Department Press Briefing - November 17, 2017
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:54 p.m. EST
MS NAUERT: Good to see you. How’s everyone doing? Hi, hi. Okay. A couple things, pieces of news I want to start out with before we get going on your questions – and I know you have a lot of them today.
Let’s start with this: This week, the State Department partnered with experts in the Texas Department of Public Safety to train Guatemalan transnational anti-gang unit. The training, which was organized by the department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, took place in Florence, Texas. In Central America, gangs perpetrate – perpetuate violence and foster conditions that drive people to leave their homes, often traveling through Mexico toward the United States. The goal of the partnership is to combat the gangs that threaten both of our countries through training and firearms proficiency, operational tactics, and personal defensive measures.
The State Department works with federal, state, and local entities in the fight against violent gangs. The Texas Department of Public Safety is sharing its expertise with Guatemala in an innovative partnership to fight criminal threats to the U.S. and Central American security.
Second thing, I’d like to talk about Cambodia a little bit – we’ve – it’s a topic we’ve covered a lot – and our concerns about the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. We are gravely concerned that the Cambodian Government’s decision to dissolve the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the CNRP – not only does that set back Cambodia’s democratic development, it unnecessarily damages Cambodia’s relationship with the United States and others in the international community, it weakens Cambodia’s economic growth and prosperity, and isolates the country further from democracies in the region.
Freedom and multiparty democracies are enshrined in the Paris Peace Accords and in Cambodia’s constitution. The Cambodian Government’s decision marks a sharp reversal of those ideals. The supreme court’s announcement follows other disturbing actions by the Department of Cambodia, including its crackdown on the free press by shutting down The Cambodia Daily, launching a politicized tax investigation again The Voice of America-Radio Free Asia, and others as well.
Legitimate elections require genuine competition. The act removes the meaningful competition from the 2018 national elections. For the 2018 elections to have international legitimacy, the Government of Cambodia should undo its dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, release the imprisoned leader Kem Sokha, and allow opposition parties, civil society, and media to maintain their legitimate activities.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you one thing about that?
MS NAUERT: I have one more thing. Can we come back to that?
QUESTION: Okay. Yeah.
MS NAUERT: Okay. And then finally, today Secretary Tillerson is hosting foreign ministers from across the African continent and the African Union Commission Chairman Faki for open discussions on trade, investment, security, and also good governance.
Another key issue of importance at the AF ministerial today is the issue of Zimbabwe. The Secretary said in his opening remarks that we should work together for a quick return to civilian rule in accordance with Zimbabwe’s constitution. He also highlighted that Zimbabwe has an opportunity to set itself on a new path, one that must include democratic elections and respect for human rights.
In addition to that, our Deputy Secretary State John Sullivan is currently in Africa today. He arrived yesterday in Sudan and met with the Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandour, the Prime Minister Bakri Saleh, and other government ministers and civil society members. After meeting with the deputy secretary, Foreign Minister Ghandour publicly announced that Sudan is committed to ending all military and trade ties with North Korea, an action that we strongly support.
Deputy Secretary Sullivan and Foreign Minister Ghandour also discussed ways to build on cooperation in other areas, including counterterrorism, humanitarian access, human rights, and also religious freedom. The deputy secretary also delivered remarks in Khartoum to an audience of human rights activists, religious leaders, and other stakeholders. He encouraged Sudan to improve its record on human rights and also religious freedom. The transcript of his speech is available on state.gov.
The Deputy Secretary then traveled to Tunisia, where he met with the president, the prime minister, and also the foreign minister. They discussed economic reforms and measures to consolidate democracy that the Tunisian Government is implementing along with its mutual security cooperation with the United States.
Tomorrow, he will meet with Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Maiteeq of the Libya National Government – or the Libyan Government of National Accord, rather. They will discuss U.S. support for the UN-facilitated political process to resolve the political conflict in Libya and help advance its stabilization.
On Monday, the deputy secretary will travel to Nigeria and that is where he will participate in the U.S.-Nigeria Binational Commission, the BNC. It is a annual high-level dialogue between the U.S. Government and the Government of Nigeria.
Okay. And with that, I’ll take your questions. You want to start in Cambodia?
QUESTION: Just – well, very quickly before I defer to Michele --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- who needs a quick sound bite.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: On the air, something you can appreciate, I think.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
MS NAUERT: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: What countries exactly are you referring to in the region? None of Cambodia’s neighbors would say – Thailand, which is under a junta right now; Vietnam, which is a one-party state; Laos, which is a one-party state; and Burma, which is not really the most democratic model. So what countries are you referring to?
MS NAUERT: I would say that there are democracies in the region. Bangladesh would be an example. Democracies in the region that would have greater concerns about the movement away from press freedoms and other freedoms.
QUESTION: Okay, but I just would make the point that Cambodia’s immediate neighbors – it seems to be going in the same direction as them, not distancing themselves, because they’re not really democracies. Anyway.
MS NAUERT: I think we’ve said not only does it set back Cambodia’s democratic development, it damages their relationship with the United States and others in the international community.
MS NAUERT: Okay?
QUESTION: Michele. Sorry.
MS NAUERT: All right.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Hi, Michele. Remind me, where are we starting today? Where are we going to start?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: There have been lots of letters from Capitol Hill about this. McCain and Shaheen are urging the Secretary to end a hiring freeze and to resume promotions. Murphy is asking Tillerson to rethink this buyout procedure. Can you reassure any of these members that (a) their concerns will be taken into consideration and that Tillerson’s not gutting the department?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, a couple things to that matter. First, let me start addressing them in pieces, if you’ll allow me that. First, let’s talk about the redesign. The redesign is an effort that continues to take place. You may recall back in September, we sent a note or our update to OMB. It sits with OMB right now. It is a process that is – we are continuing to work on. We don’t have all of the answers to provide people right now. Admittedly, the department could do a better job of communicating every single step along the way of the redesign process.
I was just in Burma, where we got questions from our own staff about where things are with the redesign. And I said to them, and I think we’ve been clear in this building, we would like to be able to share more. The process has not been completed just yet.
I can tell you that we have some very high-level career Foreign Service officers who are involved in the top levels of the redesign. I can discuss with you some of those people, and I think that will at least help reassure some of our folks in the building who have a lot of questions about the future of the State Department and what the State Department will look like. I want to make it clear that the people who are implementing the redesign, the people who are deciding the future of the redesign, it’s not coming from a brand-new political appointee like myself. It’s coming from people who have worked for the State Department for many years, in some cases decades and decades.
This process has involved a cross-section of the entire department. It’s included some junior, some mid-level, mid-career staff members, and also senior members of the Foreign Service. You may recall that 35,000 members of our community weighed in when they were asked to fill out that questionnaire regarding the redesign. Three hundred interviews have been conducted so far as a part of the redesign process. It’s been an inclusive process. Many of you work in the private sector; I would ask, have your companies ever asked what you think should be the future of your corporation? I’m pretty confident in saying that answer is probably no.
So this department regards the overall redesign as being an employee-led, employee-driven process. And I will again go out and say, admittedly, there has not been enough communication, and I think the department recognizes that. I would like to share with you some of the people who are involved in some of the phases of the process because that has not previously, to my knowledge, been discussed just yet, and I think it’ll make people feel perhaps a little bit better about it.
The executive steering committee has been chaired by Deputy Secretary John Sullivan. It also includes USAID Administrator Mark Green, the Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, acting Management and Director-General Ambassador Bill Todd, and also the U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Marcia Bernicat.
Now, the ambassador, Ambassador Bernicat, I was just with her about a week and a half ago in Bangladesh, and I didn’t realize that she was a part of the steering committee for the redesign. And she said to me that she was extremely supportive of the redesign efforts and she was proud to be a part of this. And I said to her, “Ambassador, you’re on this redesign team? Let’s let folks know that you are a part of this.”
And so with that in mind, I think the department recognizes that we need to say more. So hopefully our folks who are listening or are watching around the world who work for the State Department will feel more reassured that people who love this building, who are a part of this institution, who believe so firmly in what the State Department does, are the key people who are involved in seeing this process through.
QUESTION: Okay, but that doesn’t answer the problem of – the question of lots of departures in high-ranking places --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Yeah. So I wanted to get this --
QUESTION: -- and thinning out and the hiring freeze and the --
MS NAUERT: I wanted to get to this in pieces. So I think we’ve covered the overall redesign. Okay, so that is a work in process.
Let’s talk about – let’s about the American Foreign Service Association letter, and I think that’s one of the things you’re getting to right now. And I’m glad you brought that up because we didn’t get a chance to fully address it last week. There were articles and there’s been some information that has come out that I think has been misrepresented or misconstrued. I want to go over some figures and I want to just be – go through this kind of slowly so that we get it clear and on the record.
The number of Foreign Service officers as of October the 31st, 2017, is 985. Those are Senior Foreign Service officers. Sixty-three are waiting for Congress to approve their promotion. Once those promotions are granted, there will be 1,048 – there will be 1,048 Senior Foreign Service officers. Now, that number is nearly identical to the 1,058 Senior Foreign Service officers at the same point in 2016. So we have virtually the same number of Senior Foreign Service officers who will be serving after Congress approves their promotion as were serving last year at this time. The difference is only 10, according to the numbers I’ve been given.
From February the 1st to September the 30th of this year, 244 Foreign Service officers and Foreign Service specialists have retired. Two hundred and forty-nine retired in the same period in 2016. That’s a difference of just five. So, so far, these numbers are within five or 10 of last year.
The State Department has virtually the same number of Foreign Service employees today, at 13,873, as it did in the year 2016. That number of 13,980. Let me repeat those numbers: 13,7 – excuse me, 13,873 today compared with last year 13,980. It’s pretty similar.
The reported 60 percent reduction in career ambassadors is a misleading description. When Secretary Tillerson was sworn in, there were six career ambassadors serving. Two have since retired and today two now serve with this rank. That is within the historical norms of one to seven who have been serving at any time since 1980. Since 1955, Congress has only approved 58 people for that distinction.
In terms of the number of people taking the Foreign Service exam, that number fluctuates with the health of the economy. Remember when the economy tanked in 2008 and a lot of people decided to go to graduate school as opposed to looking for jobs in the workforce? We see as the economy has improved fewer people are applying to take the Foreign Service exam. As the economy does better, fewer people choose to take the Foreign Service exam. I want to – that’s funny? Yeah?
QUESTION: Well, I’d say yes, if they have other options, they don’t go into the Foreign Service.
MS NAUERT: Yeah, perhaps they do. Perhaps they’d like to do other things. And that’s okay; it’s a free country. Our people are free to choose the careers and the professional paths that they wish to take.
As the economy does better, few people choose to take this exam, just as fewer people choose to go to graduate school, Laurie, when the economy is doing better. In 2008, 8,889 people took the Foreign Service exam. In 2012, 20,481 took it. In 2016, 14,580 took the Foreign Service exam. And in 2017, 9,519 did. So as the economy does better, fewer people are taking that.
QUESTION: The Secretary is committed to the buyout plans and reduction of staff of – to 8 percent or something, right?
MS NAUERT: So let’s talk about the buyout, and I want to be very clear about this. The buyout is separate from the redesign. Every federal agency and department was required to do, under OMB, to engage in this workforce reduction plan. That was in response to OMB’s budget memorandum M17-22. The Department of State is offering voluntary buyouts and also early retirement incentives as an element of that department’s – of the department’s plan. Our goal is to meet our workforce reduction targets. That is something that didn’t come out of the State Department. That was something that came out of OMB. We are doing that through voluntary measures such as buyouts rather than involuntary measures such as layoffs, reductions in force.
A key objective to doing that is what they consider to be organization layering at the supervisory level. That sounds like a whole lot of bureaucratic talk, but essentially the department will require 641 employee departures above its normal attrition levels by the end of the calendar year 2018 in order to achieve its goal of the 8 percent reduction in workforce.
Okay? Anything else on redesign, buyout, any of that?
QUESTION: I don’t understand the argument that when the economy does better, fewer people would want to join the Foreign Service.
MS NAUERT: Typically they find --
QUESTION: You think that they make more money elsewhere?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to sort of make --
QUESTION: It would seem to me that when the economy does --
MS NAUERT: When the economy --
QUESTION: I mean --
MS NAUERT: Historically – and this is something that you can check with some of our departments in here – when the economy does better, more people are tending to go out in the workforce. When the economy tanks, more people choose to go into what’s perceived to be safer positions, whether it’s going in to graduate school or perhaps applying for the Foreign Service.
QUESTION: I understand that the tax bill before Congress now will severely penalize graduate students. Do you hope that will lead to an uptick in recruitment?
MS NAUERT: Not my domain. Okay.
QUESTION: One more question?
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: The frustrations from Congress are that there hasn’t been any kind of specifics given behind that. So you gave us some of the leadership that’s leading this --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- but what are – do you have any more specifics on the redesign that you can offer, and a timeline perhaps? Because we thought it was going to be done by this fall; now it’s December, now we’re coming into next year. Anything --
MS NAUERT: So I know that the Secretary will be making an announcement on this at some point. I don’t want to get ahead of what he is set to announce. Some of this work is still in progress; I know that he had hoped to speak with employees not too long ago to share with them an update on the process. That was changed because of some travel additions that were added to his schedule. But I’m not going to be able to provide you any specific details about what has happened just yet. But we fully hear and understand Congress’s concerns.
QUESTION: Can I ask --
MS NAUERT: Hey, Elise.
QUESTION: Hi, welcome back. So I understand that you said that AFSA is misrepresentative of the numbers in terms of career Foreign Service. But what do you say to just the general perception of career officers that may not be at, like, the top career ambassador level, because there’re so few, but, like, in those lower few ranks that are just saying, like, you know what, I’m not getting a new post, I’m not welcome here anymore, I’m getting the signal that I should leave because there’s no more work for me to do here, that I’m not appreciated, and those are the people that may not be at the top level, but there are --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- a lot of people at that kind of upper range still that are just leaving because they feel like they’re not welcome here anymore.
MS NAUERT: So that’s sort of anecdotal in nature. I can only speak to --
QUESTION: It’s anecdotal, but we’ve all spoken to those type of people.
MS NAUERT: Yeah, we’ve all heard that. I have not had the chance to speak to people who have said that to me. I have spoken with people who after many years have made the personal decision to retire, people who have been fantastic and have done so much good work for this building. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with and most recently on two recent trips work with some of our Foreign Service officers who are in the field. They – and you’ve covered this building for many years, know how terrific they are, know how transparent they are, know that regardless of policies that may be – that they may have to carry out, that they may not support, they would not necessarily express those opinions. I have never worked with a more professional – and I mean this, from the bottom of my heart – I have never worked with a more professional group of people than our Foreign Service officers. They have the utmost respect from me.
I hope, and I know this doesn’t offer a lot, but if I can convey in any way their professionalism, the level of respect that I have and that others have in this building for the work that they do, I hope they won’t give up. I know that times may seem tough right now; I know that the headlines coming out of the State Department do not look good, do not look promising. We have a lot of work to do here at the State Department. From the crises that unfold in Burma right now to what is going on in Iraq and the good defeating of ISIS that we are doing – we have so much work that has left to be done – to what is happening in Cambodia right now. Their work, I can just say from a personal point of view, is valued, is needed. We need the Foreign Service officers to keep doing what they have committed their lives to do. I hope that they will stay on. It breaks my heart to hear that some feel that they aren’t wanted or aren’t needed or aren’t appreciated. If I can get somebody else to convey that more convincingly than I can, I would love to do that. But I can just speak for myself right now and say how fantastic they are.
QUESTION: That’s a very impassioned statement. Do you think it would help if maybe the Secretary would address the employees of the building and kind of worldwide and tell them? Because I think they’re looking for that type of leadership. I guess that’s what I think all of the criticism has been written about.
MS NAUERT: I know – sure, I – of course, I understand that. And I think when he does go to post – and he had the opportunity to speak to our colleagues in London not long ago, he spoke to some of our folks in Burma, he was at some of our embassies in Asia, for example – I know he conveys that. I know he says that he values their work. Could we do more? Sure, I think we could always do more.
QUESTION: Heather, can I follow on that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: I think some folks in the building were taken aback when the Secretary gave an interview to one of our colleagues from Bloomberg, I believe, that said that if people – if there’s low morale, that he’s not seeing it, that he walks the hallways and people smile at him. He’s, of course, the boss, and the Secretary of State. So I’m wondering, the facts of it aside and taking you at your word that everyone here really, truly values the work these people are doing, does he get that there is a perception, at least, that that’s not the case? I mean, does he understand that, the facts aside, people feel a deficit there?
MS NAUERT: I have spoken with Under Secretary Tom Shannon about this. I have spoken with the Deputy Secretary John Sullivan about this very matter. They are extremely involved in this process. I know that they feel that we could do more to talk to our people. I think they understand and appreciate that there may be a morale issue in this building. I have seen and have talked to people, and will be frank that, sure, there is a morale issue in this building, and that’s why I say, folks, hang in there. We have a lot of work to be done. Please don’t give up. Don’t give up on this building. Don’t give up on what America is doing. Don’t give up on the importance of this job and this career.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay, anything else?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Hi.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- was shot down by the North Korean army at the JSA – Joint Security Area in Panmunjom. Do you have any comment on this incident?
MS NAUERT: So I think this man – and forgive me, because I may have missed some of the headlines in travel over the past week or so – but I think this man was trying to cross into North Korea from South Korea and he’s been detained by the South Koreans. I think that is where it stands right now. He’s an American citizen. As you know, we can’t say a whole lot about that. If I have anything more for you, I will certainly give it to you if I can, but you know we’re limited in terms of the things that we can say about Americans.
QUESTION: So what is the Joint – I mean Joint Security Area is target for the U.S. Army? I mean command --
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, say that again?
QUESTION: Commander-in-chief in U.S. Army, and they have the responsibility at this area for --
MS NAUERT: I’m not familiar with exactly where he was, when he was – when this man was taken into custody. I mean, I know he was in South Korea, but I’m not exactly certain where within South Korea he was taken. Is that what you’re asking, whether he was within the DMZ or --
QUESTION: DMZ incident --
MS NAUERT: Okay --
QUESTION: -- North Korean defector’s shooting by the North Korean army. That incident. You don’t know that incident --
MS NAUERT: I’m – let me get back to you on that, okay?
QUESTION: One more question.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay. Hold on. Okay.
QUESTION: This is the state sponsor terrorism issues.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: Do you think the President has decided the North Korea – to reassign the North Korea as a state sponsor terrorist?
MS NAUERT: Well, if a decision has been made, it hasn’t been announced just yet, so I’m not going to get ahead of anything that the Secretary is about to announce on North Korea.
QUESTION: Optimistic or pessimistic --
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Is State more optimistic --
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to characterize it. I’m just not going to get ahead of the Secretary or the White House on this issue. Just going to hold off until that matter is ready to be decided and announced.
Okay. Sir, what’s your name?
MS NAUERT: We’ll get to Ukraine. Hi.
QUESTION: Hi. So you’ve been pushing countries all over the world to cut their diplomatic ties to North Korea. We talked about that with Africa. The North Korean Government through their state-run news today announced that their foreign minister has just left on an official delegation to Cuba. Do you have any message to the Cubans about the advisability of them entertaining official delegations from North Korea right now?
MS NAUERT: I don’t. I’m not aware of that. This is the first I’m hearing of that, so let me just give it some thought and get back to you, okay?
Anything else on North Korea?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hey, how are you?
QUESTION: Good. How are you?
MS NAUERT: Good.
MS NAUERT: Hold on one second. So I know he was – I don’t think I have a readout of his meetings, but I can confirm that he did have some meetings in South Korea. But I don’t believe I have specifics on who he met with. Hold on. I don’t think we do. Robert, do we have anything on that? We don’t. Okay. Yeah, no, I’m sorry, I don’t, other than just to confirm that he was there.
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Could you get one for us?
MS NAUERT: I will certainly ask, yes. Okay. Hey.
QUESTION: Follow-up on that: The Chinese sent a delegation or a senior envoy to North Korea at exactly the same time. Was that something discussed while Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson were in China?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, sorry. Okay, North Korea.
QUESTION: And otherwise that just – and you may be able to address this when you release the readout, but he was quoted by Yonhap as saying that the Chinese envoy being sent had “very significant meaning considering the current situation.” Just wonder if that sentiment is shared by the Secretary.
MS NAUERT: That he had what?
QUESTION: He was commenting on the Chinese envoy going to Pyongyang, and he said that that had, quote, “a very significant meaning considering the current situation.” Did – I’m just wondering if you have some sentiment from this building on what you’re hoping to see out of the meeting that the Chinese envoy is having and if you agree --
MS NAUERT: Well, I wouldn’t want to get ahead of that, but overall I can say China has been – and the President spoke to this in his travel overseas – that China has been helpful. We always look at all countries and say that there’s more that they can do to help on the matter of the DPRK. China has been taking steps in the right direction and we feel positively about that.
Okay, anything else on North Korea?
QUESTION: Yes, North Korea.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi.
QUESTION: It seems there’s a disagreement between the U.S. and Chinese over the idea of a freeze for freeze. The President had come out earlier suggesting that China and the U.S. were on the same page and did not support the idea of a freeze for freeze, and now the Chinese are saying that’s one of the things under discussion with North Korea. You have any response to the --
MS NAUERT: Well, I know that some countries would like to see a freeze for freeze. I’ll come back to something that I’ve said before: There is no moral equivalency between the actions on the part of the DPRK, and by that I mean missile launches, advanced nuclear tests – there’s no moral equivalency between that and our legal, justified activities when we take part in freedom of navigation operations, for example. One does not – is not equal to the other.
Our activities between the U.S. and South Korea, for example, are lawful, they’re longstanding, they’ve taken place since I believe it was the 1950s or so, they’re defense-oriented military exercises. What the DPRK has done has been unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs and testing. President Xi himself from China recognizes that a nuclear North Korea is a grave threat. A lot of countries like to talk about this idea for a freeze for freeze, but that’s just not going to work. We’ve done these freedom of navigation operations and other things for many, many years. They’re lawful, it’s enshrined under international law, it’s – and that’s not going to change. Okay?
QUESTION: Was the U.S. caught off guard by the fact that they seem to be coming out in favor of the freeze for freeze after previously suggesting --
MS NAUERT: Not that I am aware of. It doesn’t surprise me, because Janne, I know you’ve asked about this one a lot. At different points, different countries have raised that idea – oh, maybe this would make North Korea stop. No, I don’t think so. A freeze for freeze would not make – would not likely make North Korea stop its actions or activities.
Okay. We done on North Korea? Let’s move on. Okay.
QUESTION: To Iraq?
QUESTION: Hi. The Kurdish government has repeatedly endorsed the calls that you and others, like the European Union, have made for Erbil and Baghdad having a dialogue. And the KRG has done various things to facilitate that dialogue, including endorsing the decision of Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court, which ruled against secession. So they essentially said we’re not looking for independence. Yet there is no diplomatic dialogue, the Iraqi air blockade on the Kurdistan region remains in place, there’s a huge Iraqi military force mobilized against the Kurdistan region, which implicitly threatens another attack. Is Baghdad doing enough, in your view, to accommodate your own policy objectives?
MS NAUERT: So Laurie, you said there is no dialogue and I would have to disagree with you about that, because Prime Minister Abadi has met with the government of Erbil and they have had direct military-to-military talks to try to de-escalate tensions. So there are steps that are taking place, there are meetings, and there are conversations that are being had. That’s a positive step. I feel like we’re having this conversation – the same conversation that we had about a week ago. They are having dialogue between various officials at that level, and we feel that that is a good thing and continue to support the continued dialogue between --
QUESTION: But Mattis has said no diplomatic or political dialogue and it – between the two parties, and that’s what you are calling for and Baghdad has not been forthcoming.
MS NAUERT: I know that they have had conversations. The United States will continue to work with and have conversations with Erbil and also with Baghdad.
QUESTION: Special Envoy – Presidential Envoy McGurk was in Baghdad, he was in Erbil. Did he receive any commitments from the Baghdad Government on starting a political dialogue?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have any information about his latest travel or when he was there, so I just don’t have anything to provide you on that. Okay?
MS NAUERT: Hey. Hold on one second.
QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about Syria.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Let’s about – okay.
QUESTION: Since we’re in the area. With the --
QUESTION: With the Russian veto yesterday in the United Nations of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about what the United States is looking at to replace that so you can continue to keep an eye on the use of chemical weapons --
MS NAUERT: Right.
QUESTION: -- and who is responsible in Syria.
MS NAUERT: So Carol, you’re talking about the Joint Investigative Mechanism. We’ve talked about this a few times over the past couple months or so. We were extremely disappointed that the Security Council did not renew the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism. What is so important about this Joint Investigative Mechanism is that that entity, if you will, determines culpability for chemical weapons use. Okay? That is important to know. Not just that chemical weapons were used, but who actually deployed them; which country, which entity has deployed them.
We see this, the work of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, as critically important to holding people, individuals, militaries, responsible parties accountable for the use of chemical weapons. We know that Russia once again prioritized protecting the Assad regime. We know that Russia has helped the Assad regime in the past. When they were on the verge of crumbling, its military was, Russia came in and helped them out, and helped strengthen the Assad regime. So we were very disappointed by the vote at the UN Security Council. But – and some of this I want to leave for the United – USUN to handle themselves since they’re the ones who are up there handling this, but Japan has put forward a new resolution to try to extend the Joint Investigative Mechanism mandate. That would be for a month – one month’s period so that members of the Security Council could actually have additional time to consult on the structure of it and also its methods – methodology. And so we want to thank the Government of Japan for doing that and we hope that that will pass.
QUESTION: Are you looking at any alternatives? That’s what Ambassador Haley seemed to suggest – that there were other entities, other bodies that might be able to do similar work, and if not, there’s always what happened last April.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. That may be the case. I don’t want to speak on behalf of Ambassador Haley’s office, so I’d just have to refer you to her office on that front, but they may be looking at other options as well.
QUESTION: We have --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: We are hearing at the United Nations that the Russians are actually maybe putting their foot down on that particular resolution.
MS NAUERT: On the --
MS NAUERT: On the Japan one?
QUESTION: Yep, and --
MS NAUERT: That would be – that would be --
QUESTION: -- are you hearing the same down in this building?
MS NAUERT: -- very, very disappointing if they did that.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: And Lavrov says --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- you’re engaging in fake diplomacy. What do you --
MS NAUERT: Who is?
QUESTION: -- have to say about that? Foreign Minister Lavrov said --
MS NAUERT: Fake diplomacy on what?
QUESTION: On the version of – the U.S. version of Russia not being involved in the draft that Ambassador Haley was talking about.
MS NAUERT: Oh, that I’d have to refer you to --
QUESTION: He says that’s just fake diplomacy. Any response?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, and this is another matter where a world leader, a top official, will say something that’s outrageous, ridiculous, and try to get us to comment on it, and I’m not going to comment on that. But I think the Joint Investigative Mechanism is something that’s respected, something that’s valued, a body that takes its work very seriously. They attributed some chemical weapons use to the Government of Syria. Russia obviously doesn’t want to hold Syria to account for some of those activities. Okay.
QUESTION: Heather, on this new meeting of the --
MS NAUERT: Oh, hold on. Okay.
QUESTION: During the Asia trip, there was a joint statement issued by U.S. and Russia --
MS NAUERT: There was a what?
QUESTION: A joint statement --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- issued by the U.S. and Russia recommitting to the Geneva process --
MS NAUERT: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: -- and there was a suggestion that there was some common ground had been reached on the Syria issue.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Does what’s happened at the UN put that in difficulty?
MS NAUERT: Well, look, I – we’ve said this a lot. There are a lot of areas where we don’t see eye to eye with Russia, but there are some areas where we do see eye to eye. And it may seem odd because it’s actually in the same country – we’re talking about Syria – where we don’t see eye to eye with the Russians on how they’re handling the Joint Investigative Mechanism. But we do see eye to eye with them on the defeat of ISIS, and that’s the whole reason that the U.S. is engaged along with the coalition allies in Syria to begin with.
And where we do see eye to eye, as the President and as Vladimir Putin and Secretary Tillerson have discussed, is in trying to create another ceasefire zone. There’s the one – and I talk about it all the time because I’m proud of the work that we’ve done in holding a ceasefire – since July the 9th, I believe it was, of this year in southwestern Syria. So the Secretary and the President and Mr. Lavrov and Vladimir Putin had agreed to trying to put together another one. If we can do that together and find this area of agreement and could potentially bring in more aid and save lives and try to get Syria more stable, try to get it back to a place where people can eventually return to their homes, that would certainly be a good thing. I hope we can get there.
QUESTION: That’s the ceasefire, but what about the Geneva process?
MS NAUERT: Oh, the Geneva process. That’s something that we are completely supportive of. We have talked about that for a long time. I know up at the United Nations, as the Secretary met with the likeminded countries on Syria and also with the D-ISIS coalition members separately, that was one of the things that we recommitted ourselves to – the Geneva process. So that hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: Is Russia your partner in that?
MS NAUERT: I don’t know. I know that we continue to support the Geneva talks. I don’t want to – Russia had agreed to join the Geneva talks. We see that as the longstanding and best road to peace and stability. I hope they will stand behind that and won’t back away from that.
QUESTION: But yesterday, Ambassador Haley said that Russia cannot be trusted or credible after this --
MS NAUERT: She said that what?
QUESTION: Russia cannot be trusted or credible after this veto. What would this – how would it affect the agreement, this?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, I don’t want to speak on behalf of Ambassador Haley. She has very, very capable spokespeople who represent her on this behalf. I’ve not seen her exact comments so I don’t want to comment on those. Okay.
QUESTION: But you said yourself that Russia always prioritize supporting, protecting the Assad regime --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- and this is all – what a political solution is all about. So how would you trust the Russians on seeking a political solution if they always prioritize protecting Assad?
MS NAUERT: Look, that’s a concern. That’s a concern of ours. But it doesn’t mean we’re going to stop working on it. Okay?
All right. Move away. What do you want to talk about?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Heather, the Secretary, I believe earlier this week, seemed to express some concern about the corruption investigations and arrests in Saudi Arabia. Has the State Department since then received satisfactory information about how those prosecutions are taking place?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of any calls that have taken place between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. We obviously have a good relationship with the Government of Saudi Arabia and have lots of various relationships at different levels with Saudi Arabia.
In terms of the arrests and the proceedings, I’d just have to refer you to the Saudi Government on that matter. They’re a strong partner. We continue to encourage that government to have transparent and fair judicial proceedings and hope that they will do so.
QUESTION: And there’s also the Lebanese prime minister is reportedly returning to Lebanon. Is this a move the United States supports?
MS NAUERT: I’d have to refer you to his government and also – I understand he may be going to France – the Government of France on that.
QUESTION: And one more also. There is a report out of the United Kingdom that there will be a transfer of power in Saudi Arabia to the crown prince next week. Is that something the United States is hearing at all or --
MS NAUERT: I am not aware of that. I don’t have anything for you on that.
QUESTION: Hold on.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: The second-to-last question was does the United States support Prime Minister Hariri going back to Lebanon, and you referred him --
MS NAUERT: Oh, I thought you said going back to France.
QUESTION: He was going back to Lebanon, but he is going via France.
MS NAUERT: But going via France.
QUESTION: But you referred us to the Government of Lebanon and the Government of France for what the U.S. Government thinks about --
MS NAUERT: I don’t have anything for you on that.
MS NAUERT: Okay? I don’t have anything. I thought he said him going to France. I didn’t hear the Lebanon part. My apologies.
Okay. I know you’re dying to talk about Ukraine. How are you?
QUESTION: I want to stay on Saudi, please.
MS NAUERT: Oh, okay. Hold on. I promise we’ll get to you. Let’s go to – let’s finish up with Saudi first.
QUESTION: Does the United States have reason to believe the Saudis’ assertions that Iranian missiles are coming in to the Houthis via the port of Hodeidah? First, there are reports that Mr. Hariri – what does the United States have to say about reports that Mr. Hariri is going to Paris? And do you believe that he will stay there in exile or would you want the French to ensure that he goes back to Beirut?
MS NAUERT: I think we have no idea on that. That one is the one I would refer you to him and also to the Government of France.
QUESTION: And on the missiles?
MS NAUERT: In terms of the missiles going in, potentially, that some would say go into Yemen – is that what you’re referring to?
QUESTION: Are the – does the United States --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: -- have reason to believe the Saudis’ assertions or do you support their assertions that these missiles are going through the port of Hodeidah?
MS NAUERT: That would be, I think, an intelligence matter so I’m not going to be able to comment on anything related to intelligence. As it relates to ports and also any land bridges or flights in terms of getting aid into Yemen, that is something we are strongly supportive of, we encourage that to take place, for the opening of those. We’ve long called for that so that people can get the aid and the humanitarian help that they need in Yemen.
QUESTION: So you’re – the United States believes that not all of the ports are open to Saudi – to humanitarian supplies at this time?
MS NAUERT: We know that there has been an issue with that for months.
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MS NAUERT: And you’re – tell me, you’re with who again?
QUESTION: Ukrinform news agency.
MS NAUERT: Ukrainian what?
QUESTION: Ukrinform news agency.
MS NAUERT: Inform news agency. Okay. Nice to see you. Yeah.
QUESTION: So I actually have two questions about Ukraine, two questions. The first one is about today’s news that a journalist of the Ukrainian radio, Pavlo Sharoiko, was arrested in Minsk, Belarus. He was detained last month, in October, but the Belarussian KGB and the government of this country have been keeping silence on that. The other Ukrainian journalist, Roman Sushchenko, has been detained in jail in Moscow for more than one year. We also know other Ukrainian journalists who were persecuted by KGB/FSB. Do you have any comments on the situation?
MS NAUERT: Sir, I’m sorry I don’t have any information on that. I’d like to look into that and get back to you.
QUESTION: In general about the detention of Ukrainian journalists outside, in Belarus and Russia?
MS NAUERT: One of the things that you will hear, and I know we haven’t had a chance to work together very often, but I’m really passionate about the rights of journalists, about the importance of free speech, about the work that reporters do in dangerous conditions all over the world. We firmly believe here at the State Department that in other countries, more voices – more voices contribute to a better, democratic, and more fair society. So if there are journalists who are true journalists who are being detained, that would be a concern of ours, but the specific cases that you’re talking about, I’m afraid I just don’t have any information for you on those cases, but I’d like to look into it for you and see what I can get.
QUESTION: Okay. And the other question is about the visit of Assistant Secretary of State Mr. Mitchell and his meeting with President Petro Poroshenko and other senior government. Do you have any official remarks, and in general could you comment how do you assess the level of and the cooperation with Ukrainian Government?
MS NAUERT: Okay, a couple things. So our new Assistant Secretary Mitchell – I don’t believe you all have met him yet, have you? Okay, I’d like to bring him down to the bullpen and introduce you all to him someday soon. I think you will enjoy him.
I have a little bit of information about the trip that he just returned from. I believe he’s now back in Washington. He went to Belgium, France, UK, Germany, Poland, and also Ukraine, and I’ve got a bit of a readout on some of his meetings, if I can go through this for you.
In the UK, Wess Mitchell had constructive meetings in London on November the 9th at the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices and Her Majesty’s Treasury. He discussed a wide range of topics with UK officials and emphasized the United States’ commitment to continue building on the strong relationship between our two countries.
In Germany, he had meetings with senior government officials in Berlin. Assistant Secretary Mitchell reinforced the importance of transatlantic relations and our close continued cooperation with Germany on international issues of mutual concern, including Iran, Russia, and the DPRK.
In Poland, he visited there November 11th through 14th. He took part in independence day observances and other civic and cultural events. He had frank and positive exchanges of views with Polish Government and opposition members, and had the opportunity to discuss concerns with representatives of the American business community and of Polish civil society.
And then in Ukraine, as you asked about, November 14th to the 16th, Assistant Secretary Mitchell met with senior government officials in Kyiv, included President Poroshenko, Prime Minister Groysman, and parliamentary leaders. He reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and encouraged Ukraine to continue implementing crucial reforms, critical reforms. He also met with business leaders and reformers from civil society to urge them to redouble their efforts to transform the country into a prosperous, secure, and democratic European state.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Sure.
QUESTION: So the Secretary in his comments this morning on Zimbabwe said that he, or the United States and others, would like to see a return to civilian rule in Zimbabwe. That is language that suggests that you believe that a coup d’etat has happened. Is that the case? Is that what you guys think?
MS NAUERT: So we certainly wouldn’t use that word. That word has a very specific meaning. We continue to monitor the situation there. It remains fluid. We don’t have a final assessment of that situation; and as facts become more clear, then we may be able to make an assessment.
QUESTION: Well, does he – does the U.S. believe that Zimbabwe right now is not under civilian rule? He talked about the return – a return to civilian rule.
MS NAUERT: I think I would just say we have concerns about the situation and we are continuing to monitor it.
QUESTION: All right. And then related to Zimbabwe, you opened up with a little thing about Guatemala and INL.
MS NAUERT: A little thing? A little thing.
QUESTION: A little opening thing. I wasn’t – it wasn’t intended to be a --
MS NAUERT: You make it sound so cute, Matt.
QUESTION: About INL doing work in Guatemala.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Well, INL – there’s an office within INL that you might be aware of, which is a wildlife trafficking office. Okay? And this is related to Zimbabwe.
MS NAUERT: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: This office within INL works very closely with the Fish and Wildlife Service to combat wildlife trafficking. As you are probably aware, the Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to start licensing the taking of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. And Chairman Royce of the House of Foreign Affairs – Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has come out with a statement within the last couple hours vehemently opposing this, saying that not only is it questionable on conservation grounds because of the inability of the Zimbabwean Government or questions about the Zimbabwean Government’s abilities in that area, but it also will spark trafficking in wildlife parts and trophies, which he says and other say, including in this building, it goes – the funds from that finance terrorism.
So I want to know, one, did the Fish and Wildlife Service communicate at all with the office – with the State Department office which deals with wildlife trafficking on its decision? And if it did, or even if it didn’t, what does this building think about that decision to allow the licensing of elephant trophies?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Let me look into whether or not Fish and Wildlife under the Department of Interior was in touch with us. I don’t have the answer to that.
I can tell you that the State Department recently released a new report – some of you may be familiar with this – it’s called the END Wildlife Trafficking Act. It was a report to Congress. The – and this is what I can share with you about that, that the State Department worked with other agencies on a task force to put together this wildlife trafficking report. There were countries included on this list. Our government – I believe Zimbabwe was – was or was not on that list? Was not on that – was not on that list.
This is something that was put together as a sort of an interagency process. I know this is different than what you are asking me about. You’re asking me about the decision on the part of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. I’ll just have to get back to you on whether or not they consulted us.
QUESTION: All right. And then unrelated to that completely, does the administration have any comment on the legislation that was introduced earlier this week by Congresswoman McCollum and others regarding Palestinian children – protection of Palestinian children?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have anything for you on that. I’m sorry.
QUESTION: And if not, could you look into that? And then, last one.
MS NAUERT: Have you got that one – Palestinian children? Okay.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- about Sayed Alwadaei. Do you have any updates on that, on the situation with that court case?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have much new on this. So a couple things on this. Sayed Alwadaei, he’s a London-based activist who’s been very critical of the Government of Bahrain. He alleges that three of his family members were convicted because of his outspoken voice and because of his activism in calling out the Government of Bahrain.
So we understand that three of his family members were sentenced – at least two of his family members were sentenced to three years in prison by Bahrain court on October the 30th for terrorism-related offenses, so very serious offenses, and that another family member of his was sentenced on a lesser charge in Bahrain.
So that’s a situation that we’re monitoring. We’re concerned by those allegations. We have heard that their confessions were obtained under duress. That would certainly be a major concern of ours. We’re following the cases closely, and that’s all that I have for you on that.
QUESTION: Okay. So you have been in touch with – with the Bahrainis about this, or not?
MS NAUERT: I can tell you that we were not at the – we were not at the trials in Bahrain. We try to be at sort of high-profile trials, as we have been in other countries. I don’t know why we weren’t able to join that one. But I can tell you we continue – we always continue to raise issues of human rights concerns with the government.
QUESTION: When you say that you’re concerned by the allegations, you mean you’re concerned by the allegations against his family members, or you are concerned by the way in which they have been treated in the judicial system?
MS NAUERT: We are – we’re concerned – we’re concerned about the detainment of these people. We’re concerned about allegations that they would potentially, if this were to be the case, be sentenced because of the actions of a family member, because a family member criticized the government. If would concern us if those family members of his were detained.
MS NAUERT: Okay?
QUESTION: And the confessions under duress, I presume, would be as well?
MS NAUERT: Exactly. Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: All right, thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay? Yes.
QUESTION: Thank you. Can I just turn to Zimbabwe for --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: The Secretary said that there would be an opportunity to – for Zimbabwe to move towards democratic rule. So if it works out that way, could this military takeover have been a good thing?
MS NAUERT: I’m just – I’m not going to – I’m not going to go there on that one. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: It’s our understanding that South Africa and China were informed in advance. Was the United States informed in advance of the military’s plans?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have the answer to that. Okay, all right, guys. We’ve got to wrap it up. I got to go.
QUESTION: The Secretary also said it was a chance to talk about concrete actions that the African ministers and the – presumably the U.S. could take to help this transition. Do you have anything to say about what concrete actions that might be?
MS NAUERT: I don’t. Sorry. Thank you. Thanks, everybody.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:47 p.m.)