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Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 16, 2017


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

2:07 p.m. EDT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next question, please.

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

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

And I have a follow-up, sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next question, please.

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

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

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

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

Next question.

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

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

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

The last part of your question was? I forget.

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

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


MR TONER: Next question, please.

QUESTION: Sorry. I had one more —

MR TONER: Oh, go ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have a follow-up, Said?

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

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

Next question.

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

QUESTION: Hi, can you hear me?

MR TONER: Yes, I can. Thanks, Dmitry.

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

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

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

Thanks, Dmitry. Next question.

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

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

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

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

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

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — and we seek to live in peace.

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

Any other follow-up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next question, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final question, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. Department of State

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