Mark C. Toner
Department Press Briefing
April 26, 2017
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 —
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 —
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: 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.
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.
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.
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 —
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?
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 —
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: North Korea?
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.
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: 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?
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 —
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.
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 —
MR TONER: — two days ago and the strikes that took place last night.
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: 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.
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: 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.
QUESTION: Mark, Iran, please?
QUESTION: I think – hang on, because I have question on Josh Holt —
MR TONER: Yes.
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: 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.
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.)