Department Press Briefing - March 23, 2017

Mark C. Toner
Acting Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 23, 2017



TRANSCRIPT:

2:11 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Just a few things at the top and then I’ll take your questions.

Beginning with yesterday’s attack in London, we can confirm that U.S. citizen Kurt Cochran was killed in yesterday’s attack, and we express our deepest condolences to his family and his friends. We’re also aware that another U.S. citizen was injured in the attack, and we, of course, stand ready to provide any and all assistance possible. Due to privacy considerations, I don’t have any further details to provide.

I can say that the U.S. embassy in London issued an emergency notice or emergency message to inform U.S. citizens in London and surrounding areas of the security incident, and U.S. citizens should maintain security awareness and monitor media and local information sources. We also strongly encourage U.S. citizens in the UK to contact family and friends in the United States directly to inform them of their safety and their whereabouts.

As President Trump and Secretary Tillerson expressed both publicly and privately yesterday to their respective counterparts, we extend our sympathies to the victims and their families, and we stand ready to assist the UK in any way possible.

The United States strongly condemns this attack, an attack that was carried out on a pillar of the United Kingdom’s democracy, its parliament building. Attacks such as these can only strengthen our resolve to defeat the scourge of terrorism worldwide. We also, of course, commend the work of the first responders and we have offered, as I said, to provide any assistance that we can to the city of London and the wider UK during this difficult time.

I also thought it might be useful to give a little bit of a recap of yesterday’s D-ISIS ministerial. So as you know, Secretary Tillerson hosted ministers and senior representatives of all 68 partners of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The overarching objective was to coordinate global efforts to – or, rather, to coordinate global efforts behind President Trump’s goal to ensure the utter destruction of this barbaric group and to prevent it from returning in any form.

In his remarks, the Secretary laid out his vision for a more effective campaign to defeat ISIS on the battlefield, provide the stabilization support needed to ensure that ISIS cannot return, and in particularly – in particular emphasized the importance of accelerating our efforts to combat ISIS in cyberspace as aggressively as we are on the ground in Iraq and Syria in order to prevent it from spreading its message and recruiting new followers online. The Secretary also noted the more than $2 billion that was identified by coalition partners for humanitarian, stabilization, and demining needs and he called on all partners to rapidly fulfill their commitments.

Prime Minister al-Abadi from Iraq also, as you know, addressed the morning plenary session, and coalition members stressed their support for Iraqi forces who are engaged right now in operations to liberate Mosul and pledged to continue their support for Iraq even after ISIS is finally defeated.

Following the morning session, Secretary Tillerson hosted a working lunch for coalition delegations where he was joined by the Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Treasury Secretary Steven Munchin – Mnuchin, rather – and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, along with the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and the Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland as well as the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Tom Bossert.

The discussion at lunch focused on how different partners can more effectively coordinate and share lessons learned to deny ISIS the ability to threaten our homeland as well as that of our partners. The lunch also featured a more in-depth discussion of countering ISIS’ poisonous ideology in the Middle East region both through television as well as through social media. And the Secretary in this session stressed the U.S. commitment to an integrated and whole-of-government approach to defeating ISIS as exemplified by the other U.S. Government attendees to that lunch and called on partner nations to similarly integrate their own departments and agencies to the extent possible and to increase information sharing within the global coalition.

In an afternoon session, Secretary Tillerson hosted the coalition’s small group and was joined by Secretary of Defense Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Coats. The participants discussed how to strengthen coordination and intensify the campaign against ISIS both in its core base in Iraq and Syria as well as its affiliates in other countries. The small group consists of those approximately 30 coalition stakeholders who play a major role across military and civilian lines of effort.

Throughout the day, the Secretary reaffirmed the United States singular commitment to work with partners in this fight and was encouraged by the commitment and unity that coalition partners exhibited at this historic gathering.

One last thing to note, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that this is Press Office Director Elizabeth Trudeau’s last briefing. She’s leaving us this week. Hard to believe, I know, but she has been a stalwart colleague, a good friend, indefatigable I think describes her in some ways, relentless in other ways. (Laughter.) But she is a tireless advocate for transparency, for responsiveness, and for trying to always answer your questions to the extent that she can at any time, day or night. I couldn’t keep pace with her. I can’t. I admit that freely. But she has done an extraordinary job coordinating the efforts of the press office and certainly in, I think, addressing your needs, which we all recognize, in this day and age, are 24/7.

I do want to note that we’re fortunate to have Mark Stroh, who many of you probably know from his time at the NSC, who is going to come on board and bridge the gap, if you will. So we’re very excited to have Mark lend a hand and to try to fill Elizabeth’s role as best anyone can. But anyway, I just wanted to say thank you very much, Elizabeth. (Applause.)

All right, on to the business of the day.

QUESTION: Thanks, Mark.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you, Elizabeth. Mark, as you know, the 60-day review that the Trump administration has put in place for the Keystone pipeline is set to expire on Monday. What is the status of that review? Do you expect we’re going to have an announcement on that?

MR TONER: So I can say that the review’s ongoing. I don’t have anything to announce at this point. We’re fully aware of the deadline approaching. Once we do have something to announce, certainly we’ll make you aware. But I will say that that’s likely to be a White House announcement, but I don’t have anything to add at this point other than that we’re still undergoing the review.

QUESTION: The Obama administration had been very set on the idea that this was actually not really a White House decision but that this really centered on the approval or lack of approval from the State Department as far as the national interest determination. Is that no longer the theory?

MR TONER: Not at all. The State Department’s still playing the same role that it did in evaluating and conducting that kind of review. And certainly, that’s a decision, in terms of the way this thing works, that we’ll make. I just don’t have anything to announce at this time, but that certainly, we’ll play the same role in this regard as well.

QUESTION: Given that the State Department under the previous administration looked at this issue quite extensively over many years and Secretary of State Kerry came up with a recommendation that this did not serve the national interests, if there were to be a determination that was different than that, what new information has come to light or what would be the justification for changing your view on that?

MR TONER: Sounds an awful lot like a hypothetical. Look, all I can say is that when we revisited this, we were asked again to look at, review the findings with regard to this pipeline and its impact. We’re in the process of doing that. Certainly, we’re looking at all the factors. And as you note, we did do an extensive review previously but we’re looking at new factors. I don’t want to speak to those until we’ve reached a decision or conclusion, and once we do we’ll let you know. Thanks.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up to that? You say “new factors.” Have you commissioned new research?

MR TONER: My understanding is that --

QUESTION: Or are you looking at what you already knew but in a different light?

MR TONER: Well, again, we’re looking at – certainly looking at previous data and other factors, but I just don’t have anything to add to --

QUESTION: You say the State Department’s role has remained the same. Has the Secretary’s role in the process remained the same? Given the current Secretary’s previous role in the oil industry, is any thought being given to keeping him out of the process?

MR TONER: He has recused himself from the process.

QUESTION: So this will be delivered to the White House by Mr. Shannon?

MR TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: So has he made a determination yet? Has he delivered that review to the White House?

MR TONER: He has not.

QUESTION: Because the White House said they’d have an update on it tomorrow, suggesting they’d have – that this would be announced by them tomorrow. Can you confirm that?

MR TONER: Confirm what, that a decision’s been made?

QUESTION: That a decision has been made --

MR TONER: A decision has not been made yet.

QUESTION: Not been made by the White House?

MR TONER: By either.

QUESTION: Okay, but you have delivered your – the out – the – what you – what the State Department’s feeling is about it to the White House. That’s been passed on?

MR TONER: I’m not aware that we have, but again, we’re – there’s still an afternoon and an evening to go, and a morning to come tomorrow, so (laughter) there’s still time left if – we’re just – we’re fully aware that the deadline is Monday, Lesley. So – but our work is ongoing. We haven’t made a determination yet that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: And in this review – in this review you’ve had to – I mean, it’s still going to be a long process before there is a final outcome. This is just the start of something. How does the State Department see its role in that process?

MR TONER: Fair question. Look, I think at that point – look, our responsibility has been to conduct this review, as Josh noted, and that hasn’t changed this time around. Once we conduct and once a decision’s been announced by the White House, I’ll have to get back to you on further steps.

QUESTION: Hey, can I follow up on that?

QUESTION: Mark, Mark, can I?

MR TONER: Yeah, let’s finish with this, Said.

QUESTION: Follow-up --

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: In – it’s not – is it just the environmental impact or is it also the jobs? I seem to remember a previous State Department report talked about most of the jobs that this is creating are going to be temporary. Is that still your finding?

MR TONER: We look at all the factors and, again, I think that all of that is under review once we reopen the process. And I just can’t speak to any of the conclusions that this new review has discovered.

QUESTION: But can you speak to the old conclusions about what – about jobs?

MR TONER: I mean, they’re out there. I mean, we reached those conclusions and that decision – the decision was made by President Obama, but our review – previous review stands. Those conclusions stand. I think we’re just looking at it with fresh eyes and trying to see if there’s any new factors to look at and consider.

QUESTION: Mark, can I --

QUESTION: Just a clarification on that. If the Secretary of State has recused himself from this, so he has no role in the review whatsoever?

MR TONER: That’s correct. That’s --

QUESTION: So his --

MR TONER: “Recuse” means no role.

QUESTION: Can I follow (inaudible) just a second?

QUESTION: Yes, can I --

QUESTION: Would it be fair to say, then, if this review led to an approval, that it no longer undermines America’s position as a climate change leader?

MR TONER: Sorry, one more time the question.

QUESTION: Sure. The question is: If this goes through, would that not undermine America’s leadership as a climate change --

MR TONER: So, again, in a pre-decisional state such as we’re in, I don’t want to speak to hypotheticals and speak to a decision that might be taken or might not be taken. But with respect to how any decision like this might undermine our role as a climate change leader, I think that’s not fair. This administration is conducting a review of climate change policy, but within – but our record on this issue speaks for itself. I think we have been a leader in addressing climate change globally, regardless of the decision that’s made with respect to this keystone application.

QUESTION: Mark, Mark, the only – the only member of staff who has changed since the transition is the Secretary, and he’s recused himself from this issue. So is this exactly the same people looking at exactly the same information?

MR TONER: I just can’t answer – I mean, with respect to at lower levels, I just don’t have that --

QUESTION: But you know that --

MR TONER: -- that knowledge.

QUESTION: -- you haven’t appointed any --

MR TONER: Right, that – I mean, I --

QUESTION: -- assistant secretaries or deputy secretaries.

MR TONER: That’s correct. So there’s an acting assistant secretary and --

QUESTION: Is the head of the climate change and pipeline department still the same as before?

MR TONER: I’d have to check. I believe that’s the case, yes.

QUESTION: So this is --

QUESTION: Mark?

QUESTION: -- essentially the same people looking at the same information and coming to a different conclusion.

MR TONER: We haven’t said they’re going to come to a different conclusion yet --

QUESTION: Well, I’m just guessing.

MR TONER: -- so we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But look, I mean, again, regardless of the group of people who are examining a situation, I think what’s important is how they’re looking at – or rather the information that they’re looking at and assessing to make that conclusion or make that decision. So we’re trying to take a new look at it. This is a review for a purpose.

Please.

QUESTION: Mark.

MR TONER: Are we done with – yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. First, I just wanted to add my voice to what you said about Elizabeth. I want to thank her. She’s always been here for us, for me in particular. I mean, I’ve communicated with Elizabeth almost every day, so I want to thank you. You’ve been diligent and amazing and omnipresent, especially for me. So let the record show. And I want to follow up --

MR TONER: I, on the other hand, go to bed every night at 10:00 p.m. She doesn’t. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah, and she’s diligent, so --

MR TONER: She’s very diligent. As I said, I can’t keep pace with her.

QUESTION: Right. And second, I wanted to follow up on – I mean, on --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask on the Palestinian issue --

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: -- on the settlement. I want you to react – yesterday, on the issue of the settlement, the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics indicated that the settlements have increased in 2016 by 40 percent. And two more things related to the settlements so we get it all out of the way.

MR TONER: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: There was also a statement by the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in China where he said that he will continue to build. And thirdly, could you confirm or comment on what Mr. Jason – what is attributed in the Israeli press to Mr. Jason Greenblatt of saying that – to the Israelis last week, you could build in Jerusalem, you could build in the existing bloc, but you can’t build in the, let’s say, isolated outposts.

So all these three issues on the settlement, then if I may, I’ll probably ask another one.

MR TONER: Okay. With respect to – first of all, with respect to what – excuse me – what Special Representative Greenblatt may have said in a private meeting, I wouldn’t speak to that. I can say that he’s actually meeting today with an Israeli delegation. I’d refer you to the White House for a readout. I know that our own Michael Ratney is in – also attending those meetings.

Look, with respect to your question about the surge of 40 percent in 2016 from the previous year, the President’s already spoken out about – with respect to settlements. He said we’d like to see Israel hold back on settlement activity for a short time. I think what’s important is that we and the Israelis continue to have discussions relating to settlement construction in the hope of working out an approach that is consistent with the goal of advancing peace and security. So again, this is – and we’ve talked about this before – this is one factor, a factor that is keeping us from getting back to what we all claim to be the goal here or all say we want as a goal here, which is negotiations on a final settlement. So with respect to that, we’re working with them constructively to try to come up with an approach that allows us to get there.

QUESTION: Now, last week, the United States Government pressed the United Nations to withdraw the report terming Israel as an apartheid state. Today in the Israeli press, we saw a film, a video of Israeli soldiers taking an eight-year-old child in Hebron from door to door so he can tell them who was throwing stones, forcing an older man to translate for the little boy. Would that be really disturbing? Isn’t that some sort of an apartheid kind of behavior?

MR TONER: Sorry, you’re talking about the specific incident – I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Yeah, a specific incident, yes, where they picked up an eight-year-old boy, they took him around, a group of them – I mean, it’s – it was shown on Haaretz and shown by B’Tselem. They were taking him from house to house, to – so he can point to other boys who allegedly threw stones at the Israeli soldiers.

MR TONER: Well, look --

QUESTION: That – what kind of a behavior is that? Would --

MR TONER: -- not having seen the video --

QUESTION: Isn’t that some sort of an apartheid --

MR TONER: Not having seen the video, not understanding the context, I’m very reluctant to speak to what we may or may not be seeing in this, so --

QUESTION: Okay. So going back to the initial point that you guys have pressured the United Nations to withdraw the report, now, if the Israeli – if top Israeli politicians and leaders and generals and so on actually call that apartheid, why is it so outrageous – call what is going on in the occupied West Bank an apartheid system, why is that so outrageous to you?

MR TONER: You’re talking about with respect to --

QUESTION: I’m talking about with respect to the report that was issued by ESCWA last week describing the situation --

MR TONER: Well --

QUESTION: -- in the West Bank, in the occupied West Bank, as an apartheid system.

MR TONER: -- I think I’ve explained this several times, Said. I mean, we viewed it as an anti-Israel, biased report, and we expressed our concerns about it. Look, no one’s saying that we don’t have frank discussions with Israel when we believe it’s taking actions that are detrimental to pursuing a peace process or getting back to the pursuit of a peace process. But we’re also not going to stand by while what we consider to be anti-Israel reports are set forth, and again, we’re going to speak out when we consider those – such reports to be biased.

QUESTION: Can I ask you a question about the ISIS meeting yesterday, some clarifications?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: So the Secretary of State talked about setting up interim zones of stability in Syria. Can you define what he meant by that, whether coalition forces would be involved, how that would work exactly? And then I have a follow-up question about what he said about reconstruction, but if I could ask that first.

MR TONER: Sure. With respect to the – his comments about these zones, look, I think what’s – so I don’t have a lot of detail to provide. These are all discussions that are still ongoing within the administration. But I think what --

QUESTION: So it’s just a suggestion? It’s not a decision?

MR TONER: Well, what I think what – well, let me finish. So what I think what he is looking towards is: How do we – once we’ve defeated ISIS on the battlefield, how do we maintain that? How do we build upon and stabilize the area so that – in these liberated areas so that local populations can return? And I think what he’s trying to do, what he was attempting to do, is speak to the broader problem, which is you have all these displaced people, and how do you get them home again? And I think what – we’re confident that we can defeat ISIS on the battlefield. That’s not to say we’ve done it yet; we’re not there yet. But we’re confident that we’ve got the progress, that we’ve shown the ability – working through Iraqi Security Forces, working through the Syrian Democratic Forces – that we can do that.

But what comes next is vitally important, which is: How do we stabilize, provide security on the ground, so that these local populations can return home? I think what we’re looking at in terms of these zones, or these areas, is: How do we protect these populations to get back to --

QUESTION: Mark, he specific --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: Just to follow up. But I mean, to say “interim zone of stability” is quite a loaded phrase given the debate and discussion, et cetera, about safe zones. So are you saying that the Secretary of State is throwing a sort of unformed idea out there? He’s saying it’s a good idea to somehow protect the people, but we haven’t figured out how we do that yet?

MR TONER: No, I think he’s offering our view on what needs to be done. But again, we’re still discussing specifics about how that looks.

QUESTION: Just to --

QUESTION: Can I? Can I – sorry --

QUESTION: Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Is it about the zones?

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah, okay.

QUESTION: Can I just try and flesh this out a little bit? So are you saying that – or is the Secretary saying that once these areas are kind of cleared of ISIS, this is where the refugees or displaced people should be able to return back, and then that area would be somewhat protected from conflict from here on in? Because that would be – that would take, obviously, not just getting ISIS and being able to hold it, but that would take some kind of agreement not only with the Russians, who are also in the battle space, and also the Assad regime. There would have to be implicit recognition that Assad would not go to those areas. Because most of the displaced people – maybe if not most, but a large portion of them are displaced because of the Syrian conflict that started with the campaign by the regime.

MR TONER: So, again, I think what his emphasis was on is what comes next and what comes after liberation, which is reconstruction, which is stabilization, and how that looks and how you provide the security that’s necessary for these local populations to come through.

QUESTION: So I know you --

MR TONER: But how the mechanics of that look, who provides what – that’s all to be discussed. And that’s partly --

QUESTION: Well, no, I understand, but you’re --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- just talking about – I just want to make sure we understand what you’re talking about.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: You’re talking about clearing an area of – free of ISIS.

MR TONER: That – and that’s clearly the objective is --

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: And then designating that a safe zone, or a zone of stability, or whatever, for displaced people to go. But that does nothing to keep these people safe from the regime campaign, does it?

MR TONER: Well, I think --

QUESTION: Wouldn’t you need – I mean, is it really going to be a zone of stability or a safe zone if the regime – if you don’t have agreement by the regime that – or the Russians that they’re not going to go hit there?

MR TONER: Again, I think what he was trying to address is the need to consider all these factors going forward so that we have a zone of stability for these local populations to return home.

QUESTION: No, I know you --

MR TONER: He didn’t necessarily – no, but I mean, I’m unable to flesh that out because these are still ongoing conversations, not only with our coalition partners but within the administration itself.

QUESTION: How does that – but what I’m asking is – and I understand what you’re saying, but --

MR TONER: And I understand what you’re asking me, which is: How does that --

QUESTION: How does that relate to the Syrian civil war --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- and the fact that ISIS is not the only people that – the whole concept of safe zones from the very beginning was not really about protecting them from ISIS. The whole concept of safe zones or no-fly zones --

MR TONER: So --

QUESTION: -- for the last six years has been about --

MR TONER: Yeah, so there’s a lot of conflation here --

QUESTION: -- the Assad regime.

MR TONER: -- and let me try to address that. So you are talking about – and understood – that there was a lot of talk, certainly with respect to the civil war that’s ongoing, and we all recognize that Syria has a very complex battle space, if I could put it that way. There were talk – was talk of safe havens or safe zones; that’s not what we’re talking about here, and that’s not the focus of what he was talking about yesterday, which was – when he was addressing the coalition members, he was very clear that our number one priority with respect to the region is eliminating ISIS. That’s not to say that we’ve forgotten or that we’re disregarding the conflict – the civil conflict, the civil war that’s ongoing in Syria, but first and foremost, and he said this, he said, “When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” Our priority is defeating ISIS and creating the conditions so that they can’t return. And so that’s going to be our focus going forward. That’s not to say that we’ve forgotten about what else is happening in Syria --

QUESTION: I can see how it can be a zone of stability or a zone of safety or a safe zone for these people to go. I mean, maybe they’re not being hit by ISIS, but I mean, I think, aren’t you – don’t you recognize that you would need some agreement from the Russians or the regime about --

MR TONER: Well, again, I think that’s all --

QUESTION: -- about that that would truly be a safe zone?

MR TONER: Those are all legitimate questions. I think all those factors are something, obviously, we’re looking at.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: About yesterday --

QUESTION: If not – it’s not like a no-fly zone --

MR TONER: No.

QUESTION: -- where you need protection, or a safe zone.

MR TONER: No.

QUESTION: Is it like a relay station, so if you – it’s a holding area where people are on their way back to their homes and villages?

QUESTION: I have one follow-up --

MR TONER: No, I – fair question, Said. What’s that?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I mean, here the budget outline projects that there will be less money for what is called nation-building or reconstruction, or other civilian needs. How do you fit that in the budget priorities?

MR TONER: Sure. Fair question as well, Andrea. Look, I mean, we’re in early days of the budget process. We’re looking at all this. We’re understanding and we recognize this was a skinny budget that came out last week, that we’re looking at some significant cuts, but I think also the Secretary is very clear that it’s about realigning priorities, and that’s what he’s looking at now with the awareness that ISIS is one of those priorities, and defeating it, and ensuring that. And he was very clear about this yesterday. He spoke to this many different times in many different forms, but ensuring that once we defeat it on the battlefield, that it doesn’t come back. That the conditions that allowed ISIS to arise – the vacuum, if you will, that allowed it arise in the first place, it doesn’t – we don’t return to that state in either – in Syria or in Iraq.

Now, look, Iraq has a stable government, a prime minister who is undertaking reforms, but it’s going to need a lot of money and assistance in turn to get – to reconstruct, to provide stability in the aftermath. That’s one of the things he talked about, and certainly I think – I have the figure here, but with respect to our coalition partners, everybody needs to do more.

QUESTION: Does he see an American leadership role in this?

MR TONER: Of course. And we’re not --

QUESTION: Mark?

MR TONER: -- regardless of how the numbers shake out with regard to budget, American leadership is not going to go away.

QUESTION: But did he just do --

QUESTION: May I have a quick follow-up --

QUESTION: Just to follow up with my reconstruction question.

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: He said that the coalition resources would not be used for reconstruction or the – they were not in the business of reconstruction, nation-building and reconstruction, he said. So what’s – how does that – what does he mean by that, because there was clearly talk about elements that equal reconstruction.

MR TONER: I think, and certainly Iraq is a good example of this, but I think what we’re talking about is: How do we empower local governments, local forces, local populations to have the capabilities to restore and stabilize these areas? And again, it’s very clear in Iraq; it’s a tougher job, certainly, in Syria.

QUESTION: Iraq?

QUESTION: So by --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Quick follow-up about yesterday’s meeting?

QUESTION: Well, I’ve got – can I just stick with the interim zones for just a second? Sorry, it took me a minute to find the exact quote. You say it’s an idea that’s under discussion. He says --

MR TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- “The United States will work to establish interim zones,” but all right. And even leaving that aside, to – “will work to establish interim zones of stability through ceasefires.” You’re not going to have a ceasefire with ISIS or al-Qaida. Who are the ceasefires going to be with?

MR TONER: Again, I think – I’m not going to get into the details of this, because they’re all being worked through and they’re all being discussed. What I can say is that it’s a recognition of the fact that given the state that Syria is in today that we need to be able to establish areas where local governance can return, infrastructure can be restored, and all that can be done in a stable, safe way – environment – excuse me. And how that looks I think is all being discussed.

QUESTION: Was it a mistake to use the term interim safe zones in the Secretary’s speech without having more information for us?

MR TONER: I don’t think so. I think – look, this was a chance for him to lay out how the U.S. views the effort to defeat and maintain that defeat of ISIS going forward. He talked a lot about defeating them on the battlefield and then what comes next, and then he talked a lot about – as we know, about cyber space and how we defeat them from reaching out and recruiting new terrorists.

QUESTION: He talked a lot about all those things --

MR TONER: He did.

QUESTION: -- but he talked a little bit about --

MR TONER: So – no, no, but let me --

QUESTION: -- safe zones and ceasefires

MR TONER: Right. He did. And I’m not – and so – but this was a discussion with coalition partners. Part of this was an opportunity to share new thoughts, offer new ideas on the way forward. And I think that’s – that that concept was offered in that spirit.

QUESTION: So I think when many people first read that, that kind of moniker, interim zones of stability, sort of interesting as it is, people immediately, of course, think safe zones. You’re saying that this is not related to safe zones. But by laying it out this way and calling it that and then qualifying it by saying through ceasefires, does this mean that the concept of safe zones is not a possibility moving forward then?

MR TONER: Again, I think all I can say is I don’t want to rule anything off the table when we look at Syria, but I think what’s very clear is a few things. One is this administration’s focus is on defeating ISIS. That’s not to say we’re, again, abandoning any resolution of the civil war and resolving that through a political process in Syria, but the primary focus is on defeating ISIS and then, as I said, maintaining a zone of stability whereby reconstruction can take place so that ISIS isn’t able to reform, regroup, and return within that area. How this looks, how it’s done, those are all sort of to be discussed.

QUESTION: So the concept then of establishing safe zones or no-fly zones, you’re saying that that is – that’s not off the table? This isn’t some alternative?

MR TONER: I don’t ever want to rule anything off the table.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR TONER: But it’s something up till now, as you all know, have not – we’ve not, for many different reasons, some of them logistical, have not considered seriously. But that said, this is a new administration. The focus is on defeating – first priority is on defeating ISIS, and that’s – it was in that spirit that he offered this idea.

QUESTION: And for all of the talk of acceleration and integrated approach, a whole-of-government approach, intensification, one thing that we heard from foreign attendees yesterday multiple times was that this – what they didn’t hear was much of a plan. So can you describe why there isn’t more of a plan in the views of these people who’ve been deeply involved and when you foresee this shaping up to be more of a plan?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, as you know, the Pentagon did present the White House with a plan. That plan is being looked at. The State Department is going to have a role certainly in all of these activities going forward, as evidenced by yesterday’s coalition meeting, across – and let’s remember there’s the kinetic side of this on the battlefield, but there’s also – these are multiple lines of effort, including the internet or cyber space, including countering terrorism, terrorist financing, including preventing foreign fighters, and then, of course, stabilization. The State Department has its role to pay in all those areas.

But with respect to the Pentagon’s plan that was presented to the White House, that’s still being vetted, being discussed within the White House. And let’s remember also I can’t speak to how or how much of that plan the White House is going to reveal. Let’s remember that the President during the campaign said he’s not going to necessarily telegraph the strategic decisions or tactical decisions that he’s going to make.

QUESTION: Mark, what are the new ideas? You came out here a couple days ago and said that you didn’t want to steal the Secretary’s thunder, but he was going to have a bunch of new ideas. Are you saying these zones of stability – is that what you characterize as new? Because it seems like an awful lot of what we heard yesterday and what you just outlined is really just a continuation, in some cases word for word, from the Obama administration’s strategy.

MR TONER: I think – sorry, I heard somebody sneeze and I wanted to say God bless you, sorry. (Laughter.) Distracting.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: You’re welcome. Sorry. (Laughter.)

Look, to answer your question, a couple of things: One was, it’s very clear – it was a very clear expression of this administration’s singular approach to defeating ISIS. It’s not to say that the previous administration wasn’t making an effort, a concerted effort to defeat ISIS. This administration’s focus is singularly focused, primarily focused on defeating and destroying ISIS, and accelerating what we’ve already done. There was no – and Secretary Tillerson spoke about this – there’s been tremendous progress in the past year, certainly on the battlefield.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: Some 30 percent – I’ll get to you – some 30 percent territory loss in Syria, I think 63 or 64 percent regained in Iraq. So recognizing that progress, how do we complete that task, how do we accelerate our efforts to complete that task? And then I think the big emphasis yesterday was also on the next steps – reconstruction, stabilization. There’s not --

QUESTION: Don’t you think it’s a little bit premature, though – stabilization and reconstruction?

MR TONER: Not at all. I mean, look, we’ve already been doing this when you’ve been liberating cities, certainly Tikrit and other areas in – that have been liberated in Iraq is – there’s been success in getting the local populations back into these areas, Iraq more so than Syria. Syria’s a more complex area. But I think what his emphasis for and his reason for raising that yesterday was to make the point that we can’t just beat them on the battlefield and walk away, because we’ve seen what happens in the past when that happens, and so we’ve got to complete the task. I think you’re seeing how he prioritizes --

QUESTION: But then he also said – can I – may I?

MR TONER: Yeah. Yeah, please, go ahead.

QUESTION: He also said that, like, the U.S. can’t nation-build. So I thought – I mean, don’t you see a disconnect between saying that the U.S. isn’t going to nation-build and then you’re talking about kind of reconstructing the nation state, if you will, because there’s been such this vacuum?

QUESTION: And just to add to that, he didn’t just say the U.S. can’t nation-build; he said the coalition will not – resources will not be used for nation-building or reconstruction. So that – if the – can you explain that? I don’t understand that.

QUESTION: Yeah, so how do you square that line?

QUESTION: To add to that too, we’re also talking about increases to the Pentagon budget and huge cuts here. How does that factor into the fact that we’re now moving away from a military campaign towards stabilization and reconstruction?

MR TONER: Well, I would argue that the Pentagon has some experience in this kind of work as well, what comes after – post-conflict. I think that’s the important thing.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: So I think that’s the important thing. I think there’s always some degree of post-conflict stabilization efforts that need to happen. But let’s be very clear: What we’re doing here in terms of military approach, we’re not – this is not a major U.S. footprint on the ground. What we’ve been doing in Iraq especially but working with Iraqi Security Forces and similarly in our reconstruction efforts, we’re going to work with the Iraqi Government through the Iraqi Government --

QUESTION: So are you going to work with the Syrian Government in terms of reconstruction?

MR TONER: Of course not, but we’re working with local forces in the northern part of the country and we recognize that it’s a very difficult and challenging environment to work in.

Please.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Could you – could you --

QUESTION: In his opening remarks, Secretary Tillerson specifically welcomed the representative from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

MR TONER: He did.

QUESTION: That seemed like a difference from the Obama administration, which was reluctant to invite a KRG representative. It just invited one representative from the whole Government of Iraq. Did the State Department have any role in inviting him? Can you talk about that a little?

MR TONER: I’m not going to draw comparisons. We’ve been very clear in this administration and the previous administration our deep respect for the role that Kurdish fighters and – have played in the fight against ISIS, and we have great respect for the sacrifices and also great respect for what capable forces they are and the role that they played thus far.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up about yesterday’s meeting?

MR TONER: Let’s – are we done with --

QUESTION: Did you – sorry, just – just to be clear --

MR TONER: Are we done with --

QUESTION: -- did you invite him or was he just --

MR TONER: No, I believe he was brought as part of the Iraqi Government.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Mark, I have one quick follow-up on yesterday’s meeting.

MR TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Excuse me.

QUESTION: Can I ask a question about public diplomacy and --

QUESTION: Could we just stay on reconstruction and stabilization?

QUESTION: No, can we go back to – just stay in --

MR TONER: I would love that, but we’ll finish up with – (laughter) --

QUESTION: Mark –

QUESTION: Can I ask about (inaudible)?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: Guys, I’m up here for a limited time, so let’s finish things. Go ahead. Go ahead, Elise, and then last question on – yep.

QUESTION: Mark, you said – you said you – when this gentleman asked about the cuts to the State Department funding and you said, well, the Pentagon has some experience in that too, are you saying that some of those – that the Pentagon is going to take a greater role in the reconstruction and stabilization --

MR TONER: I think we’re all – sorry. I think we’re all looking at – first of all, we’re talking – we’re projecting forward here for the FY18 budget, so that’s down the road a ways. We’re still in early days with respect to the budget, so I’m not trying to signal or telegraph anything here. All I’m saying is the Pentagon, the Department of Defense, has been our partner – the State Department. I mean, this is an interagency --

QUESTION: Yeah, but numerous defense secretaries have said that, like, they don’t want to be in that business anymore and that the State Department should play a greater role in doing that.

MR TONER: Look, again, I think --

QUESTION: Including, I think, Secretary Mattis.

MR TONER: Well, Secretary Mattis was here yesterday. He’s aware of the challenges. I think there is no daylight between the way Secretary Tillerson thinks about the next steps or way Secretary of Defense Mattis does.

QUESTION: (Crosstalk.)

QUESTION: You talked about the $2 billion – you talked about the $2 billion and that there had already been commitments more than $2 billion. How much is – have you actually got in your pocket?

MR TONER: I don’t have any answer for you on that.

QUESTION: And was additional funding raised beyond this 2 billion yesterday?

MR TONER: I don’t believe so, but I don’t have an answer for you with respect to who’s stepped forward yet. I think we’ll leave that to the individual members to speak to that.

QUESTION: Mark, a single, quick follow-up on yesterday’s meeting? Yesterday’s meeting?

QUESTION: Do you know how much it was from the U.S.?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: We’re still looking at that.

QUESTION: We’re also seeing that Taiwan’s representative also attend that meeting in this building yesterday and also the Taiwan – person of Taiwan also address that Taiwan will keep devoting into the humanitarian assistance. I’m just wondering that do you have any comment on that.

MR TONER: We certainly appreciate those contributions as we appreciate the contributions of all coalition members. I think it’s an important thing to emphasize is that big or small, whatever role any coalition member can play and partner can play, we appreciate it. I think what the message yesterday was we all need to see how we can do more to finish this.

QUESTION: Are you aware that the Taiwan’s representative --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: Yeah. Let’s --

QUESTION: In an interview this weekend, the Secretary said that the department cuts would be appropriate in the coming years as we sort of draw down these military efforts overseas. So does he believe that the State Department shouldn’t play a role in that reconstruction, that it should be the Pentagon, that it’s no longer this department’s job?

MR TONER: No, I wouldn’t necessarily say that. I think he was speaking more broadly about the fact that we hope to, frankly, draw down our involvement in what has been the longest sustained period of American military action and engagement overseas, frankly, almost in our history. And I think in recognition that this administration wants to not necessarily increase those engagements and recognizing that, and I think you’ve seen that. Again, the approach to ISIS has been less boots on the ground and ways that we improve the capability of these local forces, whether they’re Iraqi or otherwise.

QUESTION: Well, shouldn’t that mean more diplomacy and more State Department personnel, then?

MR TONER: Well, it does. And again, a budget is a budget. You decide within – I mean, within – as the leader of the department, you decide how the money’s going to get spent and what the priorities are. The priority in this case is defeating ISIS.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: Can we – yeah, please.

QUESTION: You just said less boots on the ground. I thought we were adding forces in Syria.

MR TONER: Again, I don’t want to necessarily – I’m aware of the reports on that yesterday.

QUESTION: Doubling forces in Syria.

MR TONER: What’s that?

QUESTION: Doubling forces in Syria.

MR TONER: Again, but I’m drawing the comparison to previous efforts in Iraq and others, so – and Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Can we go back to Asia?

QUESTION: Mark --

QUESTION: North Korea.

QUESTION: On Turkey.

MR TONER: I’m happy to change the subject, yeah.

QUESTION: Asia?

MR TONER: Let’s go to Asia.

QUESTION: Okay. So I just want to clarify something first. So you’re saying the first priority is defeating ISIS. The singular focus is defeating ISIS. Are you talking about just the region or as a whole? And I have a follow-up.

MR TONER: Well, again, I mean, look, we’re the United States – we’re the Department of State. We need to be able to chew gum and pat our heads or whatever the expression is – walk and chew gum – that’s it – at the same time.

QUESTION: Rub your tummy.

MR TONER: Yeah, rub your tummy. (Laughter.) Thank you. And so we’ve – what I’m trying to say is we need to be able to do multiple things at once. Everybody recognizes it’s a complex world and there’s lots of security challenges out there. Secretary Tillerson was just in Asia where he discussed the threat that the DPRK poses to the region and increasingly to the United States and how we deal with that. So no one’s saying that we’re simply going to focus solely on ISIS, but I think what it is and what he spoke about in his remarks yesterday was looking at the region – looking at the region, there’s a lot of priorities there. And what he wants to try to do is make one singular priority – one priority, and that is defeating ISIS.

QUESTION: And so I wanted to just – I asked about Asia because I was going to ask --

MR TONER: Yeah, of course. Because you were going to ask --

QUESTION: -- where is North Korea – if ISIS is first, then where is North Korea on that consideration?

MR TONER: North Korea is a clear and present danger. I mean, and he was very clear about that on his trip last week, and he was very clear in his messages to Japan and to Korea in his discussions there with our allies and partners, as well as our discussions – or his discussions with leadership in Beijing.

I think the message was very straightforward, which is: We can’t afford to give North Korea more time and space. They are rapidly working to develop a nuclear capability and ways to deliver that – the – that capability in the region and, indeed, to the United States. And that is a danger and we need to address it.

QUESTION: Follow-up --

QUESTION: North Korea.

QUESTION: (Crosstalk.)

QUESTION: Mark, follow-up North Korea again.

MR TONER: So I’m looking at the time --

QUESTION: Yes, yeah.

MR TONER: -- so you, and then one more.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: North Korea launched the --

MR TONER: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: All right. (Laughter.)

MR TONER: Go ahead, go on. You’re --

QUESTION: You have the floor, Janne.

QUESTION: Okay, North Korea launched --

MR TONER: Very short.

QUESTION: -- launched missiles again and – yesterday morning to the east coast of South Korea. Do you have anything on the particular why they failed this missile?

MR TONER: You have a question about what? Why we --

QUESTION: Yeah, failed this --

MR TONER: I mean, I – beyond the – look, I mean, this is yet another provocative act by North Korea. We strongly condemn it, of course. We call on North Korea to refrain from these kinds of actions. It’s threatening international peace and stability, clearly the stability on the peninsula – or on – yeah, on the Korean peninsula, and in the region. And it just underscores, again, the urgency.

QUESTION: Do you know what kind of a missile it is?

MR TONER: I don’t, and I wouldn’t say.

QUESTION: And one on the reports that have come out from Fox that North Korea might conduct another nuclear test before the end of the month.

MR TONER: I wouldn’t speak to that.

Please.

QUESTION: On Turkey.

MR TONER: Turkey, and then Andrea, and then you.

QUESTION: Turkey and EU – tension continues between the Turkey and EU. Does the Trump administration supports Turkey’s EU membership currently?

MR TONER: Look, I mean, Turkey is an ally, obviously, a strong partner, certainly, with respect to ISIL, and a friend. We support Turkey’s aspirations to engage with Europe. I’m not going to speak to what is an issue between Turkey and Europe, and the EU, rather, specifically. That’s for them to work out, but as much as Turkey wants to pursue that integration with the Euro-Atlantic community on an economic level, we’d encourage that.

QUESTION: And is --

QUESTION: Mark, I have a follow-up.

QUESTION: There is a report that Secretary Tillerson is --

MR TONER: You’re very good at follow-ups.

QUESTION: -- going to Turkey on end of – end of March.

MR TONER: Yeah, nothing to announce. When we do, we will.

QUESTION: I have follow about – a follow-up on this. (Inaudible) and everything now. President of Turkey is threatening the European every day. Today, he accuse – he attacked Germany, Norway, Austria, Greece, Cyprus, every European country.

MR TONER: Yeah, I’m aware of --

QUESTION: No, no, no, one second.

MR TONER: Yeah, that’s okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Do you agree with his behavior?

MR TONER: I think what we’ve said about some of the back and forth that we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks – that we want to see everyone get along and to tone down the rhetoric.

Please.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about public diplomacy --

MR TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: -- and the importance of a free press.

MR TONER: Okay.

QUESTION: I’ve covered six secretaries and they have always brought traveling press with them, specifically and importantly when going to Beijing; when, let’s say, going to Cairo; when, let’s just say theoretically, going to Turkey or to Moscow, for the reason of holding a unilateral press conference if there isn’t a bilateral to show that this is the way we value press freedoms in the United States. And I’m wondering, many people are wondering about the commitment of this administration to a free press given the travel difficulties and challenges for not even bringing a press pool to some of these places.

MR TONER: Sure. Well --

QUESTION: Very notable in Beijing, for instance.

MR TONER: So, Andrea, a couple of thoughts on that. One is I’ve been up here for now going on an hour, and that’s – and I accept that willingly because this is a forum where we can talk about foreign policy, I have to answer your questions, I have to fend – to defend our policy decisions across a broad spectrum of issues, and that is I think a testament to our commitment to a free press. Now, with respect to traveling press, I know that’s a concern for those in this room. I would respectfully say that during the trip to Asia, there was access to the Secretary, there was access --

QUESTION: I would respectfully disagree, having been there.

MR TONER: Well, again, and I can give you the numbers, but many news organizations are – have bureaus in places like Tokyo and Beijing, certainly in Seoul as well, and they were able to be represented at these press events. And I know you were there, and I know it was difficult to make that trip, but this Secretary – and he was clear and he’s spoken about this in his interviews – is that he is committed to a smaller footprint. That’s not to say – let me be clear – that we’re not going to look at taking any press in future trips. I’m not saying that at all. But he is committed to a smaller footprint. And with respect to the trip to Asia, the space constraints on the plane did not allow, frankly, for a press contingent. So we worked with --

QUESTION: That’s not accurate.

MR TONER: So we work with our embassies. I think it is. And I can get into this. I don’t – we don’t need to have this out here, but I’m happily – happy to talk to you about this offline. But there’s a significant cost savings to taking the smaller plane, but that smaller plane requires – or has minimal seating.

QUESTION: A 737.

MR TONER: Yeah. And this Secretary also travels with a greatly reduced staff in comparison to previous secretaries, and he does that for a reason. He likes a smaller footprint, but he’s also – has an eye towards cost saving.

QUESTION: But in evaluating the preference for a smaller footprint, what is the priority placed on showing the flag for press freedoms when you arrive in Beijing --

MR TONER: The Secretary had --

QUESTION: -- when you arrive in Moscow and other places where journalists – like Turkey, like Cairo – are being locked up?

MR TONER: But again, the Secretary did press in each of his stops. He also – we did have a press person on the plane --

QUESTION: Pressed for --

QUESTION: Press for – in Beijing? Press in Beijing?

MR TONER: And I think in – and I think in --

QUESTION: Pressed for what, Mark?

MR TONER: What’s that?

QUESTION: You said he pressed in each stop.

MR TONER: No, no, no, I said he did press in – he did press in --

QUESTION: That’s not correct. That is not accurate.

MR TONER: I think it is, Andrea. He did press in each stop. I mean, Seoul and Tokyo certainly, and I think he did take questions --

QUESTION: In Seoul, if you went to --

QUESTION: Smaller footprint aside, he took one unilateral journalist.

MR TONER: Look, guys --

QUESTION: And if you – if you went to the DMZ, you could not do the press events in Seoul.

MR TONER: Look, guys --

QUESTION: It was either/or.

MR TONER: Look, guys --

QUESTION: And that was specifically --

MR TONER: With all due respect, with all due respect, are there any other questions, because this is --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: No.

QUESTION: No, Mark, Mark, it’s not accurate to say from that podium that he did press in every location.

MR TONER: I believe he did.

QUESTION: He did not.

MR TONER: He answered questions in Beijing.[1]

QUESTION: He did not.

MR TONER: I’ll take the question. I’m not trying to sell you a false bill of goods here by any way, shape, or form.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: What I can say is that there were some 50-plus U.S. media on the ground in Beijing covering his activities. And again, partly – I recognize that that meant journalists flying commercially. But also, bureaus like – or The New York Times, other major media outlets, have bureaus in places like Beijing, in places like London, in places like Moscow, and those are journalists who know the issues and cover the issues as well.

QUESTION: Mark, I have one on --

QUESTION: One on Syria? A tiny one on Syria?

QUESTION: Mark --

MR TONER: Guys --

QUESTION: A really small one on Syria --

QUESTION: Wait, Mark – Mark, you said we’re going to (inaudible).

QUESTION: -- a clarification.

QUESTION: Yeah, Mark, can you take my --

MR TONER: Sorry. I did promise Felicia.

QUESTION: Can you --

QUESTION: It’s on --

MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: So on Venezuela, the U.S. and I think 13 other countries are going to issue a statement calling on Maduro to release political prisoners, return full power to the national assembly, and set a timetable for regional elections. Do you have any comment on the statement and anything on when it might happen?

MR TONER: I think I do. I have to find it in here.

QUESTION: Venezuela, Mark.

MR TONER: Please. Is there another Venezuela while I look for Venezuela?

QUESTION: Yeah. President Trump called last weekend to President Temer and President Bachelet and talked on the situation in Venezuela. I’d like to know what is the position of this government on the – what do you expect for these two countries on the situation on Venezuela? Do you expected any kind of coordination from Brazil and Chile on --

MR TONER: Well, let me – okay, so – and your question was on the OAS?

QUESTION: Yeah. Yes.

MR TONER: Okay. Well, we do share concerns of the state of democracy in Venezuela the secretary-general of the Organization of American States lays out in great detail in his report. We believe that his report merits serious consideration by the OAS Permanent Council. Let’s be clear we’re not pushing for Venezuela’s expulsion from the OAS at this time; however, we do think the OAS is the appropriate venue to deal with the ongoing situation in Venezuela.

And then in broad response, elections are essential to securing accountability, and the Venezuelan people deserve a voice in creating solutions to the myriad economic, political, and social and humanitarian challenges that they face.

So we urge the Venezuelan Government to comply with its constitution. President Maduro should permit the democratically elected national assembly to perform its constitutional functions and should hold elections as soon as possible. And the United States calls for the immediate release of political prisoners in Venezuela, and that includes Leopoldo Lopez.

Thanks, everyone.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)

DPB # 19

 


 

[1] Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Minister Wang held a press availability on March 18 in Beijing.