Department Press Briefing - April 25, 2017

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 25, 2017


TRANSCRIPT:

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

1:46 p.m. EDT

MR TONER: Thanks, and thanks, everyone, for joining us today. Just a couple things at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions.

Today, the United States announced nearly $94 million in additional humanitarian assistance to help the people of Yemen, who have suffered through two years of conflict and are experiencing the largest food security emergency in the world. This additional funding brings the total U.S. humanitarian contribution to nearly $526 million since the 2016 fiscal year. This new funding will provide food and clean drinking water to vulnerable families, treatment for malnourished children, hygiene kits to fight the spread of disease, life-saving medical supplies, and training for health care workers, as well as emergency shelter for those displaced, among other kinds of aid.

I also wanted to note one year ago today, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Mr. Xulhaz Mannan, who was a beloved member of our Embassy Dhaka family and a courageous advocate for human rights, was brutally murdered in his home along with a fellow activist. We remain committed to the principles that were so important to Xulhaz, and we will continue to support all those who work on behalf of tolerance of human rights in Bangladesh and around the world.

With that, I’ll turn it over to your questions. Matt, are you up?

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. Ladies and gentlemen, once again, if you do have questions today, please press * then 1 at this time. Our first question comes from the line of Matt Lee from AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hey, Mark. Nothing about World Penguin Day at the top?

MR TONER: Not yet, no.

QUESTION: No? Okay, I’ll be expecting that statement soon. Listen, I got a couple different topics here; I’ll go through them very quickly. The first one is the one – the shortest, because I think you won’t be able to answer it, and that is: Up on the Hill today earlier, Congressman Chaffetz said that General Flynn would have required the Secretary of State’s permission to go to Russia or take money from them, or to get paid by Turkey. And he said that they had no information that such permission was granted. I’m wondering, were you guys involved in this at all? Did you look for correspondence between the State Department and Secretary Kerry’s office and General Flynn and find – and find that there was none?

MR TONER: Matt, we have seen those comments – excuse me. We’re looking into it, is all I can tell you right now. It’s unclear whether we had a role, whether we had to provide permission. So at this point, I’ll have to take the question and get back to you.

QUESTION: All right. All right, thanks.

MR TONER: Yep.

QUESTION: Topic two: I want to get to – try and get to the bottom of this IIP Mar-a-Lago post thing. I take it that you have looked into what happened, and I’m hoping you’ll be able to answer these questions. Was there in place at the time it was posted some kind of a vetting process to determine whether something met or did not meet muster according to the ethics rules? If there was, was it approved? And if there wasn’t, was it – is there a process now in place? And did anyone take a look at it after the fact and determine that it was or was not a breach of the ethics rules?

MR TONER: Okay, I think I can answer all of those questions, or at least try to. First of all, we didn’t get into this yesterday, but for those who may not know on the line, Share America is a digital platform of the State Department Bureau of International Information Programs, and it advances U.S. foreign policy by providing our missions abroad with social media content in order to engage foreign audiences. So this is an outward-directed bureau. And these stories are intended to help audiences, foreign audiences, learn more about the U.S., including stories about some of the places that they may have heard mentioned in the news. And that, of course, brings us to Mar-a-Lago.

In – excuse me – with respect to your specific questions, Matt – so this article was researched and written by staff members of the IIP Bureau, and that is what they do. As I said, they are creating content to go out to send out to missions around the world. And it was not reviewed at the time it was sent out.

What we did review after the questions in the story came up yesterday – and just in answer to your – sorry, just one other point to make is, as a general matter, IIP content generated for Share America is not reviewed outside of the bureau, outside of IIP. Moving forward, in light of this story, we’re going to consider whether any additional review of content is needed or appropriate.

QUESTION: Okay. And going forward – well, sorry, is there precedent for this kind of thing? You said it’s for foreign audiences about places they’re heard in the news. Do know if there is precedent for privately owned facilities to be featured on this or other State Department platforms, either for-profit or non-profit, for-profit meaning like maybe the Waldorf Hotel or the Palace Hotel now in New York, the places where presidents meet foreign leaders, or non-profit like President Bush’s ranch in Crawford or Sunnylands even, where President Obama met with foreign leaders? Have these places been profiled?

MR TONER: So again, so Share America has only been in existence for two years. We’re looking back to see if the actual bureau, IIP, the International Information Programs, has done similar articles in the past, because that’s been their mandate for some time. Again, to try to write stories pertaining to places of interest or in the news to foreign audiences.

All I could do – we did a quick search of Share America, the articles that they have written. None really pertains to the questions you’ve asked about – with respect to locales. I mean, some of the things are – some of the types of articles are secretaries of state hail from many different walks of life, how presidents leave their mark on the Oval Office, how much do you know about U.S. presidents – kind of fact-based but interesting articles to foreign audiences who are trying to learn more about the U.S. Government. But specifically, I don’t know that there have been any articles pertaining to either publicly owned or privately owned properties.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, was it – was there a determination made about the Mar-a-Lago post that it was not promotional in nature or it did not violate any ethics rules? Was that made? And going forward, suppose – and I realize this is hypothetical, but the President owns numerous private places where he could have meetings – golf clubs, other hotels for example. Is there going to be a ban or anything like – a review of anything that involves those – those issues?

And then I have two more questions on two different topics, and I’ll lump them together really quickly. One, I’m wondering about a readout of the JCPOA meeting in Vienna. And secondly, do you have anything to say about the Turkey – the Turkish military strikes on Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq? And that’s it for me.

MR TONER: All right, great. Thanks, Matt. Okay, let me start with the – or finish, rather, with the Mar-a-Lago story, and then we’ll get to the other questions. So it was reviewed. It was determined that this article was, and it’s our contention that it was, meant to provide historical information and context relevant to the conduct of U.S. diplomacy and was not intended to endorse or promote any private enterprise.

That said, we did make the decision – the department made the decision – to remove the article in light of some of the feedback we were getting about the article’s purpose, or rather misperceptions about its purpose, and I think going forward the department’s going to consider whether any additional review of Share America’s content is appropriate. We obviously take ethics obligations of our employees very seriously, so we’re looking at it. And we recognize that while there was no, obviously, malice aforethought with respect to this article; it was simply intended to inform foreign audiences about places they’ve been hearing about in the news pertinent to U.S. foreign policy and the President’s activities, I think going forward we’re going look at how we can tighten up our review process to ensure there’s no – any – or no greater confusion or no more confusion about some of the content on there.

Now turning to – I think you asked about the JCPOA meeting today. I don’t have a readout – excuse me – for you on that. I believe, though, that the EU chair is going to issue a statement on – you’re talking about the Joint Commission meeting today.

QUESTION: Right.

MR TONER: I think the chairman will issue a statement later today that will sum up basically the discussions that were held today. If we have anything further to add to that, certainly we will. But we’re going to let that meeting continue, or to finish up and wrap up, and let the chairman speak to it.

Now, turning to Turkey, and I think it was your last question, so we are very concerned – deeply concerned – that Turkey conducted airstrikes earlier today in northern Syria, as well as northern Iraq, without proper coordination either with the United States or the broader global coalition to defeat ISIS. And we’ve expressed those concerns to the Government of Turkey directly. These airstrikes were not approved by the coalition and led to the unfortunate loss of life of our partner forces in the fight against ISIS that includes members of the Kurdish Peshmerga. I would also note that the concerns – or rather note the concerns expressed by the Government of Iraq and reaffirm our view that military action in Iraq should respect Iraqi sovereignty.

And just finally, given the very complex battle space in these areas, it’s vital that Turkey and all partners in the effort to defeat ISIS coordinate their actions as closely as possible as we work together to maintain pressure to destroy ISIS on the battlefield in order to ensure that we meet that goal but also that we ensure the safety of all coalition personnel who are operating in that – as I said, in that theater.

Next question, please. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Kylie Atwood from CBS News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thanks for doing this. I have a quick question following up on some of the conversations that we had yesterday in regard to China. In terms of China understanding the urgency of the situation in North Korea, you mentioned that and talked about the Chinese going to be taking steps in order to address that and cited coal imports as an example. You said you’d get back to us with some more examples. So I’d like to return to that.

MR TONER: Thanks, Kylie. Well, look, I did raise – when we talked about it yesterday, I did mention the example of coal exports. But I would, frankly, refer you to the Chinese Government to talk in greater detail about what they’re doing and the steps they’re taking to implement fully the UN sanctions. I don’t necessarily think it’s for us to give them a report card. We’ve been very clear with respect to our concern that China is not doing enough and needs to do more in order to put pressure on the regime in Pyongyang. But there have been – they have – and I think the President has alluded to this – they have at least claimed to have gotten the message, and we’re going to look for further action.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Rich Edson from Fox News Channel. Please, go ahead. And it looks like Mr. Edson has pulled himself from queue. Our next question comes from the line of Michele Kelemen from NPR. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, Mark. Thanks for doing this. Follow-up on the Iran talks in Vienna. I wonder if the U.S. side has raised the case of the Namazi father and son. The brother and lawyer were in Vienna today raising this and hoping that the Trump administration would be bringing it up in those talks in Vienna.

MR TONER: Thanks for the question, Michele. Obviously, throughout the world, the safety and security of U.S. citizens is our top priority. With respect to Iran, obviously we continue to use all the means at our disposal to advocate for – excuse me – to advocate for U.S. citizens who need our assistance overseas and especially for the release of any unjustly detained U.S. citizens. I don’t want to get into the details of specific cases, but we call for the immediate release of all U.S. citizens unjustly detained in Iran so that they can return to their families. And we also warn any U.S. citizens, especially dual nationals, considering travel to Iran that they should carefully read our Travel Warning with respect to travel to Iran. But in short, it’s something we raise in every possible venue with the Iranians.

QUESTION: One other question about an American, the OSCE paramedic who was killed: Have you – do you have any more sense of how this happened? Do you blame Russia for this incident?

MR TONER: Well, we are – as you saw, we put out a statement on Sunday condemning the killing. We are calling for an investigation into this. We want an investigation to take place. We believe that should be an OSCE-led investigation, because we want to find out exactly what happened. This was inexcusable and it frankly underscored the increasingly dangerous conditions under which these monitors are forced to operate, and that includes beyond the reality of landmines. Other issues are access restrictions as well as threats and harassment. With respect to Russia, we’re urging Russia to use its influence with the separatists to allow the OSCE to conduct a full and transparent and timely investigation into what happened.

So I think we’re looking to find out the facts, assess the facts, and assess what next steps need to be taken. But as I said, there needs to be, first and foremost, a full, transparent, and credible investigation into Sunday’s tragedy. Anything less would be unacceptable to us.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Felicia Schwartz from Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark. Thanks. A quick follow-up on the meeting in Vienna: It’s my understanding that there is a bilateral session between the U.S. side and the Iranian side and I just wanted to check, is this the first, I guess, face-to-face contact between the Trump administration and the Iranians? As far as we know, I don’t think Tillerson or – and Zarif have talked on the phone, for example. That wouldn’t be face to face, but have there been other contacts?

MR TONER: Sure, Felicia. I’m not aware that there’s going to be a separate bilat, but this would be the first time that we have – that this administration have sat at the table with Iran in any setting. I’ll have to take the question, I apologize, I don’t have that information at my fingertips, as to whether there’s going to be a separate bilat involved.

QUESTION: And no phone calls?

MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of, no. No phone calls.

Thanks. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Abigail Williams from NBC News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, Mark. I just had a few follow-ups on the Mar-a-Lago publication. Was this published in any way in print form or was this just something on the website? It seemed like, in visiting other embassies, there were publications that came from the State Department talking about various different institutions within the U.S. And then was there any request from anyone to write that specific article or was that just something developed within that group? Thanks.

MR TONER: Sure, good questions. First of all, it’s just online, so this is a digital platform of the State Department and something we send out, as I said, to our missions abroad. As far as I know, I believe that U.S. Embassy London was the only one to actually put it on their website. All – I think all of the other uses of this article were through social media – Facebook, et cetera, Twitter, et cetera. So that’s my understanding at this point. Excuse me. And of course, as I said, we have reached out to all of these missions to ask them to take that content down.

Your second question with respect to was this in house or was this done at the request of any other agency or any other entity, I can say categorically no. This was in-house completely. This was a decision made by the content creators, the writers of the International Information Programs, IIP, and that is their mandate. Again, I think in retrospect, we made the decision to pull this article down because there was some confusion about its intent, but their mandate, if you will, is to create content that educates foreign audiences about significant landmarks, et cetera, in the United States.

QUESTION: If I could, can I do one follow-up on Turkey as well?

MR TONER: Sure.

QUESTION: Just wanted to ask if you could speak a little more of expand upon the way in which it was communicated to Turkey, the U.S. concerns. Was that in a phone call at all made by Secretary Tillerson? Or was there any conversation with Erdogan?

MR TONER: So I don’t necessarily want to say at what level our concern was conveyed. I can simply confirm that it was conveyed to the Turkish Government. But since you brought up the topic again, I do want to stress, again, this is a very complex battle space. We’re cognizant of that, and we’re also cognizant of the threat that the PKK poses to Turkey.

But again, the point we made to Turkey and I’m making now is that Turkey cannot pursue that fight at the expense of our common fight against the terrorists that threaten us all, and that obviously means ISIS. So we’ve conveyed this to Turkey. This is part of our ongoing dialogue with them. Again, we recognize their concerns about the PKK, but these kinds of actions, frankly, harm the coalition’s efforts to go after ISIS and, frankly, harm our partners on the ground, who are conducting that fight.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Carol Morello from The Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, Mark. Thanks for taking my question. Say, I also had a follow-up to the Joint Commission Meeting in Vienna. Babak Namazi, in a press conference today, says that he was shocked and horrified that his father and brother were not included, were – with the prisoner swap in January of 2016. And he said that he had asked for the State Department’s help in getting their freedom, but that he was asked by the State Department to stay quiet afterwards, when they were not in the swap, because Secretary Kerry was trying to work on a deal with Zarif to get them free, the deal that clearly never materialized. And I was wondering if you had anything to say on what Babak Namazi said in Vienna today.

MR TONER: Thanks for the question, Carol. Look, I’m not going to get into the details of our efforts to free those Americans who we believe are being unjustly detained in Iran for various reasons, among which we don’t want to jeopardize their safety. All I can say is to reiterate what I said previously, which is that the previous administration, this administration, our priority is getting these people free. And we raise their detention at every available opportunity. It is of great concern to us. It will remain of great concern to us until we are able to free them. And that speaks to the case of the Namazis but as well as to other American citizens we believe unjustly detained in Iran.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Elise Labott from CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. This is about the meeting on Friday chaired by Secretary Tillerson. I’m wondering if you’re trying to get the ministers on board for some kind of – the President had alluded yesterday, in his meeting with the UN Security Council, to new sanctions, and I’m wondering how far the Secretary plans on trying to get everybody on board for some kind of new sanctions resolution and what you think that might entail. What are the – aside from just trying to highlight the North Korean issue, could you speak a little bit more about what you hope will be the deliverables of that meeting? Thank you.

MR TONER: Sure. So as we talked about yesterday a little bit, the Secretary will be traveling to New York on Friday. He’ll be meeting with the members of the Security Council, where he’ll chair the Friday Ministerial – Security Council Ministerial. And that will focus, as we just said – or as you just said – on denuclearization of the – North Korea.

With respect to – I don’t want to get out ahead of the Secretary, what he’ll say, the remarks he’ll make. Obviously, given yesterday’s meeting at the White House, given the meeting – or, rather, the hearing that will take place tomorrow with the Senate on North Korea, and then bookended by Friday’s meeting at the UN Security Council, North Korea is front and center on our foreign policy priorities, one of the most urgent issues that we’re trying to address. And this administration’s looking at all options.

I will say that the Secretary – or – yes, the Secretary will be very vocal about his concerns that countries aren’t doing enough to implement all of the sanctions with respect to – that exist – existing sanctions, rather, with respect to North Korea. And if we can get there, if we can get full implementation, that will provide pressure.

So this is a – if I could characterize it, I would say that this is a pressure campaign. Obviously, we’ve said that we’re no longer going to abide by the policy of strategic patience. That train has left the station. What we’re looking to do is apply pressure that isolates the North Korean – the regime in North Korea, in Pyongyang, and those pressure points are well known. They’re diplomatic; they’re economic; and we certainly hope not, but if necessary, military.

QUESTION: Well, what – if you don’t mind, if I could just quick follow-up, why is that different than – I understand that strategic patience is over, but why is – what is over about it? What’s the difference? I mean, there – that pretty much was the policy of the Obama administration is to continue to isolate North Korea through a series of sanctions or diplomatic measures. So could you just say what’s different about this pressure campaign?

MR TONER: Well, first of all, the pace. This is – and again, I can go through, but whether it was in Italy at the G7, or in Moscow, or in Bonn, or in the region, or here in Washington, or Mar-a-Lago, we have been talking with our partners and allies in the region and all around the world about the urgency of this situation. This has been a front-and-center, front-burner issue: How do we deal with North Korea? And think that’s what I’ve been trying to convey in terms of strategic patience being over. We recognize now that the time for waiting on North Korea to do the right thing has long passed, and we need to move more quickly and with greater determination to convince North Korea either to pursue denuclearization or to apply enough pressure that it stops those activities.

All right. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Thank you, sir. Our next question comes from the line of Rich Edson from Fox News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Let’s try this phone again. Can you hear me, Mark?

MR TONER: Sure can.

QUESTION: Oh, fantastic. Okay. I just wanted to get – I know you’re not commenting that specifically on the JCPOA meeting from today, but Iranian state television said that the other side has not fully complied with its obligations under the JCPOA. I presume that means the United States. Do you have a comment on that, or anything else in the JCPOA, what the U.S. – specifically from the U.S. perspective, what the U.S. may have discussed or brought up in the context of that meeting?

MR TONER: Sure. Well, again, this is – it’s important to recognize that this is a – this joint commission, rather, is I think a quarterly meeting to look at how or whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is being implemented, specifically, what are our concerns. And I don’t want to get ahead of – I know there’s a chairman’s statement coming out of that meeting. I don’t want to get ahead of that, and I also want to let our team on the ground in Vienna finish their day and finish their work and finish their discussions. I think at the end of that, we’ll may have more to say.

But with respect to where we are, we’re conducting a broader review – you know that – with respect to our Iran policy. But until that review’s completed, we’re going to adhere to the JCPOA and ensure that Iran is held strictly accountable to its requirements. With respect to whether we’re meeting our commitments, we would strongly disagree with Iran’s assessment that we are not. We are meeting our commitments to the JCPOA.

I think I have time for one more question, guys. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our final question for today’s conference will come from the line of Margaret Warner from PBS NewsHour. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thank you, Mark, for doing this. Back to the Turkey strikes on the YPG fighters: Has a decision been made, first of all, since we know Turkey does not want those fighters involved in the taking of Raqqa, that they will be? That was being held off until after the referendum. And then with Erdogan’s upcoming visit next month, what is the United States hoping for or looking for, or what kind of new relationship with Erdogan now that the referendum is over?

MR TONER: Sure. Good questions, Margaret. So first of all, with respect to Turkey and the – their activities, or rather, the efforts to engage and drive out ISIS from that area, again, this is a conversation that we’ve been having for some time, and frankly, more deeply and more broadly than a conversation. This is an effort that we’ve been making with Turkey both to address their concerns – and I recognize that there are concerns about PKK, legitimate concerns about the PKK – but also to coordinate on the ground.

Everyone in this fight is there to defeat ISIS. Everyone recognizes that it’s a very complex battlespace. There are – as I noted previously, there are different groups, different ethnic groups. That includes Kurds. It also includes Syrian Arabs, Syrian Turkmen, other ethnicities who are, we believe, strong partners in the fight to defeat ISIS. We’re going to continue partnering with these groups, and I think the effort going forward is going to be to make clear to Turkey that it’s in their interests, it’s in all of our interests, to focus on defeating ISIS.

That said, we’ve also been clear to some of these groups as they liberate territory that there needs to be a return to local governance, that the local groups or the local ethnicities who were driven out from these towns and cities be able to return and feel safe in returning. And so this is a conversation we’re having with all of the actors on the battlefield. It’s complex, it’s difficult, but it’s something we’re working at.

With respect to what kind of relationship we want to have with Turkey going forward, Turkey remains a close partner and a strong NATO ally. That said, we’re going to continue to have frank discussions about the quality of Turkey’s democracy when we have those concerns, and we’ve been doing that since the attempted coup last year, last summer. And let’s remember the context as many of these changes have taken place were in reaction to that attempted coup. We understand, again, Turkey’s real concerns in the aftermath of that coup attempt, but we also don’t want to see an over-reaction. We’ve been very clear about that along the way.

So look, we are – Turkey’s a vital partner in the efforts to defeat ISIS. It’s a vital NATO ally. We’re a close partner. We believe in the character and quality of Turkey’s democracy. We’re going to continue to work with the Turkish Government and to strengthen that relationship going forward.

QUESTION: Can we just go back to Raqqa, though? What about Raqqa? I mean, is the – are the YPG going to be very much involved despite Turkey’s feelings about it?

MR TONER: Well, a couple things. One is it’s important to note that the composition of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is this conglomeration of different groups fighting on the ground, that force currently operating to isolate Raqqa is, I think, approximately 75 percent Syrian Arab and is fairly consistent demographically with what you’d find in that area. And that’s what I was – the point I was trying to make earlier, that a fundamental guiding principle of this campaign is for the force used to liberate an area, that that force be consistent with what you’d find locally in that area. So for Raqqa, that includes Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, and others.

And so the Syrian Democratic Forces are, by their very nature, a multiethnic and multisectarian organization, and that’s, frankly, one of the reasons why we’re working with them. The other reason is that they’re very effective and very brave and courageous in going after ISIS. So – and as I said, operations – as operations continue, locals are returning to establish control and governance in their home areas while local Arab fighters continue to join the SDF’s or the Syrian Democratic Force’s ranks.

So we’re going to continue to work with Turkey to de-conflict and address their concerns about these forces, but it’s our assessment that these forces reflect the multiethnic character of those areas.

Thanks, everybody. I’ve got to run.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MR TONER: Yeah. Bye-bye.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:24 p.m.)

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