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Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - April 27, 2017

Thu, 04/27/2017 - 16:39
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 27, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • UK
  • DPRK
  • DPRK
  • DPRK
  • IRAN


    1:42 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Hey, everyone. Happy Thursday.

    QUESTION: Hello, Mark.

    MR TONER: Hello. A couple things at the top, actually. First of all, tomorrow, at the UN – the Secretary’s traveling there. He’s going to chair a special meeting of the UN Security Council with foreign ministers on the denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. I’ll also just try to walk you through what we know about the Secretary’s schedule as of now. He’s going to take the opportunity to have bilateral meetings with some of his counterparts. As is always the case, the Secretary’s schedule is still evolving, but I can speak to some certainty as to the meetings that he will hold on the margins.

    Prior to the Security Council meeting in the morning, Secretary Tillerson will meet with the Republic of Korea’s foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. The Secretary and his counterparts – this will be a trilateral meeting – the Secretary and his counterparts will focus on our joint response to North Korea.

    At 10:00 a.m., as I noted, he will chair the Security Council ministerial session on the D.P.R.K. The Secretary and foreign ministers will discuss strengthening international resolve and actions to counter the threats that North Korea poses to international peace and security through its nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction.

    Following the Security Council session, the Secretary will host a lunch for the foreign minister members of the Security Council and the foreign minister of the Republic of Korea.

    Now, Secretary Tillerson will meet with Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China on the margins of the UNSC special ministerial session, and that will also be focused on addressing North Korea’s continued threat to the region and other issues of bilateral and regional importance.

    The Secretary will also discuss Chinese – Chinese, excuse me – China’s unique leverage over Kim Jong-un’s regime and ask Beijing to use their influence to convince or compel North Korea to rethink its strategic calculus. Secretary Tillerson will also note that the United States seeks stability and the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and remains open to negotiations towards that goal – while remaining prepared, of course, to defend ourselves and our allies.

    Lastly, the Secretary – well, not lastly – the Secretary will then proceed to a meeting with the U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Again, in addition to North Korea, they’ll also discuss Syria, Northern Ireland, and other regional and global issues of mutual concern.

    Secretary Tillerson will also meet with the foreign minister of Kazakhstan to discuss Kazakhstan’s growing leadership in regional and global issues as well as nonproliferation. And then later in the afternoon, the Secretary will meet with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, where they’ll discuss the importance of continued strong U.S.-UN cooperation on the full range of critical international challenges.

    So that’s just an update and gives you a sense of the schedule for the Secretary tomorrow.

    I did want to note, as an important aside, I think, to this week, which has been very focused on North Korea’s continued provocative behavior in the region and the concerns over its nuclear program, but I also want to acknowledge another North Korea focus to this week, which is North Korea Freedom Week.

    North Korea Freedom Week is an annual event held to promote the freedom, human rights, and dignity of the North Korean people. And it’s organized by the North Korea Freedom Coalition, which is a nonpartisan coalition of NGOs and religious groups, and features events in DC highlighting the work of defector-led organizations and other NGOs working to shine a light on the situation of human rights in North Korea.

    For more than 60 years, the North Korean regime’s – regime has reigned with tyranny, and its human rights record is, quite frankly, among the worst in the world. The North Korean regime denies nearly all the universal freedoms, including freedom of speech, press, religion, freedom of assembly and association, and systematically commits violations that include summary executions, torture, arbitrary detention, rape and sexual violence, forced abortions, and forced infanticide. We remain gravely concerned and deeply troubled that the North Korean regime under Kim Jung-un prioritizes the advancements of its missiles and nuclear program at the expense of the well-being of its people.

    And so to commemorate this day, the United States reaffirms our commitment to the North Korean people. We’re going to continue to press for accountability for those responsible for the ongoing gross human rights violations that have taken place there, and we’re also going to continue our efforts to increase the flow of independent information into, out of, and within this isolated state.

    So a lot at the top, but one more thing. This is, believe it or not, my last briefing as deputy spokesman. It’s with mixed feelings that I reach this moment, because I’ve loved this job. Honestly, I was just telling a group of young kids who were brought in to Take Your Child to Work Day earlier today that, to me, this was the greatest honor that I could ever hope to have as a Foreign Service officer. I came out of journalism school into this gig, and I always thought this would be one of the greatest jobs to have within the Foreign Service. And I’ve enjoyed working with all of you over the years through good times and bad times and some really tough days at the podium, but I respect fundamentally with all of my heart the work that all of you do in carrying out your really important roles in our democracy, and I want you to know that.

    I’m also very, very happy that I can pass the baton, the spokesperson baton – there is one, in fact – no – (laughter) – over to such a capable person as Heather Nauert, who is getting up to speed on all these issues but will be taking the podium and carrying on the daily press briefings and acting as the department spokesperson going forward. So anyway, just appreciate all the support that you’ve given me over the years.

    Matt, over to you.

    QUESTION: Thanks, Mark. And before I start with my policy question, I just wanted to note the lack of children in the room today on the Take Your Work to – Take Your Kids to Work Day and recall how many years ago it was when you were sitting there with --

    MR TONER: I told that story, actually. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: -- with a bunch of kids in the audience and one of the main topics of the day being the antics or/ behavior of some Secret Service agents in Colombia and how delicately we danced around that topic.

    MR TONER: Indeed, indeed. As we’re doing right now. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: But that story also just – it brings to mind the fact that you have served in this position in PRS as spokesman on and off for many years. And I think on behalf of the press corps, I want to thank you for those years of service, particularly since January over the course of the last couple months when things have been, as they often are, in transitions, unsettled to say the least. And through it all, you’ve been incredibly professional and really just, I think, the model of the kind of career Foreign Service or Civil Service officer.

    So on behalf of all of us and on behalf of the public, the American public, thank you. (Applause.)

    MR TONER: Thanks, Matt. I really appreciate that. Thank you. (Applause.)

    QUESTION: Good luck. And I am sure you’ll enjoy not having to be --

    MR TONER: I’ll miss it in a couple weeks.

    QUESTION: -- attacked with questions for --

    MR TONER: Thank you.

    QUESTION: May I say a word, Matt?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: I want to thank you especially – I’ve known you for many, many years. I mean, I’ve attended briefings all the way back to Richard Boucher. You have been really solid and professional. I never once took your accommodating me for granted or indulging me all throughout. I really appreciate it. You have always been there for us. So Godspeed and good luck.

    MR TONER: Thank you. All right, thanks. Enough of this sentimentality. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Rank sentimentality.

    MR TONER: Yeah, there you go. Rank sentimentality.

    QUESTION: So let’s go to the most unsentimental thing you can think of, North Korea.

    MR TONER: Got it.

    QUESTION: So after the briefing – (laughter) – that the secretaries and DNI – and that DNI gave yesterday to members of Congress, numerous people who were there came away not particularly impressed with the presentation and concerned that the briefers had not expressed or had put forward a new and – strategy, a coherent policy for dealing with it.

    Can you explain, maybe in more detail than you have before, how exactly this administration’s policy is different than the previous one, other than just that you’re attaching a new priority to it?

    MR TONER: Well, so you’re talking about the closed-door briefing. I mean, and starting with that, I think it’s an important point to make, is that essentially the entire government, U.S. Government, came together yesterday to talk about North Korea and the urgency of the situation there. And that speaks volumes about the focus of this new administration.

    This is – so I have to start with the fact that there’s an urgency here that there wasn’t before, and I know I’ve said that before and that’s not new, but the fact that – and Secretary Tillerson’s spoken about this – the fact that North Korea’s carrying out tests that are clearly indicating its efforts to develop a ballistic missile technology that reaches potentially the U.S. territory, that’s a game-changer.

    QUESTION: Okay. But that’s on their side.

    MR TONER: Right. I understand. I think in terms of – but I wanted to frame it by saying that there is, I think, a new focus on the threat that North Korea poses. But I also think that this administration, certainly the Secretary, are looking at ways that we can imply – or apply, rather, increased pressure, and that this is a global effort this time. That’s always been not the sense – or not the case in the past.

    So one of the things the Secretary is going to try to build through his meetings tomorrow and in New York is a sense that the global community as a whole needs to stand up to North Korea and needs to apply pressure on North Korea. Certainly, we’ve talked a lot about China’s role, significant role in that, and that’s a key aspect of this new strategy, is putting pressure on China, convincing China that it needs to do more, but this also needs to be a global effort.

    And we saw this, frankly, with respect to putting pressure on Iran to – so it would come to the table about its nuclear program, that all of the talk about sanctions or even, indeed, sanctions implemented or, rather, all the talk about sanctions in the world isn’t going to solve the problem. It’s only when those sanctions are actually implemented, pressure is applied consistently.

    QUESTION: Okay. Well, that sounds, then, as though the administration is going to take an approach very similar to the one that the Obama administration took with Iran in terms of sanctions, in terms of secondary sanctions, building them up.

    MR TONER: We talked --

    QUESTION: This administration has come out and said it thinks that the result of that – those – that pressure and the negotiations that followed failed, the result being the nuclear deal. So I’m not quite sure I --

    MR TONER: Sure. It’s also --

    QUESTION: Is what this administration is proposing to do something similar to what the last one did with Iran, but this one – but this in terms of North Korea, but the confusing --

    MR TONER: Well, my comparison to Iran was simply to make the case that it took a very significant effort, and a unified effort, to put the pressure necessary, and that’s what I’m talking about with respect to North Korea, that this Secretary, this administration, wants to make this a global effort and really apply global pressure on North Korea. And we talked about the ways that that can be done, and that’s – the pressure points are economic, diplomatic, and military. And that’s going to – and they’re looking at all of those. They’re looking at implementing fully the sanctions that are in place, but also possibly new sanctions, and there are ways to approach that as well.

    QUESTION: All right. I’ll stop after this.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: So the idea of this strategy, whether or not it’s new or not I guess is arguable, but --

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: -- the idea is to bring them, to force them, to push them to come back to the negotiating table for a diplomatic resolution --

    MR TONER: Exact – look, I mean --

    QUESTION: -- and this administration is going to handle those negotiations, if and when they happen, in a way that is markedly different than the last administration handled the Iran deal negotiations? Is that the idea?

    MR TONER: Well, look, what we want to see – what we want to see with North Korea is – I mean, of course, I don’t want to – we’re not even anywhere near them coming back to the negotiating table.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: But you’re absolutely right, in the sense that we want a peaceful outcome here. What we want is a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That’s the goal here. There’s nothing – all the talk about regime change, all of that --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- that’s not on the table here. But --

    QUESTION: All right. I really will stop after this.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.

    QUESTION: So the Iran model is for the sanctions and not for the – not for the intended negotiations?

    MR TONER: Yeah. What my – all I’m doing is using that as a comparison of a way to apply comprehensive pressure.

    Yeah. Please.

    QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

    QUESTION: So I have a couple of --

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Lesley, and I’ll get to you in a second.

    QUESTION: Yeah, just what do you expect – what – I mean, sure, you’ve been giving the same message to China day after day, week after week. What do you expect the message tomorrow is going to be in the bilateral with Wang Yi?

    MR TONER: Well, I think that – I mean, this is – there’s not going to be a markedly different message here. We’ve been working from literally almost day one with the Chinese, making clear to them our concerns about North Korea and the fact that we need to see them do more. And we talked about this yesterday – not in the coming years, not in – we need to see concrete action taken over the course of the short term, because this threat is only getting – is only increasing. And so we’ve already had productive discussions with China about possible steps and applying pressure, and those are going to continue tomorrow. But I think – and we talked a little bit about the optics yesterday, but tomorrow is going to send a clear message to North Korea that its behavior, its actions, are only isolating it further and further from the rest of the world.

    QUESTION: Are you going to be outlining a strategy for possible next measures that the U.S. could seek from the Security Council?

    MR TONER: I think that’s always going to be a part of – yeah. I mean, yes, I would say that – I mean, I can’t predict that anything concrete will come out of tomorrow’s session, but of course they’ll be talking about possible next steps.

    QUESTION: And can I just also say – actually, I was going to start – I’m sorry to see you go.

    MR TONER: Thanks, Lesley.

    QUESTION: From Reuters, we --

    MR TONER: Very sweet. Thank you.

    QUESTION: -- we’ve always enjoyed dealing with you, and thank you for taking us seriously.

    MR TONER: Thank you.

    QUESTION: And most importantly, we think – thought that you acted very honorably in the last few months and --

    MR TONER: Thank you.

    QUESTION: -- thank you very much.

    MR TONER: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

    QUESTION: I have one logistical thing. Since you’re the – since you got – this might be a question better asked up in New York, though.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Since you guys are the president of the Security Council, have you invited the North Korean ambassador to this meeting tomorrow?

    MR TONER: I do not know the answer to that. It’s a Security Council meeting.

    QUESTION: But normally when the Security Council meeting is about a particular country that’s not on the council --

    MR TONER: Yeah, I do not believe --

    QUESTION: -- their person is allowed to – or is invited.

    MR TONER: I do not believe that’s the case. It’s a fair question. I’ll take it.

    QUESTION: All right. Thanks.

    QUESTION: Mark. Mark.

    MR TONER: Please, Michele.

    QUESTION: The Obama administration had this exact same message to China over the last at least year and a half, after various tests and provocations. So where do you think the difference is in China not over this amount of time seeing the urgency in quite the same way as the United States? Is it just trade based? Or what do you think they’re waiting for? Are they waiting for another nuclear test? Are they waiting for some bigger provocation? Or do they think that North Korea might move toward diplomacy? Can you kind of explain --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- how the administration sees China’s view?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, what we’ve said all along in – is that China, obviously, as a neighbor of North Korea, has a unique relationship with North Korea, and frankly, has tremendous economic leverage on North Korea. That said, we have seen China reluctant to fully implement existing UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea for a variety of reasons. And I don’t necessarily want to give that analysis from the podium. That’s really for them to speak to. But obviously they’re concerned because this is a neighbor; this is a country on their border, and that can have significant impact on the – on their own security.

    That said, what I think is significant from the last administration to this administration is North Korea has upped the ante, has increased its pace of missile testing, ballistic missile testing, nuclear testing, with the clear intent of pursuing either greater reach for its nuclear weapons or more nuclear weapons. And that’s, frankly, as I said before, a game changer that we need to address and we need to address with a sense of urgency that necessarily wasn’t there six months ago. And so that’s why there has been, frankly – I don’t want to say a single-minded, but a very clear focus of this administration on addressing the threat of North Korea. And I said this week speaks to that focus, given Monday’s meeting at the White House with the Security Council, given yesterday’s hearings, and given tomorrow’s meetings with Secretary Tillerson.

    So there’s a clear focus here. I’m not saying we have all – necessarily all the pieces in place now, but we’re certainly looking to formulate a clear strategy that applies, as I said, uniform, global pressure on North Korea to address the international community’s concerns.


    QUESTION: Is it safe to say, though, that given the way China has approached this, even though you have had some encouragement, is the word we use a lot, that they don’t see the threat being as urgent as the United States does even though it’s on their border?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think – while I’m hesitant to speak on behalf of the Chinese, I think there’s other concerns about – that internal upheaval within North Korea could impact China negatively. That said, having a rogue nation like North Korea continue to pursue nuclear weapons is having tremendous upheaval in the region, and potentially with far-reaching effects that affect the national security of the United States. So I guess our message to China is one that the time for strategic patience, for waiting North Korea out, for trying to gently nudge it back into talks has passed.

    QUESTION: Okay. Could I just ask one quick logistical question --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: -- and then I’ll be quiet. But I was told by a senior administration official that the White House has submitted multiple names for basically every single open position at the State Department that is at a --

    MR TONER: So personnel. Okay, sorry, we’re switching. Okay. That’s okay.

    QUESTION: Yeah, sorry.

    MR TONER: That’s okay. Okay.

    QUESTION: Is that all right? Okay.

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: So they’ve submitted all of these names and multiple choices and suggestions, but that it’s the State Department that is going slowly in acting on any of those suggestions, either vetting them, or deciding, or saying yes or no. So can you tell me why that is?

    MR TONER: Well, look, I guess I would start with questioning the question, the premise of the question, and that is there’s – first of all, in every key State Department position, there are acting officials, many of them with a vast amount of experience, career diplomats who bring, as I said, tremendous professional – professionalism and professional experience to the jobs. So the idea that there are somehow empty chairs or empty desks at the State Department is just categorically false.

    With respect to personnel and filling those positions, we are at work. We’re vetting people. It’s a process. It takes time, but this Secretary has been working to fill those slots. And as I said, it is a process, and one that requires the consent and advice of the Senate. But to suggest that we’re not moving on this is simply inaccurate.

    QUESTION: Is there a reason why it seems to maybe be taking longer than the White House expected it to take?

    MR TONER: I can’t speak to that. I mean, it’s always – look, it’s always – and you know this from having worked in this town. I mean, it always, with any transition, takes some time. Anyway, I’ll leave it there.

    QUESTION: Thanks, Mark.

    QUESTION: Mark, on North Korea, with this renewed sense or – sense of urgency on the issue, you said you want to see progress over the short term. What is progress? What is short-term? And how long is the United States willing to wait before it moves beyond this approach?

    MR TONER: On your last question, I’m just not going to answer that because I’m not going to give some kind of timeline as to when we may take further action or unilateral action.

    With respect to your previous questions, I mean look, ideally it would be North Korea coming forward and saying we want to deal proactively with our nuclear program, discuss denuclearization. We realize that that’s probably not in the immediate offing. What I think we’re looking in the near term is significant actions both by the global community, if I could use that term, but also significant – or specifically by China to put pressure on the regime. And we’ve talked about the different ways that can be done, but most significantly that’s economic pressure. This is not – and this isn’t --

    QUESTION: Is that months? Is this --

    MR TONER: I think we’re looking over the next – the coming months, yes. I think that’s accurate.

    QUESTION: And also just on the policy of denuclearization, it’s been consistent from the United States, but just a question of – Secretary Tillerson was asked in Korea whether that also meant the United States ruling out whether the Republic of Korea or Japan would ever, for its defensive purposes, obtain nuclear weapon capability. And he said everything is on the table. Is that still the case?

    MR TONER: Well, certainly the Secretary’s words stand, but I would also add that our goal, as I just said, is a peaceful resolution and a peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And that remains our goal. How we get there is, we think, through applying consistent pressure, isolating North Korea, and forcing it to answer – come clean about its program and answer to the international community’s concerns. So we’re not there yet.

    QUESTION: I have some Turkey questions, but I guess you’ll return to that?

    MR TONER: Yeah, yeah, I’ll come back to that. Please, Nick.

    QUESTION: North Korea?

    MR TONER: North Korea or --

    QUESTION: North Korea, yeah.

    QUESTION: Yeah, North Korea to follow up on something that the Secretary said in Seoul. He was asked about the possibility of negotiations, and he said they can only be achieved by denuclearizing --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- giving up their weapons of mass destruction. Today, in your remarks, you said the U.S. remains open to negotiations full stop.

    MR TONER: And by that I meant – look, I mean, we’ve always said this, and forgive me if I didn’t add that. But we’ve always said that the only way back to the table is if North Korea is willing to talk about denuclearization, significantly taking steps to denuclearize, and I think that’s what the Secretary is making clear. We’re all for negotiations, but it has to be clear; the intent has to be clear. We’re not looking for, as we’ve said previously, talk for talk’s sake.

    QUESTION: And, I mean, because the impression is that there is a shift in tone here. I mean, he was very tough in Tokyo and Seoul describing the threat --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- as imminent, and then --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- describing the route to negotiations in this way. And then yesterday’s statement was much more restrained. Your remarks today also seem more restrained. Is there a shift in tone in the U.S. position?

    MR TONER: I don’t think so. I think what’s – look, the key element to this, as I said, is that North Korea has to be willing, if it’s going to return to the negotiating table, willing to discuss steps it can take to denuclearize. We don’t want, frankly, more time-wasting talks that don’t end in any concrete steps.


    QUESTION: North Korea.

    MR TONER: In the back, Janne.

    QUESTION: Thank you. Do you have a schedule to three-party foreign minister talks?

    MR TONER: Yes, I think I had mentioned that at the top. I don’t know if you were here.

    QUESTION: Yeah, yeah, (inaudible).

    MR TONER: You’re talking about with South Korea and with Japan?

    QUESTION: South Korea, Japan, and --

    MR TONER: Yeah, there is going to be a trilateral tomorrow on the margins of the meetings in New York.

    QUESTION: Okay, one more on – currently, there is no diplomatic relationship between U.S. and North Korea. So you said that the United States pressure to North Korea with strongly economically and diplomatically, but the mostly economical pressure right now. What is the specifically, what diplomatic action you taking?

    MR TONER: I mean, what we’ve talked about, and I don’t want to go too far into this, but talking about working with other international organizations. And granted North Korea’s presence on the international stage is somewhat limited to begin with, but talking about steps that the international community can take to further isolate North Korea, look at its membership in international organizations – multilateral organizations – but also, for countries where there is a diplomatic presence, to look at the value of that diplomatic presence and whether North Korea merits it.

    QUESTION: Does it --

    QUESTION: Mark – Mark --

    MR TONER: Let’s go ahead – let’s --

    QUESTION: On North Korea?

    MR TONER: One more on North Korea and then I’ve got to move around, because I do have to leave.

    QUESTION: Does the United --

    MR TONER: I’ll go to you next, I promise.

    QUESTION: Very quickly, does the United States sense any departure of China’s position in terms of the negotiation modality?

    MR TONER: Sure, yeah.

    QUESTION: The reason I ask is because the proposed three-party talk and then five-party talk is actually without the participation of North Korea. Given that they do not insist the regime from Pyongyang need to be on the table, is that a departure of their position?

    MR TONER: Given that – what was your last --

    QUESTION: Given – well, it used to be that China would insist that the North Korea delegation need to be on the negotiation table for them to restart a talk, and – but now this three-party talk and five-party talk is without the attendance or participation from North Korea.

    MR TONER: No, these are – yeah, and these are mechanisms intended to --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: Again, these would not necessarily include North Korea because these are, frankly, efforts to coordinate regional approach to the problem of North Korea. So North Korea wouldn’t necessarily be – wouldn’t in any way be a part of these discussions.

    With respect to China, I think the President has spoken to the fact that he’s seen, at least in his conversations with President Xi, a more – at least a willingness to look at a more constructive approach.


    QUESTION: Can we ask on Syria?

    QUESTION: I’m asking, do you sense there – if there is a departure of their position regarding the new negotiation mechanism?

    MR TONER: Ah. I’d have to refer you to them for that. Sorry.


    QUESTION: I can go to Syria?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Yes. Early this morning, the Israelis struck a position close to the Damascus International Airport. I wonder if you have any comment on that. And there was apparently a drone that was shot down by the Israelis over the Golan Heights, so – and then I have a follow-up on this question.

    MR TONER: Sure. With respect to the strikes, Israeli strikes, I’d have to refer you to the Israelis on the reported strikes. As you know, Hizballah is a foreign terrorist organization whose forces have helped enable the regime – the Syrian regime – to perpetuate its brutality against the Syrian people and also to incite instability in the region. I would say that by carrying out these – its activities in Syria, Hizballah is violating its commitment to the Baabda Declaration, as well as the Lebanese disassociation policy from the Syrian conflict.

    QUESTION: But you know Hizballah is positioned in Lebanon, in south Lebanon. They struck Syria. So what is --

    MR TONER: Again, I’d have to refer you to the Israelis to speak on the --

    QUESTION: Okay. Are you concerned that this may be --

    MR TONER: -- intent of their strikes.

    QUESTION: -- exacerbating the situation, with so many people involved in conflict and war and so on? And every day brings in one more entity that --

    MR TONER: I mean, this isn’t – look, I mean, again, Israel has its own security concerns, and legitimate security concerns, so in no way, shape, or form would I suggest that this is only complicating the situation. I think they’re justified in taking actions when they see a specific security threat.

    QUESTION: Mark, are you saying that you know that whatever it was that got hit at the Damascus airport was a Hizballah target?

    MR TONER: I’m conjecturing.

    QUESTION: Conjecturing?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Because you seem to – I mean, as far as I know, the Israelis haven’t commented about this, and the Syrians --

    MR TONER: That’s why I’m referring you to them.

    QUESTION: -- Syrians haven’t said specifically if it was, so do you know that it was?

    MR TONER: No. I’m conjecturing.

    QUESTION: No? Okay.

    QUESTION: Just --

    QUESTION: Syria.

    QUESTION: Could – let me do a follow-up. Also, the Russians seems to have reduced their air force capability in Syria by half. They reduced it by half. Do you have any comment on that? Is that an indication to you that the Russians may be scaling back their involvement in Syria --

    MR TONER: We’d welcome that.

    QUESTION: -- maybe scaling back their support to Assad? I know you said you --

    MR TONER: I haven’t seen – honestly, I haven’t seen the numbers or the – we’d – it’s something we’d have to look at. We’ve seen before where President Putin has said they’re scaling back and indeed they’re not.

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: So it’s hard to say at this point. I don’t think we’ve got an assessment that they’re significantly scaling back. I’d have to look into it.

    QUESTION: Could this, in your view, be like a rotation of forces or not a real reduction?

    MR TONER: Again, I think we have to wait and see with respect to Russia. They’ve said things in the past about scaling back their presence in Syria, only to find out that they’re moving pieces around the chessboard and not really significantly changing their force posture.

    QUESTION: Syria. Syria.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Mark, yesterday you clearly talked about the Turkish airstrikes and that you are concerned, and then later you said that Turkey should not and cannot carry out airstrikes without proper coordination with the coalition. So it seems that they don’t do the airstrikes, but they do the ground attacks. It happened yesterday and this morning also in certain places, northern Syria.

    As a result of that, the Kurds in Syria, they are asking for a no-fly zone and the leader of the PYD, the Kurdish major political party there, Salih Muslim, he said if the United States continue to silent and not doing anything, we will halt the operation toward liberating Raqqa.

    MR TONER: All I’m going to say on that, in addition to what I’ve said over the past couple days, is we’ve made very clear to the Turkish Government at very high levels our deep concern about the actions that they took the other day. Not only were they not fully coordinated – or not coordinated within the coalition, but they put, frankly, U.S. soldiers at risk who were operating in that area, but also resulted in the deaths of, for example, Iraqi Peshmerga, who were fighting on the ground.

    We’re going to continue to press the case with Turkey going forward that all of the forces fighting ISIS in that region need to focus on the goal of fighting ISIS. And we understand Turkey’s concerns about YPG; we disagree, but we’re making very clear to them that they need to fully coordinate with us and other coalition members going forward. I’ll leave it there.

    QUESTION: Yeah, just one quick follow-up on that. Couple times you mentioned the – or that the Peshmerga were killed in Iraq as a result of the Turkish airstrike, but 20 YPG members were killed also in Syria.

    MR TONER: Correct, correct.

    QUESTION: But this has not been mentioned. Okay, what level --

    MR TONER: I wasn’t intentionally leaving them off. I apologize.

    QUESTION: Okay, so what – at what level you’ve talked to the Turks? At the level of the Secretary of State or – who talked to them, what level? Just embassy to embassy, what was the level of talks?

    MR TONER: Higher than that. I’m not going to get into details.


    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Real quick on Turkey. Do you know if the Secretary is planning to meet with President Erdogan next month when he visits the United States or if the President will?

    MR TONER: I don’t. That’s – it has to be – I’m sorry, you said the Secretary? I apologize, I heard, “the President.”

    QUESTION: The Secretary. I mean, I know the President is probably a question for the White House, but is the Secretary planning --

    MR TONER: Yeah, yeah. I can’t – I just don’t have the details yet that far ahead.

    QUESTION: And at – does the United States plan to follow up on any concerns following the Turkish referendum earlier this month?

    MR TONER: I mean, I think that’s part of an ongoing discussion that we’re having with Turkey – part of our bilateral relationship. We’re constantly talking about these kinds of issues, especially in the wake of the coup attempt last summer, that there were – while there was justification for the Turkish Government to crack down on the potential – or the – and seek out the coup plotters, it was also a question of whether they were overreaching and that that was having an effect on or – yeah, if it was having an effect on the – Turkey’s democracy, and that’s an ongoing discussion. We’re going to continue to raise our concerns on an ongoing basis with Turkey about the quality of its democracy.

    QUESTION: Turkey?

    QUESTION: And with jailed journalists and with jailed political opponents?

    MR TONER: Yeah, all of that, yes, I agree. Yeah.

    QUESTION: Turkey?

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Aren’t we understating what Turkey did in striking the YPG on Tuesday morning? That was an attack on the YPG headquarters of the – their command, was an assassination attempt. And they can’t possibly give the U.S. detailed information about that in advance because, of course, the U.S. is going to do something about it; either stop it or warn the YPG. So how could we expect Turkey, if that’s the intent, to inform the United States?

    MR TONER: Well, look, I’m not going to speak to Turkey’s intent, but this is an extremely complex battle space. There are multiple operators, not just Turkish and Kurdish Forces on the ground there. As I said, the lack of coordination put even U.S. soldiers at risk, so first of all, there’s that coordination piece, and lack of coordination, and lack of sufficient notification that they were going to carry out these strikes. We’ve made that clear. We understand, as I said, Turkey’s perspective on this is different from ours, but that’s not going to make us shy away from saying that these kinds of attacks and the ways and approaches to the attack were – are unacceptable if you’re going to operate within a coalition.

    QUESTION: Okay. I guess I’d try to suggest it’s more a political problem than a technical problem, but let me move on.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Sure. Okay. I have time for maybe one or two questions.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: To the PKK – does it have foreign support or state – is the PKK a state-supported organization? There are reports – many reports that Iran, for example, is supporting the PKK.

    MR TONER: I don’t have any information to provide on that. Sorry.

    QUESTION: Mark, on Iran, will the Secretary be discussing --

    MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you. Okay. I apologize.

    QUESTION: Will the Secretary be discussing Iran at all in New York and also over the next week?

    MR TONER: I can’t rule out that it won’t come up in some of his bilaterals. I don’t think it’s going to be – clearly, it’s not going to be a focus of the UN Security Council meeting. But whether it comes up in his separate bilats – I wouldn’t rule it out.

    QUESTION: Can you say – tell us if over the next three and a half weeks, during the election campaign up to the presidential election, will the administration be changing its public posture in any way, not discussing it too much, so as not to have an impact on the elections?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, obviously this is a domestic political process within Iran. I would say that --

    QUESTION: Come on, Mark. Go out on a limb. It’s your last day. (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: I got to get my bearings again. No, I would just say there is a comprehensive review, as we all know, underway now. And until that review is completed, until we have a direction, a clear direction, on where we want to go with Iran, we’re going to continue on the path that we’ve been, which is making sure that they adhere to the nuclear agreement commitments that they’ve made.

    But I think going forward, once this review is completed, you could see a change in direction. I think this administration is concerned that Iran is – as I said, its bad behavior in the region has not changed, even though we have the nuclear agreement in place. And so we need to look at ways that we can limit the influence of Iran in the region and limit the influence of its bad behavior.

    QUESTION: Mark.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Let me just get on to Venezuela. Overnight --

    MR TONER: Yes. Yes, thank you.

    QUESTION: Overnight, the foreign minister said they would – Venezuela’s going to withdraw from the OAS. The OAS has been a mechanism in which the U.S. has had influence, some influence, over the Maduro government, or at least it can say what it wants. Is this a concern? Do you believe this is – the U.S. until now – well, has always said that it doesn’t want the – Venezuela to leave the OAS. So how much of a concern is this? And do you know if that letter actually has been delivered?

    MR TONER: I don’t know about the letter’s delivery. What I can say though – and I’m speaking procedurally or from a process viewpoint – is that the foreign minister’s statement yesterday has no real practical or immediate effect, because withdrawing from the OAS I think requires up to two years in terms of process. In this case, I think it would conclude after President Maduro’s term would expire, and thus a decision could only be made final by his successor. In the meantime, Venezuela would remain a full member of the OAS and required to fulfill all of its obligations as a member-state. And that begins with, obviously, respect for democratic norms and practices.

    QUESTION: But does this move concern you? I mean, this has been one way that the region has been able to extend a message to the Maduro government.

    MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to – I guess my point is, yes, it does concern us, because we believe that the OAS as a body can have, we believe, a constructive influence on Venezuela, on Maduro, on the Venezuelan Government, in urging it to respect its own constitution and fulfill its democratic commitments to its people. That includes free elections, respect for the independence of the national assembly, and freedom of all – for all of the Venezuelan political prisoners. But that said, this is not something that’s going to happen overnight. So we still believe that influence can be applied.

    QUESTION: Do you – just for the record --

    MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.

    QUESTION: -- has this – has the Secretary or anyone other as a State Department official been in touch with the government of Maduro in the last – certainly since the last violence has flared?

    MR TONER: Yes, but I’m not sure at what level, so I’ll have to take that question.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: Guys, two more questions.

    QUESTION: So wait, wait. I just want to --

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: -- make sure I understand what the U.S. position on Vexit is here. Is it – are you calling on them to – are you calling on – do you want the foreign minister to rescind his comments? Would you like the government not to follow up on them with a formal Vexit letter to the OAS?

    MR TONER: You love that Vexit.

    QUESTION: I just came up with it. (Laughter.)

    MR TONER: I know. You’re proud of yourself

    QUESTION: Thirty seconds ago.

    MR TONER: I guess – look, I mean, I guess the overarching point to make here is that it doesn’t change the reality. They’re still – they can’t – even – it’s going to take two years for them to walk out. That’s going to extend past Maduro’s term anyway. It’s going to be a --

    QUESTION: Right, but not beyond --

    MR TONER: -- decision for his successors to make. That said, of course we want to see them remain in the OAS.

    QUESTION: Okay. So you would like them --

    MR TONER: But only if they’re – but only if they comply to the OAS standards.

    QUESTION: So if they don’t comply to OAS standards but stay in the OAS --

    MR TONER: That’s a problem.

    QUESTION: -- then you don’t – but then you wouldn’t have an issue. It would be more like don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Is that right?

    MR TONER: I think --

    QUESTION: You only want them to stay if they’re going to do what --

    MR TONER: If they’re going to comply – yeah, exactly.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Meet the standards.

    QUESTION: Mark, really quick.

    MR TONER: Really quickly.

    QUESTION: There’s only one question that only you can answer. My question can get answered by email today. When was your best or the worst day from that podium?

    MR TONER: Wow. (Laughter.) That is a really loaded question, actually. I’m glad no one else asked me that, but – next question. Look, there have been very difficult days here, and Matt remembers – a few others do – when I came into this job, I can remember – I mean, it was when the Arab Spring was first coming into fruition. We had an earthquake in Japan that was threatening to become a nuclear meltdown. The world was in crisis. It remains in crisis, and that’s just a reality of the world we live in today. There’s all kinds of difficult issues that we deal with.

    I think that there’s always going to be the desire for, as we say, do-overs, and I’m not going to speak to any specific issue. But I can always say that the people in this building, including the Secretary and on down, are always trying. They’re out there, engaged and trying to make the world a better place, and that’s a point of pride.

    So please, last question.

    QUESTION: Very quick on Palestine-Israel.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: The Israeli press --

    MR TONER: How fitting that I end on that. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Exactly. Yeah. The Israeli press is claiming that the President will make a visit on the 22nd of May. We don’t whether it happens or not, but as a prelude to the – such a visit, if it occurs, will the Secretary go there on a visit? Or even independent of that, would he go anytime soon or does he plan to go anytime soon to the region?

    MR TONER: It’s kind of an odd way to end my time at the podium, but I have nothing to announce on that. (Laughter.) All right, guys. Take care, man. Thank you guys so much.

    MS STEVENSON: Wait, wait. Before Mark goes – so my name is Susan Stevenson. I’m the acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Public Affairs. Some of you when we had his farewell saw me do this, but I’m going to do it again at the podium. So I’m going to give Mark a mock-up of a portrait – his official portrait – that I’m pleased to say is going to hang in the second floor corridor, because Mark Toner has been at this podium for almost five years.

    MR TONER: Thank you.

    MS STEVENSON: He will be only the second acting spokesperson to have his portrait.

    MR TONER: Thank you.

    MS STEVENSON: So thank you for everything. (Applause.)

    MR TONER: Thanks so much. I’ll turn this to the side, but thanks. Thank you, everybody, and I’m going to run out.

    QUESTION: What a long, strange trip it’s been.

    MR TONER: Take care. I was going to quote that, but it’s too easy. Thank you.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:30 p.m.)

    DPB # 25


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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - April 26, 2017

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 17:54
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 26, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAN


    1:46 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Hi, everybody. Welcome to the State Department.

    QUESTION: Happy Wednesday.

    MR TONER: Happy Wednesday, indeed. Sorry, a little late.

    Just one thing to mention at the top. The Department is deeply saddened to announce the death of Charles Peacock earlier this month. Charlie Peacock, as he’s known, joined the Foreign Service in 1981, and over a 26-year career served in a range of overseas positions in Montevideo, Managua, The Hague, London, Buenos Aires, as well as domestic positions in the Bureaus of Intelligence and Research, European and Eurasian Affairs, Western Hemisphere Affairs, and the Board of Examiners.

    But he’s mostly known to many generations of Foreign Service officers from his time as the deputy director of the A-100 course – and rather, the deputy director and A-100 course coordinator at the Foreign Service Institute. And for those of you who may not be aware, A-100 is the orientation course that every new Foreign Service officer undergoes when he or she comes into the Foreign Service. This is where he mentored and had a positive impact on the careers of well over 1,500 new U.S. diplomats – a generation, if you will. And that includes our very own Mark Stroh over here.

    Colleagues around the world have been sharing messages highlighting Charlie’s many notable quotes, including his daily reminder to the young Foreign Service officers, or the new Foreign Service officers he mentored, that: “It’s another damn fine day to serve your country.” And that speaks volumes about his commitment to public service. He will be missed.

    That’s all I have. Matt.

    QUESTION: Right. So I have a couple things – I want to tie up some loose ends from yesterday.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Hopefully – and hopefully forever end them. (Laughter.) I don’t know if we will or not.

    MR TONER: Well, that’s ominous.

    QUESTION: The first is – well, they’re both --

    MR TONER: Sure, go ahead. I’m just --

    QUESTION: -- questions that I asked you yesterday.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: The first one is about – on General Flynn --

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: -- and whatever the State Department provided to the Hill about his – whether he needed Secretary Kerry’s permission to go to --

    MR TONER: Yeah. So here’s what we’ve been able to dig up on this. So this is a matter that involves a retired member of the uniformed services who’s never worked for the State Department. So we’re going to refer you to the Department of Defense for further comment as to whether – what clearances he may or may not have needed. I would only add that – and we’re not going to talk about in any great detail this specific case.

    QUESTION: Not --

    MR TONER: The only – sorry – just the only way it relates possibly to the State Department – and we’re still looking at this – is there is a law regarding employment of reserves and retired members by foreign governments, and that basically says that Congress has consented to retired members of uniform services and reservists accepting compensated civil employment from a foreign government if they obtain advance approval from both the service and the secretary of state. But we’re not going to be in a position to comment publicly on the details of this case.

    QUESTION: Well, would that have applied?

    MR TONER: Again, we’re --

    QUESTION: I mean, I’m trying to understand what --

    MR TONER: We’re looking at that. I understand your question.

    QUESTION: -- Congressman Chaffetz was talking about. I mean --

    MR TONER: It’s unclear. We’re still looking at whether this applies in this instance.

    QUESTION: Well, did you guys provide any documentation or look for and were unable to find any correspondence between General Flynn or his office and this building or the secretary at the time?

    MR TONER: Again, I just don’t want to get into detail about this specific case because of privacy considerations. I can tell you we --

    QUESTION: Well, you should’ve told Congressman Chaffetz about that and maybe also the ranking member.

    MR TONER: I mean, they’re members of Congress; they can speak their minds and are freely able to do so. But --

    QUESTION: Well --

    MR TONER: All I’m saying, Matt, is --

    QUESTION: So you don’t – you can’t --

    MR TONER: I’m saying that that is possibly an applicable law to this or cases like it.

    QUESTION: Possibly. Well, did it or not?

    MR TONER: But I don’t know. We’re looking into it.

    QUESTION: Oh, okay.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Well, once you find out whether it did apply or does still – would still apply --

    MR TONER: We’ll let you know. We’ll --

    QUESTION: -- can you say – give an answer?

    MR TONER: We will try to confirm this.

    QUESTION: All right. And then the other thing is on the – just on the IIP, the Mar-a-Lago thing.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Were you able to find any precedent for --

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: -- previous – even --

    MR TONER: Not specifically on landmarks. Not – no. And that’s partly due to the fact that this particular Share America site’s --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- only been running – up and running for two years.

    QUESTION: No, no, I understand that. But in any other State Department platform, or did you look at – I mean, I don’t know, brochures put out USIA?

    MR TONER: I believe there was a – an article in George W. Bush’s administration about his --

    QUESTION: Crawford.

    MR TONER: -- place at Crawford. Thank you.

    QUESTION: Okay. And then just the last one on that: Do you have any response to this complaint, this ethics complaint that was filed by – I don’t think you were asked about this yesterday, but it was filed yesterday – by Common Cause?

    MR TONER: I – we are aware of the letter, obviously. The article in question I just would say is – was meant to provide historical information and context relevant to the conduct of U.S. diplomacy and was not intended to endorse or promote any private enterprise. That’s what we’ve conveyed to Common Cause as well.

    QUESTION: You’ve replied to them to that effect?

    MR TONER: I believe so.

    QUESTION: All right.

    QUESTION: Korea?

    QUESTION: Yeah. Then I do want to get into some policy substance. Can you shed any light on what the Secretary’s role in today’s briefings, this afternoon’s briefings later on, are going to be? Presumably he’s going to be talking about the diplomatic side of things, the options and what you can do to move forward and achieve your desired result. But can you be any more specific?

    MR TONER: I don’t. What I can say is there will be a statement issued after today’s hearings, but – and I don’t want to get ahead of the – obviously, of what he and others will say during these hearings. I think – but we have talked that this has been a North Korea-intensive week, and I think what the Secretary as well as the others who are participating in these hearings will – will just attempt to frame how we’ve gotten to this point that we’re looking at this shift in our policy, that there’s an urgency here that there necessarily wasn’t a year or so ago, and basically laying out the rationale behind our increasing concern over North Korea’s behavior, and I think looking at efforts – and we talked a little bit about this, or I talked a little bit about it yesterday – efforts to apply pressure across a number of fronts – that includes diplomatic, it includes economic; it will or could include military as well – in order to force Pyongyang or convince Pyongyang to negotiate.

    QUESTION: Not force?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    MR TONER: Corrected myself.

    QUESTION: Just staying on the same line, is there any discussion in today’s meeting regarding the initial North Korea review, strategy review, that this administration set about at the beginning? We understand that the – that this review is completed and that the Secretary is going to be outlining the outcome during those meetings. Is that true, and what do you know about it?

    MR TONER: Well, I don’t have anything to announce with regard to any new, necessarily, or the end of a – of the policy review or any kind of new policy initiatives, other than the fact that, as has been clear from the very beginnings of this administration, that North Korea is a particular focus with, I think, the understanding that the status quo was unsustainable, and that’s why we’re moving beyond this strategy of strategic patience and more towards, frankly, as I said, this – looking at ways across multiple fronts that we can apply pressure on North Korea, on the regime.

    Again, I’m not going to get ahead of what he may say. I think it’s important to put this in context that he’s trying to frame how we’ve gotten to this point to members of Congress, both the Senate and the House. And again, he’ll be joined by his colleagues from the Department of Defense and DNI as well. And I think the effort here, as I said, is really trying to explain to members of Congress what this administration – or why this administration is so seized with North Korea. I think they understand that, frankly, but to really lay out the case for why there’s a sense of urgency here.

    QUESTION: Is it perhaps to – I mean, everybody is pretty clear how everyone got to this situation and how urgent it is. The question now is the way forward. And that’s why I asked about the strategy. So – and what isn’t clear is what is the way forward from here. So what does the Secretary take to New York on Friday and clarify to allies and everybody else how they meant to act and move forward?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think – so today, obviously, is an in-depth brief to Congress in an effort to answer Congress’s questions about the policy going forward. I don’t want to get ahead of that, to be perfectly frank. As I said, there will very likely be a statement issued after --

    QUESTION: By who?

    MR TONER: -- the hearings today.

    QUESTION: The White House?

    MR TONER: The White House or the State Department or some collective, because it’s obviously other international – or other federal agencies beyond the State Department. I’m not sure.

    QUESTION: So how – the way it’s – oh, I’m sorry.

    MR TONER: That’s okay. Sorry, just to get back to you very quickly. With respect to Friday, that is obviously geared towards speaking to other members of the Security Council frankly about our conviction that we need to apply greater pressure on North Korea to get it to comply to international concerns. There are a number of options, and I feel like a broken record on this, but one of them is sanctions, but there are other pressure points – isolation, diplomatic isolation being another one. But I think this is in some ways an effort to both inform – and these are conversations he’s already been having with many of his counterparts, but to inform the Security Council and to rally the Security Council around this issue.

    QUESTION: Well, does he have specific asks, or is this kind of a brainstorming session, or --

    MR TONER: I would – I mean, I don’t know if I would necessarily describe it as a brainstorming sessions, but I think he invites other countries and members --

    QUESTION: But when you say --

    MR TONER: No, no, of course. I understand. Yeah.

    QUESTION: – apply greater pressure and there a number of asks – a number of options –

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: -- sanctions is one, but diplomatic isolation would include, I suppose, closing missions around the world. I mean --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- does the Secretary have specific items that he’d like to see out of this – that he is going to address that he’d like to see going – like --

    MR TONER: So first – and we’ve talked about this before – first he wants to see every country apply or implement the already-stringent existing sanctions against North Korea. Until we get to 100 percent, then we’re not fully implementing those sanctions. And as we’ve seen in the past, sanctions can have an effect. They certainly did with respect to Iran. And then I think he’s looking at other ways, other avenues to apply that pressure. As you noted, diplomatic isolation is another way. I don’t want to get into all the different avenues, but certainly part of this will be an exchange of ideas and thoughts about the way forward and steps that might be taken.

    Please, Michele.

    QUESTION: So how much of this urgency, especially with this show of having the entire Senate at the White House and all of the people who are going to brief and all of the talk surrounding it, is meant to send a message to North Korea? And do you expect that to have any effect? If so, what effect might there be?

    MR TONER: Sure. Look, I don’t want to say this is all about optics, but there’s clearly a message coming out of this week that was bookended by the Security Council coming to the White House and then by Secretary Tillerson traveling to New York. In between, we’ve got him as well as General – or Secretary Mattis, General Dunford, and Director of National Intelligence Coats briefing Congress that there’s a clear message being sent that this is front and center on our national security radar.

    QUESTION: Can I stay on North Korea?

    QUESTION: Can you just --

    MR TONER: Go ahead, Nick. Go ahead, Nick, and I’ll get – North Korea still?

    QUESTION: Can you just – two quick ones.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: One is, I mean, how can North Korea be any more diplomatically isolated than it already is? What are you talking about specifically when you talk about diplomatic isolation?

    Also, Harry Harris today in his testimony before the House said that he’s encouraged by progress China has made in sort of assisting the U.S. toward North Korea. Can you – does the State --

    MR TONER: Sorry, who says this? I apologize.

    QUESTION: He’s --

    QUESTION: Admiral Harris.

    MR TONER: Admiral Harris?

    QUESTION: Admiral Harris.

    MR TONER: Said he’s encouraged by --

    QUESTION: By China’s – the progress China has made in working with the U.S. against North Korea. Does the State Department share that assessment still, and what kind of progress, if so, do you see China making --

    MR TONER: Sure. Look, I’ve been asked, Nick, this question a few times this week. I mean, we’ve seen some steps. We need to see more, frankly, with respect to China. But this is part of the conversation that we’ve been having with – from President Xi on down with China with respect to the fact that they apart from anyone else have probably the most influence on the regime in Pyongyang, and they need to exercise that influence.

    I’m sorry, what was your other question? I apologize.

    QUESTION: Diplomatic isolation.

    MR TONER: Oh. Look, I mean – I mean, at least alluded to it. It’s ostracizing them from international bodies that they may be members of, asking them to close down their – or countries asking them to close down their diplomatic missions.

    QUESTION: Are you specifically – I mean, these are, I mean, options, of course. But is he specifically looking now for countries to start doing this? I mean, is this something the U.S. wants to see or is this just an idea that’s being discussed?

    MR TONER: It’s – and you know this – this is an idea that’s been around for some time.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: And I think – again, I’m not going to announce that he’s going to come out and ask other countries to do it, but I do think it’s one of the options that are – is seriously being considered.

    QUESTION: But Mark --

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    QUESTION: The closing of missions?

    MR TONER: Yeah, isolation.

    QUESTION: Well – right.

    MR TONER: The diplomatic isolation.

    QUESTION: The thing is is that if the question is how much more isolated can North Korea be, the answer is, quite frankly, none. And if you want to – even though it does have --

    MR TONER: I mean --

    QUESTION: -- a limited number of embassies abroad --

    MR TONER: No, but – yeah.

    QUESTION: -- it’s not the United States or even, I don’t think, a UN function to demand --

    MR TONER: No.

    QUESTION: -- that foreign countries close their embassies down. And I don’t think that you can --

    MR TONER: No. No, no, no.

    QUESTION: -- get them to kick them out of the UN.

    MR TONER: Let me be clear about that. I’m not saying that he would ever demand that, I’m just saying that this is an opportunity for Secretary Tillerson to talk with other members of the Security Council about steps that collectively the UN can do, but also individual member-states can take, to put pressure on Iran – to North Korea.

    QUESTION: Are you looking at a travel ban for U.S. officials?

    QUESTION: Yeah, but you just said – but you just raised it yourself that one idea is closing embassies.

    MR TONER: Yes, but I didn’t say we’re going to demand that. I’m sorry. What am I missing here?

    QUESTION: Well, then I’m not sure why you would it, then. You’re going to say, hey, you guys --

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: -- one way you could put pressure on them would be to close the embassy. All right, “demand” might be too strong a word, but --

    MR TONER: Well, that is – again, first off, I don’t want to get out ahead of what is going to be discussed on Friday. That is one of the options is all I was asking – is all I was saying, one of the options we’re looking at. Considering that over the overarching directive here – not directive – the overarching goal here is to apply pressure on and find ways we can apply pressure collectively – the international community – on Iran, one of those has to include --

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    MR TONER: I’m so sorry. I apologize – on North Korea is to apply pressure on them, and one of those fronts would be diplomatic isolation. That’s all.

    QUESTION: But you’re not asking – I mean, are you asking them to downgrade or to sever?

    MR TONER: Again, that’s all under discussion.

    QUESTION: There’s a difference.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Well, are you thinking of asking this – are you trying to draft this into a --

    MR TONER: I’m not going to --

    QUESTION: -- fold this into a UN – is that one of the options, to fold some of this into a UN resolution compelling --

    MR TONER: I’m not going to speak to what may or may not come out of this session on Friday.

    QUESTION: But Mark, has --

    QUESTION: Wait. Wait.

    MR TONER: I just – I’m not going to --

    QUESTION: Is a new resolution something that you’ll be discussing?

    MR TONER: Not to my knowledge, no.

    QUESTION: Mark, has China agreed to have some sort of international monitoring or anything, because that trade (inaudible) between China and that corridor, if so long that is on, there’s nothing you can do internationally. You can block all the boats, everything. So has China agreed to open that for international monitors or anything?

    MR TONER: I’ll leave it to China to speak to that. Again, we’ve been having serious engagement, serious discussions with China about the fact that we’d like to see them do more, and that certainly includes on the economic front and trade.

    QUESTION: Mark, do you have any update on the Tony Kim --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    MR TONER: Nike. Yeah.

    QUESTION: The case of Tony Kim, was a visit granted? The --

    MR TONER: Oh, was the visit granted? I apologize, I didn’t hear – no, not to my understanding. He was not provided consular access.

    QUESTION: New topic.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Can I --

    QUESTION: And it was (inaudible) --

    MR TONER: It’s through our protecting power, obviously, the Swedes. But no, he was not provided – they have not been provided consular access to --

    QUESTION: Can I move on, Mark?

    QUESTION: And then one --

    MR TONER: Finish – go ahead, finish, Nike.

    QUESTION: -- on North Korea. So are there renewed communications between the U.S. and China, Korea regarding the delivery of parts of the THAAD system which we know that has triggered some protests over there?

    MR TONER: Again, I’d have to direct you to China to speak to its concerns over THAAD. We’ve been consistent in explaining to them what THAAD is and what THAAD isn’t. THAAD is a defensive system and it’s being deployed, frankly, out of concern over the Republic of South Korea’s vulnerability to North Korea’s continued aggressive behavior. That’s all it is.

    QUESTION: I’m asking if there is renewed communication from the U.S. to assure China and Korea these days.

    MR TONER: I mean, I don’t want to say renewed because we’ve been constantly conveying that to China.

    QUESTION: That’s a hell of a phrase, Mark. I think you should keep it in your book.

    MR TONER: Renewed.

    QUESTION: “What THAAD is and what THAAD isn’t.” (Laughter.) Keep it. Save it.

    MR TONER: I made that up all on my own.

    QUESTION: It’s pretty good.

    QUESTION: Can I move on, Mark? Yeah, can I move on?

    MR TONER: Yeah, please. What are you – I’m sorry?

    QUESTION: Syria.

    MR TONER: Syria?

    QUESTION: Can we just finish this quickly --

    MR TONER: I’ll get to you. Let’s finish North Korea.

    QUESTION: -- on North Korea? Not to continue to beat a dead horse but --

    MR TONER: It’s okay, beat away.

    QUESTION: -- you said that China needs to do more, but so far all we’ve heard that they have done is turn away coal shipments that they had to turn away because of UN Security Council resolutions. So have they done anything so far?

    MR TONER: Again, I don’t have a laundry list in front of me that details the steps they’ve taken. I think suffice it to say that we’ve been encouraged at least by what we’ve been hearing from Chinese officials. That said --

    QUESTION: So the rhetoric so far?

    MR TONER: Right. But that said, we want to see more concrete action, and again, recognizing that they, apart from any other country, plays – have that significant economic relationship that could have an effect.

    QUESTION: Well, what we have heard from them so far, though, is that in the first quarter trade with North Korea was up 37 percent. So isn’t this trending in the wrong direction?

    MR TONER: Again, they’ve been – these are all points that we’ve made with senior Chinese leadership. They understand our point of view. They also understand our sense of urgency here and the fact that we’re looking to them to take action. I’ll leave it there.

    QUESTION: Just one more.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: At what point --

    QUESTION: One more.

    QUESTION: At what point --

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s finish North Korea.

    QUESTION: So there is – the President has kind of given two messages: One, we’d really like China – that he’d really like China to do more --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- and that he’s counting on their cooperation; on the other, that the U.S. would kind of go it alone if not. And that presumably means that the U.S. would – and this is a message that Secretary Tillerson took with him to Beijing, is that – and that was – I don’t know if that was discussed at the White House, but secondary sanctions and sanctions on Chinese banks could be an option.

    At what point do you give China some kind of, not deadline, but at what point do you need to consider that --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- China won’t do more and you consider this go-it-alone approach?

    MR TONER: It’s a fair question. The only way I can answer that – I can’t give you a date certain on that, I can just say that we have been very clear that the period of strategic – or the policy of strategic patience is over. We’re looking for, if not immediate steps --

    QUESTION: But that would – are you saying that the period of --

    MR TONER: I would just say that we’re looking --

    QUESTION: -- patience of China is also over?

    MR TONER: No, but we’re looking for action with respect to North Korea, and that includes action on China’s part. And if they --

    QUESTION: Okay, so when you talk sanctions at the United Nations, are you also going to be talking sanctions on members that don’t fulfill their international obligations?

    MR TONER: I’m just not going to – I’m not able to speak to that right now. I just --

    QUESTION: Syria?

    MR TONER: I’m not allowed to --

    QUESTION: On China?

    QUESTION: Mark, on Syria?

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s do Syria. Sorry.

    QUESTION: Can I give you a brief one on China just because we – it’s this woman who was from --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- from Houston who was convicted of spying.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Her counselor or – I don’t think it’s her lawyer, but said that Secretary Tillerson raised his case when he was in Beijing, and that they expected some kind of resolution to it – her release – or a positive resolution in some way very soon. Do you know, is that true? One, did he raise the case? And secondly, you – do you have any comment on the conviction?

    MR TONER: What I would say is that we regularly raise Ms. Phan-Gillis’s case with Chinese officials, and including at the most senior levels. But I don’t want to get into how senior that level was, but just suffice it to say that we have raised it at very senior levels. We are – we remain concerned about her welfare. We continue to follow her case closely. We are aware that – you mentioned that a local Chinese court did sentence her on April 25th. We’re obviously concerned about her well-being and we continue to raise this case with the Chinese Government at every opportunity.

    QUESTION: Well, are you calling for her release?

    MR TONER: Well, again, now that she’s been sentenced, we’re in favor of any result that gets her home to her family.

    QUESTION: So you do want her released?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: North Korea?

    QUESTION: Mark, on Syria?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: So regarding the French report that was released, Foreign Minister Lavrov citing Arnold Schwarzenegger, I believe, in his capacity as an anchor not a governor – or a – an actor, not a governor – said that we cannot act in accordance with the principle of “just trust me.” It seems as though Russia has not moved at all. Or is it the assessment of the State Department that Russia has moved at all since the Secretary of State traveled to Moscow in regards to Syria? Is Russia coming around to the idea of moving beyond Bashar al-Assad, and if not, at what point will the United States stop waiting for Russia to do so?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, you did see – so a couple of points to make on that. One is you saw that we did issue a readout the other day when Secretary Tillerson did speak with Foreign Minister Lavrov. In that readout, we made very clear that Secretary Tillerson, and by extension the United States, believes that there shouldn’t be a separate body or separate investigative body created, as the Russians have suggested, to look into this chemical weapons attack; that we believe that the mechanisms are already there. The OPCW and the JIM, the Joint Investigative Mechanism, are already in place and have already been doing this job of cataloging and investigating chemical weapons attacks in Syria. They are fully capable of doing that. We certainly welcome them, an investigation conducted by them into this attack. We --

    QUESTION: But it seems as though that they’re pinned on this and aren’t moving anywhere towards a political solution in Syria.

    MR TONER: Look, all I will say is that we are very certain and very clear about what took place. And we’ve been very clear about that. I’d refer you to the April 11th background briefing that I believe the White House conducted that looked at the intelligence assessment that went into our assessment that a chemical weapons attack did take place and it was carried out by the Syrian regime. That, of course, was the rationale behind our airstrikes.

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: Sorry, let me finish. So regardless of what Russia may or may not say about an investigation into this activity. We’re convinced – and you saw today the French conducted their own investigation, they’re convinced as well – of what took place. In the interest of greater transparency, we would welcome, as I said, these existing mechanisms within the UN to carry out a thorough investigation, because what’s also important here going forward is that there’s a measure of accountability here and that we are able to – we being the international community – are able to pin these crimes on the Syrian regime who carried them out.

    QUESTION: But on the next steps for Syria --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- it doesn’t seem that Russia’s moving along. How long is the U.S. going to wait?

    MR TONER: I can’t speak to that. I just don’t know. I mean, we’re going to continue to believe, or we’re going to continue to maintain that there doesn’t need to be a separate entity created to investigate this incident. We believe that there’s already the mechanisms in place to investigate this incident.

    QUESTION: But on replacing Assad, though?

    MR TONER: Exactly.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Oh, wait, I’m sorry?

    QUESTION: Replacing Assad, though?

    MR TONER: Oh, replacing Assad, well, that’s a broader question. I apologize. I misunderstood.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    MR TONER: I think – sorry, let me – I swear, Said, I’ll get to you next. I think with respect to Assad, we continue to believe that he’s not the future for Syria. That doesn’t change the fact that he’s still in place and that we need a political process to take place whereby the Syrian people can decide on the future leadership of their country. That’s been our position all along. We’re urging Russia and Iran and the other – well, Russia and Iran, who are aiding and abetting the regime, to convince the regime to renew this process, to restart the Geneva process so that we can get to that political resolution.

    QUESTION: And you haven’t seen any movement towards that?

    MR TONER: There’s been no movement, no.

    QUESTION: Mark, on the investigation --

    MR TONER: There’s some talk of an Astana meeting, but I don’t think it’s been confirmed.

    Please, Said, yes.

    QUESTION: On the investigation mechanism that is in place --

    MR TONER: Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: -- I’m a little bit confused on this because there is the current investigation mechanism that did determine there was a chemical weapon discharged, but there is a need or a call for a more investigative body to go and determine the means by which it was delivered, whether it’s from the air, by airplane, or from the ground. It could conceivably have been used by the rebel groups and so on. Could you clarify that for us? Could you – I mean, what is --

    MR TONER: So --

    QUESTION: You said that --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- you have – you pinned this on the regime, so other than communication, interception that you guys cited --

    MR TONER: Sure, and --

    QUESTION: -- what do you have?

    MR TONER: And this speaks, frankly, to the previous question a little bit. The OPCW – not just the United States, but the OPCW’s executive council rejected a Russian-Iranian proposal for a new mechanism to investigate the attack on Khan Shaykhun, and in fact, States Parties signaled their ongoing support for the impartial investigation into the attack, and that’s already underway. The fact-finding mission, the OPCW fact-finding mission, is already conducting the investigation, is already empowered to investigate chemical weapons attacks. It’s already been doing this and cataloging these, and frankly, that’s important because, as I said, we need a record – historical record that frankly holds the perpetrators accountable – in this respect, the Syrian regime.

    QUESTION: Can I move on --

    MR TONER: Your question was specifically about investigating how it was delivered?

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: I mean, look, we’re convinced – we’ve done the research, our intelligence is strong on this, we’ve briefed that on background – but we’re convinced that it was delivered by Syrian jets from that airstrip that was attacked by U.S. cruise missiles.

    QUESTION: But it is based on the interception of communications between the pilot and some scientists on the ground, right?

    MR TONER: I’m sorry?

    QUESTION: Is that – that’s the only evidence cited, is that there were communications intercepted by you?

    MR TONER: I’d refer you – I don’t want to recount --

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: -- but I’d refer you to that April 11th background briefing.

    QUESTION: Can I move on to the Palestinian issue?

    MR TONER: I’ll get back to you. I want to finish with Syria and then I’ll get back to you, Said. You know how we work.

    Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: So Mark, after you voiced deep U.S. concern against the Turkish airstrikes in Syria, Turkey has repeatedly – has reportedly launched fresh airstrikes today. I want to know if, at a senior level, the United States has conveyed a specific message to Turkey that it must stop airstrikes against the YPG.

    MR TONER: You’re talking about airstrikes that took place --

    QUESTION: In Syria.

    MR TONER: -- last night. So these were airstrikes taken against PKK along the Iraq-Turkey border in a very different area than the airstrikes that I expressed our deep concern about yesterday. So these strikes, as we understand it, are part of an ongoing series of strikes that Turkey’s conducted in this particular area in its fight against the PKK over the past few years. So again, just to be clear, there’s no geographic connection between the strikes that took place – sorry, I’m getting my – but --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: -- two days ago and the strikes that took place last night.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: So – I’m sorry, your question?

    QUESTION: Have you conveyed a specific message at the senior level to your Turkish counterparts that Turkey must stop attacking the YPG? And why are they – why do they continue to do this?

    MR TONER: We did convey that, and I expressed this yesterday in our phone briefing but I’ll say it again. I mean, there was a lack of coordination. There was insufficient notification of these impending airstrikes.

    QUESTION: Impending airstrikes or are you saying --

    MR TONER: I’m talking two days ago, please. Just I want to clarify between the strikes that took place in an area where there have been strikes taken before on direct PKK targets. And let me be very clear: We have said all along the PKK is a foreign terrorist organization. We support Turkey’s efforts to protect its borders from PKK terrorism. Now, going back to the attacks that took place two days ago in a different part, and that did actually hit members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as well as other forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, who are fighting against ISIS – we did express our serious concern about the lack of coordination over those airstrikes, and that was conveyed to the senior leadership of Turkey.

    QUESTION: Did they --

    QUESTION: Just one more – one more question. One more question, Mark. Just one more. Sorry, one more.

    QUESTION: -- ignore your warning and went ahead and did it anyway? I mean, from what we understand from the military, they flat-out said “don’t do it” and then the Turks went ahead and did it anyway.

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: Did they say why?

    MR TONER: Again, I’ll leave it to them to explain or justify why they took the actions they took.

    QUESTION: Well, no, no, I --

    MR TONER: I mean – yeah.

    QUESTION: I’m not asking you to justify it, but I just want to --

    MR TONER: Did – you said did they explain to us?

    QUESTION: Yeah. I’m not even asking you what the explanation is. Or did they just ignore you again? I mean, did they say --

    MR TONER: Honestly, I --

    QUESTION: -- “thanks for the warning but we’re not – we’re going to do it anyway”?

    MR TONER: Again, what was particularly alarming, and I know Colonel Dorrian from DOD spoke about this as well, was just the lack of coordination, not even among the United States and Turkey, but within the coalition itself, of which Turkey is a member, and the lack of notification. But --

    QUESTION: Less than an hour.

    MR TONER: Less than an hour.

    QUESTION: I heard 52 minutes. But when they called 52 minutes before doing this and you guys said “no, don’t do it,” did they say, “We’re going to go ahead and do this and you guys have 52 – or, you know, you guys have X amount of time”?

    MR TONER: About 50 minutes at that point. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Depending on how much they protested.

    MR TONER: I don’t have details of that conversation.

    QUESTION: All right.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: A follow-up?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Sorry. I mean, can you really say that the Turkish-U.S. goals in Syria are mutually exclusive now? Because the United States obviously wants the defeat of ISIS; Turkey wants to defeat the very group that the U.S. depends on most to achieve its goal, which is the destruction of ISIS.

    MR TONER: No, I won’t, and I wouldn’t, and here’s why: Because Turkey also recognizes that ISIS is a very real and a very credible threat, and ISIS has – frankly, Turkey, rather, has suffered a lot at the hands of ISIS terrorism – continued terrorist attacks within its own borders; a flow of terrorists over its borders; as well as an influx of refugees that Turkey has made extraordinary efforts to accommodate.

    Clearly, though, there is a difference of opinion between the U.S. and Turkey over those partners who are on the ground fighting ISIS. We believe that among the Syrian Democratic Forces fighting ISIS effectively on the ground, those forces that are made up of Syrian Kurds, are not related to the PKK. We recognize, obviously, because we recognize that the PKK is a foreign terrorist organization, we recognize Turkey’s concerns about the threat of PKK infiltration. This is an ongoing conversation we’re having. This is a complex battlefield space. All of us in this room have – know that from having followed this issue over the past several years, but that’s not any reason to say we’re walking away or that our goals are mutually exclusive. What we’re asking Turkey to do, as well as all members of the coalition, including those entities on the ground that we’re supporting, is to focus on the mission and the task at hand, and that is destroying ISIS.


    QUESTION: Mark, you said that you recognize --

    MR TONER: I’m going to move away from Syria after this last question on Syria, and then I’m going to get to you.

    QUESTION: You said you recognize PKK as a terrorist organization. Yesterday, a number of U.S. generals were in the place where Turkey bombed – striked a couple of days ago and they were welcomed by the PKK leaders and PKK flags were on the scene, and it was filmed and it was shared, and some of the pictures were shared by DOD as well. Don’t you think there is a conflict on that?

    MR TONER: I haven’t seen those pictures, but I would strongly call into question, with all due respect, that senior military leaders of the U.S. were somehow glad-handing or shaking hands with PKK leaders. As I said, the PKK is a recognized foreign terrorist organization by the United States.


    QUESTION: And --

    QUESTION: Can I move --

    MR TONER: Said.

    QUESTION: -- to the Palestinian-Israeli issue?

    MR TONER: Yes, of course.

    QUESTION: Yeah, a couple questions on the delegation in town. Has there been any meeting between them and any State Department official?

    MR TONER: So, as I think I mentioned yesterday, there are some meetings taking place at the White House, and there is --

    QUESTION: I understand.

    MR TONER: There is – sorry, there is State – let me finish. There is State Department participation in those. I actually went back and confirmed that. So the State Department is obviously participating.

    QUESTION: Can you tell us at what level it was? Was it Mr. Ratney or was it Stuart Jones or --

    MR TONER: I believe it was Mr. Ratney, yeah.

    QUESTION: Okay, it was Mr. Ratney. Okay. I just want to move on. There was also an announcement on the increase of aid to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. I just want to ask, the mechanism, is this going – this increase in aid going to go directly to the PA and directly to Gaza or through organizations?

    MR TONER: I don’t have any details to share on – with respect to the Fiscal Year 2018 budget in general, but certainly with respect to the West Bank and Gaza. And no --

    QUESTION: And --

    MR TONER: Just for the record, no U.S. assistance ever goes directly to the Palestinian Authority.

    QUESTION: Okay, good. So that’s the plan, I wanted to clarify.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Okay, on a couple of other issues --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- Bisnow said that there was Israelis building a new settlement east of Ramallah and it’s on Palestinian land outside the wall --

    MR TONER: Right, we’re aware of those reports.

    QUESTION: Right, I mean --

    MR TONER: Look, President Trump was very clear. He’s both publicly and privately expressed his concerns regarding settlements. He said while the existence of settlements is not in itself an impediment of peace, it’s that further unrestrained settlement activity doesn’t help advance peace.

    QUESTION: And --

    MR TONER: And it’s an important distinction – let me finish. And so he’s made that clear to Israeli – or we’ve made that clear to the Israeli Government. They understand our concerns about this.

    QUESTION: Are they more inclined today, you think, to listen to you versus past administration?

    MR TONER: Are they more inclined to --

    QUESTION: Are they more – is – are the Israelis more inclined to sort of heed your advice to them to end settlement activity, especially with some sort of process ongoing?

    MR TONER: I would just say that we’ve had good preliminary talks with both the Israelis and, obviously, the Palestinians as well, more recently, about steps that can be taken, concrete steps to create a climate for a peace process or peace negotiations to begin again. I’m not going to get ahead of those, but they’re aware of our concerns that increased settlement activity could be an impediment.

    QUESTION: And my last question, I promise, on this one.

    MR TONER: Or it could be – that it doesn’t help advance peace, sorry.

    QUESTION: Yeah. The Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Netanyahu --

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: -- canceled a meeting with the German foreign minister because he met with B’Tselem, a human rights group, and Breaking the Silence, which is formed of former Israeli soldiers that basically act like whistleblowers on what’s going on.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Do you have any comment on that? Is that – how do you view this kind of practice?

    MR TONER: I don’t think it’s necessarily for us to speak to who the prime minister of Israel decides to meet with. He’s free to meet with whomever he wishes. More broadly about this group, I think we would regard it as important that any functioning civil society has these types of groups and the diverse viewpoints. That’s a vital part of any functioning democracy. But I’m not going to speak to his decision.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: On trade?

    QUESTION: Can I --

    QUESTION: Can I – can I have one on --

    MR TONER: Yeah, a couple more questions very quickly and then I – yeah.

    QUESTION: -- on the Israeli issue? The waiver on moving the embassy that the – President Obama signed expires on June 1st. I’m wondering if there’s any plans for a new waiver or what is – after the President made comments that he’s going to move the embassy --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- where does that stand?

    MR TONER: We’re aware of that deadline. I don’t have anything to announce or anything to --

    QUESTION: And where is Ambassador Friedman living out of right now?

    MR TONER: Good question. I’ll try to find out.

    QUESTION: Can you – living and working.

    QUESTION: His apartment in New York, I think.

    MR TONER: I think that’s right – I mean, I think that’s correct, but I’ll double check.

    QUESTION: A beautiful house in (inaudible).

    QUESTION: Mark, can we change the subject, please?

    MR TONER: Yeah, I promised that I’d take him, and I’ll get to you, Lesley. And then this has to be my last question. I’m sorry, guys.

    QUESTION: So the President has spoken numerous times about the unfair – what he calls the unfair trade policies of China and Mexico. But now we’re seeing new tariffs against Canada. What’s the logic behind that? What’s going on here?

    MR TONER: Well, again, this is a complex issue. You’re talking about the --

    QUESTION: Soft lumber?

    MR TONER: Soft lumber, yes, exactly. Softwood lumber, sorry. And this is really an issue for the Department of Commerce, but look, U.S. countervailing law – or, rather, countervailing duty law provides a mechanism for U.S. businesses to – and workers to seek relief from any injury caused by the market distorting effects of subsidies provided by foreign governments to producers of imports into the United States. So that’s what’s at stake here. I know that President Trump spoke with Prime Minister Trudeau yesterday on this very topic or this very subject. His views are very clear on this. We view it as an unfair condition and we’re taking steps to address it.

    QUESTION: Well, we only have two neighbors, right? We have Canada, Mexico.

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Mexico is already not too fond of Trump, so I’m concerned. Is this in our interest as a country to have – I mean, we are hearing Canadian leaders talk about bullying from the United States.

    MR TONER: Look, Canada is a close ally, a neighbor, a partner. I could have disagreements with my neighbors. Anyone can. That doesn’t mean that it undermines the relationship. Our relationship with Canada is rock-solid and will continue to be rock-solid, even as we discuss and resolve these kinds of issues.

    Lesley, yeah.

    QUESTION: Mark, Iran, please?

    QUESTION: I think – hang on, because I have question on Josh Holt --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- the American that was – he’s in jail in Venezuela. There’s reports that he’s got issues with his health. Do you have any update on that?

    MR TONER: Yes, actually. Thanks for asking. So this week – I believe it was yesterday – State Department officials did meet with the mother of Joshua Holt. We understand that she’s also having meetings today, or had meetings with members of Congress as well as other U.S. Government officials. We obviously share her concern for her son, who is a U.S. citizen who has now been detained in Venezuela for some – on questionable charges for some 300 days. And through formal discussions, dozens of diplomatic notes, public statements, we’ve repeatedly raised concerns about his health, the conditions of his detention, and his treatment with Venezuelan authorities. We again call on the Venezuelan Government to immediately release Joshua Holt on humanitarian grounds.

    QUESTION: When was the last time that the State Department raised this issue with the Venezuelans?

    MR TONER: We most recently visited – sorry, just looking – with Mr. Holt on March 10th. I would have to find the exact date that we last raised this, but it’s on a continuous basis.

    QUESTION: And what was his condition like?

    MR TONER: I believe it was – again, we’re concerned about his health, but I think he was in okay shape at that point.

    QUESTION: Well, March 10th is more than a month ago, though.

    MR TONER: I agree.

    QUESTION: Did you have some indication that his health has deteriorated in the 37 – 40 – my math is horrible.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: How many days between then? (Laughter.) In the time between March 10th and today.

    MR TONER: Again, I’ll leave it at this. I’ll say we’re very concerned about his health. I can’t speak to whether it’s deteriorated over the past 37 days. It’s been an ongoing concern of ours. We’ve raised this concern directly with the ministry of foreign affairs and requested his release on humanitarian grounds.

    I’m sorry, guys. I do have to --

    QUESTION: Can I just – I have one more. Thank you.

    MR TONER: Elise, go ahead.

    QUESTION: There was a story yesterday about Secretary Tillerson’s statement on Iran and letter to the Speaker about the Iran deal.

    MR TONER: Oh, yeah.

    QUESTION: And it insinuated that the White House had to intervene to make the letter and Secretary Tillerson’s statement tough enough – tougher. Could you --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- clear up any --

    MR TONER: Sure. And actually, thanks for raising the question. A few points to make on this. So, as is always the case, State Department’s submission to Congress was developed in consultations with other agencies, including the NSC. Suffice it to say, there is no difference of views between the State Department and the White House. Secretary Tillerson has met with President and spoken with President Trump on numerous occasions about Iran and about their shared concerns over its continued bad behavior in the region and the fact that it’s not addressed adequately by the JCPOA, and that’s one of the reasons why they’ve ordered this review of our – comprehensive review of our Iran policy.

    And just one other thing about the allegation that two senior State Department members or personnel somehow drafted this letter without input from the NSC or others is just patently false. There’s always interagency discussion and review of any correspondence that we share with Congress, and this is, frankly, how the process always works. I’m not going to get into discussing those internal deliberations, but that’s part of the interagency process.

    QUESTION: Well, it might not be true that they had the final say on the letter, but they did draft the – I mean, that’s pretty pro forma, right, that a State Department – something that the Secretary is going to sign, a certification, that the State Department would draft it. I don’t see what the --

    MR TONER: But the insinuation in the letter was that there was – or the insinuation in the article was that – or the implication. How about that?

    QUESTION: Was that the State Department drafted a weak letter.

    MR TONER: That the State Department, yes, was somehow seeking – career personnel were seeking to undermine or were somehow at odds with the administration, and that categorically is false.

    QUESTION: But Mark, was there pressure from the President on the Secretary to make the statement the day after to clarify what it meant?

    MR TONER: Again, as part of the deliberations that led up to this letter, there was a shared concern and discussion over the fact that we needed to call attention not just to whether Iran was complying with the letter of the law with respect to the agreement, but the fact that we continue to have concerns outside of that agreement regarding Iran’s dangerous behavior in the region and that we need to look at ways to address that.

    Thanks, guys. Yeah, thanks.

    QUESTION: Mark, anything you --

    MR TONER: I got to go, guys. Sorry.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:35 p.m.)

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - April 24, 2017

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 17:24
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 24, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing
  • IRAN


    1:45 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department.

    QUESTION: Welcome back.

    MR TONER: Thanks. I’d say it’s good to be back, but I had a really enjoyable time off. But it’s good to see you.

    QUESTION: Restful?

    MR TONER: Yes, it was restful. Thanks, Matt. Just one brief announcement at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions. And I apologize in advance; I rarely do this, you know, but I am on a pretty tight schedule today. I apologize; I have something to run to after this.

    But very briefly, I wanted to talk about the Secretary’s travel later this week to New York. Secretary of State Tillerson will travel to New York City on Friday, April 28, to share a Special Ministerial Meeting of the United Nations Security Council. That will take place at 10 a.m.

    As you all know here, the DPRK, North Korea, poses one of the gravest threats to international peace and security through its pursuit of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as its other prohibited activities.

    This meeting will give the Security Council members an opportunity to discuss ways to maximize the impact of existing Security Council measures and to show their resolve to respond to further provocations with appropriate new measures.

    With that, Matt, over to you.

    QUESTION: Let’s start with – actually, I have a couple on North Korea.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: But why don’t we just start with a logistical thing, and I don’t know if you’ll have an answer to this. But you know there’s a possibility of a government shutdown on midnight Friday. Has each agency – at least it has – they have in the past – draws up contingency plans. Has one been drawn up yet for State?

    MR TONER: Well, you answered my question. I was just going to say, yeah, we did – well, we do, we have drawn up – obviously, when any federal agency, out of due diligence --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- draws up a contingency plan. I don’t have that in front of me to share with you, because frankly, we’re not dealing with a certainty yet of a shutdown. I know that the White House and OMB are working diligently with Congress to --

    QUESTION: Right, but can you even give us an idea what embassy operations overseas, Americans in trouble, that kind of --

    MR TONER: I will. As we get closer, I’ll give you a snapshot of that.

    QUESTION: All right, thank you. And then North Korea. One, do you have anything – do you know, have the Swedes been able to meet with this latest American who’s been detained?

    MR TONER: Right. You’re talking about --

    QUESTION: The professor.

    MR TONER: Yeah, the professor. So – and for any of you who was, I guess, in a cave over the weekend that didn’t hear this news report, there were reports received over the weekend that a U.S. citizen has been detained in North Korea. Obviously, we can’t discuss the name of this individual because we don’t have a Privacy Act waiver. I’m not aware, Matt, in answer to your question, that we’ve been able to gain access to this individual yet. Obviously, that’s something we’re working through our protecting power, the Swedes, to --

    QUESTION: Right. But they told you that they had been informed of this detention, correct – the Swedes?

    MR TONER: Yes, that is correct.

    QUESTION: Right. So --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: But you don’t know yet whether or not the Swedes have --

    MR TONER: Right. But we have not – as far as I know, we have not gained access to the individual in question.

    QUESTION: And then – oh, right. So there’s a lot of speculation that the North Koreans may conduct another nuclear test, as possibly as early as this evening. Do you have anything you can say about that ahead of the Security Council meeting that the Secretary’s going to be at on Friday?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, as you know, Matt, we’re usually pretty close-lipped about possible actions or tests that the North Korean regime may take. Obviously, we’ll respond accordingly if and when such actions are taken, such tests are taken.

    I think in general with respect to the Secretary’s meeting later this week – I mean, first of all, you’ve got the meeting at the White House today obviously chaired by the President along with our Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and you’ve got bookended on Friday this meeting that Secretary will chair at the UN Security Council. This is a really important week that I think highlights U.S. engagement with the UN Security Council with the other members of the Security Council and, frankly, underscores our concerns about exactly the issue you raise, which is North Korea’s ongoing violations and provocative actions in the face of international concerns.

    And I think what the Secretary is going to be looking at and conveying to the other members of the Security Council on Friday is – well, among a number of things, but one of the messages I think he’s going to convey is that there are already very strong sanctions in place against North Korea and it is incumbent on every member of the UN to carry out or to enforce those sanctions to the utmost. And by doing that, we believe that we can significantly augment the pressure that North Korea, the regime in Pyongyang, is already feeling, and that we can augment that if everyone does their part. That’s something we’ve been conveying to allies and partners in the region. It’s something we’ve obviously been conveying to China in our discussions with them. So that’s going to be a central part of the message.

    QUESTION: Other than China, which countries are not 100 percent enforcing --

    MR TONER: I’m not going to necessarily name and shame.

    QUESTION: Why not? You did with China.

    MR TONER: We believe China has – and we’ve talked about this before – has unique leverage when it comes to North Korea and that, frankly, China – China’s influence on North Korea is outsized in the sense of, if they fully implement – and we’ve seen them take additional steps in that regard – the sanctions, that they can apply the kind of pressure that will make Pyongyang take notice.

    QUESTION: Well, so are there other countries other than China that are not doing what they have to do?

    MR TONER: I’ll just leave it where I left it, which is that all countries are obliged to --

    QUESTION: Well, who other than China is not?

    MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to get into --

    QUESTION: Why?

    MR TONER: Because I’m not going to get into the specific --

    QUESTION: Well, it seems to have worked. You talked about naming and shaming. It seems to have worked with the Chinese, right, in this case? You just said that they have taken additional actions. So if you really want --

    MR TONER: And that’s something --

    QUESTION: If there are other countries that are not --

    MR TONER: And that’s something we’re pursuing through our private diplomatic conversations with these other countries.

    QUESTION: Okay. But so why – I don’t understand why China gets named and shamed and no one else does.

    MR TONER: I would just say that China plays a significant influential role in that regard.

    Please, Lesley.

    QUESTION: Mark, after the meetings today at the White House with UN Security Council ambassadors, what exactly is it that the U.S. – I mean, this was happening at the White House. What exactly is it that Tillerson’s hoping to do? I mean, obviously, the President was trying to influence the ambassadors. What is it that Tillerson’s going to hope to do? Is that – is it to get more support for further sanctions?

    MR TONER: Well, I think – look, I mean, I think there’s several aspects to it. Again, I think today’s meeting and Friday’s meeting obviously underscore our engagement on the issue and our focus on the issue, and this is obviously also following up on the heels of Vice President Pence’s visit to the region. So we’ve been focused on our concerns about North Korea for – ever since the beginning of this administration.

    And I think what we have signaled clearly is that given the level of provocations, the pace of provocations that North Korea continues to carry out, that it’s time to both look at how we can implement existing sanctions, that existing regime, which as I said is very – if fully implemented, can have a very profound effect on Pyongyang and the regime there, but also to look at and discuss additional measures that may be taken. And we’ve said all along that no option’s off the table.

    QUESTION: Do you believe that China has been getting the word – a firm word to Pyongyang over the last few days?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, obviously, President Trump spoke with President Xi yesterday, and you saw the readout about that.

    QUESTION: Not much of a readout but --

    MR TONER: Understood.

    QUESTION: That’s why I’m hoping you can --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: I’m trying to understand what this – the actual diplomacy is doing.

    MR TONER: No, no, I understand.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: So look, this has been, as I said, front and center in our conversations with all our partners and our allies in the region but certainly with respect to China, and we’ve been engaged from Secretary Tillerson’s travel to Beijing to President Xi’s travel to meet with President Trump in Mar-a-Lago, and this has been front and center of our discussions with the Chinese Government. We believe we have made headway in convincing them of the urgency of this situation and that they are going to take steps to address it.

    QUESTION: Okay, so with North Korea making these same kinds of threats – that it has the capability now to hit the mainland U.S., that it could take out a carrier in that region with a single strike – do you have any reason to believe that this is anything more than rhetoric? Do you think those claims are true?

    MR TONER: Well, again, without – and I want to tread softly here because I don’t want to get into intelligence assessments, but I think what’s very clear is that they’re pursuing a nuclear ballistic capability and continuing to carry out tests to give them that capability of reaching not just other countries in the region but possibly the United States. And that is, to put it mildly, a game changer and it’s one of the reasons why you’ve seen administration officials talking so candidly about our concerns and about the fact that the time for strategic patience and that policy is over, that we have to look at real ways to provide pressure on Pyongyang to convince them – excuse me – to convince them – I apologize --

    QUESTION: That’s okay.

    MR TONER: -- to address the international community’s concerns. That’s what we’re looking at. I don’t have anything to preview. I know I talk a lot about sanctions implementation, but that’s an important component. But I think what this week will hopefully accomplish is an opportunity for us to sit around the table with the other members of the Security Council and talk about other possible next steps.

    QUESTION: The last administration made it clear that they didn’t think that they had that kind of – that capability yet. And everyone knows that they’re working on it and they may be getting closer, but do you feel like they’ve made significant gains?

    MR TONER: Again, I’m just not going to provide that kind of assessment from this podium today. I think what I can say is that we are concerned that they are pursuing that capability all-out.

    QUESTION: Okay. And just quickly --

    QUESTION: Mark?

    MR TONER: Yeah, please. I’ll let her finish and then --

    QUESTION: So, I mean, we’ve been dealing with this same kind of threat for a long time – the rhetoric from North Korea, the nuclear test, the missile tests – so how would you say that the threat is significantly different now than it was, say, a year and a half ago or two years ago? Or is it not technically significantly different?

    MR TONER: Well, I think – look, how I would characterize it is that we have seen, given the pace of missile tests, ballistic missile tests, nuclear tests – Matt alluded to the possibility of a new one even as early as today – given the pace of that – of those efforts, that we are very concerned and we have a right to be concerned. And it’s a reason why, as I said, we’re no longer looking at Six-Party Talks and strategic patience as necessarily a viable way forward. Look, we’re willing to sit down and talk with North Korea about denuclearizing the peninsula, but only if it comes to those talks serious about doing it and not just having talks for talks’ sake. So I think this is something we’re – there’s an urgency here.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Can I change topic?

    MR TONER: Nike, and then I’ll get to you, as promised.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Mark, as you mentioned, the Chinese President Xi has a phone call with President Trump. The Chinese statement – Chinese readout highlighted their desire to pursue to solve this problem peacefully. So what is the U.S. reaction to the proposed three-party talks, meaning the U.S., China, and Korea, not with North Korea, or the five-party talk --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- U.S., China, Japan, Korea, and Russia?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, I think we – the U.S. remains open to credible talks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but I think, as Secretary Tillerson said, conditions have to change before there’s any scope for the talks to resume. So this isn’t to say we’re necessarily dismissing the idea of talks, but I think what’s important to note here is that we need to see a real effort by North Korea to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program before we believe that having such talks is worthwhile.

    QUESTION: So the three-party and five-party talk are still on the table?

    MR TONER: I think, yes, any talk, any credible effort to sit down and negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is on the table, but we need to see more. We’re not – as I said, what’s happened up to this time with the Six-Party Talks is they’ve just been a delay mechanism. We don’t want that to happen.

    QUESTION: If I may, I have one last question on China. Could you please update us the first round of U.S.-China diplomatic and security dialogue? Where are we, and then what would be a major mechanism for the bilateral --

    MR TONER: Yeah, I’m aware – I’ll have to get back to you on that, Nike. I’m aware that it came up yesterday in the conversation with President Xi, but I don’t have any more details to provide at this time.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Just to clarify on North Korea quickly, so President Trump today talked about imposing new sanctions, said to the Security Council members to think about that; but you’re saying Tillerson is not going to suggest that on Friday, he’s just going to talk about implementing existing sanctions.

    MR TONER: I was simply previewing one aspect of what he --

    QUESTION: But the question is will – right, then the question is: Will he follow up on President Trump’s statement?

    MR TONER: I – without getting ahead of what he’ll discuss at the Security Council, I think one is that, as I said, he’ll look at how the UN can more effectively implement the sanctions that are already existing and already, as we know, stringent, and how we can use them to better apply pressure on Pyongyang. But another element of Friday’s discussion is going to be new ideas and the possibility of new measures to be taken, and that always includes sanctions.

    QUESTION: And just if I could ask another question, but on the Syria sanctions.

    MR TONER: Okay. I promise I’ll get to you next, Said.

    QUESTION: Sorry.

    MR TONER: What are you --

    QUESTION: On Iran.

    MR TONER: Okay, great.

    QUESTION: I have just one --

    QUESTION: On North Korea --

    MR TONER: Let’s finish North Korea.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: And then we’ll get to you, I promise.

    QUESTION: Okay. Then --

    MR TONER: Oh, okay, we’re done with North Korea?

    QUESTION: No, no, no, I got --

    QUESTION: One more on North Korea.

    MR TONER: Great. Okay, sorry.

    QUESTION: Just quickly --

    MR TONER: Okay, got it.

    QUESTION: -- to go back to Lesley’s line of questioning, what evidence does the U.S. have that China has taken steps to put pressure on North Korea?

    MR TONER: One is we saw the efforts to – or not the efforts, but China turning away North Korean coal ships, which is, frankly, a pretty significant trading mechanism for them. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: And is that part of the pressure you think that President Trump has put on them, or is that to meet existing UN Security Council resolutions?

    MR TONER: Look, I think I can’t say categorically that it was – but I think what we have been, what this administration has been, from Secretary Tillerson on up to President Trump, has been very clear that we need more effort on the part of China to address the threat that North Korea poses. Whether there’s a connection there, I’ll leave it to you.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: So is it just the coal shipments then, turning coal shipments --

    MR TONER: I can get more detail. That’s one that just popped into my head, but I’ll try to get more for you on that.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Mark, could I ask a question on the Palestinian-Israeli issue?

    MR TONER: Let’s go there, and then we’ll get around.

    QUESTION: Can I get one on North Korea?

    QUESTION: We have a delegation in town.

    MR TONER: Oh, North Korea?

    QUESTION: Yeah, I’m sorry, just --

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    MR TONER: One more – two more on North Korea. We’ve got to finish.

    QUESTION: Does the Secretary have any plans for any bilateral, multilateral meetings on the sidelines of --

    MR TONER: We’ll announce those when they’re firmed up.


    QUESTION: Just a follow-up to Matt’s question.

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: Do you know whether China has stopped supplying or helping build the transporters, the missile transporters that were seen in the military parade the other day?

    MR TONER: I’d have to take that question and see what we can answer. I don’t have an answer with me.

    Please, Said.

    QUESTION: There is a high-level Palestinian delegation in town preparing for the meeting next week between President Trump and Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Are there any plans for you guys to meet with them this week, or is this just a White House event or a White House affair? Are you involved in any way?

    MR TONER: Is which a White House affair?

    QUESTION: There is a high-level --

    MR TONER: I mean, preliminary meetings?

    QUESTION: Well, because they’re --

    MR TONER: No, but I’m asking you --

    QUESTION: -- preparing – I’m sure that – do they have any scheduled meetings at the State Department?

    MR TONER: There’s no scheduled meetings. So you’re talking about the group that’s in town this week?

    QUESTION: This group that’s in town with chief Palestinian negotiator --

    MR TONER: Right, right, right. With Saeb Erekat.

    QUESTION: -- Saeb Erekat.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: And intelligence --

    MR TONER: So as far as I’m aware, there’s no scheduled meetings with Secretary Tillerson this week with any of the Palestinian officials who are in town. That said, I can’t preclude that State Department officials won’t take part in some of the other meetings that are being held at the White House or elsewhere.

    QUESTION: Okay. Who’s involved from the State, from State? Who’s involved with these talks?

    MR TONER: Those would be --

    QUESTION: Is Mr. Ratney involved? Is Mr. Stuart Jones – I mean, who’s --

    MR TONER: I can get more detail, but it would be senior leadership from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, whether that’s Michael Ratney or acting Assistant Secretary Stu Jones. I can’t confirm which one.

    QUESTION: Okay. And I wanted to ask you on the issue of the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: I wonder if you’re aware of the situation – it’s becoming quite dire – and if you have any comments on that.

    MR TONER: You’re talking about the – excuse me – the hunger strike by a Palestinian prisoner now in its eighth day.

    QUESTION: Right. Well, all Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strike.

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: But the leader is – his health is deteriorating and so on.

    MR TONER: Yeah. I – we’re looking into news reports about it. Obviously, we’re concerned about the health of any prisoner, but I’d have to refer you to Israeli authorities.

    QUESTION: And they’re striking because they’re asking for better conditions and so on.

    MR TONER: I’m aware.

    QUESTION: Something that --

    MR TONER: I’m aware.

    QUESTION: -- Secretary Kerry, former Secretary Kerry has talked about in the past.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Is that something that you guys would push the Israelis on?

    MR TONER: Well, look, we’ve talked about this before. We always – with respect to the treatment of any prisoner anywhere, but certainly the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, we would expect them to be treated in accordance with existing human rights standards and with dignity and respect. That said, I can’t speak to the specific case. I’d refer you to Israeli authorities.

    QUESTION: Just a quick question on the Syria sanctions. Sorry.

    QUESTION: Can we move to Iran?

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s go.

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: I’ll get back to you.

    QUESTION: -- last week Secretary Tillerson announced the review, a major change in U.S. policy, in regards to the Iran deal, saying that it essentially is not going to work, or represents the same failed approach that took place with North Korea. Does that change the JCPOA meeting from the U.S. perspective tomorrow in Vienna? And will the U.S. be discussing options outside of the JCPOA at that meeting with partners?

    MR TONER: Okay. So big question – complicated question, but a good one. I’ll try to answer it. So first of all, to go back to next week, Secretary Tillerson said the Trump administration is conducting a – I think a 90-day review, comprehensive review, of our Iran policy.

    [1] And once we have finalized conclusions, then we’ll be ready, we believe, to better meet the challenges that Iran poses to the region.

    QUESTION: It seems as though he already has come to somewhat of a conclusion --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- though, that it’s --

    MR TONER: Well, look, I think these are concerns that have long been held about Iran, and that is Iran – no one’s under any illusions that Iran has been a malign influence on the region. Whether it’s Syria, whether it’s Lebanon, whether it’s through Hizballah, whether it’s through other nefarious activities, Iran is a state sponsor of terror. And that is separate and apart from our concerns, and the international community’s concerns, about its nuclear program that was addressed in the JCPOA.

    So what we’re now attempting to do is conduct a 90-day review looking at our policy vis-a-vis Iran writ large. Now, with respect to – and until that time, rather – until the review is completed, we’re going to adhere to the JCPOA and ensure that Iran is held to – held strictly accountable to its requirements.

    But you asked about the meeting tomorrow in Geneva, and that is, I think, a quarterly review. It’s called a Joint Commission meeting. So that will take place as scheduled. I think our ambassador – or rather, our lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, Ambassador Steve Mull, will travel to Vienna, he’ll lead the U.S. delegation, and – look, that meeting’s going to look at whether Iran is meeting its commitments to the JCPOA. Iran’s going to be at the table, so it’s going to be a frank and candid exchange to talk about any concerns that any countries, any delegations have about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapon and whether it’s complying with the JCPOA. I don’t want to get ahead of that, but the meeting’s going to take place as normal.

    QUESTION: And do you know – there was this group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that says it had satellite imagery showing that Iran was violating the deal. Is it something the U.S. would bring up in that – in that meeting?

    MR TONER: I can’t predict. I’m not aware of that, frankly. I’d have to look into that, but look, this is – this one of the IAEA’s responsibilities: to make sure that it maintains the access that it already has, and that it’s ensuring that Iran is complying with the deal. But as we get information and get access to information that may show otherwise, we’ll certainly share that.

    QUESTION: So Mark, the President said that the – or that Iran is not complying with the spirit of the deal. What does that mean to you?

    MR TONER: I don’t want to parse the President’s words.

    QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking you to parse it.

    MR TONER: I think --

    QUESTION: I just want to know what that is --

    MR TONER: -- more broadly he is --

    QUESTION: -- because you’ve talked --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: You, the Secretary, White House, have all talked about how they’re still a state sponsor of terrorism, they’re still funding Hizballah, they’re still helping Assad, they’re involved with the Houthis in Yemen, all this kind of thing. But none of that was covered by the nuclear deal, so is it --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- this administration’s view that the nuclear deal should, in fact, encompass broader sets of – patterns of behavior?

    MR TONER: Sure. I think partly this is what the review aims to look at, is how we take a more comprehensive look at Iran and its bad behavior in the region and whereas previous administration compartmentalized the nuclear agreement and concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, I think all of this is going to be on the table and it all is going to be looked at in the terms of where can we apply pressure --

    QUESTION: Right, but --

    MR TONER: -- and I think – sorry – but the reason I don’t want to parse the President’s words is because I think I don’t want to assume what he was intending to say, but I believe he was trying to speak to concerns about that Iran’s behavior hasn’t changed significantly --

    QUESTION: Right, but --

    MR TONER: -- across the board.

    QUESTION: -- the previous administration, which negotiated the deal --

    MR TONER: I know, I’m aware.

    QUESTION: -- purposely left those other things, that other bad behavior, out.

    MR TONER: I’m aware of that.

    QUESTION: So if you are – if they are complying with the letter of the – the administration believes that the Iranians are complying with the letter of the deal, right?

    MR TONER: That’s correct.

    QUESTION: Okay, but not the spirit? So is that, in this – in the view of this administration, is that a violation of the agreement if they are adhering to it that – all the technical aspects of it, but they’re not --

    MR TONER: I don’t think we’re prepared to say that. I think that’s part of the reason why this review is being done.

    QUESTION: All right. And when – in the 90 days that start – clock started ticking on that --

    MR TONER: I don’t know. I’ll have to – I would assume from last week --

    QUESTION: Because there’s another certification due in 90 days from last Tuesday? Was it Tuesday?

    MR TONER: Yeah, I --

    QUESTION: Tuesday night, yeah.

    MR TONER: I’m not sure when the clock started out. I’ll – I can try to get that for you.

    QUESTION: And Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark, the JCPOA – Mark, does it detect – did it have any kind of reference to the spirit or good behavior?

    MR TONER: No, it spoke specifically to --

    QUESTION: So it’s basically a technical thing that the Iranians --

    MR TONER: Yeah. No, it was all about – it was all about --

    QUESTION: -- are complying with, right?

    MR TONER: It was all about preventing Iran from cutting off the pathways Iran could pursue to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

    QUESTION: Right. And they are adhering to that, right? The Iranians.

    MR TONER: As far as we know, or as to our belief, yes, they are thus far.


    QUESTION: So Mark, part of the review, is that the possibility of maybe wanting to add to the agreement the possibility of reopening negotiations to include this?

    MR TONER: I think it’s a comprehensive look at how we deal with Iran, and taking into account the fact that its behavior in the region hasn’t significantly changed, and how do we look at the tools, and how can we apply pressure. Look, this administration came in with real concerns about the nuclear deal. That said, they said we’re not going to change it or rip it up. We’re going to examine it, think about it, look at it, discuss it, and discuss it in the larger context of Iran’s role in the region and in the world, and then adjust accordingly.

    But until that time, we’re still going to honor the deal.

    QUESTION: Just about the sanctions on Syria, if I can change the topic.

    MR TONER: Oh yeah, of course, I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: So do you have any information about whether these 271 scientists actually have assets in the U.S. and/or whether the U.S. is doing business with them?

    MR TONER: Sorry, you’re talking about the --

    QUESTION: The sanctions on the 271 scientists.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Right, right, right. The ones that were just announced at the White House. Sorry, I apologize.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: And your question? I apologize.

    QUESTION: It’s whether they – these 271 employees of the research center – do you have any information on whether they have assets in the U.S. and/or whether the U.S. is doing any business with them?

    MR TONER: A fair question, a question we get asked quite a bit on these kinds of sanctions. Excuse me. I’d have to refer you to OFAC and to the Department of Treasury to speak to any holdings that these individuals may have had. What they were in response to was the Syrian Government’s use of chemical weapons and the people we believe were behind that capability or providing that capability to the Syrian regime. And this is an effort to hold those individuals accountable. As to their possible investments or ties to the U.S. financial system, I can’t answer that.

    QUESTION: Sanctions? Syria sanctions?

    QUESTION: Syria-related, another question on Syria?

    QUESTION: One on Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Syria sanction?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Why is – why were – the airstrikes weren’t enough? Why take this action now? And has anything changed from the day of the airstrikes to allay your suspicions of what you allegedly thought went down and these sanctions?

    MR TONER: No, we’ve been --

    QUESTION: What is driving it?

    MR TONER: Sure. We’ve been pretty clear from the time the decision was made to carry out those airstrikes where we believe those – or those – the chemical attack was launched from and who was responsible for it, and that was the Syrian regime. At the same time, as you know, we’ve also said we would support an investigation by the appropriate UN bodies – the Joint Investigative Mechanism as well as the OPCW group – to look into the – to do an independent examination or investigation into the attacks, but we’re firm in our beliefs.

    QUESTION: Why don’t you wait --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Why don’t you wait till that --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Why don’t you wait till that review is done before you take action like this?

    MR TONER: Well, again, we’re going to continue to hold the individuals accountable that we believe carried out these chemical weapons attacks. We were very clear in our quick response to the attack two weeks ago that this could not stand, that this went beyond international standards --

    QUESTION: But why support a probe --

    MR TONER: -- and that it was against – sorry.

    QUESTION: Why support a probe if you already know what happened?

    MR TONER: Again, just in the spirit of having an investigative – an independent investigative body look at the examination – or look at the evidence, and there are, as we’ve talked about, these entities within the UN who are already mandated to carry out and have been carrying out these kinds of investigations on the multiple chemical weapons attacks that this regime – that the Assad regime has carried out already in Syria.

    QUESTION: On Afghanistan?

    QUESTION: Another subject?

    MR TONER: A couple more, guys.

    QUESTION: On another subject?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Afghanistan?

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: And then I’ll get to Afghanistan, whoever’s asking.

    QUESTION: This – I have a two-part question. The first part is: Any visa that is even decided by other departments is issued by the State Department?

    MR TONER: Any visa?

    QUESTION: Any visa.

    MR TONER: That’s correct.

    QUESTION: Yeah, okay. So based on that, has this department received any guidelines about the H1B visa from the White House? The background is that the executive order doesn’t talk about H1B visa in the hire – buy American, hire American, but there was a more-than-an-hour nearly background briefing which was dedicated to it. And so is there – there is a lot of confusion out there. The lawyers are saying it’s just a review of reform, so can you just update us what is the latest on the H1B?

    MR TONER: On the H1B visas, yeah.

    QUESTION: B, like – and is there anything that will affect the present-day holders of H1B visa?

    MR TONER: With respect to the H1B visas, I don’t have any new information to share. I mean, obviously, we want to see U.S.-India business-to-business ties remain strong. We greatly value Indian companies’ continued investment in the U.S. economy, which also, of course, supports thousands of U.S. jobs. With respect to any new requirements on visas, I’d have to check and see if that’s been updated.

    QUESTION: That – just a quick – the point is that the White House, the President, has ordered the review of the abuse and fraud. So under that, do you have – got any directives to check on --

    MR TONER: Well, I think what I would say about that is --

    QUESTION: -- where you are issuing them?

    MR TONER: Sure. Under this White House, we have been looking at ways to strengthen our processes, our visa interview and admission processes, in new ways. And that’s been from the beginnings of this administration, certainly with respect to immigration and with refugee flows as well. Those processes are ongoing.

    But I think it’s important to remember that this is always a part of how our consular bureau works and our consular officers work overseas, and our embassies and missions work overseas, and that is we’re always reviewing the processes that are in place to issue these visas and finding ways to strengthen them, because fundamentally, we want to ensure the security of the American people.

    A couple questions. One more. Yeah.

    QUESTION: On Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: In Afghanistan, we’ve seen two attacks that coincide with the visit of top U.S. officials. What does the administration read into that?

    MR TONER: Excuse me. Well, you’re talking about – the second one was the Secretary of Defense Mattis’s trip there today? Well, that was after the fact. I think – look, I think – first of all, I want to strongly condemn the attack on members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces 209th Corps in Balkh province that took place on Friday and killed more than 100 Afghan soldiers, wounded more than 60. This was an attack on these soldiers as they were returning from prayer. It was barbaric, it was unconscionable, and we condemn it fully, and we offer our condolences to the families and loved ones of those lost and injured.

    With respect to what this signifies more broadly, look, I think we continue to see, we believe, the capability of Afghan Security Forces strengthen and grow, but we’re not there yet. And clearly, attacks like these are going to happen. And obviously, the Afghan Government has taken steps; I believe there were some resignations in the aftermath. But this in no way should convey to the Taliban or anyone else in the region that the U.S. has any intention of walking away from its commitment to the Afghan Government and the Afghan people.

    What we’re working on now is continuing to strengthen, on the security side, the capabilities of the Afghan Forces to provide security for their own people, and on the political and economic side, how we can strengthen reform efforts within the government – anti-corruption efforts to make the Afghan Government more accountable to its people. This is not going to be an overnight process and no one is under any illusions that it will be. But again, I think the message – rather than what we’ll take away from this attack, the message we hope to convey by our back-to-back visits is the fact that we are committed to seeing this process through with the Afghan people.

    QUESTION: And just to follow up on that, there is now talk of sending more troops to Afghanistan. How does this fit in with the strategy of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table when they seem to be so hostile to any U.S. presence in the country?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, again, we continue to encourage that. That has to be an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process, and we’ve long said that. But we’ve also conveyed to the Taliban, publicly as I am now, that it’s really the only long-term solution that they have to provide peace and stability – or bring peace and stability to the country. They’re not going to win on the battlefield, but if they engage, meeting the preconditions – they recognize the constitution, they eschew violence and terrorism – that they can be, one day, a part of the political process in Afghanistan. But it’s up to them. And meantime, we’re not going to let up in our efforts to disable them and eliminate them.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    MR TONER: Kylie.

    QUESTION: After – quick question. The U.S. top commander in Afghanistan didn’t refute the claims that the Russians are backing the Taliban and also providing them with arms. So has the U.S., the State Department, reached out to the Russians after this specific attack? We know that Lavrov and Tillerson spoke about Afghanistan last week, so how does this impact the U.S.-Russia relationship, and are they talking about these attacks?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to get into the details of our private diplomatic concerns – our private diplomatic conversations with Russia. Excuse me. But obviously, we take the senior military – U.S. military leader assessment of the situation in Afghanistan very seriously, and I can assure you that our concerns have been conveyed to the Russian Government.

    QUESTION: Can you take this? This is Afghanistan as well. Just --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- their visas for translators, there seem to be a low supply. I know that it’s a couple senators on the Hill – a couple senators are pushing legislation to increase the number. Do you – does the administration support those efforts?

    MR TONER: Yes. We are committed to continuing this program – the – you’re talking about the Special Immigrant Visas?

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: Yeah. We’re committed to – I’m not aware of the exact numbers, but we want to see these efforts continue.

    QUESTION: So you do support increasing the number, is that correct?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Or just continuing to see --

    MR TONER: Continuing the program. I’m not sure what the specific numbers. I’d have to check on that.

    QUESTION: Can you – can you check?

    MR TONER: Yes, will do.

    QUESTION: Thanks.

    MR TONER: One more question, guys. I apologize.

    QUESTION: I got one more – Iran.

    MR TONER: Oh, okay. Boom, boom.

    QUESTION: Go ahead.

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Could you give us a readout on Brett McGurk’s visits to Iraq and Kuwait recently?

    MR TONER: I will if I can find the – he was in Iraq and Kuwait, I can confirm that. And you know this is part of Brett’s regular visits to the region. Hah, got it. Just for you.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: As I was stalling there, Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk did travel to the region. He arrived in Baghdad I think on Friday for consultations, met with senior Iraqi leaders that included Prime Minister Abadi, Foreign Minister Jafari, Parliament Speaker Jabouri, and others. Obviously, they talked about ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS. That obviously includes the latest on the Mosul – operation to liberate Mosul, rather, and our long-term efforts to support Iraq’s stabilization post-ISIS.

    On Saturday, he went to Kuwait. He met with senior Kuwaiti leaders to provide an update on the global coalition’s effort to defeat ISIS and ways that we can intensify that fight. He also got a chance to, I think, thank the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society for their humanitarian effort in and around Mosul including, I think, 40,000 tons of medication, more than 60,000 tons of food, and the building of five schools. And tomorrow – excuse me – tomorrow, he’s going to be traveling to Riyadh, and again, meetings with Saudi officials on ways to intensify the counter-ISIS efforts.

    QUESTION: And the Iraqis have said they expect the Mosul operation to be completed by the middle of May; is that – like in three weeks. Is that something that you agree with, that’s going to happen so soon?

    MR TONER: Not for me to give battlefield assessments. I would defer to my colleagues in the Department of Defense. I would only say that it’s – and we said this from the get-go – that it was going to be a hard, difficult effort. That effort’s ongoing. We’re confident that we’ll liberate the city, but I think the Iraqi forces have shown tremendous fortitude, tremendous perseverance, tremendous courage, tremendous sacrifice, and also tremendous care in liberating without putting civilians at too great a risk.


    QUESTION: IIP is in your bureau, is it not, Public Affairs?

    MR TONER: No, it’s a different --

    QUESTION: It’s not in Public Affairs?

    MR TONER: It’s a different entity.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Other – their focus --

    QUESTION: Can you take this question, then --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- since you wouldn’t – have – if it’s not in your bureau, you might not know about it. But it’s come to some people’s attention that IIP has produced an article which is being promoted on at least the embassy of – the U.S. Embassy in London as well as a site called ShareAmerica, and this article is a feature about Mar-a-Lago. And I’m wondering if this whole thing in its appearance – the appearance of this article on government websites has been vetted by anybody, because Mar-a-Lago –

    MR TONER: I’ll look into it. It’s the first time I’m hearing about the article.

    QUESTION: It’s not like Camp David; it’s privately – it’s a private club and so --

    MR TONER: So you’re asking me – just so – sorry, just so I’m clear, the message – you’re asking whether the article had been vetted by appropriate --

    QUESTION: I want to know if --

    MR TONER: -- security folks or just in general?

    QUESTION: Yeah – no, no, no, no, no. Not security, ethics.

    QUESTION: Well, I’m being told that the content was produced by the State Department and put on the embassy’s website.

    MR TONER: I’ll check into it. I don’t have anything to offer.

    QUESTION: It’s not a --

    MR TONER: Last question. I know, it’s not a security issue. I understand what you’re saying.

    QUESTION: But I want you – it’s not a security, it’s an ethics issue.

    MR TONER: Last question.

    QUESTION: Mark, three months into this administration now, there’s still an overwhelming number of senior positions here at the State Department, and I believe 181 ambassadorships around the world that have still not – there are no nominations for. Could you explain why that is, and do you think there are any nominations coming soon?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, so I’ll refer you to the White House on questions regarding nominations for senior-level positions including ambassadorships because that’s their purview. But with respect to the vacancies, I can assure everyone in this room and everyone in the United States and around the world that these are not vacancies, that there are senior State Department official serving in acting capacities, but these folks are seasoned veterans of the Foreign Service and seasoned diplomats. I know many of them personally, and I can speak – attest to their expertise and their professionalism. But this is a process, and with any new administration it takes time. Would we like to see it move faster? Certainly. And I think we’re looking at efforts on how to make that move faster. But it takes two to tango; we need Congress’s support and the Senate’s support to get there.

    Thanks, guys.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)

    DPB # 22

    [1] On April 18, Secretary Tillerson announced that President Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States. The NSC has not provided a timetable for this review.

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - April 13, 2017

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 17:42
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 13, 2017

Index for Today's Briefing


    2:09 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Hey, guys. Welcome to the State Department. Happy Thursday. I don’t have anything at the top, except for one thing.

    I did notice – or I’m getting a lot of question, and I’ve seen some commentary on social media about what may or may not be happening in the corridor just outside the briefing room. I just wanted to assuage any conspiracy-minded folks that the PA Bureau is undergoing a renovation of its office space. It’s a long-planned project; it’s overseen by the Bureau of Administration’s Real Property Management Office, which manages all domestic State Department property, and that includes in this building.

    They are taking every necessary precaution to ensure that the asbestos abatement is done according to environmental safety standards, and that does include having to temporarily remove the portraits of the legions of previous spokespeople that have graced this podium before me. But I can assure you that they will be restored in all their glory. They’re not being consigned to the trash heap of history. And, look, it’s really for you all to lobby, but – granted I’ve only been acting spokesman, but I have briefed up here more than any other spokesperson in history, with the possible exception of Boucher.

    With that little self-aggrandizement, I will turn it over to you, Matt Lee.

    QUESTION: Well, I just want to make sure the asbestos situation is going to be under control. We’re not going to be quarantined or anything?

    MR TONER: No, I can assure you you won’t be, but it’s the reason why they have to put up those scary warnings. Anyway, what’s up?

    QUESTION: All right. And when the new photos go back – well, when the old photos go back up, will there be a new one?

    MR TONER: I have nothing to announce at this time. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Well, I’m just trying to get a --

    MR TONER: I know you are. I know you are.

    QUESTION: -- just get a – and on-the-record response to --

    MR TONER: And we will keep you informed.

    QUESTION: -- whether or not this is the last – your last briefing.

    MR TONER: My last briefing? I never say never, so I’ll withhold on that.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: And I’ll send out commentary later if it does turn out to be my last briefing. No, just kidding.

    QUESTION: Well, no, because if – you’re not going to get away with not having some words said about you when that does happen.

    MR TONER: Thank you. Appreciate it.

    QUESTION: Anyway, let’s start with real news.

    MR TONER: Of course. Yeah.

    QUESTION: On Russia.

    MR TONER: Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: I wanted to clear up one logistical thing and then ask a policy type of thing. One, the logistical thing is: To the best of your knowledge, was there ever any indication that over the course of the last week that the Secretary’s meeting with President Putin would not happen?

    MR TONER: So – (coughing). Excuse me. Was there – sorry, let me make sure I got the question right. Was there ever any indication that it would not happen? So routinely – and I think others opined on this yesterday – it is the case that the president will see a visiting secretary of state, and that’s been the case in the past. It’s also pretty routine that they’re not formally announced until the day of or even hours before. And that’s ultimately something for the Kremlin and President Putin himself to announce, which is part of the reason why we were being mum on it. I think it’s something we expected all along and were planning on, but --

    QUESTION: Right. But did you ever get any indication from the Russians that the meeting might be off?

    MR TONER: We were never given any indication that there --

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR TONER: -- that there might not be a meeting. Yeah.

    QUESTION: And then there seemed to be a line of commentary that Secretary Tillerson had been kept waiting by President Putin. The meeting, I believe, was scheduled and had been long scheduled for 5:30 local time, and the way I understood it, the Secretary was running about half an hour late after his meetings with the foreign minister. So the meeting began less than half an hour after it was – or about half an hour after it was supposed to have been – is that correct?

    MR TONER: I can assure you he was not – I double-checked on this, and he was not kept waiting.

    QUESTION: All right.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Okay. Now on the --

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: Onto the substance.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: The Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov both announced that they would be creating working groups – I think Foreign Minister Lavrov used the word “special envoys,” but I don’t know if that was a translation issue or not, but let’s say working groups – to look at various irritants and see how they – can you be more specific about what those areas are that these working groups, or if it’s just one working group, what it will be looking at and what you hope to achieve?

    MR TONER: So a couple thoughts on that. And I – if I’m shy on specifics, I apologize. But first of all, both in his bilateral meeting, but also in his meeting with – sorry, with his – in his bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, but also in his bilat with President Putin, there was, I think, an acknowledgment that there are almost historical low level of trust – levels of trust between our two countries. And I think Secretary Tillerson said right out of the bat in his press avail yesterday that’s a problem.

    I think in his – certainly in his meeting with President Putin they went over the history of why we’re where we’re at, and I think it allowed the two of them to both appreciate and better understand why each country is frustrated with the other on certain issues. And I think by the end of that, they were able to acknowledge that with this understanding in place there’s a way for the two countries to find ways to rebuild some of that trust, find opportunities. And with that respect, I think that’s – the idea of this working group is to look at – look for those opportunities or ways to kind of rebuild a trust or --

    QUESTION: So it’s singular? It’s not multiple?

    MR TONER: It’s my understanding it is a singular group at this point.

    QUESTION: Okay. And --

    MR TONER: And sorry, just in terms of the working group’s mandate, that’s still being worked out, the exact details. There’s been some speculation this is kind of a return to the bilateral presidential commission. That’s not the case. But I think this is a group that’s going to focus on looking at some of these irritants and looking at ways that we can possibly find opportunities to cooperate.

    QUESTION: When you say mandate is being looked at, does that include the membership of it? Like, who would be on it?

    MR TONER: I believe so, yeah. And who will be on it, yes.

    QUESTION: All right. And then you said that they went over the history of why we’re at where we’re at? Was this like the airing of grievances or something? I don’t – I mean, how far back did they go?

    MR TONER: I don’t know. I was told a short history. I don’t know.

    Look, I think – I think it was helpful to hear – for both sides to hear each other’s perspective on why we’re where we’re at. I mean, none of this is going to come as news to anybody in this room who’s followed how we’ve gotten to where we are, but I think it’s important in any kind of bilateral situation like that to hear the other side’s point of view. He did that – Secretary Tillerson. And again, it’s part of an effort to appreciate their perspective. It’s not one we agree on, but it helps us understand so that we can find a way to work forward.

    QUESTION: Right. But I mean, is the idea that they would focus on smaller issues of – and not huge differences like Syria, or NATO expansion, or missile --

    MR TONER: I wouldn’t even – I wouldn’t necessarily even qualify it that way. I think they’re looking at where we can find common ground. I mean, look, even out of Syria there was the common ground that they found that we’ve all agreed to what end state we want to see in Syria, which is a Syria whole and with all religious groups and minorities represented. But how we get there, that’s a difficult – I get it. That’s a difficult challenge.

    QUESTION: Yeah, but that’s been the common – that’s been the common goal since Geneva I.

    MR TONER: You’re right. And – but it’s the getting there that’s difficult. But I think it’s --

    QUESTION: So what’s the point of agreeing to something that you previously agreed to and then – I mean, I just – was there any – if there’s no progress on the means to get to the end, then I don’t understand what – why it’s so productive to – for the two sides to run down a list of what pisses you off about the other side. I don’t get it.

    MR TONER: Well, I think, again, I’ll just say as part of this effort to find common ground, find areas of cooperation – not common ground, but areas of cooperation, there was a good-faith effort for each other to listen to the other’s grievances.

    QUESTION: Can I follow up? Yeah?

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Lesley.

    QUESTION: Just to come back, so you don’t know when the working group is going to start?

    MR TONER: I don’t. I don’t. If I get more on that, I will let you know, but I think it’s TBD.

    QUESTION: Okay. And I know this – was there maybe a discussion about a follow-up meeting between the two, between Lavrov and the Secretary?

    MR TONER: Lavrov and Secretary Tillerson?

    QUESTION: Are you aware of anything?

    MR TONER: I’m not aware of any physical meeting. Of course, they’ll obviously follow up on – by phone, I expect. I have nothing to announce in that regard too, but I have no expectation yet of a follow-up meeting.

    QUESTION: Do you – you probably saw that the AP had an interview today with Assad.

    MR TONER: Saw that.

    QUESTION: Who called it – who called the accusations of a chemical attack a fabrication. You saw earlier this morning the Syrian Army statement, which the U.S. then put down, saying that the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS that hit a chemical weapons depot by ISIS. What’s going on? A day after these meetings, there seems to be pushback. This doesn’t look like somebody who looks like he’s about to change course.

    MR TONER: Well, it’s – sadly, it’s vintage Assad. It is an attempt by him to throw up false flags, create confusion. Frankly, it’s a tactic we’ve seen on Russia’s part as well in the past. There can be little doubt that the recent attacks and the chemical weapons attack in Idlib was by the Syrian Government, by the Syrian regime, and that it wasn’t only a violation of the laws of war but it was, we believe, a war crime.

    QUESTION: Mark, I just want to follow up on this.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: But before that, I want to ask you about Russia.

    MR TONER: (Sneezes.) Excuse me.

    QUESTION: The President said that – basically sort of toned down the rhetoric. And he said that ultimately, everybody will come – the President --

    MR TONER: Who? President Putin?

    QUESTION: No. The President of the United States, President Trump --

    MR TONER: Sorry. I apologize.

    QUESTION: -- said that everybody will come back to their senses and they are going to have better relations and so on. Is that a result of the conversation between Secretary Tillerson and the president? Is that the outcome? Because that up and down – or more hopeful about the future relations with Russia than it was yesterday.

    MR TONER: Well, certainly I’ll let the President’s tweet stand for itself. I’d just say that the President also made this point in his press avail with the NATO secretary general yesterday, and it’s simply that the world is a complicated and difficult place, and there’s enough hard challenges out there that we would like to be able to have a constructive relationship with Russia. But we’re not there. And I think – but I think our ultimate goal is to find, as I said, areas – small at start, but areas where we can rebuild that trust that’s sorely lacking.

    QUESTION: And on the Assad interview, now he keeps saying that you have refutable evidence. I mean, today, the United States is saying that they intercepted some communications between the pilot and some chemical scientist and so on on how to do this. I mean, that is – that seems to be the evidence. I find that difficult – I mean – or isn’t it a bit odd that the pilot would be talking to whoever the scientists are and so on to drop this bomb? Is that the only evidence you have?

    MR TONER: I’m not aware of that report. What I --

    QUESTION: But that --

    MR TONER: What I am – sure.

    QUESTION: That’s what CNN said.

    MR TONER: What I – sure.

    QUESTION: Because they were told by a high official and so on.

    MR TONER: Well, what I am aware of – and I think there was a backgrounder done on this by some of the – of our intelligence officials who looked at and analyzed this data, what went into our analysis and our ultimate conclusion that this was a chemical weapons attack that was carried out by the Syrian regime and that was laid out, I think, in some articles the other day. They briefed on background, given their status as intelligence officials. But it’s pretty clear-cut in our book.

    Look, that said, as I think Secretary Tillerson said, there are – we have the joint investigative mechanism. We have other mechanisms. The OPCW has these mechanisms to investigate, conduct an impartial investigation into these allegations. We know what happened. We have reached our own conclusion. We carried out the airstrikes.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: But by all means, those independent mechanisms should be allowed to carry out their investigations. But again, what we saw yesterday was – what did Russia do? It vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have allowed those investigations to move forward.

    QUESTION: There is a lot to go through there. But if – let’s say you have an investigation, and the investigation somehow concludes that there was no Syria chemical strike. I mean, you already struck. You already destroyed that airbase. So how would that be dealt with?

    MR TONER: I can only say that we are – we undertook that action with the utmost confidence that it – this – that we were hitting the airstrip and the airbase, rather, that carried out that strike.

    QUESTION: And lastly --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- I just want you to clarify something, because I don’t understand it. What – isn’t it that the U.S. Army, who was supposed to dispose of these chemical weapons and, in fact, they did; they destroyed something like 600 tons, which is all the chemical weapons that was at least declared by Syria at the time? Isn’t that true? Would you clarify that for us? Because you keep – or you keep hearing that Russia was responsible to guarantee that these weapons are destroyed or accounted for and so on.

    MR TONER: Right. Well, they were, in fact – as signatories to that agreement, Russia pledged to assure that the Assad regime – and the Assad regime also pledged to ensure that it would give up its declared chemical weapons. There were – I don’t have the exact amounts in front of me, but there was a massive amount of chemical weapons that were, in fact, taken out of Syria and neutralized. So you can’t say that that effort was in vain. It wasn’t. It got chemical weapons out of that conflict area. But that said, clearly either they remained their capacity to produce additional chemical weapons or they didn’t declare all their chemical weapons.

    Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: You said the Security Council resolution the Russians vetoed yesterday would have allowed an investigation. My understanding was that the agreement back in – that you just referred to, that that allowed for investigations. So is it actually correct that --

    MR TONER: Sorry. It sought – I apologize. It sought to hold the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack accountable, called on the regime to cooperate with an independent international investigation. I apologize.

    QUESTION: Right. But an investigation – the – yesterday’s resolution was not required for there to be an investigation.

    MR TONER: Right. These – my understanding is that these bodies – I mean, that’s what they exist for, is to carry out these investigations.

    QUESTION: So it didn’t need – it didn’t need --

    MR TONER: But they – it did not need to pass.

    QUESTION: They don’t – they didn’t need a new authorization from the Security Council to conduct an investigation.

    MR TONER: That’s my understanding. Yeah.

    Go ahead, sir. And then I’ll get to you, Goyal.

    QUESTION: I have a question about yesterday’s meeting with – in Moscow --

    MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.

    QUESTION: -- but in frame of Ukraine issue. So yesterday, Secretary of State said in Moscow that he discussed Ukraine and Minsk agreement with Foreign Minister Lavrov. However, there was no acknowledgment that Mr. Tillerson talked about it with Mr. Putin. So could you give more detail on that? And was the Ukraine issue raised during the meeting with Russian president?

    MR TONER: So I can – as you noted, I can say that he did raise Ukraine in his bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I don’t have the details, full details, of his bilat with President Putin or his meeting with President Putin. I can’t confirm – I’m sorry – that Ukraine was raised in that setting. I think it probably was, since they went through the range of issues where we don’t see eye to eye with Russia on. And as Secretary Tillerson was very clear, that on those issues that we don’t see eye to eye on, he’ll continue to raise those in his meetings with Russian officials. I just can’t confirm absolutely that it was raised in that meeting. I just don’t have that level of clarity.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Syria?

    MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Still on Russia, but kind of a pivot.

    MR TONER: Okay.

    QUESTION: Russia is hosting multination consultations on Afghanistan tomorrow.

    MR TONER: Oh, sure. Yeah.

    QUESTION: What, if any, role will the U.S. play in those talks? And is there concern that through those talks, Russia is trying to expand its role and influence in Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Good question. So first of all, we don’t plan to participate in these regional talks. I think they’re April 14th, which is tomorrow. They have been organized by the Russian Government. We do generally support regional efforts that work with the Afghan Government to build support for a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan, and I think we – going forward, we do plan to work with Russia and other key regional stakeholders to enhance dialogue on Afghanistan. It’s been – long been our argument that all countries in the region need to form a unified front with respect to Afghanistan and make it very clear that the only way to end that conflict definitively is through peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. And we’ve said – also made it perfectly clear that Taliban have no viable alternative but to enter into direct talks in order to achieve their goals.

    I think just to end it, we just felt that these talks – it was unclear to us what the purpose was. It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn’t constructive at this time.

    QUESTION: Just following up on --

    QUESTION: Staying on Afghanistan.

    MR TONER: Goyal, and then I’ll get –

    QUESTION: Thank you. Follow on Afghanistan.

    MR TONER: Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: As far as – thank you very much, Mark.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: As far as U.S. bombings in Afghanistan is concerned, it’s not a big surprise to the high-level Afghan officials because they were here – the advisor to the president of Afghanistan and also foreign minister of Afghanistan were here and speaking with the reporters and also at the think tanks. What they were saying that the terrorism problem in Afghanistan is being created by Pakistan, and all the terrorists are coming into Afghanistan and back and forth and back and forth because there is no – there is no check and balance and they are not holding them.

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: My question is here that as far as this bombing to eliminate those ISIS and Talibans – is this because of those high-level official who also met somebody here at the State Department? Also, recently, you just issued a travel warning to Pakistan.

    MR TONER: When you say “this bombing,” you’re – I think you’re referring to the bombing that took place just a few hours ago. Is that --

    QUESTION: That’s right. Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: The mother of all bombs.

    MR TONER: The mother of all bombs.

    QUESTION: Yeah, White House announced just at the briefing.

    MR TONER: No, okay. I just wanted to make sure I was on the – look, a couple points. One is I’ll refer you to what’s already been said about this airstrike that was taken – that took place in Afghanistan. I think it was aimed at a network of tunnels that was being used by terrorist organizations. I can’t say that this was an immediate outcome of any conversations we had with the Afghan Government. I think it’s part of our ongoing efforts to take the fight to the Taliban, to take the fight to ISIS affiliates that are operating in that territory, al-Qaida affiliates that are operating on Afghan soil, and that’s going to continue.

    You spoke about Pakistan and their role in this. We’ve been very clear, while we understand that Pakistan has made efforts to confront terrorism and terrorist organizations on its own soil, that there are still what we call safe havens that exist for terrorist groups to operate from and carry strikes out on Afghanistan. That’s a problem. Again, it’s in Pakistan’s interest to work with – constructively with Afghanistan to address those security concerns.

    QUESTION: I have one on India, please.

    MR TONER: I’ll get back to you, I promise.

    QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

    MR TONER: Michele, go ahead.

    QUESTION: I have a question on Turkey --

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: -- and the Pastor Brunson case.

    QUESTION: Can we stay on Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Let me just get to her and then I promise I’ll come back to you. Sorry.

    QUESTION: Vice President Pence has written a letter to the family talking about how this is a top priority for the Trump administration, so I’m wondering what specifically the U.S. is doing to win his release. And then I have a follow-up.

    MR TONER: Sure. You’re talking about --

    QUESTION: Andrew Brunson.

    MR TONER: Yeah, of course. So we can confirm that Turkish authorities detained Andrew Brunson on October 7th, 2016. Since his arrest, I can tell you that consular officers have been able to visit him regularly. We continue to provide appropriate support, consular services, to both – to Mr. Brunson as well as his family. It goes without saying that we take very seriously our obligation to assist any U.S. citizen, but certainly in this case, who is – who are arrested abroad. With respect to his legal case, I’d have to refer you to Mr. Brunson’s attorney.

    QUESTION: So the – when Tillerson was in Ankara, he was asked and Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, was asked about it, and he said that we’re about to finalize the charges against him. And I wonder if there’s been any movement in that case. I mean, as you say, he’s been held since October.

    MR TONER: Excuse me. Well, we have asked Turkish officials to consider releasing Mr. Brunson from custody, subject to whatever judicial conditions or controls may be appropriate while his legal case is resolved. Agree he’s been in detention far too long, and this has been done with other individuals under investigation. And of course, we call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case in a timely and fair manner, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the protections of a fair trial guarantee that are necessary for his defense.

    So our position in this is we’ve made clear our concerns to the Turkish Government; we’re going to continue to offer whatever support we can to Mr. Brunson and his family; and again, our desire to see this resolved as quickly as possible.

    QUESTION: Staying on Turkey?

    QUESTION: Turkey?

    MR TONER: Sure thing. Let’s stay on Turkey, and then we’ll get back to Syria, because I know Tejinder was looking at me.

    QUESTION: Turkey.

    QUESTION: Can I have another one after that?

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Afghanistan.

    QUESTION: On Turkey. Just today, UN experts issued report regarding referendum on Sunday, and they concluded that if the constitution amendments pass on Sunday, then will be existing major violations of social and cultural rights in Turkey will even increase. Not only UN, but also EU, other international watchdogs, witness commissions, and many other experts basically conclude same: If the constitutional changes pass, Turkey’s democratic standards, separation of powers, and many other values will be basically wiped out. What is your conclusion? I am sure you have seen the proposal so far.

    MR TONER: The proposals of – I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: Proposal of the constitutional changes that will be voted.

    MR TONER: Look, I’d just say we’re obviously following this issue very closely. As I said the other day, we are concerned about the quality of Turkey’s democracy. These are discussions that we have on a somewhat regular basis with the Turkish Government. Because we’re strong allies and partners, we can have those kinds of conversations.

    I don’t think I have much to – much to say beyond what I said the other day, which is that we’re – you spoke about the OSCE’s final report. We’re looking at that and studying it very closely, but we’re going to, obviously, watch this very closely and – as it moves forward, the referendum, and hope that it’s carried out in such a way that guarantees and strengthens democracy in Turkey.

    QUESTION: Certainly. But so far, the standards and the conditions already – don’t you think the fairness of the freeness of the elections already under huge questions, since we have seen severe limitations on the campaigning in Turkey?

    MR TONER: Several limitations?

    QUESTION: Severe --

    MR TONER: Limitations, okay.

    QUESTION: -- limitations in Turkey.

    MR TONER: I mean look, we never want to see, in any case, as part of any kind of free and fair electoral process, any kind of limitation on all sides to express their viewpoints peacefully. So again, we’re watching this very closely.

    In the back, and then --

    QUESTION: And aren’t you concerned about the environment in which the referendum is going to be held? I mean, hundreds, if not thousands, of dissidents, including the leader of the main Kurdish opposition party, are in prison. How can they campaign for the no voters? I mean, is this referendum not going to be really a fair referendum, according to the United States?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I – there are election observers on the ground. We’re going to let them look at and analyze this referendum as it – and that’s going to include in the lead up to it – and pronounce their judgment of whether it was free and fair. I’m going to withhold comment beyond what I have said already, which is, of course, we’re watching this. We’re monitoring it very closely.

    QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

    QUESTION: Syria?

    QUESTION: Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Sure. But let me – I’ll get back to you. I promise. I’m just – in the middle there. Sorry. You.

    QUESTION: Right here?

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. So I want to go to Asia. So --

    MR TONER: We can go.

    QUESTION: (Laughter.) Thanks.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Not too long ago, Prime Minister Abe said that North Korea may have the capacity to deliver missiles with sarin nerve gas. And I know sarin nerve gas is in the news a lot recently, so first, I want to ask: Do you agree with that assessment? And then I have a follow-up.

    MR TONER: You know what, I – to be perfectly honest, I have not seen those reports. Obviously, we’re concerned about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons in the region, and even to the United States. And that continues to be a major concern or a primary concern, but – excuse me – it also goes without saying that North Korea has shown itself willing to pursue other weapons of mass destruction. So I can’t say whether those reports are valid or not. I just don’t know, but it’s something we would take very seriously.

    QUESTION: And then – so then just the other day as well, Sean Spicer said that there’s no evidence that North Korea has the capacity of a nuclear strike at this time. And, of course, a lot of eyes are on the country this weekend because of the holiday. So are you saying that either both with sarin gas and nuclear weapons – like, the country doesn’t have capacity for either, or both?

    MR TONER: Well, they’re clearly pursuing ballistic missile testing. They’re clearly trying to – I mean, we’ve seen this multiple times, that they’re – in the past six months alone, that they’re trying to test out systems that can deliver whatever, whether it’s a nuclear weapon or something else, in the region. And that’s why, frankly, we are so utterly seized with the threat that North Korea now poses. And it’s also one of the reasons why – and this was made very clear in the President’s meetings with Chinese leadership last week – that the time for action is now, and by that, we need to look at ways to put increased pressure on North Korea in order for it to recognize the reality that it needs to pursue denuclearization, that it needs to answer the international community’s very real concerns about its ongoing efforts to pursue nuclear weaponry and the means to deliver those in the region.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: Stay on the topic?

    QUESTION: Also on North Korea.

    QUESTION: I have a follow-up.

    MR TONER: We’ll stay on North Korea, sure.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: Let’s kill – let’s go through all these questions and then --

    QUESTION: Yes, North Korea.

    MR TONER: Kill this topic, sorry.

    QUESTION: Thank you. The last time Secretary Tillerson said that the strategic patience is over and need a new approach to the North Korea. What is the United States new approach toward North Korea? What specifically included?

    MR TONER: Well, good question. I think that, as I just said, provocations from North Korea have grown, frankly, too common, too dangerous to ignore anymore. So we’re working with the international community, and that includes our partners in the region – certainly Republic of Korea, Japan are among those stalwart partners and allies that we’re working with to address this concern. But we’re looking at how we hold the Kim Jong-un regime accountable for its reckless behavior. And the way we’re doing that is pursuing right now efforts to isolate, to cut off North Korea from the rest of the world, and that’s being done through diplomatic efforts, but it’s also through security and economic measures as well. All of this is with the aim of persuading North Korea that its pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is only going to take it farther from what it professes to want, which is a prosperous, engaged role in the world.


    QUESTION: Another one on North Korea?

    QUESTION: Really? But has it ever said that it wanted an engaged role in the world?

    MR TONER: Well, I think there’s been some – there’s been lots of talk --

    QUESTION: That North Korea wants to be --

    MR TONER: -- or lots of discussion within the Six-Party Talks that --

    QUESTION: The Six-Party is done at the working level.

    MR TONER: -- that they want – sorry, I’m answering two questions at one time – that they want prosperity, that they want to be heard. That’s what I’m talking about.

    QUESTION: Yeah --

    QUESTION: What do you mean by saying it’s too dangerous to ignore anymore? Is this administration’s position that the previous administration and the ones before it ignored North Korea?

    MR TONER: I think it’s a – no, but I would say that there’s – look, I think in the past several months, we have seen only an acceleration of North Korea’s efforts to – as I said, to pursue nuclear weaponry, but also the means to deliver it. So I think there’s a realization that the time for talk, the time for some of this – if I could put it this – kind of long-term negotiation strategy and engagement is past. We --

    QUESTION: Well, it’s a crowd-pleasing line, isn’t it, to say that, like, it’s too dangerous to ignore anymore. But, like, it’s one thing, as the Secretary has said, that the policy of strategic patience or such has failed, but that doesn’t mean that previous administrations, whether it’s the Clinton administration, Bush Administration, or Obama administration, ignored the problem. They just didn’t deal with it in a way that has been able to abate it, wouldn’t you say?

    MR TONER: I would say that the --

    QUESTION: Are you saying that strategic patience is akin to ignoring North Korea?

    MR TONER: No, no, and that’s a fair point. What I would say is that we can no longer, I think, engage in that kind of longer-range approach to North Korea, that we need short-term solutions. And that’s not to – look, the Secretary was also very clear we’re not looking to – for regime change here. We’re looking at denuclearization.

    QUESTION: Well, do you need short-term solutions, or do you need – I understand – it sounds like you’re mixing your metaphors a little, because yes, you need – I understand what you’re saying about not looking --

    MR TONER: That’s what we spokespeople do.

    QUESTION: -- for a long-term – thinking about long-term negotiations, but a short-term solution is not going to deal with the North Korean problem in the long term. Don’t you think?

    MR TONER: (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: A short-term solution is a short-term solution.

    MR TONER: I understand what you’re saying. Look, let me try to --

    QUESTION: You don’t want to curb the --

    MR TONER: Right. So --

    QUESTION: That’s just --

    MR TONER: Okay. So there is an urgency to the situation that wasn’t necessarily there in the past because of the actions that they’ve taken over the past six months. And so I think that’s been made very clear by Secretary Tillerson, by President Trump, and we’ve made that clear to the Chinese as well, as well as our other allies and partners in the region.

    QUESTION: President Trump said that if China is not help to resolve North Korea nuclear issues, the United States will take its own actions. What do you expect from China to do so?

    MR TONER: Well, I think we expect China to – obviously to assert its leverage that it has. I think just today it was talking about even though it’s enacted all of the UN Security Council resolutions – or UN Security Council sanctions, rather, regime against North Korea, it’s also got a very robust trading program with North Korea. So clearly, it has economic influence over North Korea. We’re looking at it to leverage its unique relationship with North Korea to persuade the regime in Pyongyang to reconsider.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I change the subject?

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s change subject. Sorry, I’ll get back to you.

    QUESTION: Yeah, let’s finish this. So --

    MR TONER: I’ll get back to you when I have time. I’ll get back to you when I have time.

    QUESTION: There is an internal memo that went around as well as something that was updated online that even though the OMB lifted the hiring freeze, the federal hiring freeze, that the Secretary Tillerson, that the State Department was going to maintain its hiring freeze. Do you know what led to that decision?

    MR TONER: Sure. So OMB --

    QUESTION: And what is it about?

    MR TONER: Okay. So the OMB on Wednesday announced the lifting of the hiring freeze, as you noted, and provided also extensive further guidance to all the various federal agencies on the implementation of and requirements pursuant to the OMB memorandum which is called, I think, Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce, which is a mouthful. I apologize.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: And this document, this memo, provides guidance on new requirements on the presidential memorandum that was initially issued on January 23rd.

    QUESTION: Correct.

    MR TONER: This was the one that issued the hiring freeze, as well as the executive order issued on March 13th that required a comprehensive plan to reorganize all the executive branch departments and agencies.

    So as part of that process, the department and this Secretary are going to be undertaking a reorganization later in the year, and the decision was taken that the hiring freeze will continue until that plan is fully developed and agreement is reached on its implementation.

    And this is just part of prudent planning. We can’t be onboarding people when we don’t know what our reorganization is ultimately going to look at – look like. But until then – and this is an important point – the Secretary does retain authority to waive the ruling – or the hiring freeze and will do so in instances where national security interests and the department’s core mission and responsibilities require. So he does --

    QUESTION: So it doesn’t break any federal law that he’s done this?

    MR TONER: It does not. It’s his decision to maintain this hiring freeze.

    QUESTION: Even though that – even though the Congress has – the appropriations has approved money for it, or even if the Congress has said that that’s fine to lift it. So there is a law, a federal law, that if appropriations has moved on some kind of spending or whatever --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- and he says, “No, I’m not going to touch that,” isn’t that against a law?

    MR TONER: My understanding is that he has the jurisdiction to – basically to keep this freeze in place as we go about this presidentially mandated reorganization.

    QUESTION: Are we talking about Civil and Foreign Service officers, political appointees? What --

    MR TONER: Across the board.

    QUESTION: So he’s – wait a minute. So he’s not going to hire any political appointees --

    MR TONER: I --

    QUESTION: -- before the reorg?

    MR TONER: I believe it’s a hiring freeze across the board. I don’t know about political appointees. I’ll check on that.

    QUESTION: Could you check on that? So what are you – yeah, I mean --

    MR TONER: I can check on that.

    QUESTION: That would – essentially, if that’s true, what you’re saying, that there’s a hiring freeze across the board, that you would not be hiring any assistant secretaries --

    MR TONER: I will check on political appointments. I’m not sure about political appointments.

    QUESTION: -- under secretaries, a deputy secretary of state.

    MR TONER: Yeah, I’m not sure about political appointments.

    QUESTION: That can’t be right.

    MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll check on that.

    QUESTION: So effectively he’s put this on, the freeze, until he’s done the reorganization. Have those plans actually started? And how are they going to be fleshed out? Does --

    MR TONER: I believe they have started. As to how they’re going to be fleshed out, I don’t have any more details.

    QUESTION: I mean, it’s going to go on for the rest of the year?

    MR TONER: I don’t know if there’s a time, date. I don’t have any kind of timeframe for you. If I get one, I’ll let you know.

    QUESTION: And I gather that he would have got White House or congressional approval for this?

    MR TONER: Yes, I would imagine he would.

    QUESTION: I just want to point out something that --

    MR TONER: On the political appointees, though, it’s a good question.

    QUESTION: Yeah, no, because I mean Foreign Minister Lavrov even said yesterday that – I mean, we can consider the source, but other diplomats from other --

    MR TONER: No, I’m not responding, I’m just --

    QUESTION: I understand, but other diplomats from other countries have also said that the lack of staff at the State Department has become an impediment to having interlocutors to deal with, whether it’s long-term foreign policy cooperation, short-term foreign policy crises. So I mean, I would really like some clarification on that. Because if you’re saying that there’s a hiring freeze across the board, I really would say that suggests that that will continue to be a problem.

    MR TONER: It’s a fair question.

    QUESTION: Related to this, though, Mark, you said that he has the – he retains authority to waive it, right?

    MR TONER: Yeah, authority. Thank you. Yes, he does. Yeah. In instances where national security interests and the department’s core mission --

    QUESTION: Has he?

    MR TONER: -- responsibilities – I would assume that political appointees in high positions would fall under the department’s core mission responsibilities.

    QUESTION: Do you think that would apply to the – do you think that would apply to the newly nominated deputy? You think he’d get away with it?

    MR TONER: I would think that would apply.

    QUESTION: Mark, can I --

    QUESTION: So – hold on a second; I’m not done.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Back in February, two months ago tomorrow --

    QUESTION: Sorry, Matt.

    QUESTION: -- the department sought and received a waiver from the – what was then the hiring freeze. You were given permission by OMB to bring on 175 new staff – 70 entry level, 80 mid level, and 25 consular fellows. Did those people actually come on board? And has the department – did the department seek additional exemptions between February 14th and Wednesday?

    MR TONER: I’ll check on both. Yeah, I’ll check on both. I’ll take those questions.

    QUESTION: Can I --

    QUESTION: Another subject?

    MR TONER: Yeah, we can change the subject, but I haven’t gotten to – I’ll get back to you, I swear to God.

    QUESTION: Regarding Venezuela.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Thousands of protesters are demanding new elections in Venezuela. And opposition leaders consider that the government of the President Nicolas Maduro, it’s no longer respecting democratic institutions and it’s sliding toward authoritarian practices. Can you comment on that, please?

    MR TONER: Sure. First of all, we’re – I want to start with some of the reports of violence against protesters during demonstrations in Venezuela. We’re aware of those reports. We obviously regret any loss of life. We call, once again, on the Government of Venezuela to conduct full, fair, and transparent investigations into this violence. We also call on the government and security forces to respect the freedom of assembly – peaceful assembly – as a universal human right, which the Venezuelan authorities should respect. We, as I said, also urge the demonstrators to express themselves nonviolently.

    With respect to your broader question, we urge the Maduro government to reconsider its decision this past week, I believe, or past weekend, to bar Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles and – from participating in the country’s public life for I think some 15 years. It’s something we view with grave concern. It’s absolutely vital that Venezuelans have the right to exercise their – and elect their representatives in free and fair elections in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution and consistent with international instruments. And that includes the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

    We firmly support as well the consensus of the Organization of American States Permanent Council, which affirms it is essential that the Government of Venezuela ensure the full restoration of democratic order.

    Thanks. Please.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    QUESTION: You mentioned the need to work with South Korea and Japan --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: -- on North Korea. And Vice President Pence is about to travel to that region and will be visiting both South Korea and Japan. I was wondering if you could discuss what message he’ll be sending to leaders in the region and what he’ll be discussing in those meetings, and then I have a --

    MR TONER: Well, look, I would have to refer you to the Vice President and his office to talk about the specifics about his trip. But, obviously, I think that it’s very clear given Secretary Tillerson’s travel to the region, given that both leadership from Republic of Korea and Japan have been here for high-level meetings, that we are very concerned, primarily concerned with North Korea and its actions and how to deal with North Korea. And in that regard, I think he’s going to be sending a very clear message, certainly in Seoul and elsewhere, of our steadfast, ironclad support for our allies and partners in the region. And that stands absolute.

    So I’ll let – I’ll leave it to him to speak in greater detail. Please.

    QUESTION: Okay, and then also --

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: -- in Japan, he’ll --

    QUESTION: Couple questions about Syria.

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: So Foreign Minister Lavrov talked about – he offered to reinstate this de-confliction channel, and – but there were terms, and I was wondering, this thing about the de-confliction in the airs – in the air, between airplanes in – that was suspended, and Secretary Tillerson didn’t say anything about whether he accepted the terms that Lavrov set. So we’re wondering, where does that stand, how important is that channel, and what’s the plan when it comes to preventing any mishaps in the air over Syria?

    MR TONER: Frankly, my understanding was that that does remain intact. There was some question that it was going to be pulled down. That was a Russia claim, at least. Look, we consider that de-confliction channel to be very important, because it helps ensure that neither our pilots nor Russia’s pilots are unduly or unnecessarily put in harm’s way when we’re carrying out military missions in the – in that region.

    So I can’t speak to how it may change. My understanding is that it does remain in effect.

    QUESTION: Because – I mean, was – my understanding is that that channel was suspended after the missile strike.

    MR TONER: I had heard that – I had seen those same reports, but my understanding was that – my understanding is that after that, it was reinstated. If that’s incorrect, I’ll let you know.

    QUESTION: Can I --

    MR TONER: Please. Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: A fact check.

    QUESTION: I have a follow-up question.

    MR TONER: Yeah, of course, finish up. And then --

    QUESTION: Yeah, so did Secretary Tillerson meet with any members of civil society when he was – while he was in Moscow or Russia?

    MR TONER: I don’t believe he did. Frankly, it was an issue of time. He did, of course, raise our concerns, as he does in every meeting with our Russian counterparts. But I don’t believe he actually had the time to meet with any members of civil society while he was on the ground.

    QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that, and then I have a question on Afghanistan.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Do you anticipate this is something that he’ll make as a kind of regular feature of his travel? I mean, past secretaries to some extent – some more, some less – have made that a kind of staple of their --

    MR TONER: Meeting with civil society members?

    QUESTION: Of – yeah.

    MR TONER: You’re right. I mean, it’s – it has been, because it’s an – it’s a great way to send the message that it’s a matter of concern, it’s an issue of concern to us. Again, I think in any given visit, given the other demands on the Secretary’s schedule, of course, I can’t speak categorically, but I know for a fact that he does consider human rights, healthy civil society to be something that he’s going to press in all of his interactions.

    QUESTION: I have a question --

    MR TONER: Yes, sir – ma’am.

    QUESTION: -- if we could just go back to Afghanistan for a second.

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: I know you kind of punted to the Pentagon on the actual strike itself, but we haven’t really heard a lot about ISIS in the kind of Afghan-Pakistan region. And I’m wondering if you could kind of bring us up to date on your discussions with those governments about the growth of ISIS. Because, like I said, we really haven’t – I mean, I know that they had some small presence, but it kind of was surprising to see the depth of which the --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- to which you have this concern.

    MR TONER: Well, and it’s a fair point to bring up. I mean, look, we’ve been very clear that, just like we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, but certainly in Afghanistan, where ISIS has attempted to co-opt some existing groups on the ground in an effort to create affiliates. And we’re going to see this, I think – and this is something that was discussed in the ministerial a few weeks ago – that as ISIS continues to get pressed in Syria and in Iraq, it’s going to seek to do that, I think, more and more. So it’s something we’re watching very closely, and we’re working with the Government of Afghanistan and our partners in the region in order to deny any terrorist organization – that includes al-Qaida as well – safe haven or any kind of material support on the ground. And as we’ve also been very clear, we’re – when we see targets of opportunity and leadership, opportunities to take out key leadership, we’re going to take those opportunities.

    QUESTION: I understand that this was a target of opportunity, but are you saying that this target was – were they working with other types of – like so-called affiliates?

    MR TONER: That’s a common practice for ISIS to – yeah.

    QUESTION: No, I understand, but I’m just saying, this particular --

    MR TONER: I don’t know the specifics. I don’t have enough specifics on this.

    QUESTION: I’m just – as opposed to, like, the actual strike and the weapon and how it was done, I’m interested in this particular target --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- and why it was chosen in terms of their threat. And given that the State Department has really been the lead in terms of the coalition against ISIS, I’d be interested a little bit more in --

    MR TONER: Sure. I don’t have a lot of detail on this particular strike and why this – I mean, other than that they were ISIS-affiliated group or ISIS --

    QUESTION: ISIS-affiliated group or members of ISIS, like official leadership?

    MR TONER: I’ll check. I’ll check.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: Couple more questions, guys. Tejinder, I haven’t gotten to you yet.

    QUESTION: I have the patience, and wishing you a quick, fast recovery --

    MR TONER: Thanks.

    QUESTION: -- because I saw you limping.

    MR TONER: I’m limping, I’m coughing.

    QUESTION: Oh, yes.

    MR TONER: I need vacation. Luckily, it’s coming up.

    QUESTION: Yeah. I have empathy, I’m coughing also.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: The – one short follow-up on Afghanistan and then one on India-related. Afghanistan is that day before yesterday, after the briefing in the Pentagon, the Defense Secretary, when I asked him that – is Afghanistan on back burner, he said not at all, nothing has changed. So that’s from the Defense. On the --

    MR TONER: What he said, yes.

    QUESTION: On the diplomatic side, with Russia taking that initiative, has anything changed from this side on the diplomatic front?

    MR TONER: Not at all, and in fact, I think it was just a couple weeks ago the Afghan foreign minister, I think it was, in conjunction with the counter-ISIS ministerial was here in town, and they had a very good bilateral discussion – one of the few bilateral meetings he was able to take given his schedule, Secretary Tillerson’s schedule. But he made the point of taking that meeting because he wanted to express our firm support for the Afghan Government’s continued efforts to confront the Taliban, to confront other terrorist groups on its territory, and to solidify and continue to enact needed political and economic reforms.

    QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

    QUESTION: And the other --

    MR TONER: You had another – yeah, finish up, and then --

    QUESTION: I have second one.

    QUESTION: The second one is about --

    MR TONER: Okay. I’m going to do three more questions. I got to you. I got to you already. Three more questions.

    QUESTION: The second one is --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: The second one is about the diplomatic efforts from the U.S. The Indian media is flush with this hate crimes against people of Indian origin. Now, what – a kind of journalistic investigation revealed that most of these Indians were either misidentified or misunderstood because of religious symbols or other things, but when the Indian ambassador rushes to State Department and expresses his deep concerns about this, and then we find out that the Hardish Patel, the county sheriff says that it was not a hate crime. So what – how can you clarify that these incidents are not against Indians or people from Indian origin? They’re misidentified. There is – it’s not about condoning hate crime, it’s about misrepresenting the facts. If you can clarify from the podium.

    MR TONER: So a couple of thoughts on this – first of all is we obviously strongly condemn any hate crime, any crime carried out against someone based on their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, whatever. We condemn it. Secondly, though, with respect to these particular crimes, that’s really something for either local, regional, or federal law enforcement to speak to. All of these crimes need to be thoroughly investigated, and that’s why I’m very hesitant to comment on one particular case or not, because I don’t know the facts and it would be imprudent for me, except to say that, largely speaking, there are – there’s a strong Indian American community in this country. They’re a vibrant part of American culture and society and the economy here. And we, as Americans, welcome their contribution. And as I said, any crime based on – that potentially based on someone’s ethnicity or heritage should be heartily condemned.

    QUESTION: I was trying to clarify one --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: I was just trying to clarify that this crimes were even ethnicity-based were not against the Indian ethnicity. They were mis --

    MR TONER: Identified? I just don’t have the details. I apologize, Tejinder.

    QUESTION: Could we do a quick one --

    MR TONER: Said. Yeah, very quick.

    QUESTION: -- on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: A couple of days ago, you issued an advisory, a travel advisory --

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: -- to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. But you also urged American citizens to leave Gaza.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: And this coincided with the escalating tensions, and the Israelis are amassing troops. Are you concerned that there may have – there may be another war that could – may –

    MR TONER: No, I – look – sure. I’m aware of --

    QUESTION: -- which will urge the Israelis --

    MR TONER: I’m aware the timing was linked or was close to it, but this was, as my understanding of it, just a periodic update, and that the information concerning Gaza was similar to language from our previous travel warnings.

    So as many of you know in this room, we have to periodically update the language to ensure they remain valid and up-to-date. This was a routine update. I think the previous one was issued on August 23rd, 2016, but it contained very similar guidance. Our travel warning warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Gaza Strip and urges those present to depart as soon as possible when border crossings are open. And I think the way – by way of explanation, given the security conditions in Gaza, U.S. government personnel have been long restricted from travel to Gaza, and so that restricts our ability to provide any assistance or support to any U.S. citizen in Gaza. So it’s out of that reality, if you will, that we caution.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: And this --

    MR TONER: John, last question.

    QUESTION: Yeah. And this Russia-hosted conference on Afghanistan --

    MR TONER: Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: You said that it seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region. This dropping of this massive bomb in Afghanistan that has a fairly large optical element to it, could you – could one interpret that as a unilateral attempt to assert influence in the region?

    MR TONER: No. Look, again, I’m --

    QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

    MR TONER: I’m not going to attempt to speak way outside my box and talk about, you know, military matters.

    QUESTION: But it does have – when it’s a bomb that large, there’s a diplomatic effect to dropping something like that.

    MR TONER: There is, John. But – I imagine, but I’m going to stay mum on that. Thanks, everybody. Thanks so much.

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

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Categories: News Pit Feeds

Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - April 11, 2017

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 16:27
Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 11, 2017 Index for Today's Briefing

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

    2:03 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Thank you. Thanks, everyone, for joining us today. Happy to be back among you and to do the briefing. Just in an effort to accommodate our folks from the broadcast media, I am trying to do this through a headset today, so I hope the sound quality is a little bit better so it can – the audio can be useable for some – for all of you, rather. I know that was some constructive criticism offered in some of the earlier phone briefings we did.

    I don’t have much at the top. I did want to briefly update you on the Secretary’s travels. As you’ve probably seen, Secretary Tillerson concluded meetings in Lucca, Italy at the G7 earlier today. I’d refer you to the joint communique that was issued by the participants earlier. On the margins of the G7, he was able to meet with counterparts from Japan, from the UK, from France, Italy, and others. And earlier today, there was a meeting on Syria of like-minded countries.

    The Secretary is now in Moscow, where he’ll hold meetings with his counterpart Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other officials starting tomorrow. With that, I’ll hand it over to our first question.

    OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, just a quick reminder, if you do have a question, please press *1 at any time. And first, we’ll have Matthew Lee with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi Mark. Thanks. I hope you’re feeling better. Doesn’t sound like you are 100 percent yet, but get well soon. Come back.

    My question – I have two. They’re very disparate questions, though. The first is on Syria and the Secretary’s comment at the press avail this morning, when he said, “I think it is clear to us all that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.” When I read that, I was reminded of the previous administration saying that President Assad’s days are numbered back in August of 2011 and continuing to say that his days are numbered for the next 1,983 days, if my math is correct. And I’m wondering if, when the Secretary says that now, does he – is he saying – he’s clearly referring to some kind of new strategy, or it appears to me that he should be referring to a new kind of strategy that the U.S. is going to use in terms of Assad. And I’m wondering is that simply the airstrikes that were conducted that the previous administration opted against doing, or is there something else, and what is it? What would that something else be?

    And then my second one has to do with Hungary. And I’m just wondering if you can add anything to what Deputy Assistant Yee – Secretary Yee said in Hungary today about the signing of the bill on the Central European University.

    MR TONER: Sure. Thanks, Matt. And thanks for the best wishes of my health.

    First of all, with reference to Secretary Tillerson’s remarks earlier today, look, we obviously have no interest in seeing Assad remain in Syria over the long run. I think the world is with us on that. And last week’s barbaric chemical weapons attack in Idlib province only underscored the fact that in the eyes of, frankly, most people around the world, this is a leader who has lost legitimacy and has killed and continues to kill hundreds of thousands of his own people.

    I think in terms of the strategy question, Secretary Tillerson was also clear – and others have been clear – that we’ve got a dual focus: One, without doubt, is focused on destroying ISIS. That was made crystal clear in the D-ISIS ministerial that took place a few weeks ago, and that remains this administration’s priority. But I do think you’ve seen or are seeing a recognition that we need to focus on moving forward with the political process in Geneva and also trying to strengthen, or de-escalate I guess, the violence in Syria. I don’t have anything to offer in terms of new strategies yet. I think those are still being discussed and new methods to approach that. I would just say that we’re committed to the Geneva process, to a political process that leads to a political solution to Syria. That has not changed. One of the things --

    QUESTION: But why does – why does --

    MR TONER: Go ahead. Go ahead. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Why does he say it’s clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end? Why is it clear?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I think that he’s simply stating the fact that Assad is a leader in his own mind but not for the Syrian people and that his most recent actions only solidify the fact that he needs to leave and cannot govern Syria. But ultimately, Matt, that has not changed our belief that this is a process that needs to be run and decided on by the Syrian people.

    Now what was clear – and you know this from last week – is we have redlines. And one of those redlines is the use of chemical weapons. And this administration carried out a very measured strike on the facility and the aircraft that carried out that strike on Idlib last week. And that sends a clear message that we do have redlines and will enact those redlines.

    I do want to move to Hungary quickly. Sorry. I did issue a statement – I’m aware of Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee’s remarks as well. I did issue a statement on those, I think a few weeks ago, as well. We are very concerned about this legislation that was passed by Hungary’s parliament last week that was signed into law by the president this week, I think. And we believe it threatens the continued operations of Central European University, which is a leading academic institution. It’s an important conduit for intellectual and cultural exchanges between Hungary and the United States. And frankly, it’s at the center of freethinking and research. The legislation, we believe, can also similarly threaten the operations of other American universities with degree programs in Hungary, so it goes beyond just Central European University.

    I know that tens of thousands of Hungarians have been peacefully protesting in support of the CEU, and researchers and academics and others from around the world have also spoken out in its defense. And I know that – or I can say that Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Shannon met last week with the president and rector of the CEU, the Central European University, Michael Ignatieff, to discuss the effect of this law on this university. So we’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law. We want to see a review and discussion in order to address any concerns through dialogue with the university itself and other affected institutions going forward.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, just a quick reminder, if you do have a question please press * 1 at any time. And next we’ll go to Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, Mark. I’m also with Matt. Feel better soon. You sound awful.

    MR TONER: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Yeah. So Mark, I’ve got a couple of questions. One is do you – will the Secretary actually raise Assad’s future during the meetings in Moscow tomorrow? I mean, will he actually want to kind of outline a plan or get from Russia some kind of commitment on what’s going to happen? Or is this kind of an open-ended something that you’ll leave till later discussions?

    The other question I have is if the administration ultimately believes that the Geneva process is the way to negotiate a political transition, how quickly – I mean, do you think that these attacks mean that you’d like to have those discussions brought forward more quickly and to start something quite soon?

    And then I have a Ukraine question, if I might have a follow up.

    MR TONER: Great. I’m sorry. Just one more time, Lesley, your first question. I apologize.

    QUESTION: Okay. Is the Secretary going to raise Assad’s future during the meetings tomorrow in Moscow? (Long pause.) Hello? Mark?

    MR TONER: I am so sorry, Lesley. I was --

    QUESTION: You don’t like the question?

    MR TONER: No. I apologize. I had the mute button on. I apologize.

    QUESTION: No worries.

    MR TONER: No, I – that’s too bad, because I was really articulate there. Anyway --

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: No, look, without getting ahead of the meetings tomorrow, I have no doubt that they’ll discuss Assad and his future, and certainly in light of the actions that he undertook last week, or his regime did. But I think also Secretary Tillerson has been very clear that he’ll raise the question of where Russia stands and whether it’s going to remain supportive of a regime that is carrying out such brutal humanitarian – or brutal attacks on innocent civilians. And I think he posed the question very succinctly earlier today: Which side of history does Russia want to be on? And I think that’s a decision it needs to make.

    With respect to – I think you asked a question about whether this adds momentum to the Geneva process. Staffan de Mistura is here in town today. He’s having meetings at the White House. State Department officials are there at those meetings. We’ll see if we can get a readout or the White House can give a readout of those meetings later. But I think it underscores the sense of urgency that we all feel in light of last week’s brutal attacks to really reinvigorate the Geneva process. It’s a – and we all know this who have watched this issue over the years now. It’s partly – you need a de-escalations of the violence so you can get the political negotiations back up and running in Geneva, and that’s our focus and remains our focus with respect to the political process and the civil war in Syria.

    You had a question on Ukraine?

    QUESTION: Yeah, on Ukraine. Yeah. So the Secretary today – according to the French foreign minister, the Secretary in Italy asked his European counterparts why American voters should care about the conflict in Ukraine. What was behind that question? I mean, does – and I know that Poroshenko of Ukraine today, I think he spoke to the Secretary, it might have been today, to ensure that the U.S. remains committed to supporting Ukraine. Why did he actually ask that question of the – of his European counterparts, given that the U.S. has given at least 3 billion in loan guarantees and other kinds of support for Ukraine?

    MR TONER: To be honest, Lesley, that’s a question I think Foreign Minister Ayrault is going to have to answer. I – look, I mean, Secretary Tillerson has been abundantly clear with respect to our position, the U.S. Government’s position, on Ukraine and his support for the Minsk process and his support for sanctions until Russia and the separatists that it backs meet their commitments through Minsk. He made that very clear. He spoke with President Poroshenko earlier today and made it very clear to him that the U.S. position on Ukraine remains the same and is very strongly in support of the Ukrainian Government, and, as I said, the full implementation of the Minsk agreements.

    With respect to, as I said, what was reported out about this question, I’m not going to discuss the internal deliberations, but I have no idea of what Foreign Minister Ayrault was referring to.

    Next question, please.

    QUESTION: We’ll go to Anne Gearan with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Glad to hear your voice, even scratchy. So one question on the discussions in Lucca and one on Moscow. On the G7, can you frame for us the U.S. response to the fact that there wasn’t the kind of unified statement about Russia and Syria that the Secretary had hoped for coming out of those meetings? Does that diminish his leverage going into Moscow? And during his meetings in Moscow, what is the current state of play of whether or not he will meet with President Putin, given that Putin himself had said he expected that meeting as recently as when Putin was at the Arctic meeting? Thank you.

    MR TONER: Sure, thanks, Anne. (Coughing.) Excuse me, I apologize.

    QUESTION: Oh gee, you sound awful.

    MR TONER: (Laughter.) Sorry. With – I’ll answer your – well, hopefully the antibiotic will kick in.

    With respect to his Moscow – I’ll start with the second question first. So as I said, he is going to – plans to meet with Secretary – or with Foreign Minister Lavrov and other officials tomorrow. If there is an invitation for him to meet with Putin, of course, he’ll do so. I think that’s a decision for the Kremlin to make and to announce, and up till now we’ve not seen such an offer extended. Now, it could come tomorrow. So as I said, he’s – he’s certainly willing to meet with President Putin to discuss all of these issues.

    Your first question was, I think, about the G7 --

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: -- and your concern that it wasn’t quite enough or strong enough on Russia and Syria? Is that --

    QUESTION: Right. I mean, what is – what is your view of how strong it was and whether the fact that it doesn’t fully back the U.S. view at this point hinders the Secretary’s leverage when he meets with the Russian officials?

    MR TONER: Well, I don’t necessarily think it was – it hinders his efforts by any means, and I think it was actually quite strong on – with respect to the attack, as I said, in – it took place in Idlib province last week, the chemical weapons attack, and it also condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons. And I think it very clearly shined a light on the fact that – that Russia and Iran and others are – I’m talking about the joint communique – are on the wrong side on this.

    And it also expressed full support for the OPCW investigation into the incident and into whether this attack constituted a war crime.

    I think you’re probably asking about the issue of sanctions. And look, that’s something that was up for discussion. I don’t have any great insights about – as to why it – as to why it came out the way it did. But I think that Secretary Tillerson is going to Moscow, I think, bolstered by the support of his G7 partners and allies. The fact that – with respect to Syria, Russia is on the wrong side on this. I mean, it has been supporting a regime that is now guilty of crimes against humanity in terms of carrying out chemical weapons attacks, and that’s inexcusable and intolerable. And so I think he’s going to come back – come to – he’s going to – or he’s in Moscow, rather, to deliver a very tough message, but one that needs to be heard by Russia.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, again, if you have a question, please press *1 at any time. And we’ll go to Conor Finnegan, ABC News.

    QUESTION: Hey Mark, welcome back. Hope you’re feeling better as well. I just had a quick question. President Trump, Vice President Pence, and some other administration officials have all said that this administration wants to work with Russia more broadly against terrorism – something Sean Spicer actually repeated just now in today’s briefing at the White House. So does the administration still think that they can work with Russia on that front given – given not just the chemical weapons attack last week but also what the White House said was a campaign by Russia to mislead and obfuscate about the attack, and while Russia has been aligning itself with another terrorist group, Hizballah?

    MR TONER: Right. Excuse me. That’s a big, complex question, but I’ll try to break it down and answer it. (Coughing.) Excuse me, I apologize. And I think it’s going to be somewhat of a nuanced answer, because look, we obviously would welcome if Russia were to seriously commit itself to going after ISIS in Syria. We would welcome such a move. But we’re nowhere near that, and so you’re absolutely right that Russia has, up until now, aligned itself with Assad, with the Iranians, and with Hizballah.

    And as Secretary Tillerson asked the question earlier today is what does that in the long-term alliance – how does that serve Russia’s interest? The question is whether Russia – and this is a strategic decision that Russia needs to make, is whether it would instead prefer to align with the United States and other countries in working to constructively resolve the crisis in Syria. And it’s a question, as I said, I’m sure he’ll be raising in his meetings.

    I don’t think we rule out any possibility for cooperation with Russia with respect to counterterrorism, but up until now we’ve seen even fledgling efforts kind of end in frustration because – for many reasons, but one is that Russia seems more intent on propping up the Assad regime than it does in really carrying out any counter-ISIS strategy.

    Next question, please.

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

    QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this. Quick question. Just a couple days ago, OSCE issued a report on Turkey about upcoming referendum which will be held on this Sunday, and this report lists severe limitations for opposition campaign and poses the question whether it’s a possibility for Turkey to hold fair and free elections at this moment. What’s your view? Have you seen the reports, or how do you see the conditions, circumstances in Turkey at the moment for a fair and free election?

    MR TONER: Sure. We’ve – we have seen the OSCE and ODIHR’s interim report. Obviously, we refer you to them – to ODIHR – for details of its contents. Of course, we value the OSCE’s contributions to the promotion of democracy and human rights, and that includes its election observation efforts. And we stand firmly behind those efforts throughout the OSCE region. We look forward to the final report after the conclusion of the referendum.

    I think I’ll stop myself there and just say, look, we’re going to wait and see what the final assessment is. And as I said, we support the OSCE’s election-monitoring mission, not only in Turkey but throughout the OSCE. Any follow-ups?

    QUESTION: Yes. Currently, the second-biggest opposition party co-chairs have been jailed since November – over a dozen MPs – again, from Turkey, the same opposition party – in jail; hundreds of other officials, local officials, have been jailed; and there’s a clear limitations, again, for the campaigning. So aside from the OSCE report, how do you see Turkey’s current conditions? What’s administration’s view aside from the OSCE report?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, as we’ve said on many occasions about our relationship with Turkey, it’s a strong ally, it’s a strong partner, and we have candid conversations about the quality of Turkey’s democracy. We firmly believe that freedom of expression, including freedoms of speech and media, needs to be protected. We believe that political processes need to be transparent, and we believe that political parties need to be able to express their views and get their views out there to the public. We consistently urge Turkey at every level to respect and ensure political freedom, freedom of expression, judicial independence, and other fundamental freedoms.

    And again, it’s because we value and respect Turkey’s democracy, democratic tradition, and, frankly, the – it matters to us deeply. And Turkey, as I said, is a strong ally, and we want to see the strongest democratic Turkey as we possibly can.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: And ladies and gentlemen, another reminder: If you have a question, please press *1. And we’ll go to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan 24.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. I have two brief questions for you, and I wish you to get well like the others do. First question: Hizballah media carried a statement Sunday in the name of the previously unheard-of shared operations room, and it said, “We will support Syria with all the means that we have. America knows well our ability to respond. We will respond without taking into consideration any reaction and consequences.” Is that a threat of terrorism in your view, and what is your response to it?

    MR TONER: Well, first of all, thank you for the good wishes. And with respect to Hizballah’s threats, of course we take any threats from a foreign terrorist organization very seriously. Hizballah’s forces have helped enable the regime – the Syrian regime – to perpetuate its brutality against its own people and also to incite instability in Lebanon. We call Hizballah – on Hizballah to immediately withdraw from Syria. And by continuing to operate, carry on military operations in Syria in support of the regime, Hizballah is violating its commitment to the Baabda Declaration and the Lebanese disassociation policy from the Syrian conflict. So we, obviously, view Hizballah’s role in Syria as unconstructive, and as I said, we certainly take any threats from this known terrorist organization very seriously.

    Any --

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: My – thank you very much. My second question.

    MR TONER: Yep.

    QUESTION: What’s his response to Vladimir Putin’s claim today that the chemical weapons attack in Idlib province was a false flag operation and more may follow? And related to that, can you provide more detail on Secretary Tillerson’s statement there were similar chemical attacks on March 25 and 30 in Hama?

    MR TONER: Sure. With respect to President Putin’s remarks, look, we’ve been very clear about our assessment with respect to the chemical weapons attack last week in Idlib province. We stand by our assessment. I know that the White House earlier today held a backgrounder talking about some of the intelligence that led to our assessment, and I said it’s – it was crystal clear to us that this was carried out and it was carried out by the Syrian regime. There’s no false flag with respect to calling this for what it was, which was a gross attack in violation of international norms and standards, and one that justified the response that we took. Because as I said earlier in this briefing, chemical weapons, their use in Syria is a redline. And if used again, then we reserve the right to act in the same capacity.

    With respect to this – these additional attacks that you mentioned on March 25th and 30th, as I said, we have a high degree of confidence that the Syrian regime used a chemical nerve agent consistent with sarin in the attack on Khan Shaykhun in Idlib on April 4th, but that’s not an isolated incident. In the same 10-day period, there have been allegations of the Assad regime, rather, has carried out chemical weapons attacks in Hama governate, I think on March 25th and March 30th, and these events are part of a larger trend of allegations of regime use of chemical weapons going back to 2014, including I think three that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the United Nations’ joint investigative mechanism, attributed to the Assad regime.

    So what does this mean? It means it’s clear that Syria’s failed to comply with its most fundamental legal obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and UN Security Council Resolution 2118 not to use chemical weapons and to destroy its chemical weapons arsenal in its entirety. So we’re going to continue to work with partners in the region to investigate reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, and we’re going to support the OPCW fact finding mission’s effort to do the same. Again, the idea here is to build a solid body of evidence as to whether these were chemical weapons attacks, confirming that, who were the perpetrators, and eventually, to hold these people accountable.

    Next question, please.

    OPERATOR: And again, ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, press *1. And we’ll go to Michel Ghandour with MBN. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Hi, Mike – hi, Mark. Hope you will feel better. I have two questions. First, talking about the redlines, is the use of barrel bombs included in the redlines – in the new redline?

    MR TONER: Michel, yes. With – sorry – in response to your question, chemical weapons crosses a redline. That doesn’t mean we excuse the other abhorrent weaponry that the Syrian regime has used against its own people, brutally at times, certainly in and around Aleppo during the fall of Aleppo but throughout this conflict. But given the seriousness of using chemical weapons and the universal condemnation of their use, we believe that chemical weapons – the use of chemical weapons – constitutes a redline.

    Next question.

    QUESTION: And what about the barrel bombs? Because we’ve heard –

    MR TONER: I said I’m not excusing in any way, shape, or form, nor am I giving a free pass to some of the other brutal weapons that this regime has shown itself capable of using. I think it speaks to – that their use speaks to the fact that we need to pursue a de-escalation of the violence and we need to get a political resolution, one that ultimately leads to a political transition away from Assad.

    Next question.

    OPERATOR: And our final question will be from the line of Joel Gehrke with The Washington Examiner. Please, go ahead.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks for doing this when you’re under the weather. Wondered what you think of the – of Italy’s president traveling to Moscow today at the same time that Italy is hosting – or was hosting – the G7 summit. Obviously, the State Department has welcomed bilateral relations between countries in the past, but are you worried that, especially following on meetings between their foreign ministries, that Minister Alfano went to Moscow recently as well, that Italian policy could be moving away from U.S. policy, either with respect to economic sanctions or the resolution of the crisis in Libya?

    MR TONER: Well, first of all, we appreciate Italy hosting the G7. Look, that’s a question for the Italian Government and the presidency to – as to why he chose this moment to travel to Moscow. But that’s – certainly we believe that he delivered a consistent message to the Russian leadership with respect to their behavior not only in Ukraine and other parts of Europe but certainly in the Middle East and in Syria.

    No, we’re not concerned. We have a very strong bilateral relationship with Italy. We have a very strong relationship with – security relationship with Italy with – in the context of NATO. Italy’s a very strong friend and partner to the United States. And we believe, as I said, that regardless of who is meeting with Russian leadership, they’re hearing the same message.

    Thanks, everybody, for joining me. I hope to be on camera tomorrow and not be sneezing or coughing quite as much. But thanks, everybody. I appreciate it. Take care.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:37 p.m.)


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Categories: News Pit Feeds

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.

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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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