Department Press Briefing - March 21, 2017

Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 21, 2017


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

2:05 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Thank you. And thanks, everyone for joining us today. A couple things at the top, and then I’ll take your questions.

First, we were saddened to learn of the passing of Martin McGuiness. As deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, McGuiness worked to make the power sharing in government a cornerstone of consolidating peace and building prosperity in the region. In making difficult decisions to move away from militancy, McGuiness worked to end violence and promote cross-community reconciliation. McGuiness will also be long remembered as a pivotal negotiator and architect of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday Agreement, helping Northern Ireland to transition from decades of violence to a more stable and peaceful future.

Also, as many of you know, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS meets tomorrow here at the State Department. We look forward to welcoming representatives of this 68-member coalition. And this will be the first time the full coalition’s met since December 2014. Tomorrow we have a full day scheduled, including Secretary Tillerson’s opening remarks, which will be broadcast on Also of note is that Prime Minister of Iraq Abadi will also be delivering remarks. Secretary of Defense Mattis will join the discussions tomorrow as well, and there’ll be a broad discussion on the way ahead, looking specifically at ways to intensify the current campaign, which is in line with what has already been presented in terms of strategies to the White House. We also, of course, look forward to hearing additional ideas from the members of the coalition who’ll be present. And we will, of course, keep you, the press and media, updated throughout the day on any developments.

With that, I’ll take your questions.

OPERATOR: And just a quick reminder: Ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question press *1. And I’ll first go to Matthew Lee with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Hi, Mark. Thanks. I’ve got three really, really brief ones. One, why did you guys not go to this Inter-American Commission on Human Rights panel session this morning that was about the human rights – potential human rights impacts of the three executive orders signed by the President?

MR TONER: Sure, Matt. So --

QUESTION: Also (inaudible) I’ve got two more brief ones.

MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead. Or why don’t we take them – I’ll take them one at the time, so I can keep them all straight in my head.

QUESTION: All right.

MR TONER: So you’re talking about the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

QUESTION: Correct.

MR TONER: It did request the United States appear in two thematic hearings today, I think related to the three recent executive orders. One was also related to, I think, migrants claiming asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. We, the United States, do have tremendous respect for the role preformed by the IACHR in safeguarding human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the hemisphere, including the United States. However, it was not appropriate – and this was deemed not appropriate by our legal experts – for the United States to participate in these hearings while litigation on the matters was ongoing in U.S. courts. So we did not feel it was – we were able to address the concerns in an open hearing.

The next question?

QUESTION: Yeah. Look, okay, that’s an interesting explanation. Is that one that you would accept from other countries, if they chose not to attend sessions on their own policies, that explanation?

MR TONER: Matt, I think – no, no, Matt. But I think it recognizes the fact, as I said, that these executive orders – the one in particular – is a matter of ongoing litigation. So obviously, we’re mindful of anything that we say in an open hearing with respect to that executive order --


MR TONER: -- might affect its resolution or the resolution of that litigation.

QUESTION: Okay. The second one is: What’s the rationale behind the Secretary not going to the NATO foreign ministers meeting? And when is the last time, given your vast experience both at NATO and in the building, that the secretary of state did not attend the foreign ministers meeting of the alliance? Does the North Atlantic Council have less importance to you?

And then the last one, very briefly, is: The Secretary’s Nowruz message – I mean, unless I’m mistaken, I didn’t get it. And I don’t think it was sent out by the Press Office. It just magically appeared on the website today, or at least to me it seemed to. I’m just wondering, were you guys trying to do that low-key? Thank you.

MR TONER: No, not at all. The Nowruz – it was posted last night. It wasn’t at all meant to be lowkey. We can look into and talk offline about if it didn’t appear or it didn’t come directly into your inbox or others’ inboxes, but it was posted online.

With respect to your first question about the NATO ministerial, I’ll answer your question – your last part of that question first, which is that: Absolutely not. The United States remains 100 percent committed to NATO. President Trump said this in his very first address to a joint session of Congress. He said our commitment to NATO is unwavering and it remains so.

A couple points about why, at this point in time, he does not plan on attending this foreign ministerial. First of all, he’s going to be meeting, as part of this D-ISIS ministerial, with all or nearly all of the NATO allies tomorrow. While he won’t specifically be discussing in a group session all of NATO’s equities, obviously, he will have an opportunity to do pull-asides with many of these countries. And secondly, I think also Secretary-General of NATO Stoltenberg will also be present at the --

QUESTION: But that’s not a meeting of the North of – of the NAC.

MR TONER: I understood. I understand that, absolutely. I’m not – I tried to characterize it as not. This is focused on the counter-ISIS strategy going forward, absolutely. But Ambassador Tom Shannon, who is the second-most senior official in the department, will be at that ministerial.

And with respect to your history question, I think it was in 2003 and as well as in 1999 that – were times when the secretary of state did not attend a NATO foreign ministers meeting. More broadly, just not with the United States, it’s also important to note that individuals below the rank of foreign minister or secretary of state often are – it’s not unusual for minister – or for individuals below the role – the rank of foreign minister or secretary of state to attend a foreign ministerial at NATO.

Next question.



OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thanks for doing this. I’m also on NATO. A couple of – I got, like, six, but quick questions, so if you would let us go through them in order, I’d be grateful. First of all, in the guidance that you put out yesterday, you listed 26 countries whose foreign ministers would participate in the D-ISIS meeting. You didn’t include – they were all the members of NATO except Croatia. The Croatian Government says their foreign minister, in fact, is in town, and is attending those meetings. And so I just wanted to confirm that all 27 other NATO members are, in fact, participating.

MR TONER: Yeah. So I can – first of all, it was completely unintentional to leave out Croatia. Attribute that to a late-night gaffe. But in no way do we want to diminish Croatia’s valuable role within the alliance. Next question?

QUESTION: Sorry. And just – so all 27 are going to be at the D-ISIL meeting?

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: Okay. Second, I’m told that NATO offered to change – to adjust the dates of its foreign ministers meeting so as to permit Secretary Tillerson to attend the ministerial and make the Xi Jinping meeting, but that they – the officials that I spoke to said that they were – that offer was rebuffed. Why isn’t the department interested in trying to find a way for Secretary Tillerson to do both?

MR TONER: So – for a couple points. One is we’re certainly appreciative of the effort to accommodate Secretary Tillerson. I can say that we’ve offered alternative dates that the Secretary could attend, and those are now being considered. Important to remember, though, that this is not just a decision for NATO headquarters, but it’s also – it has to be reached – these dates – by consensus by all 28 allies. But as I said, we’ve offered alternative dates whereby the – or where the Secretary could attend.

QUESTION: When did you make that offer? Was that in the last 24, or not even 24 hours? Or was it prior to that?

MR TONER: That was done this morning.

QUESTION: Okay. So why did you rebuff the offers previously?

MR TONER: I wouldn’t say we rebuffed the offers. It was simply, as we were evaluating and coming together with the Secretary’s schedule, it didn’t fit, the original dates --


MR TONER: -- given what he wanted to do. But we’ve gone back with alternative dates now.

QUESTION: Great. And then next, in the statement that came out last night, you mentioned that the Secretary had already spoken to – had already spoken to the foreign minister of Ukraine. Why did you mention Ukraine? It’s not a NATO member.

MR TONER: Yeah, but often there’s – sorry, often there’s a NUC or a NATO-Ukraine meeting as part of any foreign ministerial and defense ministerial to that effect. So we were just noting that.

QUESTION: Okay. And then you mentioned in the guidance last night that the Secretary would be going to a G7 meeting in Rome, and I was perplexed by that because the G7 (a) is – although it discusses political issues, it’s also very much an economic body, and (b) it includes countries such as Japan that are not NATO members. What was the relevance of mentioning that he’s going to a G7 meeting to NATO?

MR TONER: So just as I mentioned that he was going to be seeing a lot of the allies tomorrow, if not all of the allies tomorrow at the D-ISIS ministerial, simply the point we were trying to make was that he’s also going to see a number of the key allies, NATO allies, in this setting as well. I think it’s just to emphasize the point that he has – while the agenda for discussion may include topics other than security or specific-to-NATO issues, it also just underscores the fact that he’s almost – he’s in regular contact with his NATO counterparts.

QUESTION: Great. And then final one from me: We have a story out of Brussels quoting a number of European officials as saying that they feel that the Secretary’s decision not to come to the April 5th and 6th meeting raises new questions about President Trump’s commitment to the alliance. I heard what you said about the United States being 100 percent committed to the alliance, but how do you try to address their concerns given what President-elect Trump said about NATO being obsolete? You can say that you’re 100 percent committed, but if you can’t show up for a meeting, how do you actually help persuade your allies that you are committed?

MR TONER: Well, again, very clearly I want to address this point. The Secretary, Secretary of Defense Mattis, the President of the United States, Vice President Pence have all clearly stated our ironclad commitment to NATO. We have raised concerns, certainly, about NATO allies all reaching their commitments, budgetary commitments to the 2 percent level that they committed to at the Wales Summit, but that shouldn’t in any way speak to our disregard for the alliance or our commitment to the alliance and the security of Europe.

With respect to concerns about that, as I said, we are trying to work out alternative dates where the Secretary could attend a ministerial, but that has to be a decision reached by consensus and we’re mindful of that. So we’re trying to work out a compromise here. We want the – Secretary certainly wants to be there if he can and if his schedule permits. But just to underscore again the fact that he is going to be meeting with many of these allies and he’ll be reassuring them of our ongoing commitment not just to NATO, although that’s important, but to the issues that affect their security as well as ours – namely, destroying ISIS and dealing with other threats to the European and North Atlantic community.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Gardiner Harris with The New York Times. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thanks for doing this. On the inter-American human rights council, you’ve always in the past – even if you disputed a conversation about something, you’ve always had at least an observer. Help me understand why an observer, a mute observer, would complicate your legal defense of the executive order or anything else. How would that even come up in a court hearing?

MR TONER: Sure, Gardiner. Look, I’m just going to stay where I was, which is that we did inform the IACHR of our inability to attend these particular hearings. I said why we’re not attending these particular hearings – because of ongoing litigation surrounding some of these executive orders. So whether it’s an observer or not, I’m not going to – or whether we could participate as an observer or not, in my view, isn’t pertinent.

Next question.

QUESTION: Okay. You’ve also boycotted the UN session – the Human Rights Council – because of a discussion about Israel and Palestine. Is this now a strategy on the administration’s part to start boycotting human rights hearings and councils? Is this going to expand? Are you guys deciding to slow or stop your participation in human rights multilateral organizations?

MR TONER: No, not at all. Apples and oranges. I would say with respect to the IACHR hearing, as I said, that was a matter of ongoing litigation. We were concerned about that. We respectfully recused ourselves from appearing at this hearing, and we notified them of our – or of the reasons behind our recusal.

With respect to the UNHCR or the commission hearing that’s ongoing, our decision was very clear. We made that decision to boycott that particular session because of article seven, which we view as biased towards Israel, and we make no excuses for that, frankly.

So next question, please.

OPERATOR: And next we go to Barbara Usher with BBC. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Mark, can you just confirm that Mr. Tillerson is skipping the NATO meeting because of the Chinese leader’s visit?

MR TONER: Barbara, that’s a White House visit, so I’m not going to speak to that. I’m just going to say right now that the Secretary’s schedule does not permit him to attend the NATO ministerial on those dates, but as I said, we’re trying to accommodate this ministerial in his schedule.

Next question.


OPERATOR: We’ll go to Said Arikat with Al Quds. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Can you hear me, Mark?

MR TONER: Sure can.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thanks for doing this. I have a couple of quick questions on the Palestinian issue. The Israeli press is citing Palestinian sources as being quite upbeat about President Trump’s two-state efforts and so on. I wanted to ask you, is the State Department involved in any way in sort of – in the road ahead on this issue? Has Secretary Tillerson spoke to any – anyone in the Palestinian Authority on this issue?

MR TONER: Said, I’m – I apologize. Could you just repeat the question one more time? I didn’t quite hear it.

QUESTION: Oh. Can you hear me now?

MR TONER: Exactly, yes.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay, great. I wanted to ask you about the role of Secretary Tillerson or the State Department in the road ahead, peace efforts, because the Israelis are citing Palestinian sources as being quite upbeat and so on about the potential of the two-state solution, and I wanted to see what is your role. Is Mr. Ratney involved in this process?

MR TONER: Well, as you know, Mr. Greenblatt from the White House --


MR TONER: -- was in the region last week, held extensive meetings with the Palestinian Authority as well as with the Israeli Government on up to Prime Minister Netanyahu – I believe he met with twice in extended meetings. Of course, representatives from our consulate and our embassy were at many of those meetings, if not all of them, and certainly helped set those meetings up. I also believe he went to Jordan and met with the king as well. So we’re involved.

As to Michael Ratney’s role, he’s also following this issue very closely in – from his perch in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. This is a team effort. We’re going to continue to look at the way forward and we’re analyzing. Much of what Mr. Greenblatt did in the region last week, as we’ve said, was geared towards listening to perspectives on both sides of this or on all sides of this issue and trying from that to find ways of commonality, common goals, and try to set the environment we believe is necessary to begin a peace process.

QUESTION: Couple of quick follow-ups, Mark, if you’ll allow me. The Israeli ministry is trying to compile database of citizens who support BDS. It also includes Americans – Jewish Americans, Palestinian Americans, and so on, from – preventing them from going in. I wonder if you have any comment on that.

And also, another issue: The Israeli forces delivered a stop work order to Palestinian families and – in a town called Kafr ad-Dik in Area C. Also, probably it’s a prelude to destroying whatever structures they have done so far. I wonder if you have any comment on both these issues.

MR TONER: Sure. With respect to the database, I’ve seen the reports. You know very well our views on this issue. We’re strongly opposed to boycotts and sanctions of the state of Israel.

QUESTION: I understand.

MR TONER: That’s well known. At the same time, we value freedom of expression, and that is in – even in cases where we do not necessarily agree with the political views espoused. That’s where we come down on that issue.

With respect to the stop-work order, I’m aware of reports. I’ll have to look into it. I don’t have anything for you on that right now. Sorry, Said.

OPERATOR: Our next question’s from Conor Finnegan with ABC News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks, Mark. I know you mentioned that Secretary Mattis will be at the meeting tomorrow. Can you say – do you know if anyone else in the administration will be there at that level, any White House advisors in particular?

MR TONER: Sure. Thanks for the question. At this point, I wouldn’t speak to anyone else’s involvement. I’d leave it for the various agencies to announce for themselves. I just wanted to add that Secretary Mattis, given, obviously, the Department of Defense’s integral role in this effort, would be in the building and would be part of the sessions, I believe, in the afternoon. But if we – as I said, as we have news to update in terms of participation, we’ll certainly let you know.

You have a follow-up or --

QUESTION: Not on that --

MR TONER: Okay. Sure.

QUESTION: -- but just the other issue. The new travel ban for electronic devices from certain countries – can you speak to what role the State Department played in that decision, in both the decision to do that but also the implementation in terms of reaching out to those countries and those airports?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, as you know, this was primarily a TSA and DHS-led effort, and again, based on an assessment that there was a credible terrorist threat to commercial aviation emanating from these airports and that evaluated intelligence indicated that – frankly, that these terrorist groups continue to target commercial aviation and are pursuing new ways to carry out attacks, and that includes smuggling explosive devices in various consumer items.

So with respect to State Department’s role, what I can say is that our diplomats in the effected countries spoke directly to the governments, the effected governments, including civil aviation authorities in those countries. We – it was the TSA, however, who spoke directly to – or conducted industry engagements, so spoke directly to the airlines themselves about this.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thanks for doing this. On the Secretary’s travel to Russia, do you have a date and is he going to meet with Putin?

MR TONER: Fair question. At this point, I don’t – I’m not ready to – we’re not ready to make a formal announcement on this, Felicia. As we – or when we do and as we develop the schedule, we’ll certainly be able to address all those questions. Do you have another question?

QUESTION: Yeah. I guess on the guidance, I saw it seemed like the trip would be after this G7 meeting in Italy. Is it going to be the same trip? I just want to make sure.

MR TONER: We’ll – we can talk about that --

QUESTION: Offline? Okay.

MR TONER: -- at this point, offline. No worries. I just – it’s confusing, but we haven’t formally announced this trip yet.


MR TONER: Yep. Next question, please, and a couple more questions.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Laurie Mylroie with Kurdistan24. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks for taking my question. My question concerns Iran. Is the issue of Iran and Iranian-backed groups in Iraq being raised in the talks with Prime Minister Abadi? Local media is reporting that the U.S. is pressing Iraq to disband the Hashd al-Shaabi, and I wondered if those reports are correct or if the issue of Iran is coming up in some other way.

MR TONER: Well, first of all, I’d refer you to Prime Minister Abadi’s remarks, I think, yesterday at the U.S. Institute for Peace both on Iran as well as on, more broadly, the Popular Mobilization Forces or the PMFs. I’m not going to get into the details of our private discussions. I will say the readout yesterday released by the White House did say that Iraq and the U.S. will not tolerate efforts by any country to destabilize Iraq or undermine Iraq’s democratic institutions.

With respect to the PMFs, Prime Minister Abadi has taken steps, we believe, to bring the PMFs, these Popular Mobilization Forces, under government control. He’s done that through legislation. And he’s also made efforts to ensure that armed groups do not, in any way, participate in the political process. I think it’s important also to emphasize that the PMF is an umbrella term for an assortment of militias that includes, of course, Shia, but also Turkmen, Christian, and Sunnis; and also worth noting that not all Shia militias are Iranian-supported or funded.

But I think I’ll just end my comment by saying that – and Prime Minister Abadi has said this as well – that all countries in the region simply need to respect Iraq’s sovereignty.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Carol Morello with The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

MR TONER: Great. This is our last one.


MR TONER: Sorry, go ahead, Carol. I apologize. Hi.

QUESTION: Okay. Hi, Mark. No problem. So the National Iranian American Council today noted Secretary Tillerson’s Nowruz greeting and the line that he said: “We look forward to celebrating this new spring together.” Their question is: How, given the Muslim ban, visa ban, means they can’t be joined by family members who are in Iran?

Since they’re essentially accusing you of hypocrisy, I wanted to get a response to that and see if you think that, maybe in retrospect, there should have been some acknowledgment that this year Iran is one of the banned countries, even something a little more oblique.

MR TONER: Sure, thanks for the question. Look, the executive order instituting a pause in immigration and non-immigrant visas as well, with respect to a number of countries, not just Iran, was done out of an abundance of caution and in a recognition that we need to look again at some of the vetting procedures of some of these governments, and places also where, frankly, non-governed or nearly ungoverned spaces in order to assure the security of the American people. That was the motivation for this.

And I’ve said this before, your and Iranian American comments or Iranian comments notwithstanding, there’s not – this is not an intention in any way to hurt or in any way impact the Iranian people. We do want to continue with our people-to-people exchanges, or people-to-people efforts, rather. We do want to continue through the efforts of Iranian Americans as well to build stronger ties, again, at a people-to-people level. But that in no way should be – in no way do we want this pause to be considered some kind of testament or some kind of comment on the Iranian people themselves. It’s a concern about the safety and welfare of the American people.

QUESTION: Just, I mean, as a follow-up, since Iran – Iranians are disproportionately affected by this pause, could – do you think there should – that the State Department in this message should have given some recognition to the unique circumstances of this year?

MR TONER: No, this was a recognition of an important event for Iranians and Iranian Americans, and nothing more. And it was a – to equate the two, I think, would be inappropriate. And all, of course, who celebrate Nowruz.

All right, I think we’ll end it there. Thanks, Carol, for your question. And thanks to everyone for joining us this afternoon. We’re not going to give a – given the events tomorrow and the Secretary’s speech, we’re not going to have a press briefing tomorrow, but I’ll see you all on Thursday. Thanks so much. Bye, bye.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:34 p.m.)