Department Press Briefing - June 13, 2017

Heather Nauert
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
June 13, 2017


2:26 p.m. EDT

MS NAUERT: Hi, everyone. I hope you are all well today. So I know it’s a little unorthodox to brief on a day that the Secretary is testifying before Congress. As you all know, he is testifying twice today and twice again tomorrow. In the interest of providing you with as much information as possible, we decided to do this today. We’re trying to stick to a Tuesday/Thursday briefing, so – but we are going to keep it relatively brief today.

So let’s start out with this. The Secretary testified this morning before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on FY 2018 budget. That was a request for the State Department and also USAID. He will appear this afternoon before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Relations, and Related Programs. Tomorrow he will appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committees and House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Relations, and Related Programs. The focus of each hearing is on FY 2018 and the budget request.

The Secretary has stated that FY18 budget request for the State Department and USAID of 37.6 billion aligns with the administration’s objective of making America’s security our top priority. He also noted that we will continue to lead in international development, global health, democracy, good governance initiatives, and humanitarian efforts, while asking other donors and partners around the world to increase their support.

Here in the building, prior to his testimony on the Hill today, Secretary Tillerson met with his Saudi counterpart, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. The two leaders discussed the regional developments, and the Secretary reiterated the importance of de-escalating the situation in the Gulf, and they reaffirmed the need for constructive dialogue to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. Both leaders agree that there is a willingness on all sides to de-escalate the situation and work toward a lasting resolution. That’s a first step. We agreed on the need to focus completely on the global fight against terrorism.

And with that, I will take your questions. Matt Lee, let’s start with you.

QUESTION: Thank --

MS NAUERT: May I mention – I know you were interested in the Pickering, Rangels fellows. Anyone who’s interested in that, let’s talk about that after, if we could, please.

Go right ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. On the release of Mr. Warmbier. The timeline that was put out at the White House – I’m just – I just had a couple questions about it. When Ambassador Yun went to New York, was he – did the North Koreans invite him to go to North Korea to pick him up? In other words, when he left the States to go to North Korea, did he know that he was going to be in a position to bring Mr. Warmbier home?

MS NAUERT: Some of these questions – and I understand the interest that everyone has on this case. First, let me say how pleased we are to have Otto Warmbier back in the United States. What an incredible day that one of our fellow American citizens, who’s been detained in North Korea for more than a year, and we had difficulty, as you all are very well aware, in reaching him – we had to go through the Government of Sweden, our protective power, in order to get any kind of information, and even then it was extremely rare. So we are grateful today that he is released and he is on his way back to the United States.

I know and appreciate you will have a lot of questions about how all of this developed. Unfortunately, today I’m not going to be able to answer all of that for you. Even though some information was put out, I’m just not going to be able to go that far in it today. So I just want you to please try to have some understanding and bear with us. It’s a sensitive situation; he is on his way home, and some of these questions I will have to refer you to his family on.

But Matt, go right ahead.

QUESTION: Right. But my question still stands. When Ambassador Yun went to – or Special Representative Yun left the United States, did he know, or was he assured of a meeting with Mr. – or was he assured that he was going to see Mr. Warmbier, and did he know that he would be able to bring him back?

MS NAUERT: I am not going to be able to answer that at this time. Mr. Warmbier is in the air; he’s on his way home. We do not have all of the details about how all of this transpired just yet.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, did the North Koreans give any reason why they waited until June, until last week, to let anybody know about what his condition was? And secondly, the – this timeline has the Swedes – the North Koreans agreeing that the Swedes can get access to him. And then it says after Sweden is granted visitation rights to Mr. Warmbier, the North Koreans then urgently requested to have this in-person meeting in New York.

So I mean, it sounds – the impression left by this timeline is that the North Koreans were concerned, that they knew that once the Swedes got access to him that his condition was going to get out, and then they were looking for a way out of this. And that’s why – is that – is that a correct understanding?

MS NAUERT: Matt, I can just say for now that we are thankful that he is on his way home. We look forward to him being back in the arms of his parents at his home in Ohio. And again, this is a developing situation. I’m sure you all understand information is hard to come by in North Korea. We were lucky enough to be able to get a team over there. We’re grateful for that. We’re grateful to come – him to be able to come home. And I’ll try to get you more information as we get more.

QUESTION: Can we (inaudible)?


MS NAUERT: Go ahead, Michele.

QUESTION: You’re expressing pleasure and gratitude that yes, he is back home. But you must also feel something else based on his condition. Can you talk about the State Department’s stance and feelings because of what’s happened?

MS NAUERT: So I can’t comment anything on his health. That is against our State Department guidelines to get into that.

QUESTION: His parents have released a statement on his health.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Well, then I’d have to refer you to his parents. We are trying to be sensitive to the family. It is – if his parents choose to address it, they are more than welcome to do so. But I am not going to characterize what their son may have been through or may not have been through, so I’m just going to have to refer you to the family right now.

QUESTION: I wasn’t asking for anything on his condition.


QUESTION: Just based on the fact that he’s been in a coma for a year, the State Department must express something besides gratitude, I’m guessing, at the state of --

MS NAUERT: We have been extremely concerned about his situation all along, as we are of any American citizen who has been detained in any part of the world. This is one of the highest priorities. You all know this. One of the highest priorities of the State Department is the safety, welfare, and well-being of our U.S. citizens and who are abroad. So we continue to try to monitor how they are doing to the best that we can.

QUESTION: Through this, were you able to determine how the other detainees are? Are they okay? Did anyone have any contacts with those three others?

MS NAUERT: Unfortunately, Michele, I just can’t get into that right now. But as the days go by, we may have more information for you on that.

Nick, go right ahead.


QUESTION: Can we --

MS NAUERT: Wait, let’s stay in the region for – before we go on to something else.


MS NAUERT: Barbara, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just a very quick one. Can you just confirm the reports that Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with this?

MS NAUERT: That is correct that Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with the release of Mr. Warmbier.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

MS NAUERT: Sir. I’m sorry, your name is?

QUESTION: When was (inaudible) anything?

MS NAUERT: Sir, I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Sorry. My name is Oren Dorell of USA Today.

MS NAUERT: Oh, Oren. That’s right. Sorry.

QUESTION: When did the State Department or the United States find out that Mr. Warmbier may have had some kind of – any issue at all, that things were not quite right with him health-wise?

MS NAUERT: I can’t comment on anything related to his health. I hope you’ll please understand that, my position on that.

QUESTION: But I’m not asking about his health. Just when --

MS NAUERT: But getting into that would --

QUESTION: -- when anything came across that anything was amiss.

MS NAUERT: -- would confirm your belief that there is something at issue with his health. I can’t get into anything related to that at all. I hope you will please understand.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MS NAUERT: Go ahead. We’re sticking in the region for now.


MS NAUERT: On this matter.

QUESTION: Yeah. What was the Dennis Rodman purpose for the North Korea visit? And --

MS NAUERT: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: What was his purpose of North Korean visit? I mean Dennis Rodman visit.

QUESTION: Why did he go?

MS NAUERT: I’m sorry? I --

QUESTION: Dennis Rodman. Why --

QUESTION: Rodman’s visit. Why did he go?

MS NAUERT: Oh, I’ve not spoken with Dennis Rodman. I don’t know why he went to North Korea. (Laughter.) Look, let me do – let me reiterate: We strongly, strongly suggest that Americans do not go to North Korea.

QUESTION: Did he take any message of the President Trump?

MS NAUERT: I am not aware of any message of the sort.

QUESTION: Here is the deal. Congressman Schiff, Wilson introduced bipartisan North Korea Travel Control Act May 25th last month. He said the legislation would restrict travel to, from, and within North Korea by American citizens.

MS NAUERT: So I think that underscores the U.S. Government’s general concern about travel to North Korea. That’s something before Congress, and I can’t comment on any pending legislation right now.

Any other questions on North Korea?


MS NAUERT: Excuse me. On Mr. Warmbier.

QUESTION: Can you just tell us about the last time that a U.S. Government official traveled to North Korea and --

MS NAUERT: The last time a U.S. official traveled?

QUESTION: Government official. Yes. And what does this mean for U.S.-North Korea talks right now? Does this open some new dialogue, or is there any indication on that front?

MS NAUERT: So I’m going to have to take a look at that for you, because I know our consular officials last had access to Mr. Warmbier March 2nd, 2016. That was the last time that we had consular access. In terms of the last time that --

QUESTION: The Swedes.

MS NAUERT: Through the Swedish embassy, yes. Thank you, Matt. In terms of the last time the U.S. official was in the DPRK, that I do not know.

QUESTION: But you can get back to us on that?

MS NAUERT: I can try to get back to you on that. I’m not certain that I’m going to be able to give you an answer, but I will do my best.

QUESTION: And U.S.-North Korea dialogue – has that opened as a result of this?

MS NAUERT: I think this is all so fresh. We were just able to get the release of Mr. Warmbier. Again, we are grateful and thankful for that. We are glad to have him on his way home. I think it’s just too soon to say what that dialogue is going to look like.

QUESTION: Did you say March 6th? Sorry. Was the last --

MS NAUERT: Let me just double-check here.

QUESTION: 2nd of March.

MS NAUERT: March 2nd, 2016, was the last time --

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: -- he had been granted consular access, and again, that was through the Swedish embassy.

QUESTION: Can I change topics?

QUESTION: I’ve got a --

MS NAUERT: Okay. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Staying in the region, same topic.

MS NAUERT: Sorry, your name is?

QUESTION: So I’m Kyle Cardine with the Japanese network Fuji TV.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi, Kyle.

QUESTION: So from the reports, it was saying that Mr. Warmbier was in an American military base in northern Japan, in Sapporo. I was wondering, is there any particular reason why he was being held at that American military base first?

MS NAUERT: I am – I can’t get into anything on that. I’m not aware of that particular report. Again, this is a lot of new information that’s coming in, and we’ve been very engaged in this in the last few days.

Anything else on this?

QUESTION: Yeah, one more question.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi, (inaudible)

QUESTION: You said that the Swedes, in that timeline --


QUESTION: -- provided – that the Swedes were granted a visit with Otto. Do you know if that actually happened? And if so, why was there such a delay between their visit and the U.S. learning about his medical status?

MS NAUERT: I would have to say that – and I’m aware of all the information that you are talking about. Some of these are private diplomatic conversations that took place. Some of these are very sensitive matters that went to the top level of the U.S. Government. So again, I know you’re going to be disappointed, because you want more information on this case. We are all very happy to have him home, but --

QUESTION: Just a yes or no if it did happen?

MS NAUERT: Which? If which did happen?

QUESTION: The Swedish visit to see Otto at some point in May.

MS NAUERT: I’m not sure that I have that in front of me right now. Let me look into that and see if I can get you an answer. I may not be able to get you an answer, but let me just double-check.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Okay. Anything else on Mr. Warmbier? Anything else on Mr. Warmbier?

QUESTION: I just want to – wait.

QUESTION: Do you – can you talk about the type of facility or the medical care that he was being given while he was --

MS NAUERT: I cannot.


MS NAUERT: I cannot.

QUESTION: I just want to point out that this is information that’s coming from a White House official. I mean, it’s not – if it was a private diplomatic – that argument just doesn’t hold up, frankly. I mean, the White House is talking about it already.

MS NAUERT: Matt, I’m – look. Okay, let me make this clear. I know you all have some information in front of you that’s coming in from various sources. Some of it is coming in from interviews that certain people did – family members, for example – with the press. I don’t think it’s right to be here, from the State Department, fully giving all the information that you all want because you’re curious. That’s your job; I understand that. I want to remain sensitive to the family at this point. As more information comes in and we can vet this information and give you more information, what we can give you, I certainly will. But I’m not going to be able to satiate your appetite --

QUESTION: All right. Fine. But --

MS NAUERT: -- for all the information that you want on this.

QUESTION: Okay. Fine. But you’re not suggesting that anything in this timeline that they put out is wrong, are you?

MS NAUERT: Matt, I don’t have that in front of me at this time, okay? There are a lot of details in there. We can get back to you and work to get back with you for some answers on that. Okay?

QUESTION: May we change topics, please?

MS NAUERT: Anything else on Mr. Warmbier? And we don’t have a lot of time today, folks, because the Secretary is --

QUESTION: Can we change topics really quick?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Yes. Okay, yes.

QUESTION: Heather, is the administration opposed to the Russia sanctions amendment that bipartisan senators agreed to last evening?

MS NAUERT: So what you’re talking about is taking place on Capitol Hill, so I’m not going to be able to get into any legislative issues that are pending right now.


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: I meant on --

MS NAUERT: We just don’t comment on legislation, on pending legislation.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay. Hold on. Go ahead.

QUESTION: On Qatar, Qatari foreign – Qatari defense minister is in town, and the Saudi foreign minister is also here. Is the State Department trying to get them – to bring them together to try to solve the differences between them?

MS NAUERT: I’m glad you asked. I don’t have any meetings to announce between the Government of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, but Secretary Tillerson did have a meeting with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia this morning here at the State Department. Together, they talked about the need and the agreement to come together, to work together. And I would characterize the mood and the approach to that as being one that is hopeful, that believes that the worst is behind us. And let me just leave it at that.

QUESTION: Two more question on this.


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Seriously, we only have a few minutes today in order to do that. Last follow-up on that.

QUESTION: A follow-up on this. Is he planning to – is the Secretary planning to meet with the Qatari defense minister?

MS NAUERT: I don’t have any meetings to announce right now about the Secretary potentially meeting with the Qataris, if they are. I don't have any – just don’t have any meetings to announce on that.

QUESTION: And do you consider Qatar as a state sponsor of terror, since they are providing --

MS NAUERT: I’m not going to characterize that. I’m not going to characterize that.

QUESTION: China and Taiwan?

QUESTION: Heather?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay. China, Taiwan. Miss, in the back row with your – gray. Tell me your name please.

QUESTION: Tsung-Shen Chang from Central News Agency.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Thank you.

QUESTION: China just established official tie with Panama. I’m just wondering do you have – does U.S. have any concern with regard to the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait?

MS NAUERT: So the President announced that he will meet with the president of Panama in the coming weeks. So we are certainly aware of Panama’s announcement that it has ended diplomatic ties with Taiwan. We, the United States, urge all concerned parties to engage in productive dialogue and avoid escalatory and destabilizing moves. The United States has a deep and biding interest in cross-strait stability, of course, between Taiwan and China, and we believe that the dialogue between the two sides has enabled peace, stability, and development in recent years.

Next question, please.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Wait a second.

QUESTION: But wait a second, do you have any concerns at all about the growing relationship between Panama and China, given the Chinese economic/commercial interest in the canal and members of this administration’s expressed concern, prior to being in this administration, about kind of growing Chinese influence?

MS NAUERT: I think we would see that as a matter to be handled and directed to both of those parties, between Panama and China.

QUESTION: Right. Except for the fact that the canal is a major route for – I mean, stuff that goes from the west coast of the United States to the east coast of the United States goes through that canal.

MS NAUERT: I understand. I’m not in the position right now to characterize what our position will be on that. As of now, this is considered an internal matter between the Government of – between Taiwan and Panama.

QUESTION: Heather?

QUESTION: Very quickly to the Palestinian --

MS NAUERT: Wait. Anything else on that?

QUESTION: Very quickly to the Palestinian issue.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Anything else on that? Just hold on.

QUESTION: The same issue.

MS NAUERT: I will get to you. I promise. Okay.

QUESTION: You have these twice-a-week briefings and you limit the time on them. You can’t – there’s an entire world out that people have questions about.

MS NAUERT: Matt, we all know there’s an entire world out there and everyone has questions. Normally, we wouldn’t be briefing today. And we are doing that to provide you as much information as possible. Okay.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Anything – go ahead, miss, in the light blue, in the back.

QUESTION: Hi. Jessica with TVBS of Taiwan.

MS NAUERT: Hi, Jessica.

QUESTION: On Panama, does the U.S. got any heads-up from the Panama side before the announcement?

MS NAUERT: Did we get a heads-up from the Panamanian side?


MS NAUERT: I am not aware of that, but I can certainly look into that for you. Okay.

Go ahead, Said. There, I told you I’d call on you, didn’t I?

QUESTION: I know you did. Thank you. I appreciate it. I have a couple quick questions on the Palestinian issue.


QUESTION: There is a desperate situation in Gaza. The electricity has been cut off back to two hours a day. I mean, it was a harsh enough situation to begin with. Is the United States urging the Israelis, the Egyptians, even the Palestinian Authority to sort of relieve the Gazans under siege?

MS NAUERT: So our position is that we are concerned about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. We – as you speak about the electricity, we are aware that the Israeli cabinet approved the PA, the Palestinian Authority’s, request to reduce electricity in Gaza. Beyond that, I’m not going to weigh in, but we do remain deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation right there. We continue to underscore the need for international support for Gaza’s recovery and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people. But no one should lose sight of the fact, of this fact, that Hamas bears the greatest responsibility for the current situation in Gaza.

QUESTION: But the population --

MS NAUERT: Anybody?

QUESTION: -- is still under siege.

MS NAUERT: Got to move around.

QUESTION: Okay. Could I ask you very quickly on UNRWA – I mean, related – because you talked about the need to help the Palestinians.


QUESTION: The Israeli prime minister is calling to dissolve UNRWA, which is the United Nations agency for works and relief for the Palestinians. And now, the United States is the biggest contributor to UNRWA. You certainly don’t support this call for dissolving UNRWA, do you?

MS NAUERT: The Secretary is on the Hill right now. He is testifying on the budget. He is a quarter of the way through his testimony and his questions and answers with members of Congress, so I don’t want to get ahead of anything that he could be discussing on that. I hope you will understand that.


MS NAUERT: Sir, right back there in the back.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Gabriel Elizondo from Al Jazeera. Just two follow-ups on the Gulf crisis situation. Number one is last week the Secretary characterized what’s going on as a blockade against Qatar. Is there any reason to think that he has changed his opinion on that, that it’s a blockade? Number one. And number two is you characterized the meeting with the Saudi foreign minister as you believe the worst is behind us, or that’s how you characterized it. Can you give more specifics on how you came to that conclusion?

MS NAUERT: I can’t get into more on our private diplomatic conversations that took place this morning, but I will say I think both parties believe that they are looking forward to putting this past them. The focus on terrorism has remained a top priority; that has not changed. But I think both parties look forward to being able to fully get back to that so that we don’t have to talk about this ongoing issue. Okay.

QUESTION: And the first question about --

MS NAUERT: Conor, go ahead.

QUESTION: -- if he still characterizes it as a --

MS NAUERT: Conor, go --

QUESTION: -- as a blockade?

MS NAUERT: The Saudi foreign minister addressed that earlier this morning.

QUESTION: No, Secretary Tillerson.

MS NAUERT: I don’t have anything on the Secretary on that. Sir?

QUESTION: Just really quick on Qatar. Does the U.S. view itself as a neutral arbiter in this situation?

MS NAUERT: I think the U.S. has been clear about calling on parties. We have talked to all of the governments involved saying that everyone can do more to fight terrorism, that everyone can do more to address some of the terror financing issues. That was made clear in Saudi Arabia. I think that is clear, again, now and we’ve not changed our position on that.

Dave, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just an immediate follow-up on that. Last week, the Secretary asked the Saudis and their allies to ease the blockade. Today, Mr. Jubeir said it’s not a blockade.

MS NAUERT: He did.

QUESTION: Is this a disagreement on terminology or is there a disagreement on the actual substance of what’s happening?

MS NAUERT: I think the important part to keep in mind, and I know a lot of folks like to focus on the squabbles – that’s the most interesting thing in the news, but let’s keep in mind that everyone has agreed, or these parties are working toward an agreement of combatting terrorism, and that is the main focus. And let’s not get bogged down in all the details about who’s calling what when. This is trending in a positive direction and let’s stay focused on that so that we can continue to fight the war on terror.

Last question, please.

QUESTION: Different topic?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Back here.


QUESTION: Do you have anything on American ambassador to Qatar? She is tweet today that she is leaving.


QUESTION: Is that something to do with her not on the same page with the policy here?

MS NAUERT: Not at all. In fact, I talked with Ambassador Smith this morning. She has had a 25-year career with the State Department, which is pretty incredible for somebody to have a 25-year career anywhere nowadays. And she said to me she is not quitting; that this is a time that she is ready to make a change in her life. This is at the end of – and I’m searching for my notes here right here – this is a time that she has decided she is looking forward to moving on and doing something else. So we congratulate her on what will be her next move and look forward to hearing what that will be. Okay.

QUESTION: Final question on Indonesia. Could you elaborate on the statement of terrorist designation of MMI? Why this timing?

MS NAUERT: Okay, Nike, I’m going to have to get back to you on that.

Everybody, thank you so much.

QUESTION: Question.

MS NAUERT: We did our best to bring you some information today. I hope this helped to clarify some things. I know you have a lot more questions. We’ll be working in the coming days to get you more answers, okay? Thank you, everyone. Have a great day.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:49 p.m.)