Mark C. Toner
Department Press Briefing
April 24, 2017
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.
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 —
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.
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 —
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.
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.
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 —
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: 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.
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.
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: 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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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: So —
MR TONER: And then I’ll get to Afghanistan, whoever’s asking.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
MR TONER: No, it’s a different —
QUESTION: It’s not in Public Affairs?
MR TONER: It’s a different entity.
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.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)
DPB # 22