Mark C. Toner
Department Press Briefing
March 14, 2017
Today’s briefing was held off-camera, so no video is available.
2:04 p.m. EDT
MR TONER: Thanks very much. And thanks for everyone for joining us on this snowy afternoon.
Just briefly at the top I wanted to mention, obviously, as many of you know, Secretary Tillerson is wheels-up in a couple of hours en route to Japan, the first leg of his three-country tour of Asia. He’ll also go to South Korea – Republic of Korea, as well as China.
He did meet with the United Arab Emirates foreign minister this morning, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan today, where they discussed bilateral and regional issues, including the conflicts in Yemen, in Libya, the fight to defeat ISIS, and other counterterrorism efforts. The UAE is a key U.S. partner in the region. Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister al-Nahyan affirmed their mutual intention to continue to deepen the bilateral relationship between our two countries.
With that, I’ll take your questions.
OPERATOR: And it looks as if our first question comes from the line of Said Arikat from Al Quds. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hello, Mark. Thank you for doing this. I have three quick questions for you. I’m glad to be the first one in line. Can you hear me, Mark?
MR TONER: Yes, I can.
MR TONER: Yes, I can.
QUESTION: Okay, great. Okay. My first question is that it is reported that Secretary Tillerson told the Human Rights – the United Nations Human Rights Council that the U.S. will be compelled to leave unless there are some real reforms. I guess that is in reference to the alleged maltreatment of Israel. Could you comment on that?
MR TONER: Sure. I’m aware of the article; I’ve seen the report. I don’t want to speak or address specifics of any correspondence that the Secretary may have had with these NGOs, beyond saying that it’s fair to say we’re having discussions about – and that’s internal discussions, meaning within the State Department, but also with some of our partners – about how to increase transparency and accountability in human rights. But I’m not going to speak specifically to the contents of any letter or correspondence the Secretary may have shared.
Do you have an additional follow-up? Said?
QUESTION: Mark, if you allow me, very quick —
MR TONER: Yeah, please. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. One, there was a report that Mr. Jason Greenblatt, the envoy from the White House, warned the Palestinians that Congress intends to cut off all aid to the Palestinians unless payment to attackers is completely stopped and incitement is completely stopped. One, can you confirm that? And second, do you have any comment on that?
MR TONER: I’m not going to confirm that. I can confirm that he did meet with President Abbas – he being Jason Greenblatt – met with President Abbas in Ramallah earlier today. They did have a positive and far-ranging exchange about the current situation. And they did discuss how to make progress toward peace. They also spoke about building the capacity of Palestinian security forces, as well as efforts to stop incitement. But I’m not going to speak to that specific claim.
Ready for the next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Arshad Mohammed of Reuters. Your line is open. Mr. Mohammed, your line is open for us.
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark. I have a series of short questions, so if you’d let me do some follow-ups, please. Question one: You note that Secretary Tillerson will be wheels-up in a couple of hours en route to Asia. Is he, in fact, taking any journalists with him?
MR TONER: I’d have to take the question. I’m not sure if there was a seat that was available in the plane. As you know, it was a small airplane; we could not accommodate press. We were trying to finalize logistics. I’m not actually on this trip, but I’d have to take that question. Do you have an additional one?
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, they’re all related.
MR TONER: Okay. Go ahead. Yep.
QUESTION: I mean, you’re two hours and six minutes from takeoff. Is it really so hard to find out whether there’s a reporter on the plane?
MR TONER: Again, I haven’t been handling logistics around this particular trip, so I’m going to have to take the question. I do know that they were considering a seat, having a – or if there was a possibility of having a seat available. All that said, it’s a small airplane. There’s limited seats available. We’ve been very clear in our discussions with the media about that. We’ve been very clear, frankly, that this is a smaller footprint all around, and this is the Secretary’s decision, to travel with a smaller footprint. And in some degree – or to some degree, it’s a cost-saving measure.
That said, we’ve also made the point that I think there’s going to be 20-some media in each of the cities that he’ll visit on the ground, U.S. media, that we’ll accommodate, that we’ll provide logistics for. We’ll make sure that they get into the photo sprays and, in a couple cases, press avails that he’s going to be holding. So we’ll still have that access available to these individuals.
Did you have a follow-up?
QUESTION: (Inaudible) if I may. One, you’re aware that Secretary Powell took a small plane to Greenland in, I think, August of 2004. He found room for a reporter. Is the plane even smaller than that? I mean, if he was able to take one, why can’t Secretary Tillerson? And then the second question is you made a point about reducing cost. Is it not the case that media who travel with the Secretary of State have always paid for the cost of their air travel plus their hotels, plus additional imputed charges for ground services, such as buses and vans in a motorcade?
MR TONER: They have paid a degree of those costs. But I’d refer you to the Office of the Comptroller at the Department of Defense, who can do a deep dive on how those costs are really reflected in the overall costs of the actual air trip. I don’t mean to get into that breakdown, nor is it my place to discuss that kind of – get into that financial breakdown on this call. But those are representative costs, what the tickets – or the price or the fees that journalists pay for those flights, but does not reflect the overall cost of operating that aircraft.
I think, again, I want to make the point going forward that we’re going to make every effort in future trips to have a contingent of press onboard that plane. And I’ve been very clear about that since last week.
All right. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Barbara Usher of CBC. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thank you. That’s BBC, actually. Mark, I also have three short questions, so if you’ll allow me to follow up as well. My first question is about the meeting with the foreign minister of the UAE today. This week there’s been also a meeting with the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, and both of those have been closed press. Can you tell us why the Gulf foreign ministers have closed press and others do not, it seems? I mean, is there some particular reason for that?
MR TONER: No, not in particular. I think we did official photographers this morning. We usually work that out, those kinds of protocols, with the visiting dignitary or counterpart. I’d have to, frankly, look into it to understand – or to get a better, clearer understanding of why there was no photo spray. But I don’t think it was any kind of particular reason why we didn’t do it with these two individuals.
Next question. I mean, for you, Barbara. Go ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Just two other quick questions. One is there are reports that the Russians have deployed military forces to an Egyptian base near the Libyan border, presumably or possibly to – as part of their effort to support al-Haftar in Libya. Are you aware of that, or is the U.S. aware of that? And does – do you have any concerns about this?
And then I have one quick question about Lieberman after that.
MR TONER: I’d have to, with respect to Russian airplanes in Egypt, I’d just have to refer you to the Russians to speak to that. I don’t have any additional details on that. What was your final question? Sorry, I apologize.
QUESTION: It’s about Lieberman, the foreign minister of Israel. It’s been reported that he presented to Mr. Tillerson and State Department officials his land swap plan, which has been around for some time. And I wondered if you could confirm that and whether that was seriously in the mix of options being considered going forward.
MR TONER: I can’t confirm that. And I wouldn’t get into the specific details of the options that we’re looking at, except to say, as we’ve said over the past week or so, that we are looking at different options, but we’re talking to both sides. Hence the reason for Greenblatt’s trip to the region – to hear perspectives, to hear ideas on a way forward, to get back to a place where we can proceed with – or get to a place where we can consider getting negotiations back up and running. But as to specific details on the components of that, what that might look like, I just can’t speak to it at this time.
OPERATOR: It will come from the line of Michelle Kosinski of CNN. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, Mark. A quick question. So you said that you’re not sure if the Secretary is going to fill that seat with a reporter. But if he were to do that, that would be someone handpicked, that he chose? Or how – I guess, what’s the protocol for that process at this point? Even if you don’t know if that seat has been filled, how is the plan laid for potentially filling it?
And my second question is about the New York attorney general sending a letter to the New York State supreme court judge trying to get ExxonMobil to comply with the subpoena to turn over these emails from then-CEO Tillerson. My question is: Does Tillerson have any – what’s his feeling on these emails? What can we say is his stance regarding the second email address in which he at times discussed climate change? Thanks, Mark.
MR TONER: Sure, thanks. So I’ll answer your second question first. The – with respect to the story and reports of the email address that he allegedly used while he was in – was CEO of Exxon or at Exxon, I would have to refer you to Exxon for any questions about that. I don’t have any details. It predates, obviously, his time here at the State Department.
But I will speak broadly, anticipating maybe a follow-up. I know I got one follow-up from one of – one reporter this morning, so I wanted to put out there that with respect to how he uses email now as Secretary of State, he uses only his Department of State email address to conduct official business, and he does comply with all federal record-keeping requirements.
With respect to your question about whether there’s journalists or not on the plane, again, I’m not going to get into how we choose or how that decision’s made. I’m not on this flight – I’m not on this trip, rather – but in general, you know that this is a process that we usually work out with the press corps. But I would say it is our prerogative to make the choice as to who from the media sits on the plane – again, with the understanding that we’re going to do all we can to accommodate those U.S. media who are on the ground at each of the three stops, to give them logistical support, to provide access to the Secretary’s photo sprays and press avails where we can. That’s not going to go away. And again, going forward, we are going to make every effort to include a contingent of U.S. media on those – on the actual flights.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Michele Kelemen of NPR. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Before my question, I just wanted to set the record straight that no one – that this wasn’t worked out with the current press corps if indeed there’s somebody on the plane today.
As for my question, I’m wondering, is climate change going to at all be a topic that he discusses in China, or does he recuse himself from those sorts of issues?
And secondly, on a separate issue, we’re expecting big cuts in funding for the United Nations, and I’m just wondering what are you – how are you planning to talk about this? Are you going to have any briefings to the press corps, to the UN press corps about the budget this week?
MR TONER: Yeah, hi. Sorry, Michele. So with respect to climate change, broadly speaking, you know this administration’s conducting a broad review of international climate issues. Secretary Tillerson, though, did speak about the fact that this is a problem that requires a global response, and he believes that the United States needs to be in those discussions, needs to be at the table in discussions about how to address it. And I can’t rule out that he won’t – or that he will raise this, rather, in his discussions, especially with China, with whom we’ve had cooperation on climate issues, especially in the run-up to the Paris Agreement. This is, again, among the many issues that we do work with and cooperate with China on.
I’m sorry, I went – I forgot your last —
QUESTION: On UN funding. I mean, are – how are you going to sort of explain to the public what you’re planning on doing on UN funding? I mean, this is a time when the UN is talking about famines in four countries and 20 million people at risk of starvation. Why is this the time to cut funding to the United Nations?
MR TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to speak to any reporting about impending budget cuts. And the reason I’m not is because I think it’s important that as the budget – we’re early – as I said, we’re early in the process with respect to budget numbers. It’s an ongoing conversation, so for me to speak to a number today or a possible cut today, it may be very different – look very differently a couple weeks or months down the road. As we get information available, we’ll of course share it with you, but I think I’m going to wait for the President’s budget outline on Thursday. And then, of course, as I said, we’ll make sure we inform the press on State’s posture going into the budget process.
I would just say, broadly speaking, there’s many U.S. agencies, and that certainly includes State Department and USAID, who contribute funds to international organizations and depend on the work that these organizations do to advance U.S. national interests. I certainly understand where you come from when you mention the plethora of humanitarian crises around the world. The U.S. has been a leading contributor to humanitarian assistance efforts, especially with respect to Syria but elsewhere in the world, and we’re going to do – continue to do what we can to help in that regard.
Do you have a follow-up, Michele?
QUESTION: Sure. On Thursday, when this comes out, I mean, are you going to have some budget experts come and talk to us about the decisions that were made?
MR TONER: Again, I’d let the President and the White House speak to the President’s budget outline on Thursday. We’ll do our best to answer questions about our specific role in that, but we just need to see where we’re at in the process and what we can talk about. Again, I just don’t want to get out ahead of a process that’s going to take a few months to materialize.
Thanks. Next question.
OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Tejinder Singh of IAT. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thanks for doing this, Mark. Can you confirm that the Canadian Girl Guides which has – they have more than 70,000 members – have canceled all trips to the U.S. until further notice?
QUESTION: Of Canada and also (inaudible).
MR TONER: Yeah. Go – I’m sorry, let me answer that. So I’ve seen the reports. I’d obviously refer you to their organization to speak to the reasons why they’re canceling their travel. I would simply add that or say that Canadian passport holders are not affected by the executive order, and of course legal residents of Canada who hold passports of a restricted country can apply for an immigrant or non-immigrant visa to the United States if the individual presents that passport and proof of legal resident status to a consular officer.
But with respect to the decisions about travel to the United States, that’s up to them to speak to. I would only add that we’re confident that the U.S. remains a premier travel destination for many people around the world, and we’re confident that that will remain.
Do you have a follow-up, Tejinder?
QUESTION: Yeah. On that last sentence that became – I know we don’t talk about the individual visas and others. Can you just but let us know that if there has been a drop in visa applications around the globe or they are on the rise?
MR TONER: So preliminary data – and I stress preliminary – but it does suggest that visa applications have not, in fact, decreased. But of course, as I said, visa demand fluctuates, but what we’ve seen thus far is there’s been no decrease in visa applications.
OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Deborah Pettit of NBC News.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thanks for taking our calls. How are you?
MR TONER: I’m good, thanks. I’m sorry, I put it on mute, but go ahead. I’m —
MR TONER: Of course I’m familiar with this case, yeah.
QUESTION: Yes. Anyways, tomorrow will be the first-year anniversary and there hasn’t seemed to have been any progress. Do you have anything to comment on that first anniversary or any update you can give us on his welfare?
MR TONER: Oh, I’m sorry, was I – okay. I apologize. Did you hear the first part of my answer? Hello?
QUESTION: I didn’t, Mark.
MR TONER: Okay, I apologize.
QUESTION: That’s okay.
MR TONER: With respect to Otto Warmbier and the anniversary of his incarceration, look, our concern about his welfare is very well known. We believe that he’s being held unjustly. He’s gone through the criminal process and he’s been detained for, as you noted, more than a year. We believe his sentence of 15 years’ hard labor is unduly harsh – harsh, rather – for the actions that Mr. Warmbier allegedly took. And we urge North Korea to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds. We would also like to see our – or have, rather, access to him – regular access through our protecting power, which I believe is the Swedish embassy.
More broadly speaking, I just have to reiterate, take this moment – occasion to say that we strongly discourage any travel by any U.S. citizens to North Korea given how they are treated, Mr. Warmbier’s case only being the most recent one. We urge any U.S. citizen considering travel to North Korea to visit our website, travel.state.gov, and to heed the warning there against traveling to North Korea.
Do you have a follow-up?
QUESTION: Is Secretary Tillerson going to make any inquiries or is that going to be part of a discussion that might happen on this trip?
MR TONER: Hard to say. It’s not that it’s not considered an important issue, and, of course, North Korea and its bad behavior and its continued bad behavior, frankly, is going to be a very high priority in the discussions that he’s going to have in each of his three stops.
But certainly, we raise in multiple fora ways that we can try to get Mr. Warmbier back home. Look, the safety and security of American citizens abroad is probably our highest priority at the State Department. I think we’ve shown our track record over the years that we never lose sight of individuals like Mr. Warmbier who are, we believe, held unjustly by governments or entities overseas. We’re going to continue to press for his, as I said, his amnesty, and we’re going to keep his case at the forefront.
OPERATOR: Comes from the line of Nicolas Revise of AFP.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon, Mark. Thank you for doing this. Yesterday we had a U.S. official expressing concern about the diplomatic spat between Turkey and the Netherlands, but since then, the situation has been getting worse and worse, especially from the Turkish side. So how much are you concerned about this war of words between the Netherlands and Germany on one side, and Turkey on the other side?
MR TONER: Sure, thanks for the question. Look, it’s a bilateral matter between the governments of the Netherlands and Turkey. Both countries are NATO allies, and we would call on them to avoid escalatory rhetoric and engage one another with mutual respect and try to resolve the differences in this matter.
Do you have a follow-up?
QUESTION: Yes. Don’t you think – who is to blame for this war of words? Is it President Erdogan or other – Germany and the Netherlands because of the very tense political context?
MR TONER: Yeah, I think I’ll leave it where I just left it, which is we want to see both sides avoid escalatory rhetoric and work together to try to resolve the situation. Again, these are two strong allies, two strong partners within NATO. We work closely with both these countries. We want to see them, obviously, cooperate and get along. So I’ll leave it there.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Will come from the line of Curt Mills of US News and World Report.
QUESTION: Yes, hey. Hello, Mark, can you hear me?
MR TONER: Sure can.
QUESTION: Yes. Okay, so there was a report – a couple of reports last week, one in The Daily Mail that alleged that non-U.S. citizens are being told that they can’t arrange tours at the White House, and some web – some embassy websites seem to indicate that there’s been some sort of change in procedure with the new administration. Is there any veracity to these reports?
MR TONER: Hey, thanks for the question, actually, because we’ve gotten some questions about this last week as well. Look, I’d have to refer you to the White House, but it’s not true. And I think they have to go through the embassy, if that’s correct, to get on these tours. But certainly, there is no discouragement with respect to UK or any foreign – foreigner – foreign government – or, rather, foreign tourists visiting the White House.
Thanks. Sorry, couple – a few more questions, please.
OPERATOR: Sure. The next will come from Kylie Atwood of CBS News.
QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thank you for doing this. Just want to go back to the email question for a minute. And you were very clear in saying that the Secretary is complying by federal rules on recordkeeping, but I just want to clarify: So is Secretary Tillerson using a personal email address in addition to his State email address? And does he only have one State Department email address? And then I’ve got a follow-up to that.
MR TONER: Sure. He only uses a State Department – or a Department of State, rather, email address for the conduct of official business, and I can assure you he’s very disciplined about that. Similarly, he only uses an official phone number for conversations he may have with respect to his business. I’m simply unaware that he might have a – or whether he has a personal email address in addition. But in the conduct of official business, he only uses a Department of State email address. And your follow-up?
QUESTION: Follow-up is in regards to Janice Jacobs, who I think former Secretary Kerry had hired at the State Department to be a transparency coordinator. So is she still in that role? And if so, has she been meeting with the Secretary on these issues?
MR TONER: I can confirm that she’s still in that role and still meets regularly with senior staff – I don’t know if she’s sat down with the Secretary yet; I can only imagine she has – but to talk about all these issues, obviously realizing, as we discussed before, how important it is in today’s day and age to maintain and comply with federal recordkeeping requirements.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Will be Karen DeYoung of Washington Post.
QUESTION: Off the hook. My question’s already been asked. Thank you.
MR TONER: Great. Last question, guys. Sorry. I got to run. But last question, please.
OPERATOR: Looks like it’ll come from the line of Josh Lederman of Associated Press.
QUESTION: Hey. Thanks, Mark. I wanted to ask you about the crackdown on political dissent in Bahrain and specifically the change that the parliament has approved to allow the military courts to try civilians. Is that something you guys are concerned about? Have you talked to Bahrain about it? And I have a follow-up on that.
MR TONER: Sure, Josh. You’re talking about specifically the military courts? Is that what you’re talking about? Or —
QUESTION: Yeah, to try civilians in military courts —
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: — which some of the human rights groups are saying is basically martial law.
MR TONER: Understood. We’re aware of the amendment – I think it was recently passed by parliament, as you note – that expands the purview of military courts. We understand that it’s going to become official, once it’s affirmed by the King. I think we recognize the threats that Bahrain faces from terrorism in the region. We stand shoulder to shoulder with Bahrain and our other allies in the Gulf to counter any regional threats.
However, these are actions that must be in accordance with international legal obligations to protect human rights, so we urge the Government of Bahrain to ensure that all civilians retain the right to due process in all cases and to transparent judicial proceedings, in addition to the rights of freedom of expression and assembly.
Do you have a follow-up?
QUESTION: Yeah. I was just curious. I mean, there’s been a lot of talk about the Trump administration potentially delinking concerns about human rights to military aid, jets that we sell them, and I was curious if that’s a decision that the Secretary has come to yet.
MR TONER: Yeah, Josh, look, we’ve raised this particular issue, asked about it, as well as other human rights concerns, with the Government of Bahrain. We continue to do so. There’s been no easing up in that regard.
Great. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. I appreciate it. And I’ll see you all tomorrow on camera. Take care.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:35 p.m.)