Department Press Briefing - November 28, 2017
4:05 p.m. EST
Start with a couple pieces of news coming out of the State Department. First is that we would like to welcome Manisha Singh as the new Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs to the State Department. She is the first woman appointed to serve in this position. She comes to the department with a wealth of experience that will benefit our economic and business efforts abroad. Assistant Secretary Singh previously served as chief counsel and senior adviser to U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan, who is from Alaska. He was, himself, a former assistant secretary in the Bureau of Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs. She also previously served as deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs. We’re pleased to have her back again at the State Department, as she will now lead our efforts to promote prosperity for Americans at home and abroad. I had the opportunity to meet her just yesterday, and we are all really looking forward to working with her.
Second thing, taking place in India right now is the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. The Global Entrepreneurship Summit is underway in Hyderabad, India, where it will continue through this Thursday. The GES is the preeminent annual entrepreneurship gathering that convenes emerging entrepreneurs, investors, and supporters from around the world, and we are excited about the focus that this year’s GES puts on the U.S.-India bilateral relationship. GES 2017 participants will empower innovators and entrepreneurs, particularly women, to utilize new skills and resources to achieve success through plenaries, workshops, and a pitch competition. This is the eighth annual GES, and the first time the GES has taken place in South Asia. It reflects the region’s strong entrepreneurial-ship achievements and future as well as the rapid growth of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership.
More than 1,500 entrepreneurs, investors, and supporters of entrepreneurs from 150 countries will attend the summit. It is the first time that more than 50 percent of the participants are women. There’s also American entrepreneurs and investors from 38 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The State Department worked with U.S. embassies around the world to identify entrepreneurs who demonstrated a need for investment, mentorship, and business partnerships. We worked with top U.S. organizations, incubators, and accelerators, as well as other government agencies, to identify entrepreneurs from across the United States to attend. The connections of all the participants will make – through GES to help promote entrepreneurship and economic growth in the United States, India, and around the world.
Senior Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump, USAID Administrator Mark Green, and U.S. Ambassador to India Kenneth Juster are among the senior U.S. Government officials representing the United States at the gathering. If you didn’t have a chance to watch Ivanka Trump’s remarks from a plenary earlier today, I would encourage you to go to the website. It’s GES2017.org, and that’s where her remarks are posted.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) 4:00 in the morning?
MS NAUERT: Well, there is a time change between the U.S. and India, certainly. But we’re certainly proud of what she’s been able to accomplish, and I can think of no better representative for the U.S. Government to talk about women’s entrepreneurship than her.
A couple more items I’d like to bring to you right now. The next is about Cuba, where there were elections that took place on Sunday, November the 26th. Cuba held municipal elections, the first stage in what we consider to be a flawed process that will culminate in a non-democratic selection of a new president in 2018. Unfortunately, the elections that took place further demonstrate how the Cuban regime maintains an authoritarian state while attempting to sell the myth of a democracy around the world.
Despite courageous efforts by an unprecedented number of independent candidates this year, none were allowed on the ballot. The regime, once again, used intimidation, arcane technicalities, and false charges to discourage and disqualify independent candidates from running. Democracy is not quantified by participation alone; democracy is undermined when voters may only choose candidates who follow one ideology.
It’s important to remember the dozens of political prisoners who are unjustly held in Cuba. So far in 2017, there have been more than 4,500 arbitrary detentions for political motives. The detentions show that Cuban citizens cannot exercise their fundamental freedoms to organize, assemble, or express themselves. Those are all vital components of democratic elections.
QUESTION: This is in his name?
MS NAUERT: Yes, it is.
The United States strongly condemns North Korea’s launch of what was likely an intercontinental ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan, indiscriminately threatening its neighbors, the region, and global stability.
The DPRK’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them must be reversed. Together the international community must continue to send a unified message to North Korea that the DPRK must abandon its weapons of mass destruction programs. All nations must continue strong economic and diplomatic measures. In addition to implementing all existing UN sanctions, the international community must take additional measures to enhance maritime security, including the right to interdict maritime traffic transporting goods to and from the DPRK. The United States, in partnership with Canada, will now convene a meeting of the United Nations Command Sending States to include the Republic of Korea and Japan and other key affected countries to discuss how the global community can counter North Korea’s threat to international peace.
Diplomatic options remain viable and open for now. The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions taken by North Korea.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: So on North Korea --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: This meeting was previously going to be held, or it’s been called in response to this launch?
MS NAUERT: I believe that this was an option that was being considered for some time, but yet with this latest launch I believe that they’ve decided that this is something we want to do. I know the Secretary spoke a short while ago with the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland. Canada is one of the member countries of the 16 convening nations. Those were the nations that all worked together back in the 1950s.
MS NAUERT: Back during the Korean War.
QUESTION: During the Korean War.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: And that meeting would be in New York? Tomorrow?
MS NAUERT: I don’t know. I don’t have details of that. Again, a lot of this is just coming together right now as we’re responding to what took place today.
QUESTION: Has he made any other calls that you’re aware of, other than to --
MS NAUERT: Any other calls? I know that the Secretary has had interagency calls today. As many of you know, it was on the public schedule that the Secretary met with King Abdullah of Jordan at that time. He was passed a note in his bilateral meeting in which he was informed of what we believe to be the ICBM launch. The most recent launch prior to this was September 15th.
So the Secretary was notified then. He immediately came back to the State Department, and that’s where he had some interagency calls, and since then has spoken with the foreign minister of Canada. I know he plans to discuss, have a discussion, with other of our allies too.
QUESTION: But not yet?
MS NAUERT: As of right now – I mean, literally this just happened about two hours ago.
QUESTION: I know, I know. I’m not trying to be critical. I just --
MS NAUERT: So the first step is talking with the interagency. As that step was taking place, we were assembling this statement from the Secretary that I just read out to you. And then I know he spoke with Chrystia Freeland. Since then I’m not aware of the exact calls, but I know that he was planning to call some of the allies in the region.
QUESTION: Did (inaudible) two missiles launch or three missiles?
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: Is that two missile launch or three missile launch?
MS NAUERT: As of today?
MS NAUERT: I think we’re still working through the information, but as far as I know, there was just one. But we can double-check that. Again, this information is just fresh, so I don’t want to get ahead of anything that the Department of Defense has said so far. They issued a statement earlier, and for the specifics of the technicals, I would just refer you to the Department of Defense.
QUESTION: So this issue will be bringing to UN sanctions again, or --
MS NAUERT: I don’t want to get ahead of any potential UN sanctions, but I think convening this committee of nations to look at what to do next will be a significant move.
Okay? Hi, Dave.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, that committee just talks about maritime – the maritime --
MS NAUERT: My – and again, this is all fresh, and this is all new. But my understanding is that there will be two pieces to this. One, we overall – the United States, the United Nations – believe that there is a right to interdict maritime traffic --
MS NAUERT: -- that would be transporting goods to and from North Korea. That’s part one. Then the United States, in partnership with Canada, which I think is why the Secretary spoke with his counterpart there today, will convene this meeting of the United Nations Command Sending States. That’s the actual title of it. That includes 16 countries --
MS NAUERT: -- in addition to Japan and North Korea. And they will have a discussion about how the overall --
QUESTION: Japan and South Korea.
MS NAUERT: Excuse me, South Korea. Thank you. Have a discussion about how the global threat of North Korea persists and what all of our nations think that we need to do to try to solve the problem.
Okay? Hi, Dave.
QUESTION: So the plan before today was that there would be a period of relative calm before you allow North Korea to join talks on its own disarmament. Now, you haven’t publicly put a time scale on that, though we have seen reports --
MS NAUERT: And we wouldn’t. We wouldn’t put a time frame on that; we’ve been very clear.
QUESTION: We have seen reports that Ambassador Yun was suggesting 60 days, but let’s say you haven’t --
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, but okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. Regardless of how long it would have been, has the clock gone back to zero?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have an answer to that. Look, I think it – we have always been very clear that we would be open to talks with North Korea, but that North Korea – and we would have said this last week, we would have said this 24 hours ago – is not showing any serious signs of wanting to sit down and have conversations with the world, with the global community, about the peace and stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. So 24 hours ago they weren’t prepared to talk; today they certainly aren’t prepared to talk.
QUESTION: Has there been any attempt to open diplomatic channels since this launch today?
MS NAUERT: Since this happened, since we got notice of it three hours ago? Not that I am aware of. I can certainly tell you that the South Korean counterpart to our ambassador, Joe Yun, is here in Washington today. They were having a meeting at some point this afternoon. I anticipate that we will have a readout of that meeting sometime perhaps today or tomorrow.
QUESTION: Is there any comment on the recently violation of North Korea armistice agreement at JSA (inaudible)?
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, I don’t.
QUESTION: You don’t --
MS NAUERT: I don’t.
QUESTION: -- have anything comment on that? JSA North Korean military detector into South Korea so they shoot --
MS NAUERT: You mean the defectors?
MS NAUERT: The defectors who’ve left North Korea for South Korea?
MS NAUERT: That’s the question that you’re asking? I know with the most recent soldier who defected from North Korea, and my colleague, Brian Hook, wrote a very compelling editorial in The New York Times about this very matter, about the condition, the physical condition, that that man was in; the number of times that he was shot at by his own government as he was defecting to South Korea; the South Koreans and the Americans who helped facilitate his survival, who essentially rescued him and brought him into the hospital.
I mean look, any country that’s willing to shoot its own people for crossing its borders is a country that is not aligned with the overall global community. It is a country – or I should say a regime – that does not want to see peace if they’re willing to treat its own people that way. But their record of how they treat people is longstanding, and we’ve seen the situation of how that soldier was treated there.
Okay, that’s all I have for you for on that. Hey, Oren. How you been?
QUESTION: Hi. So earlier this month there was a – the chairwoman of the South Korean ruling party was here in Washington, and she was saying that the – that she doesn’t think the North Koreans are willing to talk until after they have achieved their goal of having a weapon that can reach the United States. And also, the North Koreans have said that they’re willing to talk – they’ve said in the past that they would talk to the Americans but not about their nuclear program. So where does that leave --
MS NAUERT: We have --
QUESTION: Is there like a middle ground? Or is there – is there a position somehow at all acceptable to the United States?
MS NAUERT: I think today is the wrong day to ask. When they launch what we believe to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, they are not showing that they are serious about having conversations. Our ultimate goal is to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. That has not changed. Part of what we say in that goal is that we want to support our strong allies – our allies Japan, our allies in the Republic of Korea. It is an ironclad relationship that we have with them. I imagine today that they are understandably nervous. We’ve had a period of relative calm, if you would call it that, since September 15th, since the last testing, but nevertheless that is a huge concern. And it’s a concern that not just the United States shares but the entire world shares, the civilized world shares.
And I’ll go back to saying this one more time again: With the two unanimous UN Security Council resolutions, which all the nations signed on, including China and Russia, onto those two new UN Security Council resolutions, then we’ve had success with other countries jumping on board and choosing to assist us with our maximum pressure campaign, it is a disappointment in what we saw today in terms of this testing that was conducted. That is a disappointment. But diplomacy still remains our option. We will have conversations with our allies and partners where to go from here.
Okay? And I’m not going to have a lot more for you all on this, on this related to DPRK.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Hi, Heather.
MS NAUERT: Hi, Andrea.
QUESTION: Another subject when you’re ready?
MS NAUERT: Sure. Okay, hold on just one second. Do you want to – last one? Hi, good to see you.
QUESTION: Hi, Heather. Can you tell us more about this meeting that the U.S. will be convening with Canada? When is it going to take place, and then what are you hoping to achieve from it?
MS NAUERT: So again, this is all new, okay? So we don’t have a date that’s scheduled for that. As soon as we are able to put this on the calendar – as you can imagine, it’s a pretty big feat to gather 16 countries together plus South Korea and also Japan. But that is a meeting that we will plan to pull together. Where exactly it will take place I just don’t know. But we’ll talk about the next steps forward, what we need to do, what all of us need to do, in light of DPRK’s continued destabilizing activities.
QUESTION: But are you thinking of sometime this week, or is this more of a far in the future type of meeting?
MS NAUERT: Again, I do not know. This is just being pulled together. As soon as I have information and a meeting to announce for you, I’ll certainly bring it to you.
QUESTION: One more on North Korea.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: We have out of New York diplomats saying that the United States is requesting a UN Security Council meeting on North Korea. Is that correct?
MS NAUERT: I would have to check with Ambassador Nikki Haley’s office on that. I just don’t want to get ahead of anything that they’re – that they may be announcing. I don’t want to speak on her behalf. But if I get anything for you before we end, we’ll certainly bring that to you.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. The Secretary said today that reports of hollowing out are false and also suggested during his talk today that there are going to be cuts because things are getting better, because things are getting better around the world, a lot of questions about his saying that the reports of hollowing out are false. You yourself have acknowledged a morale problem. There have been dozens of resignations or early retirements or buyouts. How does he justify not having full, confirmed, permanent assistant secretaries in key regions around the world and people not even yet nominated?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Well, that is overall – I mean, there were a lot of questions bundled into that, so let me try to take it piece by piece.
The first one in terms of personnel, we have had now a steady stream of our assistant secretaries coming in. I just mentioned our new assistant secretary for our economic bureau. Pleased to have her in. We were just able to get in our new head of Diplomatic Security on the November the 3rd. He is now in; I was briefed by him this morning. Wess Mitchell, our new assistant secretary for European Affairs, our European bureau, is now in. So there’s a steady stream of people in --
QUESTION: Africa, Asia, South Asia --
MS NAUERT: Hold on. In – hold on. In addition, we have other people in the pipeline. Is this all moving fast enough? Absolutely not. We would like it to move faster. The Secretary has had conversations internally here and I know he has a lot of conversations with people on the Hill, including a flurry of letters that will go back and forth between our building and also members on Capitol Hill, trying to get people through. So we would like it to move faster. Part of that is not having those selections made, but part of that is the responsibility of the Hill as well to get some of those people moved forward.
QUESTION: Isn’t it mostly because this administration has been so slow to nominate and because of the job freeze?
MS NAUERT: I – those are two different issues altogether. I think it’s an unfair characterization to say that the administration has been slow to nominate. There is a process in place in which the White House may have a portfolio of people that they want that --
QUESTION: It’s --
MS NAUERT: May I finish?
QUESTION: It’s 11 months in --
MS NAUERT: Let me finish, let me finish – where the White House will say, hey, consider these people. And then Secretary Tillerson and some members of his staff will say, hey, here are some other people to consider. All of that takes time, but the Secretary – and I will certainly be the first to acknowledge that we would all like this to move faster. I mean, it is great getting new people on board to get that fresh energy and enthusiasm coming into the building – not that the folks here don’t have that. They certainly do, they have it in spades. But when you talk to our career people, they look forward to getting additional political appointees in place because they bring forward new ideas. So it’s not going fast enough, Andrea, I will be the first to admit that, but the Secretary certainly says that as well.
QUESTION: But doesn’t – doesn’t a lot of this fall on the State Department and the White House jointly for not nominating people quickly enough? It is 11 months in and the Secretary praises the acting secretaries, fine, but they are not Trump appointees, they don’t carry the same weight with foreign governments.
MS NAUERT: I understand that. I can tell you that there are acting assistant secretaries, and the Secretary has certainly said to them it is a tough job to be an acting. You maybe have to work even twice as hard with your foreign counterparts to let them know that you have the access to the information, to let them know that you are relevant and you are speaking on behalf of the Secretary and administration. But as I have seen here how professional our people are, our career people are, when they are handed a policy that they may or may not agree with, they will work hard to implement that policy and push forward with that policy. I’ve seen it time and time again where they may not be in love with it, but yet they do it, because they’re patriotic, it’s their job, and that’s what they’re here to do: to serve their country regardless of politics.
QUESTION: Can I just --
MS NAUERT: Hi, Nick.
QUESTION: -- ask a – hi. Can I ask a follow-up on that? I think a week or two ago at a briefing you said that the difference between this year and last year for Foreign Service officers --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- was a number of 10.
MS NAUERT: I have to --
QUESTION: Are those numbers still accurate?
MS NAUERT: I have to go back and look at my numbers because I’m not a numbers person, admittedly, as many of you are probably not either, and go through that for you. Let me see where I can find them.
To my knowledge – and maybe Robert can assist me here – I do not believe the numbers have changed. We’re still good with – okay. So if you’d like me to go over those numbers again, I certainly can, although we did go over it a week and a half ago.
MS NAUERT: All right. Let’s do it again. As of October the 31st, the Senior Foreign Service had 985 officers with 63 waiting for Congress to approve their promotion. I believe now that some of those – and I want to double check this – but I believe that Congress has approved some of those for promotions.
QUESTION: I think it may be all.
MS NAUERT: So I want to get back to you on that number. Okay? So do not quote me on the number for the Congressional promotions because we’re still waiting for our human resources department to get back to us on this.
Once those promotions are granted – and perhaps they have been – HR, call down here. We’d like to hear from you. Maybe that’s a good way to get that number going – there will be 1,048 Senior Foreign Service officers. That is a number nearly identical to the 1,058 Senior Foreign Service officers at the same point in 2016. From February the 1st to September the 30th, 2017, 244 Foreign Service officers and Foreign Service specialists combined retired; 249 retired in the same period in 2016. So you have a difference there of five. The State Department has virtually the same number of Foreign Service employees today at 13,873 as it did in 2016 at 13,980. So just to compare those numbers again, today, 13,873; the year 2016, 13,980. The numbers are pretty close.
When it has been reported a 60 percent reduction in career ambassadors, we regard that as a misleading description. When Secretary Tillerson was sworn in, there were six career ambassadors serving. Two of them have since retired. Today two serve with this rank, which is within the historical norms of one to seven at any one time since 1980. Since the year 1955, Congress has only approved 58 people for that distinction. The Secretary went over some of these numbers today in his remarks at the Wilson Center, so I just wanted to reiterate those as you requested, Nick.
QUESTION: Just a couple things on this.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: One, on the career ambassadors, the Secretary said that when he took over the department there were six, and he said four of those people have retired.
MS NAUERT: Two have since retired.
MR GREENAN: Four.
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry?
MR GREENAN: Four retired.
QUESTION: He said four.
MS NAUERT: Oh. Okay.
QUESTION: So --
MS NAUERT: I have in my notes two have retired. Okay.
QUESTION: -- but he then went on to say they reached 65, they retired, they moved on. At least two of those four – one was your predecessor – was 55 – Toria Nuland – when she retired, not 65. So he suggested that they hit mandatory retirement age, but she didn’t, and I’m told that Kristie Kenney was in her early 60s when she retired. So it’s not like they hit 65. Their ages --
MS NAUERT: You’re going to get in trouble with these ladies for announcing ages here. Be careful with that, Arshad.
QUESTION: Hey, I’m not worried about that. So the question is, why did he say they hit 65 when at least two of the four were not 65?
MS NAUERT: Let me look into that for you, okay?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: And then one other thing: Can you provide – for people who have tried to look at the numbers that were released by AFSA, and AFSA says, well, we got those numbers from the State Department – and I know I asked for this the night that the AFSA letter came out and I wasn’t able to get it from you guys. I would like it if you would give not just these collective numbers of the total number of senior people in the Senior Foreign Service, but rather the actual comparatives so we can see how many career ministers are there, how many – just go down the gradation so that we can see what the change has been. It may be that you have overall roughly the same number of Senior Foreign Service officers, but it may be that the people at the top – that there are fewer of those. And so I think you could make your case better if you’d give us the breakdown.
MS NAUERT: I believe that information was sent up to Capitol Hill with that breakdown, and I will see if we can release that information that was put together, okay?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: And I’m sorry if your question was not answered in a timely fashion. We always try to get back with you --
QUESTION: I know.
MS NAUERT: -- just as quickly as possible to try to meet your deadlines.
QUESTION: So in one of your answers to a question on North Korea, you mentioned your colleague --
MS NAUERT: We’re going back to North Korea. Okay.
QUESTION: No. No, no, no, I’m staying on this.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: But you mentioned Brian Hook’s compelling editorial in The New York Times.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Well, there was an editorial in The New York Times today that some people also found to be compelling written by two very respected former senior career diplomats, including one who used to stand not behind this podium, but behind the podium in the old briefing room. And it’s a pretty harsh critique drawn on the reports that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks that have gotten increasingly harsh or increasingly critical of the Secretary. And what – in this op-ed, which I’m sure you’ve seen, Ambassadors Burns and Crocker make the point or they argue that this, the reduction in staff, is not about belt-tightening; it is a deliberate effort to deconstruct the State Department and the Foreign Service, which is a pretty stunning accusation to make.
MS NAUERT: It certainly is.
QUESTION: So can you answer – the Secretary didn’t really – I mean, he talked about it, but not specifically. Is he trying to deliberately deconstruct or dismantle the Foreign Service as part of some broader Trump administration scheme to tamp down the ability and influence of the U.S. globally?
MS NAUERT: Absolutely not. Absolutely not, and here’s why: I know that the Secretary is committed to the mission of this building. I have watched him as he’s talked with my colleagues, with our colleagues here in the building, and I know how much the overall mission of what the State Department does and our colleagues here do each and every day in very dangerous locations means to him. Now, does the Secretary believe that there are some inefficiencies in the building, that with 75,000 people operating here that there are redundancies? Well, of course he believes that. But the accusation that was made in that editorial is their opinion. I think their opinion is wrong. As somebody who works here every day with these colleagues, everyone is pushing ahead with their assertive agenda in conducting diplomacy around the world in places like Iraq, in Syria, in places where our people are not armed. We are different and the mission that our people undertake here is different than the Department of Defense. We go out in unstable places, without an entire battalion around us, without companies around us, and do this job each and every day. These people are committed to the job.
Just because there will be cuts – and there are budget cuts that were given to us. It’s not as though the Secretary said, “Hey, here’s the budget I want. I want a smaller budget.” That was given to us. We are trying to – the Secretary is trying to make cuts where he sees fit. But the commitment to this building, the commitment to our staff is solid. It is not changing. It is something that I know that the Secretary is passionate about. Our Deputy Secretary John Sullivan – he – his uncle, as many of you may recall, was the last serving U.S. ambassador to Iran. He is committed to this building. He has a family member who works here in one of our bureaus, as well as a civil servant. He’s committed to this. Tom Shannon – there is no better advocate for this building than those two, three – than those three, and that includes Tom Shannon, our under secretary for political affairs, the most senior Foreign Service officer, I believe, in the United States. He’s incredible. None of those men will give up on the mission of this building or their strong belief in what our people do each and every day.
QUESTION: So a lot of the points that Ambassadors Burns and Crocker make in this are drawn, as I said, from this narrative that has evolved over the course of the last several months. Why do you think – if you so wholeheartedly – both you, the Secretary, and apparently everyone else on the seventh floor wholeheartedly disagrees with this, thinks it’s false, thinks it’s based on wrong numbers – how has this narrative exploded and taken control? Because you can’t --
MS NAUERT: I think it’s based on politics.
QUESTION: -- it doesn’t go – there isn’t a single day that you can’t read – that you don’t find a story talking about how this Secretary of State is the worst secretary of State ever; he needs to resign immediately; he’s destroying the State Department; the United States is at its lowest standing ever. How is it that this narrative has been allowed to take hold? How is it that your efforts have not been effective? Have you guys looked at this?
MS NAUERT: Well, I – look, I – believe me --
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Because I have one suggestion – I got one suggestion right now.
MS NAUERT: Sitting here, I see the press each and every day – hold on, I want to hear your suggestion. I read those headlines each and every day. I wish there were more that I could do, okay. I’m passionate about this place. I love what we do and our mission here, and I enjoy working with all of you.
QUESTION: All right. Well, briefing twice a week --
MS NAUERT: This is – hold on a second. Hold – Matt, hold on one second.
QUESTION: -- for 45 minutes is not the way to do it.
MS NAUERT: Hold on a second. Hold on a second, okay? It is an important job to advocate and explain what we believe in here in terms of U.S. foreign policy and the activities of our personnel and the objectives that we have.
We have gotten certainly bad press. I know that. I have said to you from day one that I am committed to working with you to try to advocate for better press access. Things have improved. It is still a work in progress. Okay? It is something that I am committing to doing. We have a new person who’s coming in. Andrea asks about our new people coming in. We have our new assistant – excuse me, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, Steve Goldstein, who will begin on Monday. He’s committed to looking at the overall communications here at the State Department.
When I said to you certainly morale has been an issue for you, I will certainly admit that there are negative press stories. I am sorry that that has taken hold, that that kind of narrative has taken hold. I’m working every day to the best of my ability to fix that. This is a big building and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
QUESTION: Last one. Last one, and I’ll be very brief on this. Could you --
MS NAUERT: Oh, and by the way, Matt?
MS NAUERT: Frankly, you bring up the issue of additional press briefings. We would welcome that.
QUESTION: Okay, good.
MS NAUERT: Certainly, we would welcome that. I would --
QUESTION: And maybe before, like, 6:00 p.m. That would be – (laughter) --
MS NAUERT: Well, you can talk – hold on. You can talk to Kim Jong-un about that and that missile launch.
QUESTION: All right.
MS NAUERT: And by the way, we had a bilateral meeting with His Majesty King of Jordan, so that is why we started late today, so --
QUESTION: That was a joke. Can I just ask you two --
MS NAUERT: -- there is a reason for that.
QUESTION: Very briefly, can you address two points that were in this New York Times story? Did the Secretary refuse consistently to meet with the former acting deputy – former acting assistant secretary for DS about – on security issues?
MS NAUERT: So you’re referring to Bill Miller, who was our acting assistant secretary of Diplomatic Security. I had met Bill on numerous occasions when I first started here. I know that Bill has had about a dozen senior staff briefings with the Secretary. I’m not going to have a ton of details for you on this. The Secretary’s office tells me that they don’t have a record of Bill having requested a meeting. However, I just want to be clear that that doesn’t necessarily mean that a meeting wasn’t requested through different channels. That I just don’t have the details on all of that.
There is a statute in place that underscores the importance that the Secretary get unvarnished information from his security – from his security – Diplomatic Security head. If you would like to read it yourself, it’s Public Law 114-323, Title 1, 103-December 16th, 2016-130 STAT. 1909. It provides that, quote, “The assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security shall report directly to the Secretary of State without being required to obtain the approval or concurrence of any other official of the Department of State as threats and circumstances require.”
Let me just mention that I met today, as I alluded to earlier, with our new assistant secretary – excuse me, with our new assistant secretary for Diplomatic Security. Many of you probably know him, Michael Evanoff. He has served at the State Department for 26 years. He was the head of Secretary Rice’s personal security detail, so some of you may have been on – you were on the road with him?
MS NAUERT: Okay. And Andrea, you were too. I imagine that some of you were bailed out by him at some point in some way, shape, or form.
QUESTION: We never get into trouble --
MS NAUERT: Yeah, you never get into trouble on the road, but I suspect some of you were. Anyway, we are so thrilled to have him back here at the State Department. He was away for a few years in which he served in the private sector at some top companies. I met with him today. He is now back and had a briefing with the Secretary – I believe it was just earlier today.
I asked him, “Sir, how do you feel about your ability to get information to the Secretary?” And by the way, let me mention this is a Secretary who asks at every meeting in the morning, “Are our people safe?” And Assistant Secretary Evanoff said to me, “Yes, I have the ability to get the Secretary information that he needs.” Questions or decisions about our security posture around the world, which is hugely important.
Diplomatic security involves 2,000 Diplomatic Security agents but also many more thousands of agents who work locally employed staff around the world to protect our embassies. He has – the assistant secretary – the obligation to handle the security for all of that in addition to helping to prepare the Secretary’s travels to different places. He said to me, “Heather, yes.” The Secretary, when he offered the assistant secretary that position, said, “My door is open to you anytime you want to meet.” And certainly as the Secretary takes security seriously, I believe that that will be the case.
QUESTION: It’s just that the implication from the old Bill Miller anecdote, whether it’s 100 percent accurate or not, was that oh, here’s the Republicans, they made this big stink about Benghazi and they really don’t care about security.
MS NAUERT: Right.
QUESTION: So you’re – so you would say that that implication is not – is false?
MS NAUERT: I’ve spoken to Bill in the past. I’ve not spoken to him about this. And I just don’t have anything more for you on that.
QUESTION: A couple things on this.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: You said that he took part in 12 senior staff briefings?
MS NAUERT: Correct.
QUESTION: Were those one-on-one meetings?
MS NAUERT: He did – he did have some one-on-one meetings as well. The exact number I unfortunately do not have for you.
QUESTION: And you said that you checked, and you’re not aware of – but if he had one-on-one meetings, those were at the Secretary’s request or his request?
MS NAUERT: That I don’t know. That I don’t know.
QUESTION: Okay. And do you – did he ever cite the statute that you cited in requesting a meeting?
MS NAUERT: That I’m not aware of. Again, I’ve not spoken with Bill, so I’m not aware of all of the details of this. I’m trying to give you as much information as I have.
QUESTION: Just to – can I just follow up?
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just briefly. To what Matt was discussing, you suggested that the budget was handed to us. My understanding of the budget process is that cabinet secretaries go in, they make their arguments, they get their marks. But I think the objection by Senators Corker, Graham, and others, Republicans on the Hill, was that the Secretary embraced the mark he was given by OMB rather than arguing, and enthusiastically embraced it to the point where a bipartisan subcommittee had to criticize him to his face over this.
MS NAUERT: Let me go back and check my facts on this. But I recall being in meetings here – and Robert, maybe you can fact-check me on the fly on this one – that I think the original budget cuts were suggested or given to us at, say, X, and the Secretary argued for smaller budget cuts. And the Secretary, to my knowledge, from my recollection, ended up winning that argument.
Look, we’re dealt with a budget that we have. We have this budget and we’re dealing with it. And the good thing is at least in this, to the extent that – and people are probably never happy about budget cuts – but that we can make the decisions about where those cuts are made.
QUESTION: And Congress has restored some of it. And I just wanted to point out to you that Richard Haass from the Council on Foreign Relations, a former high-ranking State Department and NSC official in Republican administrations, has said that his capacity for – he thought his capacity for surprise was exhausted, but that Rex Tillerson today justified “reductions in State Department personnel in part from the expectation that the U.S. is going to succeed in getting some conflicts resolved,” referring to the Wilson appearance. And he asks rhetorically, “Really? Which? North Korea? Ukraine? South China Sea? Yemen? Israel-Palestine?”
MS NAUERT: I think --
QUESTION: Is it realistic --
MS NAUERT: Well, here --
QUESTION: -- to suggest that you need fewer diplomats these days because there will be fewer crises?
MS NAUERT: I don’t think that’s what the Secretary was saying. I think issues are being conflated there, one with dollars and two with personnel. I think when the Secretary refers to – let’s see – let me just read part of what he said today, and this is – I’m reading halfway into the sentence, so bear with me – “part of this bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have success in some of these conflict areas of getting those conflicts resolved and moving to a different place in terms of the kind of support that we have to give them...it’s a combination of things – that sustainability, a recognition that those numbers are really the outliers. The numbers we’re moving to are not the outliers, they’re more historic in terms of levels of spending” --
QUESTION: But he – that is an expectation about resolving conflicts.
MS NAUERT: Hold on, let --
QUESTION: Where? Afghanistan?
MS NAUERT: I know. I would like to answer your question.
MS NAUERT: So hold on. So I think one example that he’s referring to could be – let’s take Syria right now. Syria is extremely expensive, putting the U.S. military aside, but in terms of our State Department work there. One of the significant things that we’re doing – and I cannot underscore enough just how expensive it is – demining. Imagine all of the places where ISIS has strung up bombs around schools and homes and boobytrapped things, and so we bring in outside teams to conduct that demining. That is very expensive right now. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve seen the rubble, you’ve seen the destruction and devastation.
Another thing is removing all that rubble, getting the equipment in to do that – all of that tremendously expensive, on top of the security and the personnel that we have to have enabled to do that.
Eventually, because we are not in the big nation-building again that this government was previously in, ultimately a lot of the cost and building roads and bridges and all of that will be borne by other nations. We have talked about Saudi Arabia pledging to do a lot in terms of those big reconstruction projects. We won’t be in that business anymore. We won’t be spending that kind of money.
So I think what the Secretary is referring to is we’re spending a lot of money in a place like Syria. We don’t anticipate that the amount that we’re spending today will continue forever. Eventually other countries start picking up the tab for some of the bigger projects as well.
QUESTION: That would require a political solution, presumably now with Russia’s protege Assad still in power.
MS NAUERT: Right.
QUESTION: But I’ll leave it there. But that is --
MS NAUERT: He is – you’re absolutely right; he still is in power. We are committed to the Geneva process and we are working toward that. Look, I think everyone here in this room and in this building wants Assad out five years ago – longer than that. It is going to be a political process. It is going to take some time to get there, okay? We’re – it’s not going to get there overnight. Still have a lot of work that needs to be done.
QUESTION: Couple more on the redesign?
QUESTION: The military is ramping up its spending --
MS NAUERT: Pardon me?
QUESTION: The military is ramping up its spending in West Africa, in Somalia, in Afghanistan. There’s 5,000 troops in Syria now. We thought there were 2,000.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Well, that’s a DOD issue. I can only speak to State.
QUESTION: Right, but the Secretary’s speech seemed to suggest that you’re on the cusp in the next budget year of having less to do. The military thinks it’s going to have a lot to do for a lot longer.
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to look ahead to what our next year’s budget will be. I have not seen those numbers, certainly. Okay.
QUESTION: But he’s justifying the budget he’s already suggested by suggesting that things are getting better already. You’re not going to demine when you defeat Boko Haram?
MS NAUERT: No, I think he’s saying that down the road we anticipate that some of the expenditures will be reduced. Okay?
QUESTION: Couple more on the redesign, just to get rid of it?
MS NAUERT: Okay, and then take – have to take Laurie, and then we’re – we have to wrap up.
QUESTION: Why did Maliz Beams leave her post as counselor of the department?
MS NAUERT: So Maliz Beams was brought in to help pull together the redesign. That’s one of the things that the Secretary said is important to him and important to the State Department. And frankly, when you ask people here, the rank and file, what they think about the redesign, while our communications have not been fantastic – I will admit that – the – they support by and large the efforts of the redesign, acknowledging that the State Department can become more efficient and operate more effectively with the redesign.
Maliz Beams – I spoke with her earlier today at length. I was there yesterday when she announced to senior staff that she would be leaving the State Department. Maliz made the decision to resign from the State Department. She said to me that she came here to set the vision for the redesign. She has done this for many companies. She’s had a 30-year career in this line of work. She sets the vision. She’s done that for this organization. She feels that she’s accomplished that in setting the vision. She said to me, quote, “I feel good about it.” So now is the time when she decided that she wanted to step back and that it was the time for the State Department to be able to pick it up from here.
We are in phase three of the redesign right now. There are 70 initiatives that she helped enable to prepare to launch. Those initiatives are being chaired by some of our top career people who have been here for many, many years, included among them names and faces you will know: Ambassador Bill Todd, also Ambassador Marcia Bernicat from Bangladesh. They are involved in these 70 initiatives. They are people that the building knows, they are people that the building trust, they are people who love this institution. I can tell you that the Secretary is expected to speak with staff here at the State Department sometime in the near future. I don’t have a date for that just yet. And then we have our new under secretary for public diplomacy and political affairs, who will be handling some of the communications going forward.
QUESTION: She was not asked or encouraged to leave?
MS NAUERT: She made the decision to step down.
QUESTION: No, no. She couldn’t make the decision to step down after having been encouraged to consider whether to step down?
MS NAUERT: She made the decision to step down.
QUESTION: But was not encouraged or asked to step down?
MS NAUERT: Not to my knowledge. I was not in the meeting at the time, but I spoke with her. I also spoke with our deputy secretary and others about this, and this was her decision.
QUESTION: Heather, in a sentence, what is the vision that she has set for the redesign?
MS NAUERT: Well, one of the things that we’ve said is that this is an employee-driven process. And a lot of folks made fun of this, but asking employees what they want, what changes they want, is something that is new and something that is significant, and that is something that they have been able to do to determine where there are redundancies. And that’s one of the ways that we will do that. Among the other things in the redesign that has been highlighted as important to this department and it may seem kind of dopey to a lot of folks who have great computers and comms like you all do, but to get a better computer system in place. I cannot stress --
QUESTION: A better commuter system?
MS NAUERT: Computer system.
QUESTION: Oh, oh, oh. Because I was going to go all in on the better commuter system. (Laughter.) The Metro is awful.
MS NAUERT: It is extremely frustrating when you are trying to respond to press questions, for example. How many times have you all heard from me or from Robert or Robert’s predecessor, Mark Stroh, when our comms are down for a very long time? It is embarrassing. We can’t get to you, you can’t get to us. Well, imagine if we need to reach folks around the world. So that has been a problem. And that’s one of the things that the Secretary and Maliz Beams has identified as being something that we want to make more efficient and better. Okay.
QUESTION: Tell Russia to stop hacking.
MS NAUERT: That’s a good idea too, and we have that conversation all the time. Okay, a question on Iraq and then we’ve got to go.
QUESTION: Can we do one on (inaudible)?
QUESTION: Okay. Earlier this week, the U.S. embassy criticized the forced return of refugees to their homes in Anbar and Salah ad-Din provinces. Do you any further comment or update on this situation?
MS NAUERT: Laurie, I want to read a little bit from our statement to make sure that everyone has that accurately down.
Our U.S. embassy in Baghdad provided a statement earlier this week when they made clear that they support – and this is what we do with refugees all around the world – we support the safe, dignified, and voluntary return of people who have been deplaced – displaced by the military operations to defeat ISIS. Safe and voluntary returns. We do not support forced returns. Forced returns, while it may sound great to some people who are living thousands and thousands of miles ahead, can be premature and they can be dangerous for those people. We do not support that. We want the voluntary and safe returns.
Our statement went on to say this: To force people to return before they are ready and feel safe to do so risks their safety and well-being and could result in their renewed displacement. Provincial and federal authorities should ensure all returns are not only safe, but also voluntary.
QUESTION: And that would be for all of Iraq and pretty much everywhere?
MS NAUERT: Well, I think that pretty much applies everywhere. That’s one of the things that we talk about in Burma, that we support the safe and voluntary return of the Rohingya from Bangladesh, many of whom are there, hundreds of thousands of them, and we support the safe and voluntary return. So I think that that is a model or a phrasing or a policy that we would apply just about everywhere.
QUESTION: And regarding the Kurdish situation and disputed territories, in Tuz Khurmatu the Hashd al-Shaabi have been driving Kurds from their homes and looting and burning their homes, and yesterday the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government called on the international community to take action against this. What’s your response to that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I can only tell you we’ve seen those reports. I have not seen those reports personally, so I don’t want to get ahead of the information. We’ve seen the reports, we’re monitoring the reports. Until I have additional information on that, I could just suggest that you talk with the Government of Iraq and also the Kurdistan Regional Government.
QUESTION: Well, the Kurdistan Regional Government is in the process now of accumulating information. If it shows that these things have happened, would you take action, do something?
MS NAUERT: That is entirely a hypothetical, so I’m just not going to get into a hypothetical.
QUESTION: Will you take Michele’s question on Iran?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Hi.
MS NAUERT: Oh, yeah.
QUESTION: -- American prisoner and a British prisoner. What’s your reaction to that? And is the U.S. ready to open up a dialogue with Iran on these cases, a humanitarian channel, since there are very few channels?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Well, first to the humanitarian issue, you know that we do not have – we do not have an embassy on the ground there. The Government of Switzerland is our protecting power. Switzerland is the country, just like we have talked about in other countries, like in DPRK, where they will do their best to represent us in the way that we can work with them on that.
In terms of I think what you’re talking about – the video, correct --
MS NAUERT: -- of the Princeton University student, Mr. Wang – he has been unjustly detained. It is a situation that we have followed very, very carefully. We continue to call on the Government of Iran to release detained prisoners that are unjustly detained, in particular American citizens. We call on them to be released immediately. We strongly condemned Iran subjecting Mr. Wang and other prisoners to forced video appearances. That is something – it’s shameful. It’s shameful to use our people in that kind of fashion.
What he was doing in Iran at the time as a university student at Princeton University – Princeton, by the way, I should mention, confirmed to us that Mr. Wang is in fact a graduate student. He was conducting legitimate research in Iran. I want to make clear he has no association with the U.S. Government and has never passed any information to the U.S. Government about the Government of Iran. The Iranian authorities arrested him – his name, by the way, Xiyue --
MS NAUERT: Help me, say it.
QUESTION: Xiyue --
MS NAUERT: Xiyue, thank you, my – pardon me – Wang.
QUESTION: Can you spell it?
MS NAUERT: Yes. X-I-Y-U-E, first name, Wang – W-A-N-G.
QUESTION: It’s actually the other way.
QUESTION: But there’s no talk about opening up? Because --
MS NAUERT: No.
QUESTION: -- one of the things, like, the Namazis have asked for is a conversation with --
MS NAUERT: Not to my knowledge. I can tell you that Switzerland has visited him five times now. He was detained in August 2016 while he was studying Farsi. He was conducting research on late 19th- and 20th-century Iran. And he has been sentenced to 10 years in prison, in April 2017, for espionage and assisting a hostile government. We see that as spurious at best. Okay?
QUESTION: Can I ask one quick question about this --
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
MS NAUERT: So --
QUESTION: Are there any diplomatic implications to this?
MS NAUERT: A lot of this I’m just going to have to refer you to the Department of Justice on that particular case. Some of this in terms of conversations that we’ve had with Turkey would fall under private diplomatic conversations. So I’m sorry I’m not going to have more for you on that. But in terms of the status of Mr. Zarrab’s case, I’d just have to refer you to the Department of Justice.
Okay, guys? We got to leave --
QUESTION: There’s a prisoner in Cuba – there’s a U.S. citizen who’s imprisoned in Cuba, Alina Lopez Miyares. You said that there was a crew or at least a staff in the embassy of the U.S. in Havana to assist American citizens. What is the U.S. Government doing for this --
MS NAUERT: I’ll have to get back to you on the specifics of her case. As you all may know, I have a separate book that has American citizens who are detained or held around the world. There are a lot of them. All of their cases are very important; all of their cases are very different, or many of them are very different. I don’t have the specifics on her case in front of me, but I can certainly try to get you the answers, okay?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: And we’re also limited, I want to be clear on this – in some cases we are very limited in terms of what we can say because of federal privacy laws.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Bye, guys. Good to see you.
(The briefing was concluded at 4:57 p.m.)