Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
Department of State
May 21, 2017
QUESTION: And joining us now from Saudi Arabia is the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. Mr. Secretary, President Trump is urging Muslim leaders to join the, quote, “battle between good and evil,” he’s opening a center against extremism today, Muslim leaders are pledging to cut off funding to radicals. But the big question I have is: Is this just talk or are there some real teeth here, concrete measures that will help us destroy ISIS and al-Qaida and to stop the flow of new recruits?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Chris, I think it is historic, what’s happening here in Riyadh under the King’s leadership and his convening of the GCC Council this morning. We had a very productive discussion on the subject of how to counter terrorism, how to defeat Daesh, and how to bring stability – greater stability to the region. And of course, this afternoon, he’ll deliver his important message to the convening of the Arab Summit – again, Arab nations, Muslim nations from around the world.
And I think what’s the output of this, Chris, are some framework agreements that are really going to guide the actions going forward, but there are concrete commitments being made as to how we will work together to defeat Daesh, to defeat terrorism here in the region, and as well as elsewhere.
I think the other thing that’s important is there’s also agreement to continue this dialogue. It doesn’t end here. There is a commitment to have another GCC summit with the U.S. a year from now, and one of the expectations is we will be measuring our project – our progress towards the initiatives and agreements that were signed here, and we will be looking for concrete results by which to measure each country’s commitments.
QUESTION: Well, as you point out, GCC is the Gulf Council of Nations. During the campaign, sir, Candidate Trump had some tough things to say. Here he is on the Muslim religion.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: I think Islam hates us. There’s something – there’s something there that – there’s a tremendous hatred there. There’s a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it.
QUESTION: And here he is talking about Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: You talk about women and women’s rights? So these are people that push gays off business – off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly.
QUESTION: Given that past rhetoric, why should Muslim leaders trust Mr. Trump now? And on the other hand, if the President is so concerned about human rights, why isn’t he talking about it publicly this weekend?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Chris, I think this is one of the great attributes of this President, is that he is willing to call issues out and confront them, speak very plainly and bluntly about them. And in many ways, that motivates these countries to want to understand why the feelings in the U.S. are the way they are, but also to engage, to address those. And I think that’s what we are seeing in this visit to Riyadh, this visit to the country that is the custodian of the Two Holy Mosque. And the President himself has said he has learned a lot on this trip and he’s learned a lot about the people, he’s learned a lot about their culture.
And I think this is an – it’s a really important process in terms of how we move forward with this relationship between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world, and I think there’s a great recognition among all the leaders of the Muslim world that they have to take responsibility for what has happened in many respects, and they are taking responsibility and they’re ready to join with us and other nations in confronting this terrible face of terrorism.
QUESTION: But sir, I’ve seen a draft of the President’s speech, the big speech this afternoon. Not a mention of human rights, not a mention of women’s rights. You say he wants to speak concretely and frankly about these things. He’s not doing that today.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Chris, I think the way you address those human rights issues and women’s rights issues is to improve the conditions in the region, and today, conditions in the region are under a lot of stress because of the threat of terrorism, the threat that Iran poses to instability in the region. And these subjects are being discussed as well and there are efforts underway to, I think, improve the rights of women, the participation of women in society throughout the region, but the primary reason we’re here today is to confront this threat of terrorism. If we do not defeat Daesh, if we do not defeat these forces of evil, there will be no conditions under which we can even hope to improve human rights for all of the people in the region.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you were in the Oval Office when the President met with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov on May 10th, and according to the official summary, the President told Lavrov, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
My question to you, sir, as someone who was in that meeting: Was he telling the Russians that firing Comey was taking off legal and political pressure?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Chris, that’s not my interpretation, certainly, of the conversation. And I think what the President was trying to convey to the Russians is: Look, I’m not going to be distracted by this – all these issues that are here at home, they – that affect us domestically, I’m not going to let that distract from our efforts to see if we can engage with you, engage with Russia, and identify areas where we might be able to work together.
The President, I think, re-emphasized the message to the Russians that the relationship is at a low point and we need to change that. We need to both work towards trying to improve that. So I think the point he was making is: I’m not going to be distracted by those things that are happening here at home nor let them get in the way of the important work of engaging Russia to see what can be done to improve this relationship.
QUESTION: But sir, he seemed to be saying that firing Comey would help remove one of the distractions.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Chris, I just didn’t – my takeaway from that conversation was not that point at all. I think, again, the President was simply saying to the Russians: These issues at home are not going to get in the way of my effort and the effort of my government to see if we can find a way to move this relationship forward.
QUESTION: You said this week in Washington that you don’t think that foreign leaders around the world care about what’s going on in Washington with regard to the President. Here you are:
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think the people in the rest of the world take – do not have the time to pay attention to what’s happening domestically here.
QUESTION: I have to ask you, Mr. Secretary, do you really believe that? Because I got to tell you that ambassadors that I talk to here in Washington are deeply concerned with the investigation into the President and question, wonder, whether it’s going to somehow prevent the U.S. from meeting its challenges around the world.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Chris, I think all you have to do is watch the footage of your own coverage of the President on this historic visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which of course now are convening nations from throughout the region, including Africa. There is an enormous amount of enthusiasm for the initiative that’s being taken by the President on this particular issue, and of course, the subsequent legs of this trip to Tel Aviv and then to Rome and to the Vatican, the audience with the Pope.
My encounter with my counterparts, foreign ministers, but I would also say heads of state – these are not the issues that are on their mind. The issues that are on their minds are security issues, economic issues, issues of common interest to both of our countries. That’s what they want to talk about when I’m with them, and these domestic issues just simply never come up in our discussions.
QUESTION: In the time we have left, sir, and this is your first time on Fox News Sunday, so I’ll introduce you to something which I hope you’ll do with us again: a lightning round, quick questions, quick answers on various hotspots around the world. There was an – excuse me – an ugly incident in Washington this week where Turkish President Erdogan looked on while his security beat and kicked peaceful protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence.
Question, sir: Are you going to do anything about that?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we did call the ambassador of Turkey into the State Department to discuss what occurred with them and express our view that this is simply unacceptable. There is an ongoing investigation, Chris, and I think we’ll wait and see what the outcome of that investigation is, but we have expressed our dismay at what occurred at the Turkish embassy.
QUESTION: Well, beyond expressing dismay, Senator McCain says that you should expel the Turkish ambassador.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Chris, I think we need to let the investigation conclude before we come to any decision such as that.
QUESTION: As I’m sure you know, North Korea tested yet another ballistic missile today. Isn’t that one more indication that the new get-tough policy of this administration, the end of strategic patience, isn’t working?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: No, Chris, I wouldn’t – that would not be my takeaway at all. We’re early in the stages of applying the economic pressure as well as the diplomatic pressure to the regime in North Korea. Hopefully, they will get the message that the pathway of continuing their nuclear arms program is not a pathway to security, or, certainly, prosperity. The ongoing testing is disappointing, it’s disturbing, and we ask that they cease that because until they cease that testing, clearly, they have not changed their view.
But I think we’re early into the game of putting pressure on them, and one could also interpret that perhaps they’re just acting out now in response to some of this pressure that I believe they’re beginning to feel.
QUESTION: Do any of the agreements that are being made this weekend with Sunni, Arab, and Muslim nations – do any of them help the United States in the effort to contain Iran and its regional expansion?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Chris, I think certainly, the kind of security arrangements, obviously, there were – significant new arms sales packages were announced yesterday with the kingdom, but there are also sales going on to other important countries in the region. This strengthens the overall security posture of the Gulf and the Arab nations in particular, and I think makes it clear to Iran that we, the United States, will stand with our partners here in the region to counter Iran’s hegemony. Any aspirations Iran has for putting pressure on these countries will be met by a strong and unified front.
QUESTION: Finally, sir, we all got to see – I don’t know that you’ve gotten a chance to see it, but we all got to see the video yesterday of you participating in that traditional Arab sword dance. And I have to tell you, you looked pretty good while you were doing it – frankly, more comfortable than the President or Commerce Secretary Ross. Had you been practicing, sir?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I hadn’t been practicing, Chris, but it was not my first sword dance.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Why? With your experience in the Middle East?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I’ve been to – in the Middle East for many, many years, Chris, and not just in the kingdom, but throughout the region. This was just such a wonderful welcome for the President last night. The spirit, the fun that was going on in the air, it was very contagious for all of us, and I think just the pure joy that you see on the faces of the people here in Saudi Arabia but also what we’re hearing throughout the region with the President’s visit, the importance of it, and I think great hope that this brings to them that something is finally going to be done to confront these faces of terrorism and the destabilizing forces in the region.
QUESTION: Secretary Tillerson, I think I can safely say that’s the first time we’ve ever heard on Fox News Sunday, “This is not my first sword dance.” We want to thank you, thanks for your time today, and safe travels, sir.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Thank you, Chris.