Department Press Briefing - June 20, 2017

Heather Nauert
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
June 20, 2017


2:18 p.m. EDT

MS NAUERT: Welcome back, James Rosen.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Nice to see you. Hi, everybody.


MS NAUERT: Hope you’re all doing well today.

Okay. Let me start out by saying today that, on behalf of the Secretary, the entire State Department, and the United States Government, we want to extend our heartfelt condolences to the family of Otto Warmbier and offer them our thoughts and prayers in this time of grief. We want to thank our international partners, especially our protecting power, Sweden, for its tireless efforts to assist Mr. Warmbier for his secure and his release. We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment and we want to see three other Americans who are unjustly detained brought home as soon as possible.

As a reminder, the Department of State strongly warns U.S. citizens against travel to North Korea, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Another issue I know you all are keeping a very close eye on is Qatar, so I want to give you an update on that right now. Since the embargo was first enforced on June the 5th, the Secretary has had more than 20 phone calls and meetings with Gulf and other regional and international actors. The interactions have included three phone calls and two in-person meetings with the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, three phone calls with the foreign minister of Qatar, and three calls with the Qatari emir. Numerous other calls have taken place with the leaders of UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain, and others.

Now that it’s been more than two weeks since the embargo started, we are mystified that the Gulf states have not released to the public, nor to the Qataris, the details about the claims that they are making toward Qatar. The more that time goes by, the more doubt is raised about the actions taken by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. At this point, we are left with one simple question: Were the actions really about their concerns regarding Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, or were they about the long simmering grievances between and among the GCC countries?

The Secretary is determined to remain engaged as we monitor the situation. He has been delivering the same message to other diplomats overseas. We are encouraging all sides to de-escalate tensions and engage in constructive dialogue. We, once again, call on all parties to focus on the core regional and international goal of fighting terrorism, to meet the commitments that were made in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and to constructively resolve this dispute.

Let me just mention we are welcoming the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko here at the State Department shortly, so I’m going to have to cut it a little bit short today. I know we do have a lot of news that you want to get to, so I will start with your questions.

QUESTION: So I was – thanks.

MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.

QUESTION: I was going to – well, I still will – start with North Korea.


QUESTION: Just on the – you say you’re going to hold the North Koreans to account. Has there been any movement on how exactly that’s going to happen? And what is the status – as I understand it, you have the authority already to make it illegal for U.S. passport – or to invalidate U.S. passports for travel to North Korea. Do you – are you looking for additional authority, and where is the Secretary in his decision-making on whether to use the existing authority?

MS NAUERT: Okay. So let’s start with the travel restrictions, and that is under – we’re contemplating that right now. We’ve not come to any kind of decision on that matter just yet, but we’re continuing to look at it. We have a great deal of resolve to try to handle this situation and try to hold North Korea responsible for the death of Mr. Warmbier and bring back those three Americans who do remain there. So we’re continuing to evaluate whether we should put in some sort of a travel restriction. The Secretary has the authority to do it; he just has not come to a conclusion about how this would potentially work, but we’re still considering it.

QUESTION: Okay. And have you thought about how exactly it is that you’re going to hold them accountable for his death?

MS NAUERT: We’re still considering our options at this time. So we got the news yesterday, less than 24 hours ago, that Mr. Warmbier passed away. This came as – well, we’re all deeply saddened by it.

QUESTION: So this – the idea of travel restrictions has been around for some time.

MS NAUERT: Correct.

QUESTION: It goes back to the previous administration. Do you know, in your research of this, what has been the reason – since there have been so many Americans detained there, what is the argument against – what has been the argument against doing it and why hasn’t it been put in place prior?

MS NAUERT: Well, I think we think that our Travel Warning that we have had in place for quite some time has been very strong. Not blaming anyone for this, but of course we want to encourage Americans – strongly encourage them – not to go to North Korea. We’ve been very clear about that. Every one of the briefings that I have been at, I have strongly stressed that: Do not go to North Korea. We can’t get to you there. We have to rely on Sweden, and you know what can happen.

So we’ve been consistently evaluating whether we want to put that travel restriction in place, and I just can’t comment on why that hasn’t happened yet, other than that it is under consideration.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Heather, can we go to the Palestinian --

MS NAUERT: Let’s stick with DPRK right now.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Barbara, go right ahead.

QUESTION: Just two questions. In her background call on preparing for the China meeting tomorrow, Ms. Thornton seemed to separate quite much the action on the ballistic missiles and nuclear program, like the effort to get this echo chamber of sanctions, and separated that from the – what happened to Otto Warmbier and the other hostages. Is there – is that still the case after his death? I mean, is there any talk about sanctions or something because of what happened to him? And the second question is --

MS NAUERT: So all of that would still be under consideration. The actions --

QUESTION: Is that one of the things under consideration?

MS NAUERT: The actions that we may or may not take are still being contemplated here, so it’s just too early to say exactly what we’re going to do just yet.

QUESTION: And then just about the three that are still there, my understanding is that the State Department envoy met them.

MS NAUERT: That is correct.

QUESTION: Yeah. So what can you say about their condition? Can you say anything about their condition?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. I can’t say anything about their condition. You all know that we aren’t going to comment on people’s health situations, positively or negatively, one way or another. But Ambassador Yun did have the opportunity to meet with them. He was able to sit down and speak with them.

QUESTION: So they could all speak?

MS NAUERT: Let me rephrase that. Sorry. He did have a chance to meet with them. I’m not saying that they didn’t speak. I know he sat down and had some sort of a dialogue with them. I just don’t recall the exact word that was used. But we were face to face. Ambassador Yun was face to face with those Americans. And we would just like to see them brought home as quickly as possible.

DPRK. Go ahead. Hi, Carol.

QUESTION: Yeah. What else is on the table? What other options are you considering? Might you be considering going to some sort of international court and seeking charges of murder?

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that at this point, but again, it’s still early. He passed away about 24 hours ago now.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything else that might be on the table?

MS NAUERT: I cannot. No. I’m sorry.



MS NAUERT: Yes. Hi, Nike.

QUESTION: The touring company that’s involved in Otto Warmbier’s travel to North Korea – the Young Pioneer Tours – is physically located in China. Is there any discussion to designate these types of companies? And is there any discussion to ask China to step up supervision on those type of companies?

MS NAUERT: That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that. Let me look into that for you. I think that’s certainly a wise question to ask right now. We don’t want people to encourage Americans, let alone people from any other nations, to go to North Korea. We can’t get to you, so we remain very concerned about that.

Okay. Hi, Gardell.

QUESTION: Yeah. I just was wondering, Heather, it seemed to take you a long time to kind of get to outrage on the Warmbier situation. For a long time, you were simply saying you were happy that he was home; you didn’t address his health. And even over the course of yesterday, it took – I don't know – six, seven hours from the time of his announced death to the time of statements coming out from the State Department and the White House.

MS NAUERT: I think you’re wrong about that. Let me go back and check the timing, because I was involved in this every step of the way.


MS NAUERT: As we learned about Mr. Warmbier’s death and were able to confirm that that did, in fact, occur, we gave the White House, of course, the opportunity – let me rephrase that. The White House took the lead on that. The President had spoken with the family in the past. We wanted to give the White House the opportunity to be able to speak to that. We then followed on.

I would not characterize it as it took time to express outrage. When I first addressed this, that Otto Warmbier was brought back home to the United States – I believe it was a week ago today. Is that right, a week ago today? – we at the State Department were happy that he was on his way home. We were happy he was on his way home. And he had not even landed at the time that I was getting questions – I don’t think you were here that day. Correct? You were not here that day?

QUESTION: I read the transcript though.

MS NAUERT: I understand.

QUESTION: Each time you didn’t – all you said was that you were happy he was home. You didn’t, obviously, address his health conditions, despite the fact that the family itself had made that --

MS NAUERT: I’m sure you know very well that we don’t comment on people’s health status. We don’t comment on the health status of American citizens. We will never do that. We don’t do that. His parents chose to speak about that. They are able to speak about that. Okay? So I will never characterize someone’s health, whether they’re in great health or they’re not in great health, from this podium. It is not my place to do so, and it is not the place of the State Department to do so. I’m sure you know that.

QUESTION: Okay. But I mean no sense of – it wasn’t until yesterday, last night really, that this administration expressed something close to outrage about how Otto Warmbier was handled in North Korea. Was that simply because you could not talk about his health? Or why was that?

And one – just one more add on this. The President also said today that if he’d been taken out within days, things would have been different. And he talked about how essential it was to get – to have gotten Otto Warmbier out immediately and quickly. Does that put a lot of pressure on you now to get the other three Americans out quickly and immediately?

MS NAUERT: We would like the other Americans to come home just as quickly as possible. One of the very first briefings that I had here when I joined the State Department not long ago was from our consular affairs officials, and that’s when they talked to me about Mr. Warmbier’s case, expressing concern as – just as they express concern about the cases of other detained Americans across the country. That is a top issue that will always remain a top issue here at the State Department.

Next question, please.

QUESTION: Heather?

QUESTION: Heather?

QUESTION: On North Korea.

MS NAUERT: Yeah, do we have anything else on the DPRK? We don’t have that much --

QUESTION: On North Korea.

QUESTION: On North Korea.

MS NAUERT: -- much time. Carol, go right ahead. I’m sorry, Anne.

QUESTION: We’re interchangeable. (Laughter.)

MS NAUERT: Same paper.

QUESTION: Is one of the things under consideration, in following up on North Korea, a suspension or change to the unofficial talks that – of the sort that Mr. Yun participated in and through which he learned, apparently, of the severity of Otto Warmbier’s condition?

MS NAUERT: At this time I’m not going to be able to get into any additional conversations about sideline talks or anything like that.

QUESTION: I mean, it is – it historically has been --


QUESTION: -- a channel that the North Koreans have used for good and ill, right? They have – they’ve used it to communicate things they wanted to communicate, but they’ve also used it to say, “Hey look, the Americans are willing to talk to us,” and to legitimize themselves. So theoretically, it would be something that you could – a carrot you could remove.

MS NAUERT: Yeah, I’m just not going to get into that right now. But if there’s a point where we can give you more on that, I certainly will. Okay, thank you. DPRK.


MS NAUERT: Oh. Okay. James, hi.

QUESTION: Heather, first, allow me to say on behalf of everyone at Fox News how very proud we all are of you for --

MS NAUERT: Thank you.

QUESTION: -- assuming your new duties in government service, and that this administration – any administration – is very fortunate to have you.

MS NAUERT: Thank you, James. That’s very sweet.

QUESTION: Now, about your financial disclosure form. (Laughter.) No, I’m kidding. I’m sure that you saw the statement from Senator McCain about the Warmbier case. He said, “Let us state the facts plainly: Otto Warmbier was murdered by the regime of King Jong-un.” First question: Does this administration agree with that statement?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, I’m not going to comment on what Senator McCain said. I’m familiar with what he said, but I’m just not going to characterize that. We just can’t comment on the circumstances of his death right now, but we remain committed – and the Secretary remains very committed – to hold North Korea accountable for his death.

QUESTION: Two more on this, and then I’ll yield to others. In telling us, as you just did just now, that you cannot speak to the circumstances surrounding his death, are you also telling us that you are unable to address the allegations that he was physically abused by the North Koreans?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, I can’t comment on that at this time.

QUESTION: Last question: You have covered enough of these as a journalist to know that these cases where Americans are held hostage, essentially, in North Korea are resolved over time, typically with less dire physical outcomes than we have witnessed here, and typically involving perhaps some eminent American figure traveling to Pyongyang to secure release and so forth. There is almost a kind of – we might even say that there’s kind of an established procedure, almost of sorts, with respect to this. And I just wonder if it is the view of the Trump administration that this case marks a dramatic shift in all of that, that this represents an escalation, and will be treated as such.

MS NAUERT: Yeah, all I can say to that right now is it’s something of great concern to the administration. You saw the President’s comments last night. You read the Secretary’s comments. Everyone’s grieving, everyone’s concerned about that, and we’re understandably upset about that. So we’re just going to be – continue to take a look at what we can do about this. And I’m just going to have to leave it there. Okay?

QUESTION: Can I change topic to Palestine-Israel?

MS NAUERT: Let’s move on to something else. Hi, Dave.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. So on the Qatar issue, you said at the start you have been mystified by Saudi Arabia’s failure to present evidence.


QUESTION: But they have presented a clear list of demands to Qatar. Are they demands that you endorse? You – the Secretary has said in the past that Qatar should do more against terrorism and against terror financing. Do you have a list of your own demands to Qatar that you’ve made privately, or should the embargo end now?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. So I’m not aware of any demands that we are putting on them other than that we ask all the countries involved to look again at the top issue. And the top issue, as we see it and as we all agreed to from Riyadh, was defeating terrorism. Each of these nations has confronted terrorism is one way, shape, or form. That continues to be the main issue. We call on those countries to resolve their differences, to work together, and speed this along.

QUESTION: Are Saudi Arabia’s demands reasonable?

MS NAUERT: I’m not going to characterize them as reasonable or unreasonable. But what we see this as long-simmering tensions that have been going on for quite some time, and that is why we believe that this can be resolved peacefully among the parties without the United States having to step in in some sort of formal mediation role, that they can do this on their own. And we’re asking them to let’s move this along.

QUESTION: If they don’t, are you ready to provide that mediation?

MS NAUERT: The President had offered Secretary Tillerson weeks ago to do that. At this point, we don’t think that is necessary. We believe through the Secretary’s talks, through talking with those nations and hearing what they have to say, that they’ll be able to work this out on their own.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Okay. Well, your statement, though, is very harsh on the Saudis, which is somewhat surprising considering the President basically said that you were – you shared the Saudis’ opinion of what’s going on. And you also referred to the alleged Qatari support for extremism. Does that mean that the President’s belief is not the same as the State Department?

MS NAUERT: Our position has not changed on that. I think we are just – the Secretary likes results, and we believe that these are because of long, long-brewing tensions among the various parties, and so we want them to resolve it.

QUESTION: But you see that your position has somewhat shifted from aligning with the Saudi position to urging, calling on the Saudis, demanding in fact – you say you’re mystified that they have – the Saudis and their allies have not presented their list. What, is it just that – have you lost patience with the Saudis?

MS NAUERT: I wouldn’t put it that way. I think we’ve just said to the parties involved let’s – let’s finish this, let’s get this going.


QUESTION: Are you still --

QUESTION: Do you still consider Qatar or do you think Qatar that it’s still supporting terrorist groups?


QUESTION: Because the Secretary has said that.

MS NAUERT: We have --

QUESTION: And the President has --

MS NAUERT: We have continued to say that all countries have more that they can do. All countries – all of the countries involved have more that they can do to try to defeat terrorism, whether it’s through terror financing or other means. So we continue to call on Qatar to do that as well as the other nations. And so --

QUESTION: And do you think your statement doesn’t contradict what the President has said two weeks ago about Qatar?

MS NAUERT: I don’t think so at all. I think the President and the Secretary both want to see this resolved. They want results, and let’s see this resolved quickly.


QUESTION: So the Secretary canceled his trip to Cancun to focus on Qatar, and then you say he’s been doing all these phone calls.


QUESTION: So do you believe that the situation has now arrived where there’s nothing else he can do until the sides sort of meet the demands that you’ve laid out today? I mean, the impression we got on Friday was that he was canceling that trip to mediate, but now you seem to be saying that there’s no role for him right now.

MS NAUERT: Well, I know he had a meeting just last evening on this very subject here in Washington. And so I would anticipate that those conversations would continue, but there comes a certain point where you say, folks, let’s get this done, let’s get moving along. The Secretary likes results.

QUESTION: So who was that meeting with last night?

MS NAUERT: He met – I believe it was with the – let me get back with you on that, okay? Anybody – everybody else back --

QUESTION: Can I change topics, please?


QUESTION: Very quickly, I want to go to the peace process, Palestinian-Israeli peace process. At a time when there is movement and Mr. Greenblatt is over there --

MS NAUERT: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Mr. Kushner has --


QUESTION: -- is on his way to mediate and so on. The Israelis seem to be accelerating the settlement building and so on, and I wonder if you have a position on this. I wonder if you would urge them, at least while this is ongoing, to slow down, as the President suggested at one time, this settlement – the building acceleration.

MS NAUERT: So a couple things on that matter. First, since we didn’t have the opportunity to brief you all on Friday, I want to say this: We want to condemn the terror attack, the attack that took place against the Israeli police officer that resulted in her death and wounded several others. So we want to extend our sympathies and condolences to the family and the Israelis as well. That brings to mind that we want to reiterate our commitment to stand with Israel against terrorism.


MS NAUERT: Now to your question about settlements.

QUESTION: On settlements.

MS NAUERT: The President has been clear all along – his position on this has not changed – and that is that we see settlements as something that does not help the peace process.

QUESTION: And you believe that the Israeli settle – if the Israeli Government would stop building settlements or would issue a freeze at the present time, that would help accelerate the process, correct?

MS NAUERT: The President – again, I’m just going to reiterate what I just said. The President has said that unrestrained settlement activity is not helpful to the peace process.

QUESTION: Okay. And one last question. Is the State Department involved in the ongoing efforts by Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Kushner?

MS NAUERT: Yes. So as you all know, Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Kushner are heading over to the Middle East. That trip is closely being coordinated with the State Department. Our embassy is involved in helping to facilitate that trip, and we’re all supporting that trip in every way we can. We would like to see Middle East peace just as much as the President and his representatives would.

I have time for one more question.

QUESTION: Iran. Can we do Iran real quick?

QUESTION: Hold. Just let me make sure. Does that mean that your – that no one from the building is going with them from here, like Mr. Ratney, who has the – has that portfolio?

MS NAUERT: I will look into that for you. Let me take a look at that.

QUESTION: Can I ask one on Ukraine?


MS NAUERT: Okay. Hold on. Hold on. Just jotting that down for Mr. Lee.

Let’s go to Ukraine real quick, and then James, I’ll take you. Okay.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Who had Ukraine?

QUESTION: I have Ukraine. Sorry. Michele from NPR.

MS NAUERT: Hi. Michele, hi. How are you?

QUESTION: So last week, Secretary Tillerson said the U.S. doesn’t want to be handcuffed to the Minsk process on Ukraine. But in the Treasury Department announcement today about new sanctions, it says sanctions won’t be eased until Minsk is implemented. So I’m just curious. I mean, is there something else other than Minsk being discussed? Is the – is there another peace plan in the works?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. So let me start off by addressing the sanctions issue. And that was the Treasury Department. And they’re just updating sanctions that have already been implemented.


MS NAUERT: So it’s not a new stream of sanctions, if you will.

QUESTION: It says in the language that it won’t be lifted –

MS NAUERT: It’s maintaining the sanctions. In terms of the Secretary’s testimony last week in talking about Minsk, I think that’s what you’re referring to. We remain committed. Even though the United States is not a party to it, we remain committed to the Minsk agreements. We continue to call on Russia to adhere to the Minsk agreements. That hasn’t changed. The only thing that’s new about this is the Secretary, and I mentioned a minute ago, likes results.

So we, the United States, has stood by and we have watched. Very little happened with regard to the Minsk agreements. It’s been about two and a half years, three years or so. We would like to see something happen. If Russia and Ukraine would like to come together and work out, through some separate channel of sorts, their own agreement, we could be okay with that. But we’d like to see Minsk – but we would like to see them go forward with Minsk. We’re concerned about that. But we’re also open to other channels as well.



QUESTION: Do you mean that – another channel that would get the results that Minsk seeks?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. The results --

QUESTION: So the rules would be the same.

MS NAUERT: Yeah. The results wouldn’t change. The results wouldn’t change.


MS NAUERT: But if there’s a different mechanism by which they can work out those results, then that would be okay.

QUESTION: But if either party doesn’t like Minsk, they could just wait and you’ll get bored of it and look for something else.

MS NAUERT: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: But if either party doesn’t like Minsk, they should just wait it out, since you want results.

MS NAUERT: I think the answer to that would be the – what we want from that, what we would like to see from that, hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed one bit.


QUESTION: There was a news conference held this morning in Washington by the Iranian dissident group that has periodically sought to disclose what it claims to be illicit nuclear activities of one kind or another. And this group, of course, has had some success in this area, having exposed Natanz. Today their subject was the Iranian ballistic missile program. I wonder if anyone here in the building watched the news conference and has any comment on the purported revelation.

MS NAUERT: Yeah. So I’m aware that that news conference took place. I know some folks in the building were certainly monitoring that. So we’re continuing to monitor the ballistic missile program. We are monitoring that program closely and very carefully. In terms of intelligence matters or details of our efforts to try to monitor the ballistic missile program, I am not going to be able to get into that today.

Okay. Guys, I’m just –

QUESTION: This regard the other question. On Iran --

MS NAUERT: I’m going to have to leave right now. I’m really sorry. Today --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: -- Petro Poroshenko is upstairs and I have to join in that bilateral meeting.

QUESTION: You can’t come down here just twice a week and then --

MS NAUERT: Matt, we can talk about – we can talk about this later. Okay? I would love to spend more time with you. I know we have a lot of ground to plow today. But I have to get up to this meeting. Okay?

QUESTION: I also would want to spend more time with Matt. (Laughter.)

(The briefing was concluded at 2:44 p.m.)