Department Press Briefing - January 16, 2018
Index for Today's Briefing:
MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody.
MS NAUERT: Not as many here today, but it’s great to see you all again. I know one of the areas that you’re all very interested in, as are we, is Yemen and the humanitarian situation there. We have an update to bring you. I have invited our Deputy Assistant Secretary Tim Lenderking. You’ve all met Tim before. He recently updated you on Yemen, and he’s here to provide a new update. He only has time to take a couple questions. He has to run up to the Hill. So I’ll just call on a couple of you, let him get out of here and on his way, and then I’ll take over and answer the rest of your questions.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much, Heather. Happy New Year to everybody. I am pleased to announce that over the weekend we had the arrival of the four cranes into Hodeidah port in Yemen. This is a longstanding priority for the U.S. Government. We had excellent cooperation and coordination with the World Food Program, who manages the transportation of the cranes. As you know, they were funded by the U.S. Government, so paid for by us, the people of the United States, and it’s been a priority of ours to get those cranes into Hodeidah port, which is the key – one of the key lifelines for humanitarian supplies into Yemen, and to get those cranes operational so they can begin to increase the capacity of the port to move supplies from ships that will be offloading in Hodeidah port out into the center of the country, feeding the people of Yemen.
The President, as you know, has been – has been the leader on this issue for the United States. The Secretary has also played an instrumental role in making all of this happen. The Saudi-led coalition was also very instrumental in helping us with the logistics here. The Secretary of State had a chance to speak with the Saudi foreign minister last Friday on a visit in Washington to help tee up this event over the weekend, and then this morning he spoke with the Emirati foreign minister also to thank the Emiratis for their support as a coalition member for getting the cranes into Hodeidah.
I was here a couple of weeks ago and had a chance to talk to you at more length about Yemen. I did mention the cranes in that briefing, so I wanted to pass on to you this development because of the high-level importance that we’ve attached to it. And we’re looking for the cranes specifically to drop to – drop about 50 percent the offloading time for ships passing through Hodeidah port. So this combined with continued engagement with the coalition on the Saudi-led humanitarian plan, which we had sort of a soft opening with – the Saudis briefed us on the plan last week in Riyadh, and we’re continuing to work with them in engagements in the interagency last Friday with the Saudi ambassador. These will be continuing to be a major topic for us going forward.
So I think this will help to alleviate to some extent the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and we want those cranes to get moving, get operational, and start offloading supplies from the ships.
Be happy to take a couple of questions.
MS NAUERT: Go ahead, Arshad.
QUESTION: Just one quick one. I thought I read somewhere that the Saudis may have placed a limitation on the time that the cranes may operate. Is that correct? How long is that and what are you doing to try to get them to extend that?
MR LENDERKING: I think what you’re referring to is that under a great deal of consultation from the United States, the Saudis agreed to open Hodeidah port in December for 30 days, and they have subsequently said that that 30 – they have not pronounced yet whether that 30-day period would be extended. We are working with the Saudis to extend that 30-day period. We do think it’s important. They have their own concerns. As you know, they continue to be threatened by Houthi rocket fire into the kingdom, so that is a factor in their thinking in terms of what goes through Hodeidah port. They have some concerns about some military equipment. We do not want to see any military equipment moving through Hodeidah. But as a key humanitarian lifeline, we do believe that Hodeidah port needs to stay open for all the commodities – food, fuel, sugar, supplies, medicine – that will be able to disperse throughout the country of Yemen. We’ll be meeting tomorrow with American NGOs, international NGOs, to continue to get their feedback. In other words, it’s one thing to say the cranes have arrived, and we’re doing many things at the high level to work with the Saudis on the humanitarian plan and the way forward. What are the NGOs telling us? What are those who have people on the ground in Yemen reporting back? What is the impact? Ultimately, that’s what we’re looking for, is the impact.
QUESTION: And was it the 19th that the --
MR LENDERKING: That’s correct.
QUESTION: -- port must be open until?
MR LENDERKING: That’s right.
QUESTION: Are you confident they’ll let you keep it running?
MR LENDERKING: We don’t have full certainty of that. We don’t have a commitment yet. But that is very much our approach and our goal.
MS NAUERT: Nicole from CNN.
QUESTION: Hi. Nicole Gaouette, CNN. UN senior officials have flatly said they’ve seen no evidence of arms in any of the shipments going into Hodeidah. Where does the U.S. stand on that issue?
MR LENDERKING: We also do not believe that Hodeidah is a major transshipment point for weapons. We have other areas that we’re more concerned about that we’re working on. And so I think we want to continue to apply pressure where we see those pressure points happening, and we are doing that.
MS NAUERT: Said, final question.
QUESTION: Yeah. I have a very technical question: Where are we in the 30-day period? Where are we now in this 30-day period? Because I know it was supposed to start in December, then it was slow go, they did not open it right away. So we’re a bit lost in that.
MR LENDERKING: Well, our calendar has it, I think as Arshad said, December – sorry, January 19th. So that’s coming up fairly soon.
MS NAUERT: Thank you, everybody.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Unfortunately, DAS Lenderking has to go up to the Hill, or fortunately.
MR LENDERKING: Thank you very much.
MS NAUERT: Thank you so much.
So it’s nice to be back with you all. I’d first --
QUESTION: Welcome back. Glad everything is okay.
MS NAUERT: Thank you. First off, you all were so kind and thoughtful. Many of you sent me emails and text messages asking about my family, and I just want to say a heartfelt thanks to all of you for that. I really appreciated that, and to my colleagues, who were also so kind and did so much. I was just away for a week, but nevertheless, a lot happens in the world when you’re away, so I’d like to thank my colleagues, especially our Under Secretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein, who came out here in front of all of you, which is not really always a fun job, but he did it nonetheless. So I want to say thank you to Under Secretary Goldstein for having done that. So I’m back with you. I’m back – happy to be back here.
QUESTION: I’m going to take exception. What do you mean it’s not always a fun thing?
MS NAUERT: Well, it’s difficult. Sometimes a hospital stay might be more fun than briefing, but – (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: But I knew it was time to come back to work when my son was, “Mommy, go back to Washington.” So thanks again to all of you.
Let’s start out today with a little bit about the Secretary’s travel. As many of you know, the Secretary is in Vancouver today as cohost of the Vancouver Foreign Ministers Meeting on Security and Stability in the Korean Peninsula with the Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. The meeting is to bring together nations from across the globe to demonstrate international solidarity against North Korea’s dangerous and illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Discussions will focus on advancing and strengthening diplomatic efforts towards a secure, prosperous, and denuclearized Korean Peninsula. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was also at the ministerial welcome dinner last evening. Secretary Tillerson will hold a press conference later today. I believe it’ll be about 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, so we will be sure to bring you information on that, but you can certainly watch it as well.
In addition to that, today is Religious Freedom Day. Today marks 232 years since the enactment of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which served as the model for protecting religious liberty that was later enshrined in our First Amendment to the Constitution. The religious freedom we take for granted here at home is under serious attack throughout the world. In Burma, Rohingya have been the victims of ethnic cleansing at the hands of Burmese security forces and also local vigilantes. Across South Asia, members of religious minorities experience societal discrimination and violence which is exacerbated by laws and policies that punish speech, restrict religious conversions, or ban certain beliefs.
Protecting and promoting religious freedom is a priority of this Trump administration. In the Middle East, we’re taking firm steps to defeat ISIS while we work with members of affected religious minorities to restore their communities, their religious freedom, and their way of life. We’ve enhanced our cooperation with likeminded governments around the world to combat the actions of abusive regimes and promote respect and understanding across religious lines in divided societies. Together with our partners both at home and abroad, we will strive for a world where we can all enjoy the freedoms of thought, freedoms of conscience, and freedoms of religion.
And finally, I want to note something that happened yesterday in Baghdad. Laurie, I know this is something that you’re watching very carefully. And I want to just make it clear that we condemn in the strongest possible terms Monday’s barbaric attack in Tayran Square in Baghdad. The brutal attacks on innocent civilians demonstrates once again the savagery of the enemy that we face there. We want to extend our deepest condolences to the family of the victims and hope for a speedy recovery of those wounded. Those attacks are an awful reminder that despite having liberated Iraqi territory from ISIS, terrorism remains a threat there. The U.S. Government reaffirms its commitment to support the government and the people of Iraq in their efforts to ensure an enduring defeat of ISIS and also its ideology.
With that, I’d be happy to take your questions today.
MS NAUERT: Matt, where would you like to start?
QUESTION: And welcome back. Happy New Year.
MS NAUERT: Thank you. You too.
QUESTION: Let’s start with – in the Mideast with the Palestinians.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Today you guys informed the UN Relief and Works Agency that you’re going to be withholding $65 million in a $125 million tranche, the first one of this calendar year. And I’m just wondering if you could explain exactly why you’re doing this.
MS NAUERT: So let me start by saying that we delivered a letter today to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief Works Agency for Palestinian refugees in the Near East – UNRWA. We committed a voluntary contribution of $60 million for 2018 so far. This will be divided into tranches. Sixty million is what we have indicated as the first available tranche. That money is going to sustain schools and health services to ensure that teachers and also health care providers can be paid their salaries. One of the reasons we decided to do this is that we felt that not providing that money would run the risk of having the organization and the people there run out of funds and that those entities would have to be potentially closed down.
You bring up an additional pot of money, and that’s also 2018 dollars: $65 million. That is money that will be held for future consideration. It’s money that’s being frozen at this time. It’s not being canceled. It’s just being held for future consideration.
One of the things that the United States would like to do is see some revisions made in how UNRWA operates. One of our bureaus, PRM, our – one of our bureaus here at the State Department has a formal oversight role with UNRWA. We have people on the ground who take a look at some of the UNRWA activities and things they do, how the money is being spent. And one of the things this administration would like to do, just as we talk about UN reform, is take a look at UNRWA, trying to make sure that the money is best spent and best spent so that people can get the services, whether it’s school or the health care services, that they need.
QUESTION: Right. Well, so what do they – what does it have to do to get the other 65 million?
MS NAUERT: Well --
QUESTION: Or is it pretty much a lost cause, and they’re not going to get it?
MS NAUERT: No, no, it’s not a lost cause at all. We would like to see some reforms being made. You’ll want to know the specifics. I’m not going to get into the specifics of that today. But we’re taking a look at the organization, we’re monitoring it, and we’d like to see some reforms be made.
QUESTION: Well, is this a response to the Palestinians bringing the UN General Assembly resolution to a vote? I mean, is this – I guess there’s a lot of – there’s been a lot of criticism of plans to do this, which are by people who say that this is all political --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: -- that this doesn’t really have to do with reforms, that this is an – aimed at punishing the Palestinians further.
MS NAUERT: This is not aimed at punishing anyone. The United States Government and the Trump administration believe that there should be more so-called burden sharing to go around. The United States has been, in the past, the largest single donor to UNRWA. We would like other countries – in fact, other countries that criticize the United States for what they believe to be our position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, other countries that have criticized us – to step forward and actually help with UNRWA, to do more. So we’re asking other countries to do more. Just as we have with NATO, asking other countries to provide that 2 percent GDP into its defense, we are asking countries to do more as it pertains to UNRWA.
QUESTION: All right. I’ll let others after this – this is my last one.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: So when you say you’re asking other countries to step up, have you actually asked other countries to step up? Or is it --
MS NAUERT: I believe we’re --
QUESTION: Or is it up to UNRWA to go and put out their hat to the Europeans, to whoever?
MS NAUERT: Well, I think just based on the way that the United States has operated in the past, where we’ve put pressure on other countries, we’ve had conversations with other countries asking them to do more, I can’t imagine that we would handle this any differently.
QUESTION: No, I guess the – my point is, are – if, in fact, it is not a punishment or a political move to withhold this money, it seems to me that you would – and in fact, it’s only about redistributing the – how UNRWA gets its money so that the United States pays less, it would seem to me that you guys would be out beating down people’s doors saying, “Hey, we’re not going to – we’re withholding 65 million. Make this up,” or, “You should.” Are you doing that?
MS NAUERT: Well, what we do as a government – and you don’t hear us very often call out other countries specifically to do more. Sometimes we do that, but other times we find that we can be more effective and get countries to do more in whatever area we’re looking for them to do more when we have some of those private conversations. But I can assure you as a part of our policy, we will be going to different countries and we will ask them to step up to the plate and provide additional money.
Again, today announcing the $60 million that’s going, the $65 million, and a potential second tranche is being held for now. And when I have more for you on that, I’ll certainly give it to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Hi.
QUESTION: Is this decision in any way related to the President’s January 2nd tweet --
QUESTION: -- in which he said that the United States has given the Palestinians hundreds of millions of dollars but has gotten no appreciation or respect, and in which he then said, with their not being interested in peace negotiations, why should the United States giving this – keep giving this money?
MS NAUERT: Look, I don’t know the – I don’t have the President’s tweet right in front of me, so I’d have to refer you back to the White House on that one.
QUESTION: I have it and I can quote it to you.
MS NAUERT: Okay, but as a general matter --
QUESTION: But I was pretty close there.
MS NAUERT: -- we will look for other countries to do more to help out. We don’t believe that taking care of other nations and other people has to solely be the United States responsibility. People want that to be our responsibility. We’re very generous. In fact, I would argue we’re the most generous nation on the globe, but we will ask other countries to do more.
QUESTION: But that’s not my question. I mean, the President made pretty clear in that – in that tweet that his concern was not getting appreciation or respect from the Palestinians, and saying the Palestinians weren’t interested in peace talks. And I’m just asking, do those two factors – a lack of appreciation and respect, and a Palestinian unwillingness to engage in peace talks – underlie or factor in in any way to this decision?
MS NAUERT: Arshad, I can tell you we’re not giving up on peace talks. We’re not giving up on those conversations. It’s something very important to this administration. Secretary Tillerson ultimately made this decision in consultation with other members of the administration.
QUESTION: But what --
MS NAUERT: And so that’s where things landed.
QUESTION: But why can’t you say whether – I mean, the President is the ultimate policymaker.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: He, a couple of weeks ago, said that he wanted to cut aid to the Pakistanis, you went ahead and did that. He made clear that he was reconsidering aid to the Palestinians. And I’m just asking, and it seems reasonable if his reasons are yours.
MS NAUERT: I’m not – I’m not certain if this is what the President was referring to or not. I’d just have to refer you to the White House. I’ve not spoken to the President about this issue, so I’m sorry, I’m just not – I don’t have the information to be able to answer that question. Okay, perhaps the White House can.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that there’s absolutely no connection between the political stance or the refusal of the Palestinian Authority to enter into negotiations, which are not there – I mean, there are no negotiations going on to which they have been invited to and they turned them down. But you’re saying that cutting aid – cutting off aid to UNRWA has nothing to do with the political situation? It is --
MS NAUERT: I can tell you that it has long been a concern of this administration, a year into the administration, about UNRWA and how it handles itself and how it manages its money. And that is part of the reason why we would have a bureau, our Population, Refugees, and Migration, PRM, that it plays a role in oversight – not management, but oversight of these types of funding mechanisms. That’s nothing new. It’s been around for a long time.
QUESTION: Okay, so it is just purely management and organization. It has nothing to do with --
MS NAUERT: That is my understanding, yeah.
QUESTION: That is your understanding. But UNRWA provides these services in terms of clinics, schools, and doesn’t give money to the Palestinians. It gives them food and it gives them medical care and provides schools. They’re already very strapped. So I wonder how you would, let’s say, handle the humanitarian situation that will result from the cutting off of 52 percent of the budget.
MS NAUERT: Okay, I don’t have the --
QUESTION: And 65 --
MS NAUERT: I don’t have the percentage in front of me, but I know that the United States will be asking other nations around the world, including Arab nations and others, to kick in money. Some of those countries do not provide any of the money at this time. So those countries, we would ask for them to pay into it as well.
QUESTION: So it has nothing to do with the historical Israeli demand, or Netanyahu’s statement last week, that UNRWA needs to just disappear from the face of the Earth because it has perpetrated the Palestinian problem?
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, I did not --
QUESTION: It has nothing to do with that?
MS NAUERT: I did not see that statement by the prime minister.
QUESTION: Okay. And I just have a couple more. But did you submit a – let’s say a list of what UNRWA should be doing to keep that fund flowing? Did you submit that to them?
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that, but some of these conversations will be ongoing. We delivered a letter to UNRWA today just announcing the $60 million, and the conversations will be ongoing.
QUESTION: Because UNRWA always claims that whatever reforms you want them to do, they have done in the past, and they discuss these issues with you directly. So – but this time around there seems to have been no list saying that we want you to do one, two, three, four, five. And --
MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that. I will look into it to see if we gave them a list of specific things that we are asking them to do. But our main point today is asking other countries to step up to the plate, not making the United States be the single largest donor or the sole donor, and other countries to step in and do more. Okay?
QUESTION: So it is a sharing of responsibilities and has nothing to do with the political reality?
MS NAUERT: Look, that is my understanding, yes.
QUESTION: Hi, sorry I’m late.
MS NAUERT: Hi, Dave.
QUESTION: But the Israeli ambassador’s welcomed your decision, saying that it’s punishment for UNRWA’s political position. Is he incorrect, the ambassador?
MS NAUERT: Those are his words. I have not seen that myself. I’ve not seen that word that you just mentioned, so I’m not going to characterize or comment on that.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay, let’s move on to something else.
QUESTION: I just have one more on this.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: As you are aware, there was disagreement within the top levels of the administration about this decision and a lot of concern expressed by – from this building but also from the Pentagon and intel agencies about the impact that a severe reduction in U.S. funding to UNRWA would have on stability in the region, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon.
MS NAUERT: I think the concern expressed among --
QUESTION: Potentially – potentially Egypt – no, so my question is: Have you been in touch with the Egyptians, with the Lebanese, with the Jordanians about this decision? The Vice President is going to be going to the region very soon. There are even some in Israel who are not convinced that this is – that significant reductions in this assistance is a good idea. Has there been contact with those interested parties?
MS NAUERT: The Secretary has had a big list of calls that he has gone through over the past few days, over the past 10 days or so --
QUESTION: On this issue?
MS NAUERT: -- certainly since I’ve been out. On many issues. I know he’s spoken with the Jordanians. I know he’s spoken with others in the region. I haven’t had a chance to go through some of those calls just yet.
Your first part of your question was what, Matt? I’m sorry. I had – have an answer to it, and I just forgot what you had asked initially.
QUESTION: On --
MS NAUERT: Oh, thank you. Thank you. So in terms of instability, one of the questions that people had asked about 10 days, two weeks or so or ago, was will you zero out this money. Remember that whole flurry of reporting went around, people thinking that the United States would cancel out the money altogether. Look, a big part of the reason we didn’t, after a lot of interagency deliberations, was we thought that that would have a negative impact. So here’s where we came down: $60 million today; a potential second tranche, $65 million; and potentially more in the future. So we took those concerns into consideration. I want you to – I want to note to you the number didn’t end up being zero. Today it ended up being 60 million. So we’re somewhere. Okay?
MS NAUERT: Laurie, you want to talk about Iraq?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: You mentioned the Secretary’s phone calls.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: And one of them yesterday was with Prime Minister Barzani. Would you have a readout on that?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have a readout of that – of that call, but I can tell you that the Secretary spoke with both Prime Minister Abadi, he also spoke with Mr. Barzani as well. This was yesterday. When he spoke with the prime – Prime Minister Abadi, I know he expressed his condolences for the suicide bombing, the homicide bombing that took place in Baghdad.
I can tell you this, that I know that based on those calls that we are optimistic that KRG and also the Government of Baghdad will be having more conversations in the future.
MS NAUERT: I – Laurie, we have long said that we would be happy to sit down and help facilitate those conversations and meetings if we are asked to do so. We believe that the governments can do that on their own. We have seen this as they have started to have some face-to-face meetings. We think that’s moving in the right direction.
QUESTION: And on the Iraqi elections that are coming up, the prime minister formed a briefly lived alliance – lasted about two days – with the pro-Iranian militia leaders to run in the elections. Did that bother you?
MS NAUERT: I missed that, then, if it only lasted two days.
Okay. Any – okay.
MS NAUERT: Where do we want to go next?
MS NAUERT: Yes. Hi, Janne. How are you?
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Nice to see you. On North Korea, recently North Korean Government said that nuclear issue will not put negotiation on the table, negotiating table, so do you – what do you – I mean, what do U.S. expect to talk with North Korea without negotiation about nuclear issues?
MS NAUERT: Well, we don’t have any conversations that are ongoing with North Korea, so I’m not exactly sure what you mean. Now is the not the time. Our policy hasn’t changed. Now is not the time to sit down and have talks with North Korea. At some point when they – if and when they are willing to be serious about the issue of denuclearization, we would be happy to entertain that. But they are – we are nowhere near that point yet.
QUESTION: But I think it seems like they just talk – talked for the talks but not putting – any nuclear issues put on the table.
MS NAUERT: Well, look, I think it’s pretty fresh that the Republic of Korea and also the DPRK are having conversations. We just saw the second one take place yesterday pertaining to the Olympics, and I think that’s a good sign. I think that’s a good sign. And it’s an excellent sign that the United States with 20-plus countries are up in Vancouver right now where we are exploring additional ways to enhance our maximum pressure campaign. We’ve seen that campaign be successful. We know – and as has the Republic of Korea’s Mr. Moon has indicated this as well – without that maximum pressure campaign that so many countries have been involved with, North Korea would not be having talks with South Korea – granted, limited to the issue of the Olympics, but that is a start.
So today, one of the things that the Secretary is doing is having a lot of conversations with those countries about how we can better enhance the maximum pressure campaign to get North Korea to denuclearize – an important thing for us, and I think it’s an important sign that so many countries were present to show up to see what they can do to better help.
Okay. Hey, Nicole.
MS NAUERT: Are we – let’s stay on DPRK for now. Yeah.
QUESTION: I want to stay on Korea generally.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: So we’re almost a year into President Trump’s tenure and arguably the most pressing foreign policy challenge he’s had has been North Korea, and yet we still don’t have an ambassador in South Korea. Why not, and what can you say about that?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. This is something that we’ve covered before. We have a charge d’affaires in South Korea, Marc Knapper. Marc is a longtime Foreign Service officer. He is beloved by many people in this administration and also at the State Department. He has been to North Korea numerous times. He speaks quite a few of the languages of South – of that part of the world. And so it is – we are confident that our embassy there is in good hands.
It is ultimately up to the White House to determine the nominations for any post. You all know that. I know that the Secretary and the White House are working hard to determine more people, more qualified candidates to take those positions. I can’t get ahead of the White House and announce anything, but I can tell you we are in good hands. When I talk to any of my colleagues here, because certainly I’ve asked the same question, “Why don’t we have this – why don’t we have somebody there?” And folks love Marc Knapper. I’ve spoken to him myself or at least have emailed with him, and I’m confident he is doing a great job.
Okay. Anything else related to Asia?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Yeah.
QUESTION: Just on the format of today’s talks, obviously the Chinese and the Russians have denounced this body, this meeting in Vancouver, as a Cold War throwback, that based on the countries that fought China as well as North Korea between ’50 and ’53. If you’re trying to maintain an international front, total solidarity for the maximum pressure campaign, is it not only just a mistake image-wise to meet with the people who went to war against China?
MS NAUERT: I think Russia and China can call it whatever they want to call it. It is clear in the bottom line what that is. Both of those nations sign on to three unanimous UN Security Council resolutions. Both China and Russia share our objectives, and that is the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. They do not want to see Kim Jong-un develop a nuclear weapon any more than the United States or any other country does for that matter.
So we are all on the same page. They’re not at the meeting, and that’s okay. They can call it whatever they want. Okay.
QUESTION: Can I go back to the Palestinians just for one second, not UNRWA?
QUESTION: Also --
MS NAUERT: Let – wait. Let’s come back to – let’s finish up Asia, and then we can come back to the Palestinian thing.
QUESTION: South Asia?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: It’s not that. It’s different.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Go ahead, sir. Hi.
QUESTION: Thank you. Nice to have you back.
MS NAUERT: Thank you.
QUESTION: So last week, Steve said that the United States has been in touch with China and Russia regarding the Vancouver meeting. Is President Trump’s phone call with President Xi Jinping yesterday a part of this touch considering the timing of the phone call?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, I think that would certainly be considered part of it. Among the things that the President spoke with – with President Xi about was talking about the hope that they might prompt a change in the behavior of the DPRK. We consider it to be destructive behavior. They consider it to be destructive behavior.
President Trump committed to sustain the United States-led global campaign of maximum pressure to compel North Korea to commit to denuclearization. So I think that that is a part of our ongoing conversations.
QUESTION: And did they talk about this Vancouver meeting specifically?
MS NAUERT: The White House provided a readout of that phone call, so I’d just have to refer you to the White House for that readout. Okay?
QUESTION: On South Asia?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Anything else related to DPRK, Japan?
MS NAUERT: Okay, go right ahead. Hi.
QUESTION: Hi. Nice to have you back.
MS NAUERT: Thank you.
QUESTION: Just about Iran. I think President Trump’s announcement last Friday didn’t make it quite clear that – did President Trump again decertified about Iran’s compliance with the treaty? (Inaudible.)
MS NAUERT: Okay, so we’re now – we’re moving onto Iran. Did anybody else have any other questions related to DPRK, anything related to that?
QUESTION: South Asia.
MS NAUERT: Okay, okay. We’ll come back to that then, sir.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay. So to your question about Iran and the President. As you know, the President extended the waivers on some of the sanctions for another 120 days. That’s to provide time for the administration in conjunction with members of Congress to come up with legislative language, to work harder on legislation that would help try to pull Iran into better compliance and look to being tougher on Iran. So that is something that the administration decided.
Some of those conversation, from what I have been told, between Congress and the administration, they’re making some pretty good progress on the legislation and some of the language on that.
QUESTION: But I think also, just every 90 days, the president is supposed to notify Congress that – whether Iran is just in compliance with the treaty or not. So the January 15th is supposed to be the latest deadline, so is there any decision so just (inaudible)?
MS NAUERT: I’m not sure that today is --
MS NAUERT: -- if that’s – is that correct?
QUESTION: Actually, that’s Monday. If --
MR GREENAN: (Off-mike.)
MS NAUERT: But that was the announcement that the president made on Friday.
QUESTION: I think these are two different things. These like --
MS NAUERT: Let me get back to you on that, okay? Okay. Thank you.
Okay. What are we --
QUESTION: I just wanted to go back very briefly because --
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: -- I have a feeling that you’re not going to have an answer, but just being --
MS NAUERT: I love how you always say that, “I have a feeling you’re not going to have an answer,” as you look down your – on your – you look down at your notes.
QUESTION: You’re going to say – I’m think I’m going to predict your answer: “We’re not going to comment on every time another leader makes some crazy remark or some remark.” That’s my prediction that you --
MS NAUERT: Okay. You might be right, Matt. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay. So this is on the Palestinians. So you are probably aware that Palestinian Authority President Abbas gave a very, very critical, harsh speech about this administration --
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: -- about the President, and about, in fact, other Arabs. I’m wondering what your response to that speech is.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I think in listening to that speech – and you’re right about that, but I can say clearly emotions are running high. Emotions are running high in the region and we certainly accept that. I’d like to caution folks in the region and Mr. Abbas that some of those words, some of the things they’re saying would be considered inflammatory, and they might in fact be unhelpful and divisive.
We would like to see a peace process go forward. We’ve talked about that a lot. That’s something that’s important to this administration. But we know that tensions and emotions are running high. We would just caution them on some of the language, because we’d like to see both sides be able to come to the table and talk.
QUESTION: Okay. And just to put a very fine point on it, this decision on UNRWA today is completely unrelated to that speech?
MS NAUERT: Yes, yes, absolutely. Okay. All right. Let’s move on to something else.
QUESTION: I have a follow-up on the --
QUESTION: One on Pakistan, please?
QUESTION: Syria, Turkey?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: The Turkish military began shelling Kurdish positions in Afrin province in northern Syria. What is the U.S. position as its NATO ally is shelling the – its number-one ally in the fight against ISIS in Syria?
MS NAUERT: Okay. I’m afraid I don’t have anything for you on that.
QUESTION: Can NATO --
QUESTION: Can we move on, please?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Sir?
QUESTION: So you – wait, so you are saying – does --
MS NAUERT: I don’t have a specific report on whether or not we can confirm that that has taken place. Okay.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, along the same lines, there’s also been the announcement of a border force consisting primarily of Kurdish militias allied with the U.S. and the SDF along the Syrian-Turkish border, and President Erdogan called it a terror army and said he would strangle it before it’s born. So this is another place where there’s kind of a contradiction between two U.S. allies.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: So I’m just wondering if the U.S. has a position on this.
MS NAUERT: Well, Turkey is a very important and valued NATO ally. We have a lot of interactions with the Turkish Government. As you probably know, the foreign minister of Turkey is in Vancouver right now, where I believe he will be meeting or have some sort of a chat with Secretary Tillerson, or at least some of our representatives later today. So an important NATO ally.
In terms of what is going on in Syria, the United States is in Syria to defeat ISIS. Any activities that we take part in with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces is something that’s internal only – internal only to Syria. And I say that because it is important that we defeat ISIS, that we make sure – and when I say “we,” I say that not just on behalf of the United States, but the entire coalition, the 72 or 73-member coalition – the importance of not letting ISIS take root the way that they had before and further destabilize that country. So that – what the United States is involved with with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces or the SDF is that, to defeat ISIS. That is solely what it is for. The internal purpose is of defeating ISIS.
QUESTION: But if Turkey does indeed attack the border force, what will the U.S. do?
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to get into any kind of hypothetical like that. Okay? Thank you.
QUESTION: Sorry --
QUESTION: Can we go to Pakistan, please?
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: Idlib, Syria?
QUESTION: -- on Turkey, the independent group Freedom House today released its rankings on world democracy and Turkey has been downgraded. They no longer consider it a free country according to this report. Does the United States Government regard Turkey as a democracy?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, I would say we’re certainly aware of the Freedom House report. We have said this for a long time, that we’re very concerned about some of the activities taking place in Turkey. We’re concerned about the pattern of actions by Turkish officials clamping down on freedom of speech – Ilhan, you and I have had a lot of conversations certainly about that – and the Turkish Government’s activities in which it appears to target people whose views differ from that of the government. So that is something that we watch very carefully. Okay?
QUESTION: Syria? Syria?
QUESTION: On South Asia?
MS NAUERT: Okay, okay. Laurie, go ahead.
QUESTION: Last week at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield explained that if the Geneva talks didn’t work out, then the U.S. had a fallback plan to retain forces in Syria, which this SDF border force seems to be a part of. And he gave two other purposes, because ISIS will be defeated soon. He said to – to be an alternative to the Syrian regime, alternative kind of government so the Syrians could see what a better life is like, and to counter Iran. So he was suggesting that the U.S. presence in Syria was going to be a shift in mission. Was – presumably he knows what he’s talking about, no?
MS NAUERT: I can tell you that our sole purpose for being in Syria has been the defeat of ISIS. Certainly, are there concerns about Iran’s malign activity around the world, in particular in that part of the world? Of course, there are. It’s not just the United States that shares concerns about Iran’s malign activities. Other countries do as well. But the main reason we are in Syria is for the defeat of ISIS.
QUESTION: Do you think that could shift in the future as --
MS NAUERT: I’m not going to get ahead of any policy positions of the U.S. Government on that. Where we are right now is we are there to defeat ISIS, and we also support a political transition. We’ve talked about that, the Geneva talks and having the ability to have the Syrian people decide for themselves what kind of government they would like.
QUESTION: On South Asia?
QUESTION: Cuba, please.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: During the – President Obama’s administration, there were visas granted for five years to intellectuals, artists, musicians, and some of these visas are starting to expire. Will these intellectuals and musicians be able to go online and access the – or must they also --
MS NAUERT: I’m afraid I don’t have any information on the musicians’ and artists’ visa applications. Many of you know that the visa process is something that we keep a very close hold on. We consider that to be confidential as it pertains to individuals. I can take a look and see as a general matter what we might be doing about those special types of visas and see if I can get you an answer for that.
QUESTION: And also, now that the Cuban citizens have to go to Colombia to get their visas through the American embassy there in Bogota, are you – has the U.S. Government contacted or had any contact with Colombia to assist in this process? Because Cuban citizens now require visas to go into Colombia.
MS NAUERT: I can certainly ask our experts on that and see if I can get you an answer.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay. Kylie, hi.
QUESTION: One question on Pakistan.
MS NAUERT: Anything else on Cuba?
QUESTION: On Pakistan, please.
QUESTION: South Asia?
MS NAUERT: Okay, okay.
QUESTION: So the Bangladesh Government says it plans to repatriate all Rohingya refugees within two years, and so I’m just wondering if the U.S. supports that decision and where you guys stand on contact with the Burmese Government right now.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. So I certainly saw that report that they plan to repatriate all of the Rohingya refugees, they say within two years. The most important part of that would be the safe and voluntary, respectful return of those people. If it cannot take place in two years – let me back up. The timeline is less important to us than the ability for people to safely and voluntarily go home when it is safe to do so. We don’t want people to be pushed back into their homes or their communities when they don’t feel that it’s safe. That’s completely counterproductive. They don’t want that, we don’t want that, the nations don’t necessarily want that either. So it has to be safe and voluntary.
QUESTION: And do you believe it’s safe right now for them to start that process?
MS NAUERT: I don’t have a ground assessment update for you, but it is such a short period of time between many – when those people were forced to leave their homes and now. I mean, it’s only been several months. I can’t imagine that anyone would feel safe at this point in returning to their homes. I mean, based on my conversations with people when I spent a short period of time in Burma and also in Bangladesh about how those refugees felt, they were in no place to be able to go back home. I mean, many of the people I saw there were extremely frail and very, very scared.
QUESTION: And one quick follow-up on that.
MS NAUERT: Yes.
QUESTION: Tillerson has said that those who are responsible for this violence should be held accountable. Does the U.S. see any of that accountability actually happening yet? I mean, is there any positive --
MS NAUERT: Well, you may recall we had some sanctions that had been put in place a few weeks ago against a – I believe it was a military general from Burma. It’s something that we’re carefully watching. We continue to watch that, as we continue to watch the case of the Reuters reporters who are being held there. I also saw – interesting to note – that former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson may be helping to facilitate their release. We certainly wish him well. He’s not operating under the State Department in that capacity to try to work with the government there of Myanmar to get their release, but we certainly hope that he will be successful in doing that. He has been successful in that in the past, and so we’re hoping that he has some good luck in releasing those reporters.
One of the most important things for a country and a – for a country to flourish is to be able to have an open marketplace of ideas, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and for reporters to be able to do their jobs.
MS NAUERT: Hi, Matt.
QUESTION: While you were away last week, you may have heard that the President, in a meeting with some congressional leaders and others about immigration reform, made a comment that’s been variously described, but agreed to I think by everyone – most people involved, at least – that it was a vulgarity, which has created anger around the world. We know of a handful of U.S. ambassadors or charges, ranking members of embassies, who have been summoned to various foreign ministries, particularly in Africa, to hear protests and also, presumably, to be asked for the explanation – an explanation of those comments.
What – first of all, can you give us an update on the number of ambassadors or ranking diplomats at post who have been summoned around the world? And then, secondly, can you tell us what the department has told these diplomats to say when they are confronted with officials, angry officials from other governments?
MS NAUERT: I can tell you – and I know that our Under Secretary for Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein addressed this with some of you last week. I believe it was here at this podium. We have a deep respect for people from the African continent. We have strong partnerships with the nearly 50 countries on the African continent. I will say this, which I say about other countries as well: Our relationships with countries are deeper than any one alleged comment. This President has been clear that he did not make that remark. You’ve had others in the room with the President who have said that they did not hear that remark. I wasn’t there, so I can’t provide you with a first-person account of that.
In terms of our relationships with other countries, we have strong relationships. We have people – and I believe each one of the African countries – working there on the ground on behalf of the State Department and on behalf of the American public. Our relationships are strong. We have great partnerships with many of these countries. We have a tremendous amount of respect for our African partners. You all may recall that Secretary Tillerson hosted I believe it was 37 African nations at a ministerial meeting here. I believe it was in November. I can tell you Secretary Tillerson looks forward to visiting the African continent. I – it’s just under two months from now. We don’t have the specifics of that travel or where he will be visiting just yet, but that is something that’s under discussion right now. Our Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon will be visiting, and our deputy secretary recently visited about a month or so ago.
So it’s an important part of the world for us, we have important relationships there, and that hasn’t changed.
QUESTION: What have you told your diplomats to tell countries that complain?
MS NAUERT: I would have to – I’d have to refer you back to what Under Secretary Goldstein had given – provided to all of you. I just don’t have that in front of me, I’m afraid.
QUESTION: And do you have an update on the number of diplomats who have been summoned to hear --
MS NAUERT: I do not. I do not.
QUESTION: -- protests?
MS NAUERT: I do not.
QUESTION: Can you take that?
MS NAUERT: I will see what I can get for you, but I can tell you we have lots of conversations. Some are casual conversations; some conversations are slightly more than casual conversations about these issues.
QUESTION: I may be misremembering this, but I think Under Secretary Goldstein gave us that in a fairly informal gaggle. So if you could get formal language --
MS NAUERT: I’ll see what I can do for you. As you know, I wasn’t here last week, so I’m afraid I just don’t have the specifics of that.
QUESTION: Well, just one more on this. I’m just wondering – I’m curious if there are people in this building who are concerned that these reported comments have hurt the mission of the State Department, have hurt the standing of the United States abroad, particularly in Africa and potentially in Haiti.
MS NAUERT: Look, I’ll go back to what I said a short while ago, and that is our relationship, our diplomatic relationships with countries all around the world, those relationships are stronger than any one alleged comment.
MS NAUERT: And when you ask me about tweets, I will say again, our relationships with nations are stronger than any one tweet or alleged comment at any point.
QUESTION: That sounds a lot like --
MS NAUERT: So people want to look at it as though it’s just one small slice. We have a much broader relationship with these countries.
QUESTION: I get that, but it sounds as though you’re saying don’t – let’s just ignore this kind of thing --
MS NAUERT: Look --
QUESTION: -- whether it’s a tweet or a comment like this that has been widely reported and confirmed.
MS NAUERT: I’m just telling you we have a strong relationship. We honor and value our partnerships with these nations. The Secretary looks forward to traveling --
MS NAUERT: -- to the continent. We loved hosting the 37 or some nations who came here. So we have a valuable relationship.
QUESTION: Right, but are you saying --
MS NAUERT: And I think those countries understand that as well.
QUESTION: Okay, but – so you’re saying that the leaders of other countries, officials of other countries should pay no attention to what the --
MS NAUERT: Matt, look --
QUESTION: -- what – to what the President of the United States says?
MS NAUERT: Countries can pay attention however they choose to. I’m just telling you from our point of view, our relationship is strong with nations. We continue to have conversations. We are active in their communities. We have people on the ground. We have probably thousands of people who work on behalf of the State Department in the many countries on the African continent. That work is very important to my colleagues and to this building, and that hasn’t changed.
I’m going to have to leave it there, guys.
QUESTION: Another one on South Asia, please?
MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay.
QUESTION: But --
MS NAUERT: I’ll take your question afterwards. I’ll take your questions afterwards.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: We’ve got to go.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:26 p.m.)