Department Press Briefing - December 5, 2017

Heather Nauert
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 5, 2017


2:55 p.m. EST

MS NAUERT: A couple of items I want to start out with today before getting to your questions. And the first I’d like to start with: The Secretary’s travel on his European trip in Brussels. In Brussels today, Secretary Tillerson held meetings with the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, European High Commissioner Representative Federica Mogherini, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. He also participated in the NATO foreign ministerial meeting at a special meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, composed of the foreign ministers of 28 European Union member-states.

In each of the engagements, the Secretary reinforced President Trump’s message of mutual responsibility in the global agenda that we share with the EU, NATO, and our European partners, and also reaffirmed the United States unwavering commitment to European security. Our shared agenda covers a wide range of joint objectives, including the denuclearized Korean Peninsula, the global defeat of ISIS, support for UN-led Geneva process in Syria, and the restoration of Ukraine’s full sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Secretary’s discussions with his counterparts highlighted again the close and positive bond between the U.S. and Europe in addressing some of the global challenges. After Brussels, Secretary Tillerson will travel to Vienna and Paris, where he will continue to raise these and other areas of mutual interest. And our colleagues we’re missing today, hope they’re having a good time on that trip.

Second thing: I would like to welcome our new Under Secretary of Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy, Mr. Irwin Steven Goldstein, to the Department of State. Mr. Goldstein – I mentioned this to you last week; by the way, you can call him Steve – was sworn in yesterday at noon and has now started meeting with our colleagues at all levels in the department to learn more about the work that we do here, especially in PA and in Public Diplomacy. In particular, he’s interested in helping the department speak with a clear, consistent, and compelling voice. He brings to the State Department a unique blend of public and private sector experience, including more than 25 years leading corporate communications and branding for companies, including TIAA-CREF, AllianceBernstein, Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal.

I’d like to mention that I spent some time with him. He has a ton of energy. He will put all of us through our paces. He says that he is committed to having a good, positive working relationship with the press. He believes fundamentally in the right of a free press and has committed to working on even – improving our relationship even more. I feel that I have a good relationship with all of you, and I know he’s committed to doing that as well. He understands your jobs, he respects your jobs, and I look forward to introducing you to him very soon now that it’s his second day on the job. His public sector experience includes serving as an assistant secretary and director of public affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior and eight years as a press secretary and chief of staff to several members of Congress.

So on behalf of the department, I’d like to warmly welcome him to Foggy Bottom.

A couple more items. Some of you have started to ask about the President’s national security strategy. The President has now approved a basic framework for the national security strategy. The White House is expected to release that strategy in the coming weeks. It will explain the President’s national security vision and set the direction for all U.S. Government departments and also agencies. It’s led by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and his deputy, Dina Powell, and also his team at the National Security Council. The development process over the course of the past several months has been highly collaborative. It’s been an effort across the federal government. The State Department, in concert with our interagency partners, including the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Community, among others, has conducted an analysis of key policy issues and provided input at the National Security Council through the entire development process.

It should be noted that the development and the release of the national security strategy is just the beginning of that process. The State Department and our interagency partners will continue to collaborate as we implement recommendations from that strategy. So we’ll have more on that for you in the coming weeks.

A couple more items. The United States has been following this very closely out of Syria, and we’d like to strongly condemn the recent attacks and the continued siege on the people of Eastern Ghouta in Syria by the Assad regime with support from Russia. Deliberate tactics to starve Syrian civilians, including women and children; block humanitarian and medical aid; bomb hospitals, medical personnel, and first responders in eastern Ghouta – we consider that to be deeply troubling. The lives of Syrian children and families are not political tools, and we call on the international community to swiftly condemn those horrific acts.

We also call on Russia to live up to its obligations to uphold the de-escalation zone in eastern Ghouta and to end all further attacks against civilians in Syria. The atrocities reveal the Assad regime’s utter disregard for its own people and the extent to which it will go to retain its grip on power. Acts such as these clearly demonstrate the need for the international community to vigorously support the UN-led Geneva process for a political resolution to the conflict that respects the will of the Syrian people. They also emphasize the urgent need for unhindered humanitarian access and renewal of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2165 on humanitarian access.

And lastly – Laurie, this one’s for you, because I know you’re so interested in Iraq, as are many of you – yesterday, our Deputy Secretary John Sullivan met with Iraq’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Nazar Al-Khairallah. I hope I got that right. The deputy secretary congratulated the foreign – the deputy foreign minister on the battle against ISIS and discussed future cooperation on economic, commercial, cultural, and humanitarian initiatives. During the meeting, the deputy secretary emphasized our commitment to the long-term partnership between the United States and Iraq, which is grounded in the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement.

And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions. You want to start, Matt?

QUESTION: Right. Yes, please. Thank you. I want to start with I’m sure what a lot of people are going to have questions about and I’m sure you’re probably not going to have too many answers, but let’s try anyway. On the – this impending announcement regarding Jerusalem --


QUESTION: -- whether it is the status of the city itself or the disposition of the embassy, either way, from what you have seen, what Secretary Tillerson has heard in Europe, the reports of the phone calls that the President has had, is there any world leader who has come out in support of the U.S. making a unilateral – taking a unilateral step with regards to the city?

MS NAUERT: Matt, as you know, I’m not going to get ahead of the President on any of this. I know a lot of you have questions about the status there. I don’t want to speculate on what the President’s announcement will be and don’t want to get ahead of the President. The issue rests with the President. The President will address all of this when he is ready. I can tell you that some calls have certainly occurred, as you well know, between the U.S. Government, including Secretary Tillerson, including the President and also the Vice President, but I’m just not going to be able to characterize what has come out of those conversations. I know that’s not very satisfactory, but I’m just not going to go there.

QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking what the decision is. I’m just wondering – I’m wondering if you can say that he’s gotten the support of anyone for any decision that he might make.

MS NAUERT: So again, I’m not going to characterize those conversations and some of those calls. I can tell you that the conversations both in person and over the phone, at least on the Secretary’s part, have been a frank exchange of ideas. That’s it. I’m going to leave it at that. The President will speak when he’s ready to.

QUESTION: All right. Moving out of the realm of the hypothetical --


QUESTION: -- last week, cables went out from the department to embassies abroad, warning them about the possibility of violence, of protests in anticipation of this announcement. Today already the consulate general in Jerusalem has put out a security message. These are not in the realm of the hypothetical; these are things that are actually happening. How concerned are you that what happens tomorrow could pose a significant security risk for U.S. embassies – official Americans as well as private American citizens?

MS NAUERT: What I can tell you is that we’re watching the situation very closely. There have obviously been scores and scores of media reports over the past few days that have discussed concerns about the security situation. Because of that, we continue to watch the security situation there. We have put out information to not only our personnel but also the American public through some of our embassy websites as we would with a lot of other matters. We – but just – I just want to be clear that we take the situation seriously and we’re closely watching it. As we often and very frequently say to you, the safety and security not only of U.S. personnel but American citizens at home and abroad is the top issue here.

QUESTION: Are you saying that these warnings have been put out in response to report – to media – news reports about what might be happening tomorrow?

MS NAUERT: Well, look, this has been so broadly reported. We are not as a government going to speculate about the President’s decision. Many in the media --

QUESTION: But you’re already --

MS NAUERT: Many in the media have speculated about the President’s decision.

QUESTION: So you’re suggesting that it’s the reports that are causing this anxiety and this fear of unrest?

MS NAUERT: The U.S. Government at this point has not formally announced its decision, so I’m not going to get ahead of that, but we keep an eye closely on the security situation, as we always do.

Andrea, hi.

QUESTION: At the same time, after the President made several calls – or has been making several calls and talking to leaders and met with the king last week – statements have come from King Abdullah, from Erdogan and others today, and Federica Mogherini spoke to the Secretary of State’s face today about not doing anything that would undermine peace in the region. How does the Secretary and how does the State Department feel about concerns – global concerns – that U.S. policy is about to undermine peace in the region?

MS NAUERT: Well, that would be assuming – that would be assuming the President’s decision, and I’m just not going to assume the President’s decision at this point.

QUESTION: Why would the Jerusalem consulate – to follow up on Matt, why would they issue this warning not to travel to the West Bank, not to hold meetings in the Old City, not to go to Bethlehem?

MS NAUERT: Because we know what has been reported. We know what’s out there in the public sphere, that there are some concerns about a decision that will be made by the White House. I’m not saying what that decision is. It is not my place or my role to say that.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Hold on. Let me finish. We will always keep the safety and security of Americans paramount. We often put out these kinds of messages to U.S. citizens all around the world. Sometimes the messages – well, the messages are often different based on what’s going on in any particular region. So we want to be able to keep the American public up to speed, share with them our concerns about any announcements that could be made. And this is also a good reminder, as I will say anywhere in the world, to sign up for the State Department STEP Program. Again, I always say that. This is not anything that is just for the President’s decision when that is made, but we always encourage Americans to do that. That way we can always get in touch with you if we need to.

QUESTION: Is the Secretary of State on board with this?


QUESTION: Whatever “it” is, is the Secretary of State of the United States of America on board with a decision that could be putting U.S. citizens and troops at risk in the region?

MS NAUERT: I think the Secretary has communicated clearly, as have all the members of the interagency who have a role in making this decision or being a part of the decision, he’s made his positions clear to the White House. I think the Department of Defense has as well. But it’s ultimately the President’s decision to make. He is in charge.

Okay? Hi, Said.

QUESTION: Let me just quickly follow up on a couple of things. If and when this happens, that removal of the embassy, if it happens, technically how – what is the role of the State Department in this case? What do you do?

MS NAUERT: Said, that --

QUESTION: Would you pack up and leave --

MS NAUERT: You know what I’m going to say to that one. It’s simply a hypothetical. We’re not there yet.

QUESTION: I understand, but --

MS NAUERT: We’re not there yet.

QUESTION: What are the machinations for the – what – how do you do it?

MS NAUERT: I don’t have an answer for you --

QUESTION: You just move personnel --

MS NAUERT: -- because we are not there just yet.

QUESTION: Okay, all right. Let me ask you about something else. Are you aware of the letter of assurances that Secretary of State James Baker gave to the Palestinians back in 1991?

MS NAUERT: I don’t have that information.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, I --

MS NAUERT: I think I was in college then.

QUESTION: It’s a letter of assurances that – it says they – that --

QUESTION: Hold up. Surely you were in high school?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, right. Right. (Laughter.) Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, you said – yeah. But it’s – it is – it is still a letter of assurances by the Government of the United States and then Secretary of State James Baker in which he says on the issue of Jerusalem that we do not recognize Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem or the extension of its municipal boundaries, and we encourage all sides to avoid unilateral actions, and so on. Are you breaking your own word in this case? I mean, isn’t that a word that the United States --

MS NAUERT: I can’t speak back to 1991 and --

QUESTION: But that --

MS NAUERT: -- Mr. Baker’s comments or pledge at the time.

QUESTION: Are you suggesting that the U.S. Government changes its position from one administration to the other?

MS NAUERT: I can say that the President is going to make a decision. The President will make his announcement when he is ready.


QUESTION: But you certainly agree that the United States must adhere to its --

MS NAUERT: I’m not agreeing with anything. I’m saying I’m not going to get ahead of the President.


QUESTION: Okay. I mean, let me ask you about something else. I mean, you want to reach a peaceful settlement for the Palestinians. Today, I think either the House voted or it is voting on Taylor Force, for instance, to cut off aid for the Palestinians. Should this go on, this beating up on the Palestinians that are probably one of the hapless communities on Earth, under occupation for a hundred years? Do you think that the position of the United States ought to be on the side of those who are being brutalized by occupation?

MS NAUERT: Said, I’m just not familiar with the congressional legislation that you’re mentioning right now, so I’m not going to comment on that as we typically don’t comment on things coming out of Congress.

I can tell you that there will be a backgrounder call, I believe it is being put together by the White House. It should take place later today, and so perhaps some of your questions will be answered on that one.

QUESTION: And finally, I just want to follow up on Andrea’s question on – is the Secretary on board on this? Has he consulted with the President in any way, let’s say in the last 24 hours, and so on?

MS NAUERT: I don’t know if the Secretary has spoken with the President within the past 24 hours, but I can tell you that the Secretary and the State Department have sent in a lot of information to the White House. The Secretary, as you well know, has had a lot of bilateral meetings recently, including some of those face-to-face in Europe right now. He has had a lot of calls over the past few days and some meetings in person here in Washington last week. So whatever he learns out of those meetings, calls, and conversations, he certainly passes that off to the White House, and the President can make his decision. I imagine that the Department of Defense has done the same thing.

Okay? Any --

QUESTION: Heather?

MS NAUERT: Shall we move on? Okay.

QUESTION: One more on that.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi.

QUESTION: On the technicalities, the waiver wasn’t signed as – well, on the due date last night. What is the status of it now (inaudible)?

MS NAUERT: I’m not going to confirm that. That’s all – that’s all in the hands of the White House, because that’s something that the President would be handling.

Okay? Let’s --

QUESTION: Sorry, Heather --

MS NAUERT: Let’s move on.

QUESTION: North Korea?

QUESTION: Are you – are you sending anyone to the PLO Bethlehem Christmas party tomorrow on Capitol Hill?

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that. I --

QUESTION: I think the State Department was invited --

MS NAUERT: I don’t know.

QUESTION: -- so you really should look into that. Okay.

MS NAUERT: I hadn’t – I had not heard of it.

QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Thank you for bringing that to my attention.

QUESTION: Heather?

QUESTION: Actually, speaking about that party, is it your understanding that a holiday party would be among the things permitted for the PLO office to do after you closed it and then didn’t close it?

MS NAUERT: Well, to my understanding, it never fully closed --

QUESTION: Right. But --

MS NAUERT: -- or anything of the sort.


MS NAUERT: They’re still actively engaged, and we have asked that they stay engaged in the peace process. Now, perhaps – and now I will get into a hypothetical – if our Palestinian friends want to open up the office and invite – invite Christians and invite Israelis, then perhaps why not have a party?

QUESTION: Oh, that’s okay? All right. So if they have a sign that says, like, “Peace on Earth,” that’s okay?

MS NAUERT: Peace on – perhaps it is. Yes.

QUESTION: That means that – that means that (inaudible) --

MS NAUERT: Yes. And I say that – I say that in a teasing fashion.

QUESTION: Half of the Palestinian community in this area is Christian. I mean, they come and they celebrate these events and they invite everybody.

MS NAUERT: Okay. All right, let’s move on. Laurie, do you have something more?

QUESTION: Iraq, yes.

MS NAUERT: How about that? I had a special topper just for you today.

QUESTION: That’s a first. I appreciate it a lot. Thank you.

MS NAUERT: We try.

QUESTION: Okay, and I want to follow up on that topper. The Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani complained today that the talks with Baghdad which you, the KRG, they’ve all – you’ve repeatedly called for, have not even started. So in the deputy secretary’s meeting with the Iraqi deputy foreign minister, was there any discussion of when those talks would begin?

MS NAUERT: Well, those talks would have to be agreed to between the Iraqi central government and also between the Kurds. So I’m not sure that they would commit to us that those talks will begin on a certain date, but we continue to call upon the Government of Iraq to sit down with the Kurds and have a conversation about this.

QUESTION: But the prime minister of the government of Kurdistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, said we want these talks to begin and Baghdad is doing nothing now. Are you – what are you going to do about this?

MS NAUERT: We feel – first of all, it’s not – it’s not the place of the U.S. Government to force these talks to happen. But we do firmly believe that that is the right thing to do and it should happen. So we just continue to call on the Government of Baghdad and also the Kurds to sit down and have a conversation together. We are willing to certainly help facilitate talks, but we would have to be asked by the governments to do that.

QUESTION: Has the Iraqi Government asked you yet?

MS NAUERT: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: Oh. So what is your view then? The Kurdish leadership, Prime Minister Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Talabani visited Paris. They met with the French president. What is your view of that diplomacy? Do you regard that as helpful?

MS NAUERT: Well, I think all diplomacy of a sorts is helpful. Certainly, France has a responsibility and forces serving in the region. They are a part of the D-ISIS coalition. I think it’s certainly important that the Iraqi Government would sit down and talk with Mr. Macron.


QUESTION: Heather?

MS NAUERT: Janne, hi.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you. On North Korea.


QUESTION: North Korea reportedly will negotiation with United States if the United States say it recognize North Korea as a nuclear state.

MS NAUERT: I’m sorry. Start that over again?

QUESTION: North Korea reportedly will negotiation with the United States if United States recognize North Korea as a nuclear state. What --

MS NAUERT: They will talk with us if we recognize them --


MS NAUERT: As a North Korea – as a nuclear state?


MS NAUERT: That’s the question?


MS NAUERT: Okay. Our policy is very clear. It’s a policy that Russia and China happen to agree with as well. We believe in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That is something that the Republic of Korea believes in firmly and also Japan. So we’re not changing our view. We’re not going to backtrack on this. We believe – and that is our top priority – the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any further negotiation with North Korea without any --

MS NAUERT: We certainly don’t. We remain open to talks if – if – they are serious about denuclearization. The activities that they’ve been engaged in recently have shown that they are not interested, that they are not serious about sitting down and having conversations.

Anything else on North Korea?

QUESTION: Okay. Please, I have another with --

QUESTION: North Korea.

QUESTION: Yes, North Korea.


MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi, sir.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Tianyi.

MS NAUERT: What’s your name?

QUESTION: Hi. Tianyi.

MS NAUERT: And you’re from where?

QUESTION: From Shenzhen Media Group.


QUESTION: My first time. New face.

MS NAUERT: Yes, welcome.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: I hope everybody is nice to you here.



QUESTION: So starting from today, the UN Under Secretary General Jeffrey Feltman will visit North Korea and meet with several North Korean officials. And he also stopped by China and met with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong yesterday. Does the State Department have any particular expectations for this visit, especially considering that Mr. Feltman was previously a high-ranking State Department official?

MS NAUERT: Mm-hmm, and that’s a good question. We’re certainly aware of his travels under the auspices of his role with the United Nations to North Korea. He is not traveling on behalf of the U.S. Government and he’s not traveling – I want to make this clear – with any kind of message from the U.S. Government.

QUESTION: Is he communicating or is he --

MS NAUERT: I think --

QUESTION: Is he checking in advance or communicating back or working as an intermediary without carrying a message?

MS NAUERT: I think by saying that he is not delivering any kind of message on our behalf and he’s not traveling on our behalf, I think that answers the question.

QUESTION: But is this considered a hopeful step in that it’s the first time since 2010 that we know of someone of his rank from the UN going and he has such long and deep relationships in this building?

MS NAUERT: I don’t know. He’s going on behalf of the UN, not the U.S. Government.

QUESTION: But is the U.S. in communication with the UN about his visit?

MS NAUERT: That I don’t know.

QUESTION: One more on North Korea?

QUESTION: Presumably he’s traveling on a diplomatic passport.

MS NAUERT: I would assume so. Yes.

QUESTION: But he would, if he for some reason was traveling on an American passport, would need to have the special validation?

MS NAUERT: Correct, correct. Okay. Anything else on North Korea?

QUESTION: North Korea.


QUESTION: So there’s reports coming from Japan that the Japanese Government proposed an allocation of funds in their 2018 budget towards the purchase of missiles that have the ability to strike North Korea from Japan. The idea behind this is if North Korea were to launch a missile, Japan would destroy that missile site post-launch. Does the State Department have any kind of comment on this?

MS NAUERT: I think that would be under Department of Defense, so I would refer you to the Department of Defense on that. But overall, as you know, we have an alliance, and part of what the United States does is agree to protect our allies. That includes Japan and South Korea. But anything beyond that, Department of Defense would have to answer that. Okay?

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

MS NAUERT: Anything else on – anything else on North Korea?

QUESTION: Yes. Would the U.S. be open to some kind of hotline like there’s been with Russia to prevent the risk of war – conflict by accident?

MS NAUERT: That is not a question that I have asked. I have – I know that our military is constantly in communication with our allies’ military, including the Republic of Korea and also Japan. If anything were to be set up like that, and that’s totally a hypothetical, that – I think that would be under their view. Okay?


MS NAUERT: Let’s – hold on. Hi.

QUESTION: Hi. I’ve got Ukraine/Georgia, I guess.

MS NAUERT: Okay, let’s move there.

QUESTION: As you know, Ukrainian security forces stormed and searched the apartment and then arrested the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili. He was released a short while ago. What is the State Department’s overall assessment of the allegations against him? Could these be politically motivated? And even if this is an internal matter, what is at stake for Georgia?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. I would have to say overall, we’re closely monitoring that situation and what happened in Kyiv. We are in close contact, as you know. We have a good relationship with the Government of Ukraine. It doesn’t mean that we agree with them on absolutely everything, however. We would urge the authorities in Ukraine to de-escalate that situation. We have certainly seen reports of various activities in the streets there. We would call on all sides to avoid violence and follow the rule of law and their international commitments as well.

The details of the case we just can’t get into. I would have to refer you to the Government of Ukraine on that. But the Government of Ukraine – and we have said this many times before, as we do with other governments – if they are detaining someone, arresting someone, et cetera, it needs to be in accordance with the laws and regulations of that country as well as international human rights obligations, and we urge Ukraine to respect the rule of law. Okay? Thank you.

QUESTION: Now, on Syria --


QUESTION: -- you mentioned that you are talking with the Russians about the siege of Ghouta. Are you getting your own – how do you collect intelligence on what’s going on on the ground? Do you do it on your own or are you dependent on news reports? Are you dependent on NGOs and so on? What is happening in Ghouta exactly?

MS NAUERT: Well, first of all, intelligence matters you know we can’t comment on. Those are classified. In general terms, when we’re collecting – and I can speak to general terms – when we’re collecting information on the ground from any given country, we get that from a variety of sources, and we put all that information together. Some of that, yes, may in fact come from the intelligence community. Some of that will come from NGOs. That’s – Burma is a perfect example of that, where we get information from NGOs. Some of it comes from our partners on the ground. Some of it comes from our people who are serving on the ground there. And then some of it comes from various media reports, the United Nations. Some of it can come from U.S. forces as well. All of that is combined and filtered out.

QUESTION: Would you say that your cooperation with Russia in Syria has been strained or is at the same level as it was when, let’s say, the deconfliction took place and when the areas of quiet, whatever they call it --

MS NAUERT: We’ve talked about our relationship with Russia many times. We have some days that are better than others. We certainly have areas of tension. You well know that. We still have an area that has had very positive developments, and that’s our ceasefire in southwestern Syria. I know I bring that up quite often, but that’s an example of a ceasefire that’s held for the most part since July. And if a ceasefire can hold, then we can start to build some sort of confidence-building measures, we can get humanitarian aid in, and we think that that is good for the Syrian people.

When this comes to other parts of Syria, of course there are areas of tension.

QUESTION: Have you asked the Russians to lean on the Syrians to allow humanitarian aid into Ghouta?

MS NAUERT: We always do. We often, often call for the – well, I mean, just bottom line, humanitarian aid needs to get to the people of Syria. It needs to get to the people in other conflict zones around the world. As you know, the Secretary is meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov later this week, so I don’t want to get ahead of any of his conversations.

QUESTION: Staying – can we stay on Russia for a second?


QUESTION: In this whole thing with the FARA registration for RT and the other company, I don’t know how much you addressed this because I was gone a couple days last week. But as you are aware, they were told to register. They did. And at the time, you said that this would not affect their ability to gather information and report, and yet the standing committee of the correspondents on the Hill revoked their credentials because they are no longer eligible as a foreign agent.

MS NAUERT: What – let me pause you right there.

QUESTION: In – wait, wait, wait.

MS NAUERT: I want to ask you – I want to ask you a question.

QUESTION: In response --


QUESTION: In response, the Russian Duma has revoked the credentials of RFE/RL and VOA, and I’m just wondering if you have a response to that.

MS NAUERT: Well, first I want to ask you a question, because you’ve been around here a long time. You are the head of the State Department Correspondents’ Association. And correct me if I’m wrong: The Capitol Hill Correspondents’ Association is similar to the State Department association, correct?

QUESTION: I think it has a bit more power.

QUESTION: It’s much larger. (Laughter.)

MS NAUERT: But my point is it’s --

QUESTION: Definitely (inaudible).

QUESTION: It’s much more – it’s much more organized.

MS NAUERT: It’s – I’ve not been a Capitol Hill reporter, so help describe this to me. This is not made up of members of Congress, correct?

QUESTION: No, no, no, no.

MS NAUERT: This is made up of reporters?

QUESTION: Correct.

MS NAUERT: And so the reporters would --

QUESTION: There is congressional staff.

QUESTION: Correct.

QUESTION: There is congressional staff who are part of it.

QUESTION: But the thing is, is that the intimation that you had made was that this would not affect their ability to gather information --


QUESTION: -- and it did. Whether or not that was a government decision or not, it did.

MS NAUERT: Well --

QUESTION: And so the Russians in response --

MS NAUERT: We can’t take responsibility for the actions of --

QUESTION: I understand that. I’m not asking you --

MS NAUERT: -- private entities, other organizations.

QUESTION: But I’m not asking about that.

MS NAUERT: I can only speak on behalf of the U.S. Government.

QUESTION: I know, but so what I’m asking you is for your reaction to the Russian reaction to that, which was the Duma deciding to yank the credentials of VOA and RF – do you have anything --

MS NAUERT: Yeah, absolutely.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on that?

MS NAUERT: We think that that is wrong. One of the things that we talk about a lot here is the freedom of speech and the importance of that. That includes speech that other governments may find uncomfortable. That applies to our allies and partners and that applies to countries that we have tense relationships as well.

We believe in that firmly. The Russian law that was passed is something that Ambassador Huntsman talked about earlier today, our new ambassador to Russia. He said, “We strongly urge the Russian Government [to not] allow this to stifle free speech and editorial independence on the part of those who seek to operate freely in Russia.”

Russia’s media law, because we believe it may be applied like its NGO law, we are concerned that they could end up harassing reporters, detaining reporters, kicking reporters out of the country. That is something that we believe fundamentally, as Americans, is wrong. We believe in the right to free speech and we have serious concerns about Russia’s activities to clamp down on press freedoms. Okay.

QUESTION: Do you want to comment on the IOC disallowing the Russians from participating in the Winter Olympics?

MS NAUERT: Did they?


MS NAUERT: I wasn’t aware of that. I missed that headline, so no, I don’t have anything for you on that.

QUESTION: Can we go back to North Korea for a second?

MS NAUERT: Okay. Let’s try to stay in region. Does anybody have anything else on --

QUESTION: Well, it has to do with Russia too.

MS NAUERT: Okay, okay.

QUESTION: So apparently, fuel prices in North Korea have gone down recently since November and it appears to be because of an increase in supply from Russia of fuel. What’s the State Department response to that and what can the United States do about it?

MS NAUERT: I’m afraid I just don’t have any government reports on that that proves that that is, in fact, the case, so I can’t comment on that.

QUESTION: On Russia and Syria --


QUESTION: -- and I feel a little bit like I’m doing a Matt Lee imitation of his questions of John Kirby.

MS NAUERT: Well, you do – you two do sometimes. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: But poor John Kirby always got hammered or regularly got hammered by Matt on the question of why do you think the Geneva process that you’re attached – that you’re supporting is going to work when you don’t have the forces on the ground to back up that diplomacy, whereas the Russians have a much bigger presence there and the Syrian Government’s gaining ground?

So just now, the Syrians walked out of the Geneva talks and they’re – said they’re not coming back. Why do you think that the Geneva process is going to work if it is not fully supported by the Russians and the Syrians aren’t present?

MS NAUERT: Well, look, I think ultimately, the Geneva process is something that many countries have agreed to; that that is the best, most workable process. Has it been successful fully yet? No, not necessarily, but more and more countries are agreeing that the Geneva process – as Russia has said – is the way to go, is the political process forward for Syria. That political process will be very long. As you know, we are still trying to – we, the United States and the coalition are still trying to stabilize that country.

Eventually, we think that with all of the people involved in this that we will be able to get to that point. Eventually, Syrians themselves will have a voice. We believe that a democracy or some sort of more free-type society will win at the end of the day.

QUESTION: Do you think Moscow will agree to a diplomatic process which is going to see the end of Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria?

MS NAUERT: Well, we have long said that we don’t believe that the Syrian people ultimately will want to support Bashar al-Assad in office. One of the things that could be done is the Syrian people who have been pushed out to other countries, who are refugees elsewhere, that they could have a chance to vote. Imagine if you had all the people who are still in Syria plus the diaspora voting. Would they vote back in Bashar al-Assad, the man who is responsible for killing so many men, women, and children? I doubt that. This will ultimately be up to the Syrian people to decide once they get to that point.

QUESTION: And Russia agrees to that process?

MS NAUERT: I believe that Russia had said recently – and we’ll double-check this, but I believe that Russia had said just recently that they would support the Geneva process. But let me just double-check on that for you.

QUESTION: Can you – who represented the U.S. at the last Geneva session?

MS NAUERT: We had one of our colleagues there. I’ve not met her yet. Stephanie Williams was one of our colleagues who was represented there. We go there more as a – an observer, a handholder of sorts.

QUESTION: Right, but that’s what the previous administration did too. They just did it at a much higher level.

MS NAUERT: Well, we’re at a entirely different place. We are at a place where Raqqa has been liberated. We are in a much better position – and when I say “we,” I just mean the coalition – a much better position in having defeated ISIS and having a ceasefire that’s held since the summer. We are in a much better position in Syria now than I think this country has – than I think we ever have been.

QUESTION: Wouldn’t it make sense then to leverage that much better position by sending more senior people, say the Secretary himself or the deputy?

MS NAUERT: We have long been clear with the governments involved and our – the coalition that the United States has in large part pulled together there is no question about our commitment to the Geneva process and there is no question about our commitment to trying to get a safe, stable, and peaceful Syria. I can’t imagine anybody would actually question that.

Okay, let’s move on. Something else. Yes, hi.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. On Cuba, there are reports that there will be a new ambassador – U.S. ambassador – to Cuba.

And the second question, if possible, is the ban for some U.S. Government scientists to travel there and to participate in events or even do research in Cuba – can you confirm both, please?

MS NAUERT: I can tell you the first part, yes.[i] The second part, I don’t have any information for you on that, but I can certainly look into that. In terms of our leadership at our embassy in Cuba, we just have nothing to announce at this point. We have a charge, Lawrence Gumbiner. He is continuing to serve as the interim charge in Havana. But I’ve seen reports of an ambassador, but I just don’t have anything for you on that. That would be a White House question.

Okay? Okay.

QUESTION: Heather, could you update us on the situation in Honduras? What is happening in Honduras, if you have anything on that?

MS NAUERT: Gosh, you guys are doing a ping-pong all around the world here today.

QUESTION: Yeah, because it’s --

MS NAUERT: I mean, you really are. Okay.

QUESTION: I mean, they just deployed the military, and I mean, it’s --

MS NAUERT: Let me get the latest on what I have regarding that, but just bear with me a second.

QUESTION: While you’re going through your TQs, I have a very brief one on Bahrain. I’m sure you won’t have it. Nabeel Rajab and his court case have been – has moved up, actually, for the first time in a while. Can you --

MS NAUERT: What do you mean, it’s moved up?

QUESTION: Well, they – it was not supposed to resume until later, and then yesterday they announced that it would resume this morning. And I’m just wondering if you guys have any thoughts about that or were aware of it.

MS NAUERT: Well, I --

QUESTION: I’m sure you don’t have it now, but --

MS NAUERT: It’s a case that we follow very closely, his case is. It’s something I know that our government has been present for some of his – some of his hearings, processes – legal processes, I’ll just call them – in the past. I just don’t have anything new for you on that.

QUESTION: There’s a letter that went to Deputy Secretary Sullivan from the Foreign Relations Committee – bipartisan letter; Senator Cardin was the Democrat on it – asking for more transparency on the redesign, for an update on the numbers of State Department positions, and also questioning the Secretary’s comments to the Wilson Center on the likelihood or possibility that resolving conflicts would reduce the budget pressure. It’s a fairly stiff letter. Do you know if Secretary Sullivan has read it, responded to it, or do you have anything on that?

MS NAUERT: I do not know if he has read that letter or if he has responded. I can certainly check with his office and ask that question. I can tell you overall we are committed to more transparency with the redesign process. We are committed to better communication with the redesign process. As I mentioned at the top of the briefing, we have a new under secretary for public affairs and public diplomacy. One of the things he intends to do is work more with our press corps. He has a big job, but one of the things that he has – hold on – one of the things that he has outlined has been to create more transparency.

We will be holding a series of town hall meetings. I know he’s speaking with some of the folks under him in the coming days about transparency and the importance of that. I know the Secretary is planning a town hall meeting on the overall redesign process. The Secretary spoke a little bit to the redesign process with members of our embassy in Brussels earlier today.

QUESTION: I read some of those comments. But will – will this transparency extend to the Foreign Relations Committee, the oversight committee?

MS NAUERT: I would certainly think so. I mean, look, they charge us with questions. They ask us questions. It’s our responsibility to answer those questions in a forthright manner. Congress deserves the answers to very important and legitimate questions.

QUESTION: Let me just read from the letter.

MS NAUERT: Well, Andrea, may I finish? Congress deserves our answers, the American people deserve our answers, and you deserve our answers. You represent taxpayers, you represent the media, as do members of Congress as well. We intend to provide them with the information that they ask for and we’re committed – we’re recommitting ourselves – to having a better process where we communicate more thoroughly and we provide as much information as we can.

QUESTION: So I just want to put on the record what they wrote.


QUESTION: That “we are deeply concerned about recent developments at the Department of State that are adversely affecting American Foreign Service and Civil Service professionals, putting our nation’s ability to carry out diplomacy at risk, including the impact of the department’s ongoing hiring freeze, proposed budget cuts, and reorganization efforts.” And they’re asking for a response to their --

MS NAUERT: Yeah. Well, I will let the deputy secretary or the Secretary respond directly to Congress. I don’t think I’m in the position to be able to address them. But I told you that we’re committed to being transparent. The Secretary, the deputy secretary, the under secretary, Tom Shannon – they are all committed to this building. They love this building, believe firmly in what the people here do and what they stand for.

QUESTION: Can I ask one housekeeping?


QUESTION: In response to the latest ICBM test from North Korea a couple weeks ago, the State Department called for a summit, essentially a naval blockade summit, with command sending states. Is there any update at all as to when that will happen and who – what level will participate from State?

MS NAUERT: So just to back up for those of you who haven’t been here or aware of this, the Secretary and Foreign Minister Freeland of Canada spoke about – it was about a week and a half ago or so, after the most recent ICBM test. They agreed to pull together 16 of the original sending states back from the Korean armistice. And those states consisted of 16 countries. We are also going to bring in the Republic of Korea and also Japan. In addition to that, there may be some other countries brought in as well. That originally was a military alliance of sorts. The new idea here is to bring in these countries, bring these countries together, and actually have a diplomatic alliance.

Now, we already have that with our maximum pressure campaign. We already have that with some of the United Nations and UN Security Council resolutions that have passed. But this is a new way, a creative way to come up with additional ideas of things that might work to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. You ask about a date; I just don’t have any dates. But I know that we’re committed to doing that.

QUESTION: And level of participation, has that been hammered out yet? Assistant secretary level?

MS NAUERT: I don’t believe so, but I imagine – I imagine – I can only say I imagine that this would be a high-level event. Okay? Guys --

QUESTION: Do you have a quick comment on the Honduran --

MS NAUERT: Yes, I do. I found it in the meantime. We are certainly monitoring that situation very closely. We have a robust Western Hemisphere bureau here who are keeping a close eye on it, in addition to our embassies and posts in the region. We would urge all actors to exercise their rights peacefully and call for a transparent, impartial, and timely determination of the election results. We know that the final tabulations have not been conducted just yet. The election authorities there completed a special scrutiny process. This is an important step, we see, in achieving a final election result that accurately represents the will of the Honduran people and expressed in the November the 26th election.

Overall, we continue to support efforts of the international election observation missions that are working with Honduran political leaders and authorities to increase the transparency and accountability there.

QUESTION: Follow-up on Honduras?

MS NAUERT: Okay. Yeah.

QUESTION: I’m Luke Vargas, with Talk Media News.

MS NAUERT: Hi. You’re new here, too.

QUESTION: I am, yes. First --

MS NAUERT: Welcome.

QUESTION: Not permanently, just visiting from the UN.


QUESTION: So on this November 28th certification document on the government’s human rights and anti-corruption efforts that Reuters reported on yesterday, I’m curious why that was issued during what was widely expected to be such a sensitive post-election period, if indeed it exists. And second, there are two groups – the naval special forces and the Honduran national police – that are reported to have used force against civilians. And these are groups receiving U.S. assistance.


QUESTION: Is the department monitoring those groups?

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that part. I can certainly check with our Western Hemisphere experts to see if they are. Some of that it sounds like would be under the Department of Defense, so you could certainly check with the Department of Defense.

I think you’re also – you’re asking me about the certification.

QUESTION: Correct.

MS NAUERT: Is that right? That took place on the 30th of November, so that would have been last Thursday, I believe. Under the U.S. Appropriations 2017 Act, 50 percent of U.S. foreign assistance to the central governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can’t be obligated until the State Department certifies that each government is making progress in 12 areas. Those include combating corruption and impunity, reducing violence, protecting human rights, and supporting the role of civil society. The department reviewed and analyzed the efforts and the progress of the Honduran Government. Over the past year, we made that determination to certify based on the accumulated data. In the certification, we confirm that Honduras has met the criteria specified in the legislation.

So I think this was just something that it was done when it was done. Okay? Guys, we have – sir, I’ll take your last question.

QUESTION: Oleg Merkulov from media group Vesti, Riga, Latvia, and my first time here too.

MS NAUERT: Oh, welcome.

QUESTION: So thank you.

MS NAUERT: Wait, who all is new here? Raise your hands. So sir, you’re new here, you’re new here, you’re new here. Okay. Welcome.

QUESTION: So Secretary Tillerson just reaffirmed the commitment to Article 5 of the NATO alliance, which is important for a Baltic state, right.

MS NAUERT: Of course.

QUESTION: So only as far as Latvia along with Estonia and Lithuania are going to send troops to Syria and Iraq. So not a large contingent, but anyway, what role do you think – could this Baltic contingent play in anti-terrorist operations there? Will it be mostly symbolic, or can it really make some practical impact?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, I have not seen that report that they have committed to send their forces to – you said Syria and Iraq?

QUESTION: Iraq, basically, but --

MS NAUERT: Oh, to Iraq. Okay. So I don’t want to comment on that too much, but to say in general terms we welcome the efforts of so many countries to have contributed in our D-ISIS coalition. There are 73 members of our D-ISIS coalition, and that includes mostly countries, but also various international organizations as well.

We have seen – and I’ve been so impressed by the number of small countries that have been willing to step up and provide their forces, even when they’re limited forces, to places like Afghanistan, to Syria, to Iraq. So if those countries are, in fact, providing those forces, I would say thank you. Thank you on behalf of the U.S. Government. Thank you on behalf of the Iraqi Government and the Syrian people for helping to bring peace and stability. But I’d be happy to take a further look into that for you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: You’re welcome. All right. Okay – we got – we have to go.

QUESTION: Thank you. A quick one. How concerned is the U.S. on the prospect of ending the conflict in Yemen after the death of President Saleh?

MS NAUERT: Oh, that’s a good question. Boy, we’ve certainly followed that very closely. I spoke with our ambassador to Yemen last week or so just to get an update on the situation. The humanitarian situation in Yemen remains dire. It really does. And one of the things that we ask for when we speak with our partners in the region – when we speak with the Saudis – is, for example, to allow more humanitarian access in. We know that the people need that so desperately. We are watching very carefully what has happened with the – let me just find my additional information here. Hold on one second. And now I can’t find it. We’re just watching it very carefully and are incredibly concerned about violence there. So we continue to call upon folks in the region to refrain from violence and call for the humanitarian access to get in. I’ll see if I have anything more for you on that, okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Thank you. Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:40 p.m.)

DPB # 68


[i] The White House has made no announcement on an Ambassador.