Department Press Briefing - August 23, 2017
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:51 p.m. EDT
QUESTION: This is how it should be.
MS NAUERT: (Laughter.)
QUESTION: It feels like it’s about to rain.
MS NAUERT: I really – yeah, it feels horrible in here. Well, welcome. Sorry about the temperature, although I know that Michele’s happy about that. So Michele will be warm today and we’ll all be very hot.
A couple of things I want to start out with today and that is, first, something involving some American jobs and something we’re pretty excited about here at the State Department, and that is a shipment of LNG – liquefied natural gas – that arrived in Lithuania. The United States wants to congratulate the Government of Lithuania on receiving its first shipment of U.S. liquefied natural gas this week. The administration has placed a priority on European energy security, and this delivery is the latest demonstration of our support for the European Union’s goal of diversifying energy supplies. We welcome Lithuania’s continued commitment to advance Baltic and European energy security through diversification. This shipment is one of more than a dozen already sent to Europe this year from Cheniere Energy’s terminal in Sabine Pass, Louisiana.
In addition to supporting European energy security, the shipments will support American jobs here at home. Secretary Tillerson has emphasized that we will continue to work to expand energy choices in Europe so that countries are not dependent on a single or dominant source for their energy.
QUESTION: It wasn’t my start but --
MS NAUERT: One of your jobs – one of your earlier jobs.
QUESTION: In my early career.
MS NAUERT: So I know as journalists you’ll all be interested in this one.
The United States Government is deeply concerned by the deterioration in Cambodia’s democratic climate in recent weeks. Two months ago, Cambodia received widespread recognition for running transparent, peaceful local elections. In the past two weeks, however, the achievement has been eclipsed by troubling government actions curtailing freedom of the press and civil society’s ability to operate. These include the government’s August 23rd decision to expel the National Democratic Institute, NDI – which is an NGO – from Cambodia. The reported closure of Cambodia’s only opposition-aligned radio station and tax investigations into independent media outlets and NGOs, including Cambodia Daily, the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and NGOs called Licadho, Adhoc, and Comfrel .
Cambodian – a process of reconciliation and recovery from decades of conflict has benefited in recent years from electoral competition and active and diverse media and civil society groups. We encourage the government to allow NDI, The Cambodia Daily, and other independent media and civil society organizations to continue their important activities so that Cambodia’s 2018 national elections can take place in a free and open environment.
I’ll take your questions on that one in just a minute if anyone has any questions.
Finally, I have a call I’d like to read out for you today. Secretary Tillerson spoke by phone earlier today to Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Secretary Tillerson provided an overview of President Trump’s South Asia policy. They focused specifically on the Afghanistan and Pakistan policy elements of that. The two sides also discussed global, regional, and bilateral issues of mutual concern. The conversation is a continuation of our U.S.-China strategic bilateral dialogue.
And with that, I will take your questions. Would you like to start?
QUESTION: Hi. Yes, I would. I was going to start with Egypt, but since you opened with Cambodia, I’ll start there. In terms of the closures, are you demanding or calling on the Cambodian Government to reverse them? How has your expression of concern been relayed to the Cambodian Government?
MS NAUERT: So a couple of things that we’ve done: I know that Secretary Tillerson has spoken with his counterparts in Cambodia in recent weeks and months. Our ambassador to Cambodia has met with the prime minister of Cambodia. I believe it was within the last couple of weeks. He also, because there’s a tax component here where some publications are being taxed at an exorbitant rate that we see as being a biased approach on the part of the government. So our ambassador has had conversations with the head of what I’ll just refer to as the tax agency there to try to get them to regard taxes or impose taxes in a fair and neutral fashion.
QUESTION: Right. But clearly that hasn’t worked. I mean, The Cambodia Daily has been hit with a tax bill of more than $6 million.
MS NAUERT: Yeah, it was like $6 million that they have to pay by September something.
QUESTION: By September 4.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: So, I mean --
MS NAUERT: So we’re continuing to have conversations with the government to encourage them to approach this in a fair fashion. This is a part of our – what we would consider our calls to promote democracy. And they’re clearly not doing that right now, and so we’re continuing to have conversations with them about that.
QUESTION: So in other words, the administration is – remains committed to defending, supporting freedom of the press and freedom of speech?
MS NAUERT: Yes, very much so.
QUESTION: Well, okay. The reason I’m asking this is because back in February, a Cambodian Government official said – it was widely reported at the time – said that U.S. President Donald Trump’s attack on the media – attacks on the media are an inspiration to his own country to observe limits on freedom of expression.
MS NAUERT: This is – who in Cambodia said this?
QUESTION: This is the spokesman for the Cambodian Government cabinet.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Phay Siphan. And he specifically mentioned voice of – local Voice of Democracy, along with U.S. Government-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America as being problematic, and said that they should reconsider their use of airtime and publishing, or risk having the government take action in response to alleged exaggerations, excitement – incitements and threats to stability and peace.
MS NAUERT: Look, Matt, I think --
QUESTION: So my question is this: Are you concerned at all that your message promoting freedom of speech and freedom of the press is being diminished somewhat by the President’s own comments?
MS NAUERT: What we do here each and every day – and you all hear me talking about that and many of my colleagues here at the State Department – is talk about not only free and fair elections and the importance of that, but the importance of free speech, including speech that can be uncomfortable to governments and nations. We talk about that from Turkey to Cambodia to you name the country – Venezuela, et cetera.
So we will continue to push that message. That is something that we take very seriously. That is something that is promoted here at the State Department across all administrations. We continue to promote that. So that will not change. Our conversations between the ambassador and his counterparts and also the prime minister of Cambodia – I do not anticipate that changing. Our message won’t change. We care about freedom of the press; that’s not going to change.
QUESTION: Okay. Last one on this. If they go – don’t heed your advice and go ahead with these closures, is there going to be any consequence?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to forecast any potential activity. A lot of our conversations we have behind the scenes; that we conduct our diplomacy behind closed doors, because in some countries that can be the most effective way of getting them to do things. So we’ll continue with those conversations.
MS NAUERT: Okay? All right. Anybody else have anything on Cambodia?
MS NAUERT: Shall we start with Egypt? Who has Egypt today?
MS NAUERT: Hold on. Who had Egypt today? Michele, how are you? Let’s start with Egypt.
QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit about Tillerson’s conversations with the Egyptians? They seem to have been caught off guard by this move to cut aid. Has he described to them what they need to do to have this aid restored?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, well, I would take issue with that. They weren’t caught off guard, and that’s because the Secretary had a conversation with the foreign minister of Egypt and provided a heads-up as to what would be taking place. So were they caught off guard? The answer would be no. Congress has now been notified of this action that’s taken place. We consider Egypt to be a key strategic partner of the United States. We’re committed to strengthening our bilateral relationship with Egypt, but we have decided that in the interest of the United States, it’s in our best interest to exercise a national security waiver. That obligates $195 million to basically be put in an account and accessed at another time the funds that would normally go to Egypt, or were set to go to Egypt will be held in reserve, until we can see – and this is why we’re doing this – until we can see progress on democracy.
Matt, we were just talking about democracy; this is a major concern of ours. We’ve talked about their new NGO law in Egypt, and that that has been a concern of ours all along. Egypt has been put essentially on notice with this.
Now, as I talk about that money that’s been put off to the side, I want to mention that they still did get a billion dollars in Fiscal Year 2017. So they still got some of their money, but we’re withholding part of that money until they can start to come around and adhere to democratic reforms.
QUESTION: One other question. I mean, is it only about the democratic reforms, or has Secretary Tillerson also raised concerns about things like Egypt’s ties to North Korea?
MS NAUERT: It’s about human rights. Human rights is, obviously, a very big – it’s a part of what we do here each and every day, promoting human rights. There is another pot of money, $65-and-a-half million, and also $30 million. One is the Foreign Military Financing pot, and the other is the Economic Support Funds, and those we’ve decided will be used in support of other security partners in the region that will not, in our view, undermine Egypt’s security. So really, it’s about democracy and it’s about human rights.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Anything else on Egypt?
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Go right ahead. Hey, Dave.
QUESTION: So, I mean, this action isn’t in relation to Egypt’s previous contacts with North Korea. Do you have concerns about those? The first ballistic missile they ever launched came from Egypt.
MS NAUERT: You know what, I – that predates me here, so I’m not going to comment on that part of it.
QUESTION: I think it may predate (inaudible).
MS NAUERT: (Laughter.) Okay, thank you. I’d like to feel young, yes.
QUESTION: Heather, more on Egypt, please?
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, did somebody else have something on Egypt?
QUESTION: Yeah. Egypt.
MS NAUERT: Hey, Anne.
QUESTION: So this all – the money decision on Egypt coincided with the visit from the three White House officials --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- Jared Kushner, Dina Powell, and Jason Greenblatt. You said Secretary Tillerson gave the foreign – Egyptian foreign minister a heads-up. What about the U.S. officials in the region? Did they know ahead of time that this decision was coming? And how does it affect the fact that they had a meeting that was scheduled and then unscheduled with that foreign minister today?
MS NAUERT: So the first part of your question, I don’t know the answer to that. I’ve not talked to the White House directly as to whether or not they had knowledge of this. We have good coordination, however, among the different agencies. So I’ll just leave that at that, but I’m not sure as to whether or not they knew about it.
In terms of the meeting that took place today between Mr. Kushner, also Dina Powell, Jason Greenblatt, our special representative, and others, that meeting did, in fact, happen. It’s been misreported in the press that the meeting was canceled and not rescheduled, but those meetings did happen.
QUESTION: I thought there were supposed to be two meetings. One was --
MS NAUERT: There – two meetings combined into one with Sisi and then also with I believe it was the foreign minister.
QUESTION: But the --
QUESTION: So --
QUESTION: You can confirm, though, that there was no separate meeting among those three and Shoukry, as I think had been originally planned?
MS NAUERT: Let me double-check to see if there was a – there was a second meeting. Okay, there was a second meeting. Okay, so one was a meeting with the two individuals, and then the other was a separate meeting.
QUESTION: Can we stay on the Kushner – on the delegation?
MS NAUERT: Anything else? Hold on, Said. Anything else on Egypt?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: And on the money. So it is correct to say, then, that the Secretary was unable to certify that Egypt was meeting the criteria that Congress has – human rights criteria that Congress has laid out for receipt of this money. Is that – that’s correct?
MS NAUERT: That is correct. We were unable to certify that Egypt is advancing democracy and human rights. We continue our security partnership with Egypt, but that remains in our national interest.
QUESTION: Okay. And so, in fact, by granting the waiver but holding it in reserve, you’re actually preserving the ability to give Egypt this money that you wouldn’t have had after the 30th had the waiver not been granted.
MS NAUERT: We do this with other countries as well, where we say, hey, look, here’s something we’re going to hold back on and we can give this to you if we start to see movement in the right direction. We’re not at the point now where we’re seeing movement in the right direction with Egypt. We’ll keep an eye on that. Hopefully, they will make some movement in the right direction. I know you all will be excited about that as well.
QUESTION: Yes, indeed.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Now, if the – I guess I’m – I’m curious about the timing of this. Because you had until September 30th to either certify, not certify and not sign the waiver, or sign the waiver.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Why did it happen on the day – the eve of the visit of the White House officials? Because you can look at it either one of two ways. One is, this is a good thing for Egypt because they’re not losing the money outright; they still have a chance to get it. Or you can look at it as a slap in the face because they’re not getting the money and you also reprogrammed the smaller amount.
So if it’s good news for Egypt, that would make more sense and – if it – for – to coincide with the White House briefing. But if it’s bad news, that would seem to be a lack of coordination rather than a --
MS NAUERT: I don’t --
QUESTION: -- coordination.
MS NAUERT: I haven’t picked up the phone to ask the Egyptians how they view this, so I don’t have any answer for you on that.
QUESTION: Well, they’re not happy with it.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: But the Secretary has.
QUESTION: But you’re not --
MS NAUERT: Yes, the Secretary has.
QUESTION: So what did they tell him? Are they happy?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to characterize that, okay?
QUESTION: Right, but are you not concerned that this might have in some way – I mean, why now?
MS NAUERT: I don’t – I don’t know the answer to that.
QUESTION: And are you not concerned --
MS NAUERT: Why now? I don’t have the answer.
QUESTION: Yes, absolutely. I want to talk about the delegation’s visit. On the eve of the visit, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that he still does not understand what is the U.S. strategy regarding this effort that is ongoing. I mean, why are you so loath to say – to commit yourself – to recommit yourself to the two-state solution?
MS NAUERT: Look, we’ve talked about this since the first --
MS NAUERT: -- day I got up here, and that is the importance of Middle East peace for this administration.
QUESTION: Right, but --
MS NAUERT: The President has made it clear that that is one of his top national security issues – one of his top priorities, I should say more correctly. We want to work toward a peace that both sides can agree to and that both sides find sustainable. Okay? We believe that both parties should be able to find a workable solution that works for both of them.
MS NAUERT: We are not going to state what the outcome has to be. It has to be workable to both sides. And I think, really, that’s the best view as to not really bias one side over the other, to make sure that they can work through it. It’s been many, many decades, as you well know, that the parties have not been able to come to any kind of good agreement and sustainable solution to this. So we leave it up to them to be able to work that through.
QUESTION: So are we departing from the long-held position that the outcome – the best possible outcome that everybody agrees upon is the two-state solution, a Palestinian state that lives side by side with Israel?
MS NAUERT: Look, our policy on this hasn’t changed.
MS NAUERT: Okay? You can ask me the same question every time we sit down here together, but the policy hasn’t changed. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I – you – yeah, you – I probably have.
QUESTION: Can I just stay on the Palestinian issue --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- for just a couple more? Today, there was – the Israeli occupation army yesterday demolished a girls’ school in – outside Bethlehem, and in fact, the girls held their class in the open air. Do you have any comment on this? I mean, they declared it a military area and they demolished the schools. They do this time and time again.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does that in any way --
MS NAUERT: So with so many of the incidents like that that you mention, and you’ll bring to me often various cases that are upsetting to folks there, we would say the same thing: We encourage both sides to work together to take appropriate actions to ease tensions and to try to build an environment where both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians, can conclude so that they could work together on a mutually agreeable, peaceful solution, and I think --
QUESTION: But you do have, I mean, a longstanding position that such things should not happen, it’s part of human rights, it’s part of the American value system that they try --
MS NAUERT: It’s the kind of thing that on each specific incident --
QUESTION: And more than likely, this school was subsidized by USAID.
MS NAUERT: Said, I don’t know that. I don’t know that.
MS NAUERT: I don’t know that. But overall, each specific incident, I’m just not going to be able to comment on. Okay?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Anything else on Israel or the trip over there?
MS NAUERT: No?
MS NAUERT: Israel? Anything on Israel? No. Okay. We’ll move on.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Let’s go to Pakistan.
MS NAUERT: Hi, Barbara.
QUESTION: You sound like – you’re starting to sound like an auctioneer. (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: Do I? I feel like an auctioneer. Anybody else? Syria, Syria, Syria? Okay.
QUESTION: Yeah, I have two questions on Pakistan.
MS NAUERT: Pakistan.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So what you’re referring to is a video that I have not seen. I know that some folks have seen this video. It purports to show a child who, as I understand it, appears to be a young boy. I can’t confirm that video. I can’t confirm if that child is an American. But if that were to be the case – let me back up.
First and foremost, any child used in that capacity in an ISIS video regardless of what is being done is sick. It’s sick and it’s depraved, and we’ve seen that time and time again from ISIS. We’ve seen ISIS as they have recruited children, as we have used them – as they have used them as human shields. We’ve seen ISIS use children the ages of some of our own children here as suicide bombers, as homicide bombers. It’s sick, it’s depraved, and it is another example of just how wrong and how evil ISIS is. If I get anything more on you – on that for you, I will let you know. Okay?
QUESTION: And – thank you. Just in terms of the – of Pakistan, yesterday, Secretary Tillerson said that India – even India could take some steps of rapprochement to remove some of the reasons why Pakistan deals with these unstable elements inside their country. What was he referring to in terms of the steps India could take?
MS NAUERT: I think one of the things that we would do is ask or encourage India and Pakistan to sit down together and engage in direct dialogue that is aimed at reducing tensions between both of those countries.
QUESTION: So is he linking, for example, a solution – a policy on – of – for a solution on Kashmir with Pakistan-Afghanistan issues?
MS NAUERT: Well, I think going up to 30,000 feet, we view the whole strategy and handling Afghanistan as being a regional strategy, and that, of course, incorporates India as well as Pakistan, so incorporating all the nations in that region who can – we believe can help assist and help make Afghanistan a stable place where you’ll never have a terror group that will take root in that country again and can launch attacks on other countries.
QUESTION: Yeah, but does the U.S. see pushing for a solution on Kashmir as part of this regional strategy to deal with Afghanistan?
MS NAUERT: In terms of Kashmir, our policy on that has not changed. We continue to encourage the sides to sit down and talk together about that.
QUESTION: And then just one other question: Does the U.S. support Pakistan efforts to put a fence or a wall along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan --
MS NAUERT: So I’m --
QUESTION: -- along the tribal areas?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So I’m aware of that story, the idea or the notion of putting up some sort of wall of sorts. We haven’t had conversations with the Pakistani Government about that idea or that proposal. We continue to support practical cooperation between both of the countries.
QUESTION: But what is the U.S. position on the border? Is it – do you see it as a disputed border, that Kabul has some claim to Pashtun areas within the territory – the tribal areas, or --
MS NAUERT: I don’t have anything for you on that. Okay, anything else on Pakistan or Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Yeah, can I ask you something about what the Secretary --
MS NAUERT: Sure.
QUESTION: Yesterday --
MS NAUERT: What are we talking about here? Which --
MS NAUERT: Afghanistan, okay.
QUESTION: Yesterday in his press conference the Secretary was asked a question that presented the idea that Russia is arming the Taliban as fact, and he responded, “To the extent Russia is supplying arms to the Taliban, that is a violation,” and then he went on, “We certainly object to that.” Was he intending to confirm the premise of the question that Russia – that you know that Russia is, in fact, arming the Taliban, or was he saying --
MS NAUERT: I think what the Secretary was --
QUESTION: -- that if it was happening, it would be a problem?
MS NAUERT: I think what the Secretary – and as we look at Russia’s activities around the world, we know that in places where we are, in places where Russia can sometimes tend to show up, trouble follows, and I think that that’s what he was saying.
QUESTION: But was he intending to confirm that Russia is supplying the Taliban with weapons?
MS NAUERT: I haven’t asked – I haven’t asked him that question, but I know that if that were to be the case – and this is just what I’m going to say from here – but if that were to be the case, that would be in violation.
QUESTION: All right. Well, what if I asked you – forget about reading his mind on this.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does the United States believe that Russia is arming the Taliban?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have a official State Department answer for you on that, but I think the Secretary – I’ll let his words stand.
QUESTION: Could I --
QUESTION: But in terms of which steps they take --
QUESTION: On this --
MS NAUERT: Okay, any – hold on. Anything else on Pakistan?
QUESTION: On this point. On this point. Back in the days when --
QUESTION: I’ve got piggy-backs off of it.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hold on. Okay, go ahead. Hold on. Hold on, hold on. Okay. Hey, Nick.
QUESTION: The Secretary also said yesterday that Russia does have a role to play in securing a political outcome for Afghanistan. They’ve been holding peace talks that Pakistan and India have participated in. Does the United States think that those peace talks, those Russian-based peace talks, should continue or cease? Are they helpful or not helpful?
MS NAUERT: I think our approach is for Afghanistan to have an Afghan-led peace process to be able to get to that point. One of the ways we believe that that point can – we can get to that point or that they can get to the point is through the assistance of regional partners, regional partners such as India. India has been very helpful. They’ve done a lot in terms of providing development funds to Afghanistan so far. We applaud them for that. They’ve pledged – I believe it’s about $3 billion since 2001. So we continue to thank them for that and look forward to them hopefully doing more to be a part of the solution. Pakistan as well – we want Pakistan to be able to do more and we intend to work with those countries for an Afghan-led peace process. Okay?
QUESTION: But the --
QUESTION: On North Korea.
QUESTION: But the – but specifically, the Russian role in these peace talks. Do you think that those are productive?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have any comment on the Russian part of it. Okay? Hey, Connor.
QUESTION: More on Afghanistan?
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can you clear up confusion as well – the Secretary said yesterday about troop levels that the U.S. should be as cagey and tactical as our enemies, but he also said before that that the – that there will be visibility to troop levels once a decision has been made. So can you say whether or not we’ll ever get a number again for U.S. troops in Afghanistan?
MS NAUERT: Well, that wouldn’t come out of this building. As you well know, that would come out of the Department of Defense, and we have people who are experts in military logistics and the number of troops that are required. That’s something that Secretary Mattis, General McMaster, and others who have that kind of training and expertise will put together, and that won’t come from the State Department.
QUESTION: What was the Secretary trying to say, then, just because those two things seem to contradict each other?
MS NAUERT: Well, he’s a party to the overall strategy. We’ve been involved in all of the conversations that have been taking place about the Afghan strategy because diplomacy is a huge part of it. We have long said that we don’t believe that the – that there is a long-term military, fighting-it-out solution to peace in Afghanistan. We believe that it’s ultimately a political solution that is obtained through diplomacy.
So we continue to try to shore up that part of it, but the Secretary has certainly sat in on conversations, he speaks a lot with General Mattis, and others – Secretary Mattis, rather – about the overall strategy. So I think he was just kind of giving a nod to having been a part of those conversations and being familiar with the big picture, but in terms of strategy, he’s not going to get ahead of General Mattis and the President on that.
QUESTION: But so what was he trying to say then about troop levels, and whether or not we’ll actually have a public available number?
MS NAUERT: I don’t know that we will have a number. I just – I don’t know the answer to that and I – and perhaps DOD has not determined that yet. So let’s just hold off. I know a lot of people want to know troop numbers; I know Martha Raddatz yesterday had a lot of questions about that. We’re not going to have that. We’re not going to have that out of this building. Okay?
Anything else --
QUESTION: On Afghanistan.
MS NAUERT: Anything else on Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Can I ask you --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Sorry. Hi, Michelle.
QUESTION: Thanks. Yesterday, the Secretary said that he wanted to acknowledge steps that North Korea had taken, but in those steps he seemed to --
QUESTION: Can you stay in Afghanistan?
QUESTION: Oh, sorry.
MS NAUERT: Okay. One last question on Afghanistan, then we’ll move on. Sorry, Michelle.
QUESTION: I have few – I have a few questions in Afghanistan, but --
MS NAUERT: Hold on. Hold on – then we’ll come back to you, Michelle. Okay?
QUESTION: Yeah. That’s fine.
MS NAUERT: Apologies. Go ahead.
MS NAUERT: I just addressed that, and that is we recognize that India has certainly done a lot. They’ve done a lot in terms of development and helping to promote Afghanistan’s economy. So we appreciate that, we’re grateful to that, and we look forward to India continuing to play a role in what we believe is an eventual – what we hope is an eventual peace process in Afghanistan.
QUESTION: Have you talked to Indians on this and what’s the Indians’ response?
MS NAUERT: I know that the Secretary has had some conversations with his counterparts. Let me see if I have any specifics for you on that, and then we’re going to move on to Michelle’s question on DPRK. Give me one minute.
QUESTION: Thank you, Heather.
MS NAUERT: Give me one minute here. Hold on. Yes. In fact, the Secretary spoke with the Indian minister of external affairs on Monday, and that was to give a heads-up as to what our new strategy would be. So the Secretary addressed this, touched on this a little bit yesterday saying India is emerging as a very important regional strategic partner. They have played an important role in supporting the Afghan Government and, in particular, supporting the economy. India has provided developmental assistance, they have provided economic assistance, they’re hosting an important economic conference in India next week, and, of course, we have our travel separate from this to India later in the year just after Thanksgiving our time.
QUESTION: Do you have a --
MS NAUERT: So we look forward to that. Okay? That’s all I’ve – that’s all I’m going to have for you on India.
QUESTION: Do you have a --
MS NAUERT: Okay?
QUESTION: I have a few more on India – Afghanistan, Pakistan.
MS NAUERT: That’s all I’m going to have for you on this today. Okay?
QUESTION: India --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Another time. Another day. By the way, it’s hot in here. We’re – so we’re going to keep things tight today. Michelle --
QUESTION: Who’s going to India?
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Who is going to India?
MS NAUERT: The White House has announced a trip.
QUESTION: Oh, they have?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. To India and --
QUESTION: One more question.
MS NAUERT: -- the State Department will help support that because it’s a big initiative with women’s businesses.
QUESTION: Is it the GES?
QUESTION: Oh, right. Right, right.
QUESTION: Ivanka Trump?
MS NAUERT: Yes. Exactly.
QUESTION: I have one really – the Secretary is --
MS NAUERT: Sir, hold on. You had – you had your couple questions. I told Michelle we’d come back to her. Okay? Thank you. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, actually, on that same subject, when the Secretary yesterday mentioned the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan – I know that there’s been some controversy over the last couple of months I guess as to the fate of that office. So his acknowledging the staffing of that, does that mean that that office is going to stay intact for the foreseeable future or is that still potentially subject to cuts?
MS NAUERT: So some of these – and you’re referring to overall special representatives in those offices and the special envoys. Okay?
MS NAUERT: But I’ll address this as it relates to what we call the SRAP, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. So there was a separate SRAP office that had its own, at my understanding, front office, team of people. I had met with those people when I first started here at the State Department. That office was then merged into South Central Asia, so we still have the same number of people except for the person who was the actual SRAP, and her term of duty ended a month or two ago. So we still have the same number of people. In fact, I was sitting with our team earlier today and I sat with them yesterday as well. So all that work is now still being done just by one department under SCA, South Central Asia. That team is being led by Ambassador Alice Wells, who’s been a State Department diplomat for 28 years now. So she’s extremely experienced; she knows the region; she’s spent time in India, I believe it was Pakistan as well. Jordan – she’s a former Ambassador to Jordan. She’s fantastic. And so she’s hard at work in handling the role of the SRAP as well as the acting assistant secretary for SCA.
QUESTION: So the way that it’s structured currently, is that the way you guys see it continuing into the future or is that --
MS NAUERT: So --
QUESTION: Is that still under review?
MS NAUERT: So SCA won’t give birth to an entirely new office that will duplicate its activities. There may be someone who is brought in to be a new special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who would just be an extra body to help with some of the issues that we’re now facing. Obviously, it’s a big job.
QUESTION: I guess what I’m asking – is that – as it is now, what you just described – is that a temporary structure?
MS NAUERT: Is which a temporary structure?
QUESTION: The whole thing that you’ve laid out, that it’s now been absorbed and – I mean, the way it’s functioning now, is that how it’s going to stay?
MS NAUERT: My understanding is that there will – and if this changes, I will let you know, but as of today, right now, the plan is for that office to remain. Alice Wells, Ambassador Wells, heads up SCA as well as the SRAP, and we may be looking to bring somebody else in to handle the actual SRAP program itself.
QUESTION: This is all very bureaucratic, but I think what you’re saying is that it’s --
MS NAUERT: These poor folks on TV are, “Wait a minute, this is so boring.”
QUESTION: Exactly. Well, I --
QUESTION: People are watching this on TV?
MS NAUERT: (Laughter.) Well, CSPAN.
QUESTION: But wait --
MS NAUERT: Or my mom, maybe.
QUESTION: What you’re trying to – what – I think – tell me if this is correct.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: You’re saying that --
MS NAUERT: Am I being confusing?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Well, I don’t know. Maybe.
MS NAUERT: I’m trying to be clear, yeah.
QUESTION: The – the SRAP as a separate office – like its own rooms, own all this kind of thing – will not, as it is today, still be a separate office. It will be part of the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs. Is that correct?
MS NAUERT: That is correct. Where things stand today --
QUESTION: But it will be --
MS NAUERT: Hold on, hold on. But I can’t rule out that there won’t be a little office with some people sitting in it --
QUESTION: Okay. I know, I know.
MS NAUERT: -- with little mice running around or --
QUESTION: Are you saying the people --
MS NAUERT: There’s going to – I don’t know what the --
MS NAUERT: -- office layout is actually going to be.
QUESTION: Going to be killer wasps and rats. But the office will continue to exist, it will just be – it will just be inside the bureau.
MS NAUERT: It will continue to – that is why I said it will not – this plan will not give birth to an entirely new office and program, okay?
QUESTION: Got you.
MS NAUERT: This will be housed under South/Central Asia. Okay? We good on that? Let’s --
QUESTION: Cuba, Heather.
MS NAUERT: Hold on.
QUESTION: One question about Cuba.
MS NAUERT: Hold on. Let’s move on from Afghanistan. How are you? How are you? Go right ahead, yeah.
QUESTION: Thank you. Okay, so Secretary Mattis is in Ukraine today. Is there a decision on arming – on weapons to Ukraine? What is that decision, (a); and (b) with the deadline – the September 1 deadline approaching – we saw this week the --
MS NAUERT: Let’s do Ukraine first and then we’ll get to --
MS NAUERT: -- where your question is going with the second issue.
MS NAUERT: So Secretary Mattis is in Ukraine. In terms of the weapons program, there have been no decisions made. We’re not going to rule it in; we’re not going to rule that out right now. No decisions have been made on that particular issue. As you may be aware, the – Kurt Volker, our special representative who’s going to be handling Russia/Ukraine issues, is – I believe he’s there today, actually, in Ukraine. He was in Lithuania earlier this week and he met with some Russian officials to talk about the Minsk process and getting back to that, so there we go.
QUESTION: Didn’t he --
QUESTION: Then on Russia --
MS NAUERT: I mean --
QUESTION: Didn’t he meet with them in Minsk?
MS NAUERT: No, no, no, no, no. He met with them in Lithuania to talk about --
QUESTION: Oh, I – it was my understanding he was meeting with them in Belarus.
MS NAUERT: Well, at least – hold on. Let me check my meetings here. Well, I know they were in Lithuania. They met yesterday with senior government officials and they talked about the matter of Ukraine. If they were in Belarus, I just don’t have that in my meeting schedule.
MS NAUERT: But they were in Lithuania.
QUESTION: On Russia, we saw this week the U.S. embassy stopped issuing visas. Can you tell us, is there any more programming in terms of removing U.S. personnel from there, and how many Americans, how many Russians in the personnel that you have to remove? Can you just update us on that?
MS NAUERT: Okay, so first I want to be clear, because Russian media went bonkers reporting this, okay, saying that the U.S. is retaliating against Russia. Let me make this clear: The United States is not retaliating against Russia in any way, shape, or form. That is not taking place. That is not happening. We regrettably were forced to reduce the size of our mission in Russia. We were forced as a result of that to reduce the size of our offices. That includes the officer – the offices of consular affairs. Consular affairs, as you all know – other folks may not – is the office that adjudicates visas. Because we’ve had to reduce the number of people who are adjudicating visas, we had to put a pause on visa applications for Russians who want to come to the United States right now.
That will pick back up again. They will be able to come to the United States again. However, once that does happen, it will be at a reduced pace. The reason I say that is because we have fewer people to adjudicate visas. First and foremost, our job of our consular officers is to safeguard, protect, take care of U.S. citizens first. One of the things we talk about a lot here is the safety and security of U.S. citizens abroad and here at home is the top issue for the State Department. While we care about other issues, while we talk a lot about the DPRK – and those are huge and important issues – safety and security of Americans always comes first.
So because we have fewer people to do that, our folks there have to prioritize Americans, and the consular officers do a whole lot of things, from if your aunt is living in Russia and you don’t hear from her, you may give our consular officers a call to say, “Hey, can you check on my Aunt Betty?” Those are the kinds of things our folks do. It’s labor intensive. They help with documentation, they help with driver’s license and things of that sort. So Americans will come first when it comes to adjudicating visas. This is not any kind of retaliation for Russia --
QUESTION: Okay, do you have a breakdown --
MS NAUERT: -- but we regard this as regrettable, and Russia knew, they had to have anticipated that this would happen because they know the kind of staffing, they know what consular officers do.
QUESTION: Okay. And do you have a breakdown yet on numbers of Russians and --
MS NAUERT: I do not.
QUESTION: -- versus Americans who will be removed from their jobs?
MS NAUERT: I do not. I do not.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) on Russia --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: I’m sure Aunt Betty is thrilled.
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: I’m sure that Aunt Betty is thrilled.
MS NAUERT: (Laughter.) Aunt Betty --
QUESTION: Is she is St. Petersburg or Moscow? (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: Okay.
MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.
QUESTION: And Russia Foreign Minister Lavrov said it was attempt to provoke discontent among Russia citizens about the action of Russian Government. Do you think – we know it as you have already explained, but is it political motivated? Is this kind of action encourage the tensions between U.S. and Russia?
MS NAUERT: We regard this – and I’ll say this again – we regard this as regrettable. We did not want to have to reduce the size of our staff in Russia. They do a lot of fantastic work over there. Unfortunately, that is something that the Russian Government has told us that we have to do: decrease the number of our staff. When our staff is decreased, everything gets cut back somewhat, including consular affairs in addition to other offices inside our – inside our embassies as well.
QUESTION: Russia official said U.S. and Russia are not in a new Cold War. Do you agree, this kind of statement?
MS NAUERT: What did they say?
QUESTION: That U.S. and Russia are not in a new Cold War. Do you agree with this statement?
MS NAUERT: I don’t want to put any kind of labels on this, but we have said, since the beginning of this administration, that we are at a low level of trust between the United States and Russia. We don’t want it that way. We would like to have a better relationship with that government, no doubt about it. We continue to try to find areas of mutual cooperation with them. We’ve talked about the ceasefire in southwest Syria that has held where we’ve been working with the Russians. We continue to work for ways that we have areas of mutual interest that we can work on. But in terms of what’s going on with our embassy in Moscow, we consider that to be regrettable. Okay.
QUESTION: Heather, one question on --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can I ask my North Korea question that we never got to?
QUESTION: Can I just – the --
MS NAUERT: Hold on.
QUESTION: The same question.
MS NAUERT: Hold on.
QUESTION: On this staff reduction thing --
MS NAUERT: Go ahead, yeah.
QUESTION: -- you just said that when our staff is reduced, everything gets cut back. Is that right? That’s what you said?
MS NAUERT: I think everything gets cut back, yeah.
QUESTION: Yeah, and that would apply to this building too, right?
MS NAUERT: Well, I’m sorry. What do you mean?
QUESTION: Because I thought the whole idea of reducing the staff of the State Department --
MS NAUERT: No, I’m not --
QUESTION: -- we’re going to do more with less. So if you’re going to make the argument --
MS NAUERT: Oh, so you’re being cute. You’re being cute.
QUESTION: No, if you’re going to make the argument for the embassy that you had to draw down by so many people and therefore you can’t do as much work, then presumably, that same argument would apply for --
MS NAUERT: Matt, when it’s reducing the size of staff because Russia has asked us to reduce the size of staff, that gets done in their country.
MS NAUERT: They can’t tell us to reduce the size of staff here in the United States --
QUESTION: No, but --
MS NAUERT: -- so let me --
QUESTION: -- the boss on the seventh floor can reduce the staff.
MS NAUERT: -- let me leave it at that. Okay? Okay.
QUESTION: All right.
MS NAUERT: All right. Let’s --
QUESTION: Heather, can we go to Cuba?
MS NAUERT: Let’s – okay, let’s move on. Go right ahead.
QUESTION: Heather --
MS NAUERT: Hi.
QUESTION: Okay. So CBS News has reviewed some of the medical records that a doctor had looked at in regards to American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba, and they were diagnosed with injuries as severe as traumatic brain injury. What’s the State Department doing about that?
MS NAUERT: First of all, what has happened – and I’m not going to confirm the medical status of any U.S. Government personnel in Cuba. You know that that’s policy where we don’t talk about people’s medical or health specifics. But what has happened there is of great concern to the U.S. Government – the State Department, the White House, other agencies and departments involved as well. These are U.S. Government employees that we’re talking about. They were serving in an official capacity in Cuba. Those incidents have caused a variety of physical symptoms. I’m not going to have a whole lot to say about this.
The investigation is still ongoing. It’s an active investigation that is across multi agencies in the United States. The State Department is a part of that. This – I had a briefing on this this morning talking with our top folks on this issue. Let me just reassure you that this is a matter that we take very seriously. We are working and have been working to provide our staff and U.S. Government employees with the best medical attention that we can provide to them.
QUESTION: Do you know how many?
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Do you know how many are affected?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to – I’m not going to be able to confirm numbers of people who were affected --
QUESTION: Heather, just --
MS NAUERT: Sir, hold on one second, okay? I’m not going to be able to provide any numbers that are affected.
QUESTION: And is this type of attack unprecedented?
MS NAUERT: This is unprecedented. We have not seen this type of activity take place before.
MS NAUERT: No, nowhere, no one.
QUESTION: What is the U.S. doing – Heather, can I just ask --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- one question since you --
MS NAUERT: Yes, of – no --
QUESTION: -- ignore this part of the room? I just want to ask one question.
MS NAUERT: Hold on, hold on, hold on.
QUESTION: Go ahead.
MS NAUERT: We have a little bit of a polite thing that we try to do here. Okay?
MS NAUERT: I know you haven’t been around here a lot.
MS NAUERT: You’re welcome to come anytime, but we try to --
QUESTION: This is a briefing for all reporters; not just one reporter.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: Right? And I would like to ask a question.
MS NAUERT: But we try to be polite and work together nicely. Okay?
QUESTION: Sure. Sure.
MS NAUERT: I’m more than happy to take your questions as I have before.
QUESTION: Listen, how concerned is the State Department about these diplomats, who medical records show have brain damage? Are there any that are still in Cuba that have been affected by this who have asked the State Department to leave?
MS NAUERT: So some have – some we have – some we asked to leave because their condition necessitated that, and they left – wanted to – mutually agreed upon – left that country because of the situation, because of the symptoms that they were experiencing. There were others that have chosen to stay there and some of them are still there. Does that answer your question?
QUESTION: It does, but I want to ask you: Does the U.S. embassy have a current medical officer permanently based in Havana to address these incidents?
MS NAUERT: I know that we have had our U.S. Government employees go to Miami, Florida where they had – some of them had been medically evacuated in order to receive medical treatment and testing. I know --
QUESTION: But is there a medical officer at the embassy?
MS NAUERT: May I – look, could I – could I finish what I’m saying? I also know that we have brought medical professionals to our staff in Cuba to be able to treat them, to be able to test them. The best equipment is not going to necessarily be on the ground in Cuba. We are bringing people to the best medical experts on the mainland in the United States. Is there an actual medical officer? I don’t know the answer to that. I can look into that and see if I can get you an answer. Okay?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
MS NAUERT: Last question of the day.
MS NAUERT: It is hot in here and we’ve got to go.
QUESTION: Quick question.
MS NAUERT: Go ahead, Conor.
QUESTION: Well, there were some reports as well that this started in December of 2016. Two questions actually: Can you confirm whether or not these attacks are continuing to this day? And can you confirm whether or not there were any actions that were being – that the U.S. Government took – let me rephrase – did the U.S. Government not respond until February of this year?
MS NAUERT: The first reported activity took place in late December of 2016. That is correct. I’ve confirmed that here before. When these things started to come in – and I’ve talked about this before – people reported a variety of symptoms. Not everyone has experienced the same type of – the same type of symptoms. So after the initial reports came in, then we started to get some other reports. And it took some time for people to be able to determine that yes, there is a pattern taking place here; yes, there is something going on. It’s much like – I would liken it to if you have an illness and you kind of maybe – you mention it to a colleague, you mention it to a doctor, but you don’t think anything of it. The doctor hears about somebody else who has maybe a different kind of symptom. It may not all be put together at the same time and say, “Aha. This must be it.” It takes some time for that information to come in.
But since that information started coming in, we take this very seriously – safety and security of Americans, which obviously includes U.S. Government officials and employees who are there on business. It is a huge priority for us and we’re trying to get them all the care that they need. Okay?
Guys, we got to – we got to go.
MS NAUERT: We’ve got to leave it at that. Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:35 p.m.)