I just --

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead, go ahead.

    QUESTION: A quick follow-up on that, because I actually looked up into UNCLOS, and under Article 95, under Article 96, which actually specify the sovereign immunity, it applies to warships, applies to ships, but not unmanned vehicles. So I would like to seek your definition of the UUV.

    MR KIRBY: This has nothing to do with sovereign immunity; this is about a piece of property. Look, if you were playing with a remote-controlled car out in your street in front of your house and I walked up and saw it and decided on my own that it represented some sort of threat to cars on the street, and I just picked it up and took it and walked away, what would you call that?

    QUESTION: But I need to identify if that --

    MR KIRBY: No, what would you call that?

    QUESTION: -- belongs to you first.

    MR KIRBY: You would call that theft, and I would have no right to take your toy away, right? Well, we were operating an unmanned, controlled – remotely controlled unmanned vehicle underwater in international waters, doing perfectly legitimate oceanographic research, and the Chinese stole it. They took it. Now, we got it back and the incident is over and we’re grateful that it’s over, and I think we all need to move on. I just really don’t see there – much value here in you and me continuing to debate this. Okay?

    QUESTION: Stay in the region?

    QUESTION: Asia?

    QUESTION: Asia.

    MR KIRBY: Yeah, go ahead, Steve.

    QUESTION: Do you have anything on this security message from the U.S. embassy in Jakarta saying that Indonesian security officials disrupted as late as yesterday multiple terrorist cells and arrested more than a dozen individuals suspected of planning attacks in Indonesia?

    MR KIRBY: I’ve seen those reports, Steve. I’m not – I don’t have any additional information on that and I think I’d point you to Indian authorities for --

    QUESTION: This was a U.S. embassy statement on this. You don’t --

    MR KIRBY: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I misunderstood. I – yeah, I have seen the security message. You’re right. I apologize for that.

    QUESTION: Do you have a readout?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have additional details on it. And again, this would be the kind of thing that we would point you to local authorities for anyway.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR KIRBY: But I apologize, I didn’t hear your question properly.


    IRAQSYRIA">QUESTION: You’ve recently done some things that fall into the category of the right thing to do, and we’ve discussed some of this here. Like, for instance, criticizing the Turkish Government when there are really bad abuses of democratic principles and suspending some munitions sales to Saudi Arabia because of civilian casualties. And I wondered with Christmas upon us and the end of the Administration --

    MR KIRBY: I’m wondering where this is going. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: It’s going like this, okay: In the category of doing the right thing, the Yezidi victims of genocide, wouldn’t they merit such consideration? Nadia Murad, who suffered terrible abuse from ISIS, addressed the Security Council yesterday. And she pleaded with the council to refer ISIS crimes against the Yezidis to the International Criminal Court. Is that something that you might now be willing to consider doing, referring the ISIS genocide against the Yezidis to the International Criminal Court?

    MR KIRBY: First of all, I would say clearly that Ms. Murad has a powerful and she has an eloquent voice. We support her efforts to hold Daesh accountable for their crimes. Like her, we’re appalled by the atrocities that Daesh has perpetuated in Iraq and Syria. And working with our partners at the UN, we are committed to addressing atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere that involve wide-scale killings and injuries, destruction of cultural heritage, forced displacement, forced conversions, and sexual violence toward all Iraqis and Syrians of all backgrounds – including, of course, religious and ethnic minorities such as the Yezidis.

    As we’ve said in the past, there is no doubt that those who are responsible for these acts must be held accountable. There are a number of venues at national and international levels in which accountability can be pursued, and our focus right now is on supporting the ongoing efforts of Iraqi authorities to hold the perpetrators of Daesh’s atrocities accountable. In both Iraq and in Syria, we’re supporting ongoing efforts to document, to preserve, and to analyze evidence of atrocities that could potentially serve a wide range of future transnational justice purposes, including but not limited to criminal justice.

    QUESTION: Is there really such a contradiction between the national prosecution of criminal acts and the international prosecution of them? Couldn’t you do both, support a referral to the International Criminal Court as well as to let the Iraqis do what they choose to do?

    MR KIRBY: Well, as I said, we are in support of the gathering and the analyzing of information that could support one or both. I mean, I think I said that.

    QUESTION: But what if – what she is personally pleading for is that the Security Council refer this case to the International Criminal Court. Couldn’t you do that as well as let the Iraqis do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it?

    MR KIRBY: Again, I think I’ve responded here. I – we support holding Daesh accountable and we want to make sure that there is enough evidentiary material there to back up the potential for both national and international venues, and there are several and many, to look at this. And I just simply won’t get ahead of that process or prognosticate about a specific outcome at the UN.


    QUESTION: Could we stay in the region?

    MR KIRBY: Sure.

    QUESTION: Could you update us on the situation in Mosul? And there are a lot of reports that say the fighting or the effort to liberate Mosul is bogged down. Could you comment on that?

    MR KIRBY: As far as I know, and again, I would refer you to my colleagues at the Defense Department who are obviously tracking this much closer than me, that the Iraqi Security Forces continue to work on the campaign to liberate Mosul. We always said that it was going to be long and that it was potentially going to be slow, that it was going to be very dangerous, and it has proven to be all three of those things. I am not aware of daily battlefield progress, so I’m --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR KIRBY: Again, I’d point you to the Defense Department to speak to that, but I’m also not aware of any reports that it has, quote, “been bogged down.” Have there been times where they’ve made more rapid progress than others? Absolutely, but that’s the way things go on in combat. Every day is not linear and every day you are not going to make the same amount of progress as you made perhaps the day before.

    We have been nothing but candid about the challenges in liberating Mosul and that’s why it’s taken so long to even get to the point where they can move in there. And it’s likely going to continue to be a fight that is going to change from day to day.

    QUESTION: Could you tell us whether Mr. Brett McGurk is in Iraq at the present time because --

    MR KIRBY: I don’t have an update on Brett’s --

    QUESTION: Because he was supposed to brief us last week and he didn’t, so --

    MR KIRBY: Well, he didn’t --

    QUESTION: -- on the situation.

    MR KIRBY: He didn’t come to the podium because --

    QUESTION: Right. I understand --

    MR KIRBY: -- Secretary Kerry came to the podium.

    QUESTION: -- because the Secretary – right, right.

    MR KIRBY: And the purpose of that was the Rewards for Justice program. He did update the White House press corps last week on progress in the counter-ISIL campaign. I’m not aware of his travel right now.

    Goyal, go ahead.

    QUESTION: India. Two questions, sir. One, if U.S. is following the black market money campaign by Prime Minister Modi in India to clean up the corrupt system in India, and if U.S. is supporting India?

    MR KIRBY: We’ve spoken about this one, Goyal, you and I. This is an internal matter for Indian authorities to speak to.

    QUESTION: And second, if you can – year in review of U.S.-India relations and what is the future under the new administration and what advice do you think --

    MR KIRBY: I think we’ve talked about this one too.

    QUESTION: (Laughter.) Well, what advice do you think the Secretary will give to the upcoming --

    MR KIRBY: I am not going to use the podium to talk about advice that Secretary Kerry may give to his successor. We obviously believe in the strength of our bilateral relationship with India. It is vital and important on so many different levels and we will certainly do all that’s required of us by the transition team to provide them the context and information about that relationship with India for them to make their own decisions. And I simply wouldn’t predict or get ahead of how the next administration is going to interact with India. But I think, obviously, it goes without saying that because India is such an important partner and such an important power that I see no diminution in the strong U.S.-India bilateral relations that we’ve enjoyed to date.

    QUESTION: But let me just quickly --

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- on this black market --

    MR KIRBY: You said you only had two.

    QUESTION: I’m sorry. No, because you didn’t answer about the black market money.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think you are sorry. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: What I’m asking you is, sir, that is other relations between U.S.-India affected because of the black market money, and number two, under the table, the transitions are going on between the --

    MR KIRBY: Well, look, I think the Indian Government has spoken to this. I think that’s where comment is appropriate on this. And again, I also think I’ve made clear the strength of our bilateral relations and the fact that it exists on many, many levels. And I think I’d just leave it at that.

    QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

    MR KIRBY: Ma’am.

    QUESTION: I have a few for you. So we’re looking at data that shows there’s been a gradual increase of terror attacks since the beginning of the Obama Administration, specifically a spike – 2013, ’14, and ’15. What does the Administration attribute that to, if anything?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I haven’t seen that data so I don’t – I mean, I’m not disputing it, I just haven’t seen it, so I can’t speak to the numbers one way or the other. What I can tell you is that certainly over the last two years with the growth of Daesh – ISIL, if you will – in the region, that – and their inertia at the beginning here when they first moved into Mosul and the attraction that they posed to foreign fighters and people that were susceptible to self-radicalization has led to inspired attacks on Western targets, soft targets. We may be seeing exactly that in what happened in Berlin. Of course, the investigation is still ongoing, but it certainly bears all the hallmarks of at the very least an ISIL-inspired attack.

    So while I haven’t seen the data and can’t confirm it, I’m certainly not going to refute the notion that there continues to be very lethal, very dangerous, and very real threats from terrorist networks around the world – not just in Western countries but around the world, which is why the United States did fashion and lead a 67-member coalition to counter Daesh and why that coalition has had some success.

    Now, have we completely eliminated ISIL from the face of the Earth? No, but they are a radically different group now than they were two years ago, under much more pressure, and we knew even before we started to see that pressure having an effect on them as an organization that they were also going to try to branch out, to metastasize, with cells outside Iraq and Syria, and to inspire foreign fighters and to inspire individuals to conduct attacks on their own.

    So we certainly understand real – very well the real threats that terrorism poses, which is again why we continue to work closely not only inside the U.S. Government but with our allies, partners, and friends around the world to beat back this threat. But look, I’m not going to dispute that it’s not still a very real, very dangerous threat.

    QUESTION: Okay. And then a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban says they are ready for peace talks with the U.S. if their demands are met. Do you have any reaction to that?

    MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments either, but I would tell you that nothing has changed about our view that what we support is an Afghan-led reconciliation process. We believe that’s the right approach. We’ve always believed that that’s the right approach. President Ghani, more importantly, also believes in the criticality of that approach, and that’s where our support will go to.

    QUESTION: And if I can move it to Caitlan Coleman and her situation, what agency is leading that effort? What’s being done for her family? Have there been any talks about trading Gitmo detainees as we did with Sergeant Bergdahl?

    MR KIRBY: A couple of things. We obviously continue to be very focused on Caitlan’s case, as we are on others, other American citizens that are being held hostage overseas. We remain in close touch with her family. We remain very focused across the interagency – not any one agency but all of us with a purview in this – I’m sorry, with a stake in this – remain very focused on seeing her and her family returned safely. And I think you can understand, or at least I hope you can understand, that it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to go into the details of that work and that effort. Okay?

    Said, I’ve gotten you a million times. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: I’ve got to ask you --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: But I have other topics, John.

    MR KIRBY: I know, I know.

    QUESTION: I want to talk about the Palestinian issue and Yemen.

    MR KIRBY: And we’ll get to you. We’ll get to you.

    QUESTION: Okay, take your time.

    MR KIRBY: I’m just moving it around a little bit.

    QUESTION: I’ll be the last. Give me the last question.

    MR KIRBY: I mean, it’s not like – well, I didn’t say you’d be the last question. I’ll come back to you.

    QUESTION: I don’t care where I get --

    QUESTION: On Japan, I was wondering if you have a statement on the land return in Okinawa?

    MR KIRBY: The land return in Okinawa. I probably do, but you’re going to have to give me a second. So we’re pleased to confirm the land return of a major portion of the Northern Training Area in two handover ceremonies with Ambassador Kennedy, one involving Prime Minister Abe in Tokyo on the 21st, and another involving Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga in Okinawa on the 22nd. The nearly 10,000-acre northern training area return is the single largest land return to the Japanese Government since Okinawa’s reversion in 1972. This return reduces the amount of land utilized by the United States on Okinawa by close to 20 percent while ensuring our capability to fulfill our security treaty commitments. The return exemplifies the cooperative nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance and advances our commitment to the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan.

    Said, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Sorry. In terms of the timing of the return, was that done in light of the --

    MR KIRBY: I tried, man.

    QUESTION: -- in light of the court decision?

    MR KIRBY: I’m sorry?

    QUESTION: Was that done in light of the court decision earlier this week?

    MR KIRBY: This, as I understand, was very – was a long-planned return.

    QUESTION: I’m guessing that the one on the 22nd hasn’t happened yet.

    MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t know. They are well ahead of us.

    QUESTION: It’s 3:00 a.m. there or 2:00 a.m. there in Japan.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t know. If it hasn’t, it’s going --

    QUESTION: A midnight handover?

    MR KIRBY: If it hasn’t, it’s going to.

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR KIRBY: Go ahead, Said.

    QUESTION: Very quickly – I know you probably don’t comment on visa issuance and so on, but --

    MR KIRBY: That’s right, I don’t. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: -- a young Palestinian girl – so let me ask it --

    MR KIRBY: So are you sure you want to throw this one out there?

    QUESTION: Let me ask it – yeah, exactly. I mean, let me ask it anyway. So a young Palestinian girl – 15-year-old Ahed Tamimi – was slated to be part of the No Child Behind Bars Living Resistance speaking tour that begins on the 15th and she was denied a visa. Is that –because the Israelis have expressed, like, displeasure with someone like her touring the United States and speaking about the occupation – she’s from Hebron. Could that be the reason? Could it be that Israel has requested that such a person should not be issued a visa? (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: As you know, we cannot discuss individual visa cases. In general, all visa applications are adjudicated on a case-by-case basis in accordance of the requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act and other applicable laws. Do you have another question?

    All right.

    QUESTION: That’s it.

    MR KIRBY: All right, we’ve got to go. Thanks, guys.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:51 p.m.)


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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing - December 20, 2016

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 18:06
John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 20, 2016

Index for Today's Briefing
  • DRC
  • IRAN


    2:05 p.m. EST

    MR KIRBY: Hey, everybody. How are you all doing today?

    QUESTION: Good.

    MR KIRBY: Okay, a few things at the top – first on Macedonia. We are concerned about heightened political tensions in Macedonia following the December 11th parliamentary elections, and we condemn the inflammatory rhetoric from some political leaders which gives license to attacks on democratic institutions and ambassadors accredited to Macedonia. We call on political leaders to stop unwarranted attacks, respect the democratic process, and allow the formation of a credible, stable government committed to the rule of law, accountability, and fundamental freedoms. The United States stands ready to assist such a government to achieve Macedonia’s longstanding goal of Euro-Atlantic integration.

    On eastern Ukraine, the United States is deeply concerned with the recent spike of violence in eastern Ukraine. Over just the last two days, six Ukrainian service members have been killed and 33 wounded in a Russian separatist attempt to seize additional Ukrainian territory – the highest two-day casualty figure that we’ve seen since June of 2015. This is a clear violation of Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements. And once again, we call on Russia to exercise its considerable influence over the separatists to put a stop to the violence and to allow OSCE monitors full and unfettered access. We strongly support the Trilateral Contact Group’s efforts to negotiate a ceasefire recommitment that will allow Ukrainians on both sides of the line of contact, of course, to live more safe, more secure, and especially at this time of the holidays, we think a propitious time to try to seek that kind of a ceasefire.

    On the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States is greatly disappointed by President Kabila’s failure to organize elections and to state publicly that he will not run again or seek to change the constitution. We continue to believe that an inclusive political agreement is needed to stave off additional violence and instability. We urge both the government and the opposition to participate fully and in good faith with the DRC’s Conference of Catholic Bishops when discussions resume tomorrow. That’s the 21st. The United States condemns the violence that occurred in Kinshasa and other parts of the DRC last night, and again today. We appeal to all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from statements or actions that could incite further violence. President Kabila and leaders of government security forces must ensure that personnel under their command respect the rights of Congolese citizens to assemble peacefully and to express their opinions without fear of retaliation, retribution, or arbitrary arrest.

    With that, Brad.

    QUESTION: I just wanted to ask firstly, given the variety of terror and other attacks in Germany and in the Middle East, do you have any information about any American citizens being affected in any of these?

    MR KIRBY: Right now we know of no American citizens that were affected by the presumed terrorist attack in Berlin or by the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara. We are – in the former case we’re, as you might expect, in constant touch with German authorities. So we’ll keep watching this, but we know of no Americans that were involved or injured or killed.

    QUESTION: And do you believe that applies as well to – I didn’t ask yesterday, but I should have – Jordan and Yemen as well over the weekend?

    MR KIRBY: Don’t have any specific information about Americans caught up in that attack either – I’m sorry, both, Yemen or Jordan. But again, we’re in touch and we’re monitoring as best we can.

    QUESTION: And then I just wanted to ask about the Moscow talks on Syria today, whether you’ve been in touch with anyone – you, the State Department – and have any readout or assessment of what was agreed in this declaration.

    MR KIRBY: Well, as you know, we weren’t a party to the talks, but Secretary Kerry did speak today to both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, who were there. And they provided the Secretary a sense of how the discussions went. I think – if you haven’t seen it, we can make sure you get it – there was a joint statement issued by all three countries at the end of the discussion, and I think they did a press conference as well. And as I said yesterday, the Secretary certainly welcomes any effort to try to get a ceasefire in Syria that can actually have meaningful results, particularly for those people that remain in Aleppo, as well as the resumption of political talks. And when he talked to both foreign ministers, he again stressed the need to try to get those political talks back on track as soon as possible.

    QUESTION: Is it your understanding that this declaration – I saw the talk about an expanded ceasefire – actually provides a pathway, a viable pathway toward the resumption of political talks?

    MR KIRBY: I think it’s too soon to know right now, Brad. I mean, that’s obviously what we’d all like to see, that – a meaningful ceasefire expanded – I’m assuming, the way I read that, was geographically larger than just Aleppo. That’s the way I read it.

    QUESTION: That’s how I read it, too.

    MR KIRBY: And if that’s the case, and it can lead to a sense of calm enough in Syria that political talks can resume, then that would be great and that’s what we’d like to see. I just think, given that the meeting just broke up today and given the fact that we have seen repeated promises to appropriately influence the Assad regime in the right way on the cessations of hostilities and seen those fail, I think we all – we just – we really need to await and ascertain the results over the next coming days.


    QUESTION: Can you clarify where Mr. Kerry’s initiative – where this leaves Mr. Kerry’s initiative? Is he sort of out of the picture now in terms of the – I know he’s talked to them, but he hasn’t – he’s not involved in the negotiations or the declaration or anything like that. So is he going to continue in some other way, or just stand back and see if they can get something done?

    MR KIRBY: You know Secretary Kerry pretty well, Barbara. I think it’s safe to assume that he’s --

    QUESTION: Well, it’s been him and Lavrov in the room until now, and now it’s not. So he doesn’t --

    MR KIRBY: I think you can safely assume that he’s going to stay 100 percent engaged on this for the entire time that he’s got left in office. And --

    QUESTION: They don’t seem to want him to be involved.

    MR KIRBY: Well, they can speak for who they want involved or not. I mean, we recognize that we weren’t invited, that this was between Russia, Turkey, and Iran. I think the Secretary would be the first to tell you that if not having us in the room can lead to finally a cessation of hostilities that can actually matter over a period of time and over a greater geographical area than what we’ve seen in the past, that can actually get humanitarian aid to people and can resume political talks, the Secretary is perfectly fine with him not being in the room if that’s the result of this. But it doesn’t mean he’s going to disengage or that the International Syria Support Group goes away or the other multilateral efforts that the United States has been leading are going to stop.

    There have – almost from the outset of this entire process – been many conversations going on at once, and not all of them have we been a party to, even going back a year and a half, two years. So again, if the results announced – if the discussions that they had today in Moscow can lead to real, practical effects, that’s all to the good. That’s for the betterment of the Syrian people and regional stability, and we would welcome that.

    QUESTION: Does it – did Mr. Kerry get a sense in his talks whether they plan to make this part of or liaise with the ISSG or with the UN, what Staffan de Mistura was talking about?

    MR KIRBY: I don’t know – again, we weren’t there, so I don’t want to speak for the participants. I don’t – I didn’t get the impression from reading their joint statement that they saw this as something part and parcel to normal ISSG discussions, and the ISSG still exists. It’s been codified by a UN Security Council resolution.

    But again, that doesn’t – nothing inside that resolution or inside that architecture precludes other multilateral efforts from happening, whether or not one particular nation is a part of it. We just have to – as I said to Brad, we just have to kind of see where this goes and where it leads. And if it can get us to a better outcome than the ISSG has been able to produce, that’s okay.

    QUESTION: So Mr. Kerry doesn’t see it as a snub?

    MR KIRBY: No, the Secretary doesn’t see this as a snub at all. He sees it as another multilateral effort to try to get a lasting peace in Syria, and he welcomes any progress towards that. And as I said, he spoke to both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu right at the conclusion of it, so they provided him a readout of the discussion. They gave him a sense of what the tone and tenor was in the room, and he appreciated being able to get that insight. So I mean, there’s still – I mean, we’re still very much involved in the conversation trying to lead to the same – to the same end.


    QUESTION: But is the U.S. not frustrated that it – especially with its NATO ally Turkey – that it appears to have been left out of this whole process?

    MR KIRBY: Well --

    QUESTION: And at least last week – I know you later said that the U.S. had been aware that this was going on, but it seemed as if on the specifics the U.S. wasn’t quite up to speed on what was happening between Turkey and Russia.

    MR KIRBY: What we’re frustrated by, June, is the situation on the ground – that’s the most frustrating issue – and the fact that we still haven’t gotten humanitarian aid delivered to so many people in need, that there are still people in Aleppo who are trying to get out and can’t or don’t feel that they can do it safely, and that we still don’t have a resumption of political talks. That’s the frustration, not the degree to which two or three other nations are getting together without the United States at the table.

    As I said, if you go back and look – I mean, obviously, this one came with a big joint statement and a press announcement. I get that. But there have – since the outset of international efforts to try to get a better outcome in Syria, there have been smaller multilateral gatherings at which the United States wasn’t represented. The two first rounds of political talks, proximity talks between the opposition and the regime, were led by Staffan de Mistura and the United States wasn’t there. When – back in December, a year ago – Saudi Arabia hosted the first opposition meeting to kind of – that was designed to get them centered around a core set of objectives and priorities, the United States – we had an observer there but we weren’t at the table there.

    QUESTION: There was close coordination.

    MR KIRBY: We certainly knew what was going on. And look, I mean, I don’t know the degree to which we were consulted in terms of the agenda for today. I don’t suspect that we were in any great detail. But the Secretary did get direct readouts from both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, so it’s not like it was done in secret. The Secretary doesn’t take it as a snub. Again, he welcomes any kind of effort, whether it’s bilateral or multilateral, that can get us to a better outcome.

    QUESTION: More broadly, I mean, what would you say to criticism or analysis that would kind of show this as a marker of the U.S.’s influence in the Middle East appearing to decline and what that might mean for stability in the region or efforts to kind of bring about or protect U.S. interests, especially considering your close ally, Israel, is there as well?

    MR KIRBY: I think there’s, obviously, two parts to that. First of all, there’s no diminution of U.S. leadership and influence in the Middle East, quite the contrary. I mean, we are as engaged as ever, if not more so, in Middle East affairs. And obviously, Syria is the most crucial, most urgent issue that we all face, without question. But the United States still remains very heavily engaged with our allies and partners and friends in the region on a range of concerns. And the U.S. still has a robust military presence there; the U.S. still has a robust diplomatic presence there. And we are very heavily involved in affairs in the Middle East, and I don't see that changing.

    But to your first question about what does this mean in terms of the perceptions, I – we would obviously refute any notion that the fact that we weren’t at this one meeting is somehow a harbinger or a litmus test for U.S. influence and leadership there or anywhere else around the world. The notion out there that U.S. leadership and influence is waning is simply not supported – and I don’t just mean in the Middle East; I mean around the world – is simply not supported by the facts. We are, in fact, more engaged, more involved, and our leadership is more sought after now than ever before, all around the world.

    Now, I recognize that, as we’ve gone through a very difficult election season here in the United States, that there has been a narrative out there, and some critics will say that others – other foreign leaders have doubted our commitments in certain respects. I can’t dispute that there have been some foreign leaders that have either privately or publicly expressed those concerns. But they’re not borne out by the simple basic facts of our engagement around the world.

    QUESTION: So John, going forward on this very issue, I mean on the Aleppo, what are the practical steps that the U.S. will be taking in the next days, in the next week and so on, first to see that humanitarian aid gets in and, second, to move forward on whatever outcome as a result of the meetings between the Iranians and the Russians and the Turks and so on?

    MR KIRBY: Well, I don't have specific agenda items to announce you to today in terms of activity, but we’re obviously going to say very engaged on this, from a diplomatic perspective, to continue to try to see a meaningful ceasefire in Aleppo and aid get in. Those are the two critical needs right now, because we still have people in Aleppo that can’t get out and those that are stuck can’t get the food, water, and medicine that they need. So we’re still going to stay very, very engaged on that.

    And again, if – back to Brad’s line of questioning, if this troika arrangement, I think as they called it, can lead to that – to those outcomes, that’s all to the better. And if it can lead to those outcomes today or tomorrow, that would be terrific, and we’d love to see that.

    QUESTION: Would that be just --

    QUESTION: Can I just --

    QUESTION: I have a couple of follow-ups. Will that – will your effort focus on humanitarian aid or is it to push forward the political agenda? Because I think you responded yesterday to the proposition that maybe talks will resume on February 8th, that de Mistura announced that talks may resume on February 8th.

    QUESTION: Start.

    QUESTION: So will you be – huh?

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: Is it – I thought that was --

    MR KIRBY: He’s correcting your verb because the previous two versions did not end successfully. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: You said presume. I said talks would start. (Laughter.)

    MR KIRBY: So --

    QUESTION: Would resume, yeah, right. Would start, yeah.

    MR KIRBY: -- but look, I mean, the – I don’t – not to sound glib, okay, but the answer to your question is yes. In other words, the Secretary would like to see – and we all would like to see, and I think even in the joint statement that you saw today, those three countries said they would like to see – a ceasefire immediately and the urgent delivery of humanitarian aid. I think we all would like to see that now. Also – and the Secretary spoke to this with you guys last week – we also want to see the political talks get on track as soon as possible, and as soon as possible is literally as soon as possible.

    Now yesterday, we talked about the fact that Staffan de Mistura said he thinks he could maybe get them going early February, and I said that, obviously, we would look forward to that in hopes that it would succeed. I also saw in the joint statement today that Russia, Turkey, and Iran spoke about getting the political talks done in Kazakhstan, but there was no mention – I don't think; I don’t remember any mention – of a date. I think we’re less worried about location and more concerned about the fact that we get the opposition and the regime to sit down. And we obviously still, that said – still want this to be under the auspices of the UN. We still believe that that’s the right vehicle – Staffan de Mistura and his team – that they’re the right ones to guide these discussions.

    QUESTION: Just can I – just to clarify my line of questioning earlier, Mr. Kerry has been working around the clock, around the globe for a year on this topic. He’s had more than 50 meetings with Mr. Lavrov about it. And now we’ve got a situation where his interlocutor, Russia, and his ally, Turkey, are saying, we want to – we don’t want you to be involved in trying to find a solution; we think we can do a better job. Does he not at least feel the U.S. is being sidelined, if not excluded, from what was something the U.S. was leading on?

    MR KIRBY: We are not excluded. We are not being sidelined.

    QUESTION: Well, a readout --

    MR KIRBY: And we are ---

    QUESTION: -- is quite different from his role before.

    MR KIRBY: And we are still leading in this effort, Barbara. I can’t speak for the decisions of the leaders of those three countries who decided to sit down and have these discussions in Moscow, but we’re not going to turn up our nose to any effort to try to get to a better outcome in Syria. And if that effort, by design or by accident, isn’t going to include us, but it can lead to a better result, then obviously we would support that.

    I just – I mean, I understand the basis of the question. As I looked at the joint statement, I saw a lot of similarities in the language there to the kinds of things that we, too, crafted time and time and time again. And that’s a key point here. It’s not like these same aspirations haven’t been voiced. In fact, if you look at that joint statement, it reads very similar – and maybe this is totally appropriate, it reads very similar to the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which laid out the goals of a unified, pluralistic, nonsectarian Syria. In fact, in one of the lines in this statement, it says very clearly there is no military solution and only and political one. Where have you seen that language before? So there’s a lot of borrowing in that joint statement from ideas that the United States has led and pushed from the outset. So again --

    QUESTION: This is torture.

    MR KIRBY: What? What is?

    QUESTION: I think – I mean, the sense is that for a long time, you weren’t doing the military stuff, and your point was that you were leading on the diplomacy or on to the getting the political track, but now you’re not involved in the military, you’re not shaping the situation on the ground so much, and now you’re not even doing the talks. And I think that’s why the questions are: What are you actually leading on now? Not you laid the groundwork for some statement that may or may not have any reflection on reality in three hours.

    MR KIRBY: Well, you just answered your own question, Brad. And we have to see --

    QUESTION: So where’s the leadership now?

    MR KIRBY: We have to see where this goes. The – well, okay, Brad. It’s a fair question, but the ISSG still exists; the UN Security Council resolution which codified the ISSG still exists; the multilateral format that the United States has tried to put together still exists, although we’re obviously not in active discussions in Geneva right now. U.S. support for Staffan de Mistura and his efforts still exist. Our bilateral and multilateral relationships with allies and partners in the region who also have control – or I shouldn’t say, “control,” that’s not fair – influence on opposition groups – that all still exists. We are still very actively engaged in this larger, broader effort as a – this umbrella effort.

    Now, as a part of that, yes, three nations decided to get together in Moscow and talk about a way forward. We’re not going to turn up our nose at that. And if it can produce the results – the results that haven’t been achieved – then I think you and I can have a discussion about whether U.S. leadership mattered or not. But we have seen nothing but a joint statement so far, and we certainly haven’t seen any change on the ground in Syria or Aleppo. So I think it’s just back to my answer to you. I think it’s too soon to say whether this is going to be successful, and it’s way too soon to say that this has some sort of – makes some sort of broad statement about U.S. leadership.

    QUESTION: That’s totally viable. And you’re right – this has not done anything on the ground, as of this point. But right now, what – the U.S. leadership isn’t taking a military dimension, isn’t taking really a political dimension, because there is no political discussion, and isn’t taking a diplomatic dimension. Right now, this leadership that you’re speaking of is all past tense. Is that not true?

    MR KIRBY: I would disagree. Certainly, we --

    QUESTION: But what are you doing now to lead --

    MR KIRBY: We are --

    QUESTION: -- to change the situation on the ground?

    MR KIRBY: We’re still very active on the diplomatic front, Brad. I mean, no, we weren’t present at these discussions in Moscow, but that doesn’t mean that American diplomacy is now void and invalid and not a part of the larger, broader effort. It’s not like we aren’t still engaged in trying to get a better outcome. The Secretary was in Riyadh over the weekend. Now, largely that was to talk about Yemen, but he certainly used that opportunity to talk to our partners in the region about Syria.

    QUESTION: But doesn’t it say something that these three nations think they can get together and shape the situation on the ground without having you in the room? For many years, they would never even have thought that they could get some sort of broader arrangement or change of the situation on the ground without, one, having you in the talks or two, pretty much hope – piggybacking off you carrying the talks. Now they don’t even think they need you.

    MR KIRBY: I don’t think that – I don’t think the Secretary got the sense in his discussions today that there – that they don’t feel like they need the United States. I think, certainly in the case of Turkey, they certainly appreciate the U.S. role here going forward. So I think, again, too soon to say what the results are here. I don’t think it’s – now’s the time to make broad pronouncements about U.S. influence one way or the other with respect to the agreement that was released today. It is right now just on paper. We need to see how it plays out.

    But U.S. leadership on the diplomatic front, though we would be the first to admit have yet to see real success, it still exists, is still going to be the locus of our efforts, and we believe can still have a positive impact. And we’re going to stay engaged on this for the entire time that we’re still around.

    QUESTION: John, on --

    QUESTION: I have one last one, just on the political talks. You’ve put a lot of eggs into these talks happening, almost presenting it as kind of a – not a panacea, but this is the ultimate goal. But the talks in themselves – I mean, what would you hope to accomplish in political talks between a rebellion that’s essentially been ceding and ceding and ceding territory – getting crushed – and a government that is on the ascendency and backed by two powerful foreign militaries? It would seem unrealistic to think that this diplomatic whatever – political solution – would – that this country would will – this government would will itself or negotiate itself out of existence --

    MR KIRBY: Sure. Sure.

    QUESTION: -- just because they’re sitting in a room with the people they’ve been crushing.

    MR KIRBY: I think we know – when – more than a year ago, when the Assad regime was very much under significant threat by the opposition and the opposition was clearly gaining a lot of ground on them, we got asked similar questions: Why would anybody sit down and talk when it’s going so lopsided? What’s in it for the regime to sit down when they – when they’re losing and what’s in it for the opposition to sit down when they’re winning? And then now we’re in a situation where, obviously, the Assad regime has gained ground. And you’re right. I mean, the opposition is under greater pressure now thanks to Russia’s military involvement, no question about it, and the same question, which is a fair one, is why – what would be the motivation now for either side to sit down when one is clearly having a weaker hand.

    And the answer is that – well, there’s a couple of parts of it. One, the international community, including Russia, if you look at that joint statement today and the UN Security Council resolution that they also signed, wants to see a political solution and a transition there that expresses and represents the voice of the Syrian people. Foreign Minister Lavrov quotes the communiques all the time about that being the outcome.

    Number two, if there aren’t political talks, if there isn’t a political transition devised and put into place, the war goes on, because while the opposition certainly doesn’t have the upper hand that it once had, they haven’t expressed a willingness to just give up and surrender. And so without the vehicle of sitting down with the regime and working through some political transition, they’ll continue to fight and this war won’t end. And one would hope – and I know hope isn’t obviously a great strategy, but certainly one would hope that the regime and its backers would also see that a continuation of the civil war, continued bloodletting is not in the long-term interest of the nation of Syria and certainly not the Syrian people.

    QUESTION: I just want to follow up on a point that Lavrov said today. He basically criticized the United States and he said that you guys did not implement your part of an agreed-upon – or some agreements that you have reached together, that (inaudible) --

    MR KIRBY: I saw those comments that said --

    QUESTION: Can you comment on that?

    MR KIRBY: Foreign Minister Lavrov has said that many, many times. We obviously took very seriously all our commitments to the communiques and to the resolution. The particular sticking point that he continues to raise is the separation of --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR KIRBY: -- moderate opposition from al-Nusrah. We have talked about this ad nauseam. It is not as if we didn’t make every effort to try to convince opposition groups to remove themselves from areas where we knew al-Nusrah was, but we – you can’t account for every single nose and head, and some fighters decided for whatever purposes that they were going to either align themselves philosophically or even physically with al-Nusrah, or that they weren’t going to leave areas where al-Nusrah was present. It doesn’t mean that we didn’t work diligently at that.

    But I don’t think it would be useful or constructive to get into a litany of who didn’t meet their commitments, because I think it’s pretty obvious to see, time and time and time again, that Russia did not meet their commitments with respect to using their influence – their considerable influence – on the Assad regime to stop the bombing, stop the gassing, allow aid to get in, and to help us create the conditions for political talks.

    Now, if you read that joint statement today and if they’re able to meet everything they say that they’ll do, then so much the better, then maybe we can actually see results. But we have seen in the past where they have not met their own stated commitments. So I don’t think now is the time, while people are still dying in Aleppo, starving to death and still being bombed, now – I don’t think now is the time to point fingers back and forth across the diplomatic table about who did or who didn’t meet every one of their commitments. Now is the time to try to put what they’ve said they promised they would do and put it into action and see if we can stop the bloodshed. That’s what everybody needs to focus on right now.

    QUESTION: Related to Aleppo but a different dimension of it, Iraq --

    QUESTION: This is --

    QUESTION: This is Aleppo.

    QUESTION: Oh, okay.

    QUESTION: Different dimension.

    MR KIRBY: I thought we were still on Aleppo. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Okay. Iraq’s foreign minister has said the Iraqi Shiite militias involved in fighting in Aleppo are not doing so – they don’t have the permission of the Iraqi Government, even though these same militias are now supposed to fall under the authority of Baghdad. Are you concerned that Iran is supporting some of these militias that are outside of Iraqi Government control for various purposes, including to bolster its influence in Iraq?

    MR KIRBY: There’s a couple of things. I can’t confirm the veracity of the foreign minister’s comments in terms of the presence of Iraqi militia that – and to whom they pledge loyalty or fealty. So I’m not going to – I can’t address the specific comment that you’re citing there because I just am not in a position to confirm it.

    That said, we know that there are Iranian-backed fighters in Syria. We’ve talked about that. And we’ve talked about the unhelpful role that they have been playing in supporting the Assad regime through advice, through some combat operations, certainly through arms and assistance. And we have said before we want the regime and its backers, which includes Iran, to stop that kind of activity and to try to get us to a point where we can achieve a meaningful ceasefire.

    So I can’t, again, speak to the specifics of his charge, but we do know that Iran obviously has fighters in Syria that they’re supporting.

    QUESTION: What – U.S. officials from the – President Obama on down, including yourself, have criticized Iran for its role in Aleppo and Syria generally. What most bothers you about what the Iranians are doing? Is it having these foreign – their bringing these Shiite fighters in from all – from around the world?

    MR KIRBY: They – it’s the – it’s – well, I