Department Press Briefing - April 13, 2017
Index for Today's Briefing:
Department Press Briefing
MR TONER: Hey, guys. Welcome to the State Department. Happy Thursday. I don’t have anything at the top, except for one thing.
I did notice – or I’m getting a lot of question, and I’ve seen some commentary on social media about what may or may not be happening in the corridor just outside the briefing room. I just wanted to assuage any conspiracy-minded folks that the PA Bureau is undergoing a renovation of its office space. It’s a long-planned project; it’s overseen by the Bureau of Administration’s Real Property Management Office, which manages all domestic State Department property, and that includes in this building.
They are taking every necessary precaution to ensure that the asbestos abatement is done according to environmental safety standards, and that does include having to temporarily remove the portraits of the legions of previous spokespeople that have graced this podium before me. But I can assure you that they will be restored in all their glory. They’re not being consigned to the trash heap of history. And, look, it’s really for you all to lobby, but – granted I’ve only been acting spokesman, but I have briefed up here more than any other spokesperson in history, with the possible exception of Boucher.
With that little self-aggrandizement, I will turn it over to you, Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Well, I just want to make sure the asbestos situation is going to be under control. We’re not going to be quarantined or anything?
MR TONER: No, I can assure you you won’t be, but it’s the reason why they have to put up those scary warnings. Anyway, what’s up?
QUESTION: All right. And when the new photos go back – well, when the old photos go back up, will there be a new one?
MR TONER: I have nothing to announce at this time. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, I’m just trying to get a --
MR TONER: I know you are. I know you are.
QUESTION: -- just get a – and on-the-record response to --
MR TONER: And we will keep you informed.
QUESTION: -- whether or not this is the last – your last briefing.
MR TONER: My last briefing? I never say never, so I’ll withhold on that.
MR TONER: And I’ll send out commentary later if it does turn out to be my last briefing. No, just kidding.
QUESTION: Well, no, because if – you’re not going to get away with not having some words said about you when that does happen.
MR TONER: Thank you. Appreciate it.
QUESTION: Anyway, let’s start with real news.
MR TONER: Of course. Yeah.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: I wanted to clear up one logistical thing and then ask a policy type of thing. One, the logistical thing is: To the best of your knowledge, was there ever any indication that over the course of the last week that the Secretary’s meeting with President Putin would not happen?
MR TONER: So – (coughing). Excuse me. Was there – sorry, let me make sure I got the question right. Was there ever any indication that it would not happen? So routinely – and I think others opined on this yesterday – it is the case that the president will see a visiting secretary of state, and that’s been the case in the past. It’s also pretty routine that they’re not formally announced until the day of or even hours before. And that’s ultimately something for the Kremlin and President Putin himself to announce, which is part of the reason why we were being mum on it. I think it’s something we expected all along and were planning on, but --
QUESTION: Right. But did you ever get any indication from the Russians that the meeting might be off?
MR TONER: We were never given any indication that there --
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: -- that there might not be a meeting. Yeah.
QUESTION: And then there seemed to be a line of commentary that Secretary Tillerson had been kept waiting by President Putin. The meeting, I believe, was scheduled and had been long scheduled for 5:30 local time, and the way I understood it, the Secretary was running about half an hour late after his meetings with the foreign minister. So the meeting began less than half an hour after it was – or about half an hour after it was supposed to have been – is that correct?
MR TONER: I can assure you he was not – I double-checked on this, and he was not kept waiting.
QUESTION: All right.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay. Now on the --
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Onto the substance.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: The Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov both announced that they would be creating working groups – I think Foreign Minister Lavrov used the word “special envoys,” but I don’t know if that was a translation issue or not, but let’s say working groups – to look at various irritants and see how they – can you be more specific about what those areas are that these working groups, or if it’s just one working group, what it will be looking at and what you hope to achieve?
MR TONER: So a couple thoughts on that. And I – if I’m shy on specifics, I apologize. But first of all, both in his bilateral meeting, but also in his meeting with – sorry, with his – in his bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, but also in his bilat with President Putin, there was, I think, an acknowledgment that there are almost historical low level of trust – levels of trust between our two countries. And I think Secretary Tillerson said right out of the bat in his press avail yesterday that’s a problem.
I think in his – certainly in his meeting with President Putin they went over the history of why we’re where we’re at, and I think it allowed the two of them to both appreciate and better understand why each country is frustrated with the other on certain issues. And I think by the end of that, they were able to acknowledge that with this understanding in place there’s a way for the two countries to find ways to rebuild some of that trust, find opportunities. And with that respect, I think that’s – the idea of this working group is to look at – look for those opportunities or ways to kind of rebuild a trust or --
QUESTION: So it’s singular? It’s not multiple?
MR TONER: It’s my understanding it is a singular group at this point.
QUESTION: Okay. And --
MR TONER: And sorry, just in terms of the working group’s mandate, that’s still being worked out, the exact details. There’s been some speculation this is kind of a return to the bilateral presidential commission. That’s not the case. But I think this is a group that’s going to focus on looking at some of these irritants and looking at ways that we can possibly find opportunities to cooperate.
QUESTION: When you say mandate is being looked at, does that include the membership of it? Like, who would be on it?
MR TONER: I believe so, yeah. And who will be on it, yes.
QUESTION: All right. And then you said that they went over the history of why we’re at where we’re at? Was this like the airing of grievances or something? I don’t – I mean, how far back did they go?
MR TONER: I don’t know. I was told a short history. I don’t know.
Look, I think – I think it was helpful to hear – for both sides to hear each other’s perspective on why we’re where we’re at. I mean, none of this is going to come as news to anybody in this room who’s followed how we’ve gotten to where we are, but I think it’s important in any kind of bilateral situation like that to hear the other side’s point of view. He did that – Secretary Tillerson. And again, it’s part of an effort to appreciate their perspective. It’s not one we agree on, but it helps us understand so that we can find a way to work forward.
QUESTION: Right. But I mean, is the idea that they would focus on smaller issues of – and not huge differences like Syria, or NATO expansion, or missile --
MR TONER: I wouldn’t even – I wouldn’t necessarily even qualify it that way. I think they’re looking at where we can find common ground. I mean, look, even out of Syria there was the common ground that they found that we’ve all agreed to what end state we want to see in Syria, which is a Syria whole and with all religious groups and minorities represented. But how we get there, that’s a difficult – I get it. That’s a difficult challenge.
QUESTION: Yeah, but that’s been the common – that’s been the common goal since Geneva I.
MR TONER: You’re right. And – but it’s the getting there that’s difficult. But I think it’s --
QUESTION: So what’s the point of agreeing to something that you previously agreed to and then – I mean, I just – was there any – if there’s no progress on the means to get to the end, then I don’t understand what – why it’s so productive to – for the two sides to run down a list of what pisses you off about the other side. I don’t get it.
MR TONER: Well, I think, again, I’ll just say as part of this effort to find common ground, find areas of cooperation – not common ground, but areas of cooperation, there was a good-faith effort for each other to listen to the other’s grievances.
QUESTION: Can I follow up? Yeah?
MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Lesley.
QUESTION: Just to come back, so you don’t know when the working group is going to start?
MR TONER: I don’t. I don’t. If I get more on that, I will let you know, but I think it’s TBD.
QUESTION: Okay. And I know this – was there maybe a discussion about a follow-up meeting between the two, between Lavrov and the Secretary?
MR TONER: Lavrov and Secretary Tillerson?
QUESTION: Are you aware of anything?
MR TONER: I’m not aware of any physical meeting. Of course, they’ll obviously follow up on – by phone, I expect. I have nothing to announce in that regard too, but I have no expectation yet of a follow-up meeting.
QUESTION: Do you – you probably saw that the AP had an interview today with Assad.
MR TONER: Saw that.
QUESTION: Who called it – who called the accusations of a chemical attack a fabrication. You saw earlier this morning the Syrian Army statement, which the U.S. then put down, saying that the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS that hit a chemical weapons depot by ISIS. What’s going on? A day after these meetings, there seems to be pushback. This doesn’t look like somebody who looks like he’s about to change course.
MR TONER: Well, it’s – sadly, it’s vintage Assad. It is an attempt by him to throw up false flags, create confusion. Frankly, it’s a tactic we’ve seen on Russia’s part as well in the past. There can be little doubt that the recent attacks and the chemical weapons attack in Idlib was by the Syrian Government, by the Syrian regime, and that it wasn’t only a violation of the laws of war but it was, we believe, a war crime.
QUESTION: Mark, I just want to follow up on this.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: But before that, I want to ask you about Russia.
MR TONER: (Sneezes.) Excuse me.
QUESTION: The President said that – basically sort of toned down the rhetoric. And he said that ultimately, everybody will come – the President --
MR TONER: Who? President Putin?
QUESTION: No. The President of the United States, President Trump --
MR TONER: Sorry. I apologize.
QUESTION: -- said that everybody will come back to their senses and they are going to have better relations and so on. Is that a result of the conversation between Secretary Tillerson and the president? Is that the outcome? Because that up and down – or more hopeful about the future relations with Russia than it was yesterday.
MR TONER: Well, certainly I’ll let the President’s tweet stand for itself. I’d just say that the President also made this point in his press avail with the NATO secretary general yesterday, and it’s simply that the world is a complicated and difficult place, and there’s enough hard challenges out there that we would like to be able to have a constructive relationship with Russia. But we’re not there. And I think – but I think our ultimate goal is to find, as I said, areas – small at start, but areas where we can rebuild that trust that’s sorely lacking.
QUESTION: And on the Assad interview, now he keeps saying that you have refutable evidence. I mean, today, the United States is saying that they intercepted some communications between the pilot and some chemical scientist and so on on how to do this. I mean, that is – that seems to be the evidence. I find that difficult – I mean – or isn’t it a bit odd that the pilot would be talking to whoever the scientists are and so on to drop this bomb? Is that the only evidence you have?
MR TONER: I’m not aware of that report. What I --
QUESTION: But that --
MR TONER: What I am – sure.
QUESTION: That’s what CNN said.
MR TONER: What I – sure.
QUESTION: Because they were told by a high official and so on.
MR TONER: Well, what I am aware of – and I think there was a backgrounder done on this by some of the – of our intelligence officials who looked at and analyzed this data, what went into our analysis and our ultimate conclusion that this was a chemical weapons attack that was carried out by the Syrian regime and that was laid out, I think, in some articles the other day. They briefed on background, given their status as intelligence officials. But it’s pretty clear-cut in our book.
Look, that said, as I think Secretary Tillerson said, there are – we have the joint investigative mechanism. We have other mechanisms. The OPCW has these mechanisms to investigate, conduct an impartial investigation into these allegations. We know what happened. We have reached our own conclusion. We carried out the airstrikes.
MR TONER: But by all means, those independent mechanisms should be allowed to carry out their investigations. But again, what we saw yesterday was – what did Russia do? It vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have allowed those investigations to move forward.
QUESTION: There is a lot to go through there. But if – let’s say you have an investigation, and the investigation somehow concludes that there was no Syria chemical strike. I mean, you already struck. You already destroyed that airbase. So how would that be dealt with?
MR TONER: I can only say that we are – we undertook that action with the utmost confidence that it – this – that we were hitting the airstrip and the airbase, rather, that carried out that strike.
QUESTION: And lastly --
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- I just want you to clarify something, because I don’t understand it. What – isn’t it that the U.S. Army, who was supposed to dispose of these chemical weapons and, in fact, they did; they destroyed something like 600 tons, which is all the chemical weapons that was at least declared by Syria at the time? Isn’t that true? Would you clarify that for us? Because you keep – or you keep hearing that Russia was responsible to guarantee that these weapons are destroyed or accounted for and so on.
MR TONER: Right. Well, they were, in fact – as signatories to that agreement, Russia pledged to assure that the Assad regime – and the Assad regime also pledged to ensure that it would give up its declared chemical weapons. There were – I don’t have the exact amounts in front of me, but there was a massive amount of chemical weapons that were, in fact, taken out of Syria and neutralized. So you can’t say that that effort was in vain. It wasn’t. It got chemical weapons out of that conflict area. But that said, clearly either they remained their capacity to produce additional chemical weapons or they didn’t declare all their chemical weapons.
QUESTION: You said the Security Council resolution the Russians vetoed yesterday would have allowed an investigation. My understanding was that the agreement back in – that you just referred to, that that allowed for investigations. So is it actually correct that --
MR TONER: Sorry. It sought – I apologize. It sought to hold the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack accountable, called on the regime to cooperate with an independent international investigation. I apologize.
QUESTION: Right. But an investigation – the – yesterday’s resolution was not required for there to be an investigation.
MR TONER: Right. These – my understanding is that these bodies – I mean, that’s what they exist for, is to carry out these investigations.
QUESTION: So it didn’t need – it didn’t need --
MR TONER: But they – it did not need to pass.
QUESTION: They don’t – they didn’t need a new authorization from the Security Council to conduct an investigation.
MR TONER: That’s my understanding. Yeah.
Go ahead, sir. And then I’ll get to you, Goyal.
MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: -- but in frame of Ukraine issue. So yesterday, Secretary of State said in Moscow that he discussed Ukraine and Minsk agreement with Foreign Minister Lavrov. However, there was no acknowledgment that Mr. Tillerson talked about it with Mr. Putin. So could you give more detail on that? And was the Ukraine issue raised during the meeting with Russian president?
MR TONER: So I can – as you noted, I can say that he did raise Ukraine in his bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I don’t have the details, full details, of his bilat with President Putin or his meeting with President Putin. I can’t confirm – I’m sorry – that Ukraine was raised in that setting. I think it probably was, since they went through the range of issues where we don’t see eye to eye with Russia on. And as Secretary Tillerson was very clear, that on those issues that we don’t see eye to eye on, he’ll continue to raise those in his meetings with Russian officials. I just can’t confirm absolutely that it was raised in that meeting. I just don’t have that level of clarity.
MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: Russia is hosting multination consultations on Afghanistan tomorrow.
MR TONER: Oh, sure. Yeah.
QUESTION: What, if any, role will the U.S. play in those talks? And is there concern that through those talks, Russia is trying to expand its role and influence in Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Good question. So first of all, we don’t plan to participate in these regional talks. I think they’re April 14th, which is tomorrow. They have been organized by the Russian Government. We do generally support regional efforts that work with the Afghan Government to build support for a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan, and I think we – going forward, we do plan to work with Russia and other key regional stakeholders to enhance dialogue on Afghanistan. It’s been – long been our argument that all countries in the region need to form a unified front with respect to Afghanistan and make it very clear that the only way to end that conflict definitively is through peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. And we’ve said – also made it perfectly clear that Taliban have no viable alternative but to enter into direct talks in order to achieve their goals.
I think just to end it, we just felt that these talks – it was unclear to us what the purpose was. It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn’t constructive at this time.
QUESTION: Just following up on --
QUESTION: Staying on Afghanistan.
MR TONER: Goyal, and then I’ll get –
QUESTION: Thank you. Follow on Afghanistan.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: As far as – thank you very much, Mark.
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: As far as U.S. bombings in Afghanistan is concerned, it’s not a big surprise to the high-level Afghan officials because they were here – the advisor to the president of Afghanistan and also foreign minister of Afghanistan were here and speaking with the reporters and also at the think tanks. What they were saying that the terrorism problem in Afghanistan is being created by Pakistan, and all the terrorists are coming into Afghanistan and back and forth and back and forth because there is no – there is no check and balance and they are not holding them.
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: My question is here that as far as this bombing to eliminate those ISIS and Talibans – is this because of those high-level official who also met somebody here at the State Department? Also, recently, you just issued a travel warning to Pakistan.
MR TONER: When you say “this bombing,” you’re – I think you’re referring to the bombing that took place just a few hours ago. Is that --
QUESTION: That’s right. Yes, sir.
QUESTION: The mother of all bombs.
MR TONER: The mother of all bombs.
QUESTION: Yeah, White House announced just at the briefing.
MR TONER: No, okay. I just wanted to make sure I was on the – look, a couple points. One is I’ll refer you to what’s already been said about this airstrike that was taken – that took place in Afghanistan. I think it was aimed at a network of tunnels that was being used by terrorist organizations. I can’t say that this was an immediate outcome of any conversations we had with the Afghan Government. I think it’s part of our ongoing efforts to take the fight to the Taliban, to take the fight to ISIS affiliates that are operating in that territory, al-Qaida affiliates that are operating on Afghan soil, and that’s going to continue.
You spoke about Pakistan and their role in this. We’ve been very clear, while we understand that Pakistan has made efforts to confront terrorism and terrorist organizations on its own soil, that there are still what we call safe havens that exist for terrorist groups to operate from and carry strikes out on Afghanistan. That’s a problem. Again, it’s in Pakistan’s interest to work with – constructively with Afghanistan to address those security concerns.
QUESTION: I have one on India, please.
MR TONER: I’ll get back to you, I promise.
QUESTION: All right. Thank you.
MR TONER: Michele, go ahead.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- and the Pastor Brunson case.
QUESTION: Can we stay on Afghanistan?
MR TONER: Let me just get to her and then I promise I’ll come back to you. Sorry.
QUESTION: Vice President Pence has written a letter to the family talking about how this is a top priority for the Trump administration, so I’m wondering what specifically the U.S. is doing to win his release. And then I have a follow-up.
MR TONER: Sure. You’re talking about --
QUESTION: Andrew Brunson.
MR TONER: Yeah, of course. So we can confirm that Turkish authorities detained Andrew Brunson on October 7th, 2016. Since his arrest, I can tell you that consular officers have been able to visit him regularly. We continue to provide appropriate support, consular services, to both – to Mr. Brunson as well as his family. It goes without saying that we take very seriously our obligation to assist any U.S. citizen, but certainly in this case, who is – who are arrested abroad. With respect to his legal case, I’d have to refer you to Mr. Brunson’s attorney.
QUESTION: So the – when Tillerson was in Ankara, he was asked and Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, was asked about it, and he said that we’re about to finalize the charges against him. And I wonder if there’s been any movement in that case. I mean, as you say, he’s been held since October.
MR TONER: Excuse me. Well, we have asked Turkish officials to consider releasing Mr. Brunson from custody, subject to whatever judicial conditions or controls may be appropriate while his legal case is resolved. Agree he’s been in detention far too long, and this has been done with other individuals under investigation. And of course, we call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case in a timely and fair manner, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the protections of a fair trial guarantee that are necessary for his defense.
So our position in this is we’ve made clear our concerns to the Turkish Government; we’re going to continue to offer whatever support we can to Mr. Brunson and his family; and again, our desire to see this resolved as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: Staying on Turkey?
MR TONER: Sure thing. Let’s stay on Turkey, and then we’ll get back to Syria, because I know Tejinder was looking at me.
QUESTION: Can I have another one after that?
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: On Turkey. Just today, UN experts issued report regarding referendum on Sunday, and they concluded that if the constitution amendments pass on Sunday, then will be existing major violations of social and cultural rights in Turkey will even increase. Not only UN, but also EU, other international watchdogs, witness commissions, and many other experts basically conclude same: If the constitutional changes pass, Turkey’s democratic standards, separation of powers, and many other values will be basically wiped out. What is your conclusion? I am sure you have seen the proposal so far.
MR TONER: The proposals of – I’m sorry.
QUESTION: Proposal of the constitutional changes that will be voted.
MR TONER: Look, I’d just say we’re obviously following this issue very closely. As I said the other day, we are concerned about the quality of Turkey’s democracy. These are discussions that we have on a somewhat regular basis with the Turkish Government. Because we’re strong allies and partners, we can have those kinds of conversations.
I don’t think I have much to – much to say beyond what I said the other day, which is that we’re – you spoke about the OSCE’s final report. We’re looking at that and studying it very closely, but we’re going to, obviously, watch this very closely and – as it moves forward, the referendum, and hope that it’s carried out in such a way that guarantees and strengthens democracy in Turkey.
QUESTION: Certainly. But so far, the standards and the conditions already – don’t you think the fairness of the freeness of the elections already under huge questions, since we have seen severe limitations on the campaigning in Turkey?
MR TONER: Several limitations?
QUESTION: Severe --
MR TONER: Limitations, okay.
QUESTION: -- limitations in Turkey.
MR TONER: I mean look, we never want to see, in any case, as part of any kind of free and fair electoral process, any kind of limitation on all sides to express their viewpoints peacefully. So again, we’re watching this very closely.
In the back, and then --
QUESTION: And aren’t you concerned about the environment in which the referendum is going to be held? I mean, hundreds, if not thousands, of dissidents, including the leader of the main Kurdish opposition party, are in prison. How can they campaign for the no voters? I mean, is this referendum not going to be really a fair referendum, according to the United States?
MR TONER: Well, again, I – there are election observers on the ground. We’re going to let them look at and analyze this referendum as it – and that’s going to include in the lead up to it – and pronounce their judgment of whether it was free and fair. I’m going to withhold comment beyond what I have said already, which is, of course, we’re watching this. We’re monitoring it very closely.
QUESTION: Can I change the subject?
MR TONER: Sure. But let me – I’ll get back to you. I promise. I’m just – in the middle there. Sorry. You.
QUESTION: Right here?
MR TONER: Yep.
MR TONER: We can go.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Thanks.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Not too long ago, Prime Minister Abe said that North Korea may have the capacity to deliver missiles with sarin nerve gas. And I know sarin nerve gas is in the news a lot recently, so first, I want to ask: Do you agree with that assessment? And then I have a follow-up.
MR TONER: You know what, I – to be perfectly honest, I have not seen those reports. Obviously, we’re concerned about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons in the region, and even to the United States. And that continues to be a major concern or a primary concern, but – excuse me – it also goes without saying that North Korea has shown itself willing to pursue other weapons of mass destruction. So I can’t say whether those reports are valid or not. I just don’t know, but it’s something we would take very seriously.
QUESTION: And then – so then just the other day as well, Sean Spicer said that there’s no evidence that North Korea has the capacity of a nuclear strike at this time. And, of course, a lot of eyes are on the country this weekend because of the holiday. So are you saying that either both with sarin gas and nuclear weapons – like, the country doesn’t have capacity for either, or both?
MR TONER: Well, they’re clearly pursuing ballistic missile testing. They’re clearly trying to – I mean, we’ve seen this multiple times, that they’re – in the past six months alone, that they’re trying to test out systems that can deliver whatever, whether it’s a nuclear weapon or something else, in the region. And that’s why, frankly, we are so utterly seized with the threat that North Korea now poses. And it’s also one of the reasons why – and this was made very clear in the President’s meetings with Chinese leadership last week – that the time for action is now, and by that, we need to look at ways to put increased pressure on North Korea in order for it to recognize the reality that it needs to pursue denuclearization, that it needs to answer the international community’s very real concerns about its ongoing efforts to pursue nuclear weaponry and the means to deliver those in the region.
QUESTION: Stay on the topic?
QUESTION: Also on North Korea.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up.
MR TONER: We’ll stay on North Korea, sure.
MR TONER: Let’s kill – let’s go through all these questions and then --
QUESTION: Yes, North Korea.
MR TONER: Kill this topic, sorry.
QUESTION: Thank you. The last time Secretary Tillerson said that the strategic patience is over and need a new approach to the North Korea. What is the United States new approach toward North Korea? What specifically included?
MR TONER: Well, good question. I think that, as I just said, provocations from North Korea have grown, frankly, too common, too dangerous to ignore anymore. So we’re working with the international community, and that includes our partners in the region – certainly Republic of Korea, Japan are among those stalwart partners and allies that we’re working with to address this concern. But we’re looking at how we hold the Kim Jong-un regime accountable for its reckless behavior. And the way we’re doing that is pursuing right now efforts to isolate, to cut off North Korea from the rest of the world, and that’s being done through diplomatic efforts, but it’s also through security and economic measures as well. All of this is with the aim of persuading North Korea that its pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is only going to take it farther from what it professes to want, which is a prosperous, engaged role in the world.
QUESTION: Another one on North Korea?
QUESTION: Really? But has it ever said that it wanted an engaged role in the world?
MR TONER: Well, I think there’s been some – there’s been lots of talk --
QUESTION: That North Korea wants to be --
MR TONER: -- or lots of discussion within the Six-Party Talks that --
QUESTION: The Six-Party is done at the working level.
MR TONER: -- that they want – sorry, I’m answering two questions at one time – that they want prosperity, that they want to be heard. That’s what I’m talking about.
QUESTION: Yeah --
QUESTION: What do you mean by saying it’s too dangerous to ignore anymore? Is this administration’s position that the previous administration and the ones before it ignored North Korea?
MR TONER: I think it’s a – no, but I would say that there’s – look, I think in the past several months, we have seen only an acceleration of North Korea’s efforts to – as I said, to pursue nuclear weaponry, but also the means to deliver it. So I think there’s a realization that the time for talk, the time for some of this – if I could put it this – kind of long-term negotiation strategy and engagement is past. We --
QUESTION: Well, it’s a crowd-pleasing line, isn’t it, to say that, like, it’s too dangerous to ignore anymore. But, like, it’s one thing, as the Secretary has said, that the policy of strategic patience or such has failed, but that doesn’t mean that previous administrations, whether it’s the Clinton administration, Bush Administration, or Obama administration, ignored the problem. They just didn’t deal with it in a way that has been able to abate it, wouldn’t you say?
MR TONER: I would say that the --
QUESTION: Are you saying that strategic patience is akin to ignoring North Korea?
MR TONER: No, no, and that’s a fair point. What I would say is that we can no longer, I think, engage in that kind of longer-range approach to North Korea, that we need short-term solutions. And that’s not to – look, the Secretary was also very clear we’re not looking to – for regime change here. We’re looking at denuclearization.
QUESTION: Well, do you need short-term solutions, or do you need – I understand – it sounds like you’re mixing your metaphors a little, because yes, you need – I understand what you’re saying about not looking --
MR TONER: That’s what we spokespeople do.
QUESTION: -- for a long-term – thinking about long-term negotiations, but a short-term solution is not going to deal with the North Korean problem in the long term. Don’t you think?
MR TONER: (Laughter.)
QUESTION: A short-term solution is a short-term solution.
MR TONER: I understand what you’re saying. Look, let me try to --
QUESTION: You don’t want to curb the --
MR TONER: Right. So --
QUESTION: That’s just --
MR TONER: Okay. So there is an urgency to the situation that wasn’t necessarily there in the past because of the actions that they’ve taken over the past six months. And so I think that’s been made very clear by Secretary Tillerson, by President Trump, and we’ve made that clear to the Chinese as well, as well as our other allies and partners in the region.
QUESTION: President Trump said that if China is not help to resolve North Korea nuclear issues, the United States will take its own actions. What do you expect from China to do so?
MR TONER: Well, I think we expect China to – obviously to assert its leverage that it has. I think just today it was talking about even though it’s enacted all of the UN Security Council resolutions – or UN Security Council sanctions, rather, regime against North Korea, it’s also got a very robust trading program with North Korea. So clearly, it has economic influence over North Korea. We’re looking at it to leverage its unique relationship with North Korea to persuade the regime in Pyongyang to reconsider.
QUESTION: Mark, can I change the subject?
MR TONER: Yeah, let’s change subject. Sorry, I’ll get back to you.
QUESTION: Yeah, let’s finish this. So --
MR TONER: I’ll get back to you when I have time. I’ll get back to you when I have time.
QUESTION: There is an internal memo that went around as well as something that was updated online that even though the OMB lifted the hiring freeze, the federal hiring freeze, that the Secretary Tillerson, that the State Department was going to maintain its hiring freeze. Do you know what led to that decision?
MR TONER: Sure. So OMB --
QUESTION: And what is it about?
MR TONER: Okay. So the OMB on Wednesday announced the lifting of the hiring freeze, as you noted, and provided also extensive further guidance to all the various federal agencies on the implementation of and requirements pursuant to the OMB memorandum which is called, I think, Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce, which is a mouthful. I apologize.
MR TONER: And this document, this memo, provides guidance on new requirements on the presidential memorandum that was initially issued on January 23rd.
MR TONER: This was the one that issued the hiring freeze, as well as the executive order issued on March 13th that required a comprehensive plan to reorganize all the executive branch departments and agencies.
So as part of that process, the department and this Secretary are going to be undertaking a reorganization later in the year, and the decision was taken that the hiring freeze will continue until that plan is fully developed and agreement is reached on its implementation.
And this is just part of prudent planning. We can’t be onboarding people when we don’t know what our reorganization is ultimately going to look at – look like. But until then – and this is an important point – the Secretary does retain authority to waive the ruling – or the hiring freeze and will do so in instances where national security interests and the department’s core mission and responsibilities require. So he does --
QUESTION: So it doesn’t break any federal law that he’s done this?
MR TONER: It does not. It’s his decision to maintain this hiring freeze.
QUESTION: Even though that – even though the Congress has – the appropriations has approved money for it, or even if the Congress has said that that’s fine to lift it. So there is a law, a federal law, that if appropriations has moved on some kind of spending or whatever --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- and he says, “No, I’m not going to touch that,” isn’t that against a law?
MR TONER: My understanding is that he has the jurisdiction to – basically to keep this freeze in place as we go about this presidentially mandated reorganization.
QUESTION: Are we talking about Civil and Foreign Service officers, political appointees? What --
MR TONER: Across the board.
QUESTION: So he’s – wait a minute. So he’s not going to hire any political appointees --
MR TONER: I --
QUESTION: -- before the reorg?
MR TONER: I believe it’s a hiring freeze across the board. I don’t know about political appointees. I’ll check on that.
QUESTION: Could you check on that? So what are you – yeah, I mean --
MR TONER: I can check on that.
QUESTION: That would – essentially, if that’s true, what you’re saying, that there’s a hiring freeze across the board, that you would not be hiring any assistant secretaries --
MR TONER: I will check on political appointments. I’m not sure about political appointments.
QUESTION: -- under secretaries, a deputy secretary of state.
MR TONER: Yeah, I’m not sure about political appointments.
QUESTION: That can’t be right.
MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll check on that.
QUESTION: So effectively he’s put this on, the freeze, until he’s done the reorganization. Have those plans actually started? And how are they going to be fleshed out? Does --
MR TONER: I believe they have started. As to how they’re going to be fleshed out, I don’t have any more details.
QUESTION: I mean, it’s going to go on for the rest of the year?
MR TONER: I don’t know if there’s a time, date. I don’t have any kind of timeframe for you. If I get one, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: And I gather that he would have got White House or congressional approval for this?
MR TONER: Yes, I would imagine he would.
QUESTION: I just want to point out something that --
MR TONER: On the political appointees, though, it’s a good question.
QUESTION: Yeah, no, because I mean Foreign Minister Lavrov even said yesterday that – I mean, we can consider the source, but other diplomats from other --
MR TONER: No, I’m not responding, I’m just --
QUESTION: I understand, but other diplomats from other countries have also said that the lack of staff at the State Department has become an impediment to having interlocutors to deal with, whether it’s long-term foreign policy cooperation, short-term foreign policy crises. So I mean, I would really like some clarification on that. Because if you’re saying that there’s a hiring freeze across the board, I really would say that suggests that that will continue to be a problem.
MR TONER: It’s a fair question.
QUESTION: Related to this, though, Mark, you said that he has the – he retains authority to waive it, right?
MR TONER: Yeah, authority. Thank you. Yes, he does. Yeah. In instances where national security interests and the department’s core mission --
QUESTION: Has he?
MR TONER: -- responsibilities – I would assume that political appointees in high positions would fall under the department’s core mission responsibilities.
QUESTION: Do you think that would apply to the – do you think that would apply to the newly nominated deputy? You think he’d get away with it?
MR TONER: I would think that would apply.
QUESTION: Mark, can I --
QUESTION: So – hold on a second; I’m not done.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: Back in February, two months ago tomorrow --
QUESTION: Sorry, Matt.
QUESTION: -- the department sought and received a waiver from the – what was then the hiring freeze. You were given permission by OMB to bring on 175 new staff – 70 entry level, 80 mid level, and 25 consular fellows. Did those people actually come on board? And has the department – did the department seek additional exemptions between February 14th and Wednesday?
MR TONER: I’ll check on both. Yeah, I’ll check on both. I’ll take those questions.
QUESTION: Can I --
QUESTION: Another subject?
MR TONER: Yeah, we can change the subject, but I haven’t gotten to – I’ll get back to you, I swear to God.
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Thousands of protesters are demanding new elections in Venezuela. And opposition leaders consider that the government of the President Nicolas Maduro, it’s no longer respecting democratic institutions and it’s sliding toward authoritarian practices. Can you comment on that, please?
MR TONER: Sure. First of all, we’re – I want to start with some of the reports of violence against protesters during demonstrations in Venezuela. We’re aware of those reports. We obviously regret any loss of life. We call, once again, on the Government of Venezuela to conduct full, fair, and transparent investigations into this violence. We also call on the government and security forces to respect the freedom of assembly – peaceful assembly – as a universal human right, which the Venezuelan authorities should respect. We, as I said, also urge the demonstrators to express themselves nonviolently.
With respect to your broader question, we urge the Maduro government to reconsider its decision this past week, I believe, or past weekend, to bar Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles and – from participating in the country’s public life for I think some 15 years. It’s something we view with grave concern. It’s absolutely vital that Venezuelans have the right to exercise their – and elect their representatives in free and fair elections in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution and consistent with international instruments. And that includes the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
We firmly support as well the consensus of the Organization of American States Permanent Council, which affirms it is essential that the Government of Venezuela ensure the full restoration of democratic order.
MR TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- on North Korea. And Vice President Pence is about to travel to that region and will be visiting both South Korea and Japan. I was wondering if you could discuss what message he’ll be sending to leaders in the region and what he’ll be discussing in those meetings, and then I have a --
MR TONER: Well, look, I would have to refer you to the Vice President and his office to talk about the specifics about his trip. But, obviously, I think that it’s very clear given Secretary Tillerson’s travel to the region, given that both leadership from Republic of Korea and Japan have been here for high-level meetings, that we are very concerned, primarily concerned with North Korea and its actions and how to deal with North Korea. And in that regard, I think he’s going to be sending a very clear message, certainly in Seoul and elsewhere, of our steadfast, ironclad support for our allies and partners in the region. And that stands absolute.
So I’ll let – I’ll leave it to him to speak in greater detail. Please.
QUESTION: Okay, and then also --
QUESTION: -- in Japan, he’ll --
MR TONER: Of course.
QUESTION: So Foreign Minister Lavrov talked about – he offered to reinstate this de-confliction channel, and – but there were terms, and I was wondering, this thing about the de-confliction in the airs – in the air, between airplanes in – that was suspended, and Secretary Tillerson didn’t say anything about whether he accepted the terms that Lavrov set. So we’re wondering, where does that stand, how important is that channel, and what’s the plan when it comes to preventing any mishaps in the air over Syria?
MR TONER: Frankly, my understanding was that that does remain intact. There was some question that it was going to be pulled down. That was a Russia claim, at least. Look, we consider that de-confliction channel to be very important, because it helps ensure that neither our pilots nor Russia’s pilots are unduly or unnecessarily put in harm’s way when we’re carrying out military missions in the – in that region.
So I can’t speak to how it may change. My understanding is that it does remain in effect.
QUESTION: Because – I mean, was – my understanding is that that channel was suspended after the missile strike.
MR TONER: I had heard that – I had seen those same reports, but my understanding was that – my understanding is that after that, it was reinstated. If that’s incorrect, I’ll let you know.
QUESTION: Can I --
MR TONER: Please. Yeah, please.
QUESTION: A fact check.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up question.
MR TONER: Yeah, of course, finish up. And then --
MR TONER: I don’t believe he did. Frankly, it was an issue of time. He did, of course, raise our concerns, as he does in every meeting with our Russian counterparts. But I don’t believe he actually had the time to meet with any members of civil society while he was on the ground.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that, and then I have a question on Afghanistan.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Do you anticipate this is something that he’ll make as a kind of regular feature of his travel? I mean, past secretaries to some extent – some more, some less – have made that a kind of staple of their --
MR TONER: Meeting with civil society members?
QUESTION: Of – yeah.
MR TONER: You’re right. I mean, it’s – it has been, because it’s an – it’s a great way to send the message that it’s a matter of concern, it’s an issue of concern to us. Again, I think in any given visit, given the other demands on the Secretary’s schedule, of course, I can’t speak categorically, but I know for a fact that he does consider human rights, healthy civil society to be something that he’s going to press in all of his interactions.
QUESTION: I have a question --
MR TONER: Yes, sir – ma’am.
MR TONER: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: I know you kind of punted to the Pentagon on the actual strike itself, but we haven’t really heard a lot about ISIS in the kind of Afghan-Pakistan region. And I’m wondering if you could kind of bring us up to date on your discussions with those governments about the growth of ISIS. Because, like I said, we really haven’t – I mean, I know that they had some small presence, but it kind of was surprising to see the depth of which the --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- to which you have this concern.
MR TONER: Well, and it’s a fair point to bring up. I mean, look, we’ve been very clear that, just like we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, but certainly in Afghanistan, where ISIS has attempted to co-opt some existing groups on the ground in an effort to create affiliates. And we’re going to see this, I think – and this is something that was discussed in the ministerial a few weeks ago – that as ISIS continues to get pressed in Syria and in Iraq, it’s going to seek to do that, I think, more and more. So it’s something we’re watching very closely, and we’re working with the Government of Afghanistan and our partners in the region in order to deny any terrorist organization – that includes al-Qaida as well – safe haven or any kind of material support on the ground. And as we’ve also been very clear, we’re – when we see targets of opportunity and leadership, opportunities to take out key leadership, we’re going to take those opportunities.
QUESTION: I understand that this was a target of opportunity, but are you saying that this target was – were they working with other types of – like so-called affiliates?
MR TONER: That’s a common practice for ISIS to – yeah.
QUESTION: No, I understand, but I’m just saying, this particular --
MR TONER: I don’t know the specifics. I don’t have enough specifics on this.
QUESTION: I’m just – as opposed to, like, the actual strike and the weapon and how it was done, I’m interested in this particular target --
MR TONER: Right.
QUESTION: -- and why it was chosen in terms of their threat. And given that the State Department has really been the lead in terms of the coalition against ISIS, I’d be interested a little bit more in --
MR TONER: Sure. I don’t have a lot of detail on this particular strike and why this – I mean, other than that they were ISIS-affiliated group or ISIS --
QUESTION: ISIS-affiliated group or members of ISIS, like official leadership?
MR TONER: I’ll check. I’ll check.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR TONER: Yeah.
MR TONER: Couple more questions, guys. Tejinder, I haven’t gotten to you yet.
QUESTION: I have the patience, and wishing you a quick, fast recovery --
MR TONER: Thanks.
QUESTION: -- because I saw you limping.
MR TONER: I’m limping, I’m coughing.
QUESTION: Oh, yes.
MR TONER: I need vacation. Luckily, it’s coming up.
QUESTION: Yeah. I have empathy, I’m coughing also.
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: The – one short follow-up on Afghanistan and then one on India-related. Afghanistan is that day before yesterday, after the briefing in the Pentagon, the Defense Secretary, when I asked him that – is Afghanistan on back burner, he said not at all, nothing has changed. So that’s from the Defense. On the --
MR TONER: What he said, yes.
QUESTION: On the diplomatic side, with Russia taking that initiative, has anything changed from this side on the diplomatic front?
MR TONER: Not at all, and in fact, I think it was just a couple weeks ago the Afghan foreign minister, I think it was, in conjunction with the counter-ISIS ministerial was here in town, and they had a very good bilateral discussion – one of the few bilateral meetings he was able to take given his schedule, Secretary Tillerson’s schedule. But he made the point of taking that meeting because he wanted to express our firm support for the Afghan Government’s continued efforts to confront the Taliban, to confront other terrorist groups on its territory, and to solidify and continue to enact needed political and economic reforms.
QUESTION: And the other --
MR TONER: You had another – yeah, finish up, and then --
QUESTION: I have second one.
QUESTION: The second one is about --
MR TONER: Okay. I’m going to do three more questions. I got to you. I got to you already. Three more questions.
QUESTION: The second one is --
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: The second one is about the diplomatic efforts from the U.S. The Indian media is flush with this hate crimes against people of Indian origin. Now, what – a kind of journalistic investigation revealed that most of these Indians were either misidentified or misunderstood because of religious symbols or other things, but when the Indian ambassador rushes to State Department and expresses his deep concerns about this, and then we find out that the Hardish Patel, the county sheriff says that it was not a hate crime. So what – how can you clarify that these incidents are not against Indians or people from Indian origin? They’re misidentified. There is – it’s not about condoning hate crime, it’s about misrepresenting the facts. If you can clarify from the podium.
MR TONER: So a couple of thoughts on this – first of all is we obviously strongly condemn any hate crime, any crime carried out against someone based on their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, whatever. We condemn it. Secondly, though, with respect to these particular crimes, that’s really something for either local, regional, or federal law enforcement to speak to. All of these crimes need to be thoroughly investigated, and that’s why I’m very hesitant to comment on one particular case or not, because I don’t know the facts and it would be imprudent for me, except to say that, largely speaking, there are – there’s a strong Indian American community in this country. They’re a vibrant part of American culture and society and the economy here. And we, as Americans, welcome their contribution. And as I said, any crime based on – that potentially based on someone’s ethnicity or heritage should be heartily condemned.
QUESTION: I was trying to clarify one --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: I was just trying to clarify that this crimes were even ethnicity-based were not against the Indian ethnicity. They were mis --
MR TONER: Identified? I just don’t have the details. I apologize, Tejinder.
QUESTION: Could we do a quick one --
MR TONER: Said. Yeah, very quick.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: A couple of days ago, you issued an advisory, a travel advisory --
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: -- to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. But you also urged American citizens to leave Gaza.
MR TONER: Yep.
QUESTION: And this coincided with the escalating tensions, and the Israelis are amassing troops. Are you concerned that there may have – there may be another war that could – may –
MR TONER: No, I – look – sure. I’m aware of --
QUESTION: -- which will urge the Israelis --
MR TONER: I’m aware the timing was linked or was close to it, but this was, as my understanding of it, just a periodic update, and that the information concerning Gaza was similar to language from our previous travel warnings.
So as many of you know in this room, we have to periodically update the language to ensure they remain valid and up-to-date. This was a routine update. I think the previous one was issued on August 23rd, 2016, but it contained very similar guidance. Our travel warning warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Gaza Strip and urges those present to depart as soon as possible when border crossings are open. And I think the way – by way of explanation, given the security conditions in Gaza, U.S. government personnel have been long restricted from travel to Gaza, and so that restricts our ability to provide any assistance or support to any U.S. citizen in Gaza. So it’s out of that reality, if you will, that we caution.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: And this --
MR TONER: John, last question.
MR TONER: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: You said that it seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region. This dropping of this massive bomb in Afghanistan that has a fairly large optical element to it, could you – could one interpret that as a unilateral attempt to assert influence in the region?
MR TONER: No. Look, again, I’m --
MR TONER: I’m not going to attempt to speak way outside my box and talk about, you know, military matters.
QUESTION: But it does have – when it’s a bomb that large, there’s a diplomatic effect to dropping something like that.
MR TONER: There is, John. But – I imagine, but I’m going to stay mum on that. Thanks, everybody. Thanks so much.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)
DPB # 21