Department Press Briefing - February 01, 2018
Index for Today's Briefing:
MS NAUERT: Good afternoon, everyone. How are you all today? Good. It’s great to see you all, thank you so much for coming. On this Thursday, I brought with me our Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. He is here to provide a few remarks, not only about the decision to retire for the Under Secretary Tom Shannon – his intent to retire, which was announced earlier today – he’d like to say a few words about that.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Thank you, Heather, for that kind introduction. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a bittersweet day for me here at the department. My good friend and colleague Tom Shannon has announced that he intends to retire. We’ve talked about this over time for the last few months about what he might do with his career and his – now approaching his 35th year in the Foreign Service. He has – he’s been a great friend to me, an indispensable person in helping me adjust to my service here as deputy secretary of state. I owe him a great deal.
I started – well, I first met him and heard about him when I served in the Bush 43 administration, and he was the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, and I was the deputy secretary of commerce, and we had a lot of interaction on free trade agreements in Central America and Colombia and so forth. And he was a legend then, and his stock has only risen in my estimation since then, for me. So it’s a sad day for me, but it’s the right move for him personally and professionally, so we wish him all the best, and he is doing it in a professional, dignified way. He will stay through the confirmation of his successor and be a great help to Secretary Tillerson, and particularly to me. But it’s – it’s bittersweet, a little sad for me to see such a good friend and dear colleague retire. So, he is – he really exhibits all that’s finest about both the Foreign Service and the Civil Service.
He’s served six presidents and ten secretaries of state. I can say, having served in four different cabinet departments for three different presidents, that I’ve met very few who match Tom for his commitment, his intelligence, his wise counsel, his sense of humor. But I can say that there have been others like him that I’ve worked with across government, both in the Foreign Service, the Civil Service, and in the Uniformed Services – a small number of senior people who are really the key cogs that make the wheels of government turn. And Tom Shannon has been one of those for many years, and he will be deeply missed here by all, and particularly by me.
So with that, I’ll shift gears and turn to my recent trip to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was an important opportunity for me to reaffirm to those countries the United States’ commitment to strengthening our partnership with each of them, and our commitment to bringing enduring peace and prosperity to them. The trip also gave me an opportunity to salute our hardworking ambassadors, John Bass in Afghanistan and Doug Silliman in Iraq. Terrific ambassadors for the United States. Their staffs at our embassy – embassies – our women and men in uniform, our Iraqi and Afghan employees and third country nationals who work at our missions for their – to thank them for their invaluable service to our country and for their daily tireless contributions in very difficult circumstances. Their work is indispensable in helping Iraq and Afghanistan build prosperous, democratic societies, defeat terrorism, and provide humanitarian assistance to millions of people affected by conflict in both countries.
On my trip, my first stop was in Baghdad. I led a U.S. delegation consisting of U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Silliman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Andrew Peek, and Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary Eric Meyer, and we convened, along with Iraqi counterparts, the fifth U.S.-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee. The Iraqi side was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Nizar Khairullah and other senior Iraqi officials.
The meeting was convened under the Strategic Framework Agreement which was signed by the United States and Iraq in 2008 to affirm our partnership and intent to forge lasting bonds of cooperation and friendship. During our meeting of this committee, we agreed to continue to lay the foundation for future collaboration, particularly in the areas of trade and finance, and political and diplomatic cooperation.
As one example, we established a group of Iraqi and U.S. officials to work on mutual issues concerning visas – visas for U.S. business leaders traveling to Iraq and vice versa, for Iraqis traveling to the United States. We also agreed that the upcoming Iraq Reconstruction Conference in Kuwait would provide an important opportunity for the Government of Iraq to showcase a number of attractive investment opportunities for foreign investors, including many American companies, and to demonstrate that Iraq is open for business.
I also had the opportunity to congratulate my Iraqi interlocutors on their recent defeat of the so-called ISIS caliphate. Iraq – the territory of Iraq has been reclaimed from the terrorists who wreak such horrible violence upon the people of Iraq. The U.S.-led global coalition was proud to partner with Iraq as they fought to retake their country from ISIS, and we’ll continue to support Iraqis to ensure that ISIS is dealt an enduring defeat. We look forward to further coordination on this effort at the ministerial level of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS that will take place in Kuwait on February 13th.
During meetings with senior Iraqi officials I also emphasized the need for a continued dialogue between the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government. I encouraged Prime Minister Abadi to continue to work with KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani to reach practical accommodations on matters such as the payment of salaries and reopening of airports in Iraqi Kurdistan to international flights in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.
Finally, I reaffirmed the United States’ continued commitment to a federal, prosperous, unified, and democratic Iraq, one that meets the aspirations of all Iraqis. I also reinforced these points during my second stop in Iraq, which was in Erbil, to meet personally with Prime Minister Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Talabani. Following my visit to Erbil, I traveled to Kabul, which, as you know, has been the victim of several devastating and senseless terrorist attacks over the last two weeks. I was able to extend in person our condolences, thoughts, and prayers to the hundreds of victims, their families, and all of those affected by such terrible acts of violence.
Those affected include women and men who work at our embassy in Kabul, although we were fortunate that no one who works at the embassy was hurt or killed in the attacks. Several of our colleagues have friends and relatives who were. And in fact, there was a memorial service today in Kabul at our embassy for those who were so deeply affected. And again, we extend our condolences to them. The United States remains firmly committed to supporting the Afghan people in their government’s efforts to achieve peace, security, and prosperity for their country.
While in Kabul, I had the opportunity to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, and other government leaders. During each of these meetings, Afghanistan’s leadership made it clear to me that despite the recent tragic events, the Afghan Government will continue to work to create the necessary conditions to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and establish an environment for a sustained peace.
We applaud this conviction, as the path to peace and reconciliation must be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process, as we have laid out in the President’s South Asia strategy. Unfortunately, at this stage, everyone but the Taliban appears ready for peace. The Taliban’s reprehensible attacks targeting innocent civilians demonstrate that they are not ready to enter into good faith peace negotiations. The United States will continue to support our Afghan partners to defeat ISIS, al-Qaida, and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and to deny them and their affiliates safe haven and material support.
Afghan leaders and I also discussed security cooperation and the importance of holding timely, credible, and inclusive parliamentary and presidential elections. During an executive committee meeting of the Afghanistan Compact, we reviewed Afghanistan’s progress in the areas of security, governance, rule of law, economic development, and peace and reconciliation. I applaud the efforts of the Afghan Government thus far and welcome those officials in continuing to make further progress.
I also met with a group of inspiring young Afghan leaders from a range of sectors, spoke to aid and humanitarian assistance leaders, including those from Save the Children, who were so devastatingly affected by the attack on their facility. I met also with individuals from across the political spectrum. During all of these meetings, I underscored the United States’ commitment to working with the government and the people of Afghanistan to bring peace, security, and sustained economic growth to that country and to the regions.
With that, I’d be happy to take your questions.
MS NAUERT: Let’s start with – we’ll start with Voice of America. Hi, Nikki.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. Thank you for being here. With the – during your visit – during your meeting with the Afghanistan Government, did Pakistan come up during the discussion? And then given the recent attacks in Kabul, how does that help the United States to make the case that Pakistan needs to step up cooperation with – in anti-terrorism? Thank you.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Thank you. Well, our strategy, our policy with respect to Afghanistan, as you know, is really a regional strategy. It’s a South Asia policy. Pakistan figures very importantly in that.
In my discussions with the Afghan Government, we focused on the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the need for continued bilateral discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but I also emphasized that the United States must continue to have its bilateral relationship with Pakistan, both on its own terms and with respect to the region including Afghanistan.
We have made clear to the Pakistani Government our expectations for them to take action against terrorists that are in sanctuaries in Pakistan to reduce the pressure and the threat of violence in Afghanistan, and to contribute to a lasting and enduring peace in Afghanistan and the region. That was certainly part of my conversations with the Afghan leadership.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, sir. Do you think that you made progress in resolving the differences between Erbil and Baghdad on your trip?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: I think the – that the government in Baghdad and Erbil have made progress. I was delighted to be there to meet with both sides separately to encourage continued progress, continued dialogue between the government in Erbil, Prime Minister Barzani, and Prime Minister Abadi. As you know, Prime Minister Barzani traveled to Baghdad recently. We raised with both governments some of the issues that I discussed in my opening statement – reopening the airports to international travel, payment of salaries, some of the issues that you’re very familiar with that have separated the two governments.
The impression I got from my discussions was that both sides believe that progress is being made. They are continuing discussions. We are – my message to each – to each party in Baghdad and in Erbil – was to continue those discussions, make progress on these issues – particularly those where the differences are small and we can resolve them, establish more trust between the two governments, and move forward and tackle the larger issues.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Josh Lederman from AP.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. You touched on the negotiations issue in Afghanistan. The President recently declared that the United States won’t talk to the Taliban, that – in light of these attacks. Is that a change in position? And as far as talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, does the United States still support our Afghan partners talking to the Taliban? And if not, what’s the resolution to this?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Sure. The President’s comments were not a change in our South Asia policy. Our policy is for continue to – for us to continue to put pressure on the Taliban – military, economic, political – to bring them to the negotiating table where the ultimate resolution will be through an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process.
I think the President’s comments – well, one other thing I should say about the policy: One significant change in our policy is it’s conditions-based, not time-based. So we are not setting a timeline by which the security issues must be resolved otherwise we’ll withdraw. We’re not setting a timeline for a date by which negotiations must begin. The policy is conditions-based.
And I think the President’s comments reflects the fact that conditions over the last two weeks in Kabul do not suggest that the Taliban is interested in peace talks. That’s not to say that we are repudiating our policy. Our policy is to continue to put pressure on the Taliban to bring them, eventually, with patience and perseverance, to peace talks that are Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.
MS NAUERT: And our last --
QUESTION: One about the Iraqi election?
MS NAUERT: Hold – Said? Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you, I appreciate it. Yes, sir. Are you concerned that the May election, the elections set in May, may bring further instability in Iraq, especially with powers competing – those who are pro-Iran and those who are against Iran and so on? And how do you see this playing out, working out?
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well – excuse me – our message, my message in my meetings with the government in Baghdad, was to encourage the elections to go forward on May 12th. We think that that is the best path to a stable, democratic, free, federal, unified, prosperous Iraq.
And the response I had from Prime Minister Abadi was that he was committed to those elections, and the Iraqis are committed to those elections. Political process, as we see even in our own country, is not necessarily tidy and pretty, but it’s essential. It’s essential to demonstrate their commitment to democracy. And one thing I reminded my interlocutors in Baghdad was a feature of U.S. history, that it is possible even in dangerous, fractured situations, even in the midst of war, to hold national elections, as the United States did in 1864 during the Civil War.
So the overriding commitment to democracy is what’s important. Prime Minister Abadi has expressed that, and we’re most grateful for that, and we’re looking forward to doing all we can to support Iraq in holding free, fair, and democratic elections on May 12th.
MS NAUERT: Sir, thank you so much. Everyone, thank you so much for your questions --
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: -- for the Deputy Secretary. Are you sure you don’t want to take over? No? (Laughter.)
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: They’re all yours.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Come on back anytime.
DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: I couldn’t possibly heft something that – that epic. Mine’s a lot smaller.
Okay, a couple items of business I want to get to before starting your questions today. The first, I want to mention that we are watching very carefully and the United States is extremely concerned about yet another report of the use of chlorine gas by the Syrian regime to terrorize innocent civilians in East Ghouta, Syria, outside of Damascus. If confirmed, the attack is the third reported instance in the past 30 days in East Ghouta.
We take the allegations of chemical weapons use very seriously and are working with our partners on the ground to investigate the reports. We will continue to seek accountability through all available diplomatic mechanisms, including the United Nations Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for the confirmed use of chemical weapons by any party.
We call on the international community to hold the perpetrators of these attacks accountable and will speak with a united voice in condemnation. If we fail to uphold the principles set forth in the many international agreements related to chemical weapons, we undermine their fundamental principles and we fail the innocent they were created to protect.
Next, I’d like to talk a little bit about the International Organization for Migration and the upcoming elections that will take place. I am pleased to announce the nomination of Mr. Ken Isaacs as the U.S. candidate for director-general of the International Organization for Migration, IOM, in the upcoming June 2018 election.
Ken Isaacs is a senior executive of the international relief organization Samaritan’s Purse and is distinguished for his efforts to improve accountability and lead organizational transformation. With 34 years of experience living and working around the world to provide lifesaving emergency humanitarian assistance and development aid, he is exceptionally qualified to lead the IOM, a vital U.S. partner in our efforts to ensure that migration is safe, orderly, and legal.
We will work closely with Mr. Isaacs over the next few months leading up to the June 29th election to arrange meetings with IOM member-states to discuss his qualifications for this important position and to share his vision for IOM. As one of IOM’s largest partners, the United States is committed to a stronger, ever-more effective and efficient IOM.
Next, as you all know, the Secretary is embarking today on his trip, his Western Hemisphere trip. He just spoke a short while ago at the University of Texas in Austin in which he outlined the administration’s Western Hemisphere policy priorities for 2018 and beyond. As you know, Secretary Tillerson will embark on his first multi-country trip to Latin America and also the Caribbean. During his trip to the region, the Secretary will engage with regional partners to promote a safe, prosperous, energy-secure, and democratic hemisphere. He will also advocate for increased regional attention to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. The Secretary will travel to Mexico City and Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; Bogota, Colombia; and Kingston, Jamaica, where he will return on February the 7th.
As the deputy secretary shared just a few minutes ago when he was speaking about our Under Secretary for Political Affairs Tom Shannon, I wanted to share with you a few personal comments from the Secretary. The Secretary met with a small group of people yesterday afternoon along with Under Secretary Shannon, and I wanted to let you know some of the Secretary’s thoughts about Under Secretary Shannon and his announcement of his intention to retire. The Secretary put out a statement earlier today, so I’d refer you to that, but I wanted to give this to you in addition to that.
The Secretary, as he sat down with a small group – I was sitting there with him – he said, “I really want this moment to be about Tom Shannon. Tom has earned that. There will always be a place for Tom Shannon at the State Department. I know what he most regrets is that he sees the tremendous challenges and the difficult situations around the world. Nobody likes to leave in the middle of a fight, but we talked about this, and unfortunately, the nature of our world is one where we have been in continuous fights and there’s always going to be a demand for someone with Tom’s capability. If at any time he decides he wants to come back in the fight, there will be a place for him here at the State Department.” He went on to say, “I’m going to rely on him for leaving his telephone number, and I know he will take my call.” We hope so. We hope he doesn’t toss away his BlackBerry and iPhone.
Next, the Chief of Staff of the White House John Kelly had spent quite a bit of time with Under Secretary Shannon both in the – when he was serving at SOUTHCOM and when Under Secretary Shannon was serving in WHA and in other capacities. The Chief of Staff Kelly sent this note to me, and I’d like to share it with you right now.
He said, “I would like to thank my friend, Tom Shannon, for his more than 34 years of selfless service to our great nation which spanned six presidents and ten secretaries of state. He was my closest State Department collaborator when I first met with him and worked with him in my 39 months at USSOUTHCOM and was thrilled when I heard he decided to continue serving this nation in the Trump administration. The nation owes him a great debt of gratitude, and I wish him the best as he begins this new chapter in his life.” Chief Kelly, thank you for your comments.
Now I’d just like to add a personal note, and then I’ll be happy to get to your questions.
Without a doubt, Under Secretary Shannon’s decision to announce his retirement is a loss for this building. It has been my good fortune and my sincere pleasure to have served with him for nearly a year now. His kindness, his love of country, his dedication to mentoring the next generation of diplomats, and his passion for knowledge are legendary. Last summer, I listened as he spoke to a fresh-faced A-100 class. It was on the very day that they received their flag assignments. That meant that that was when they found out which post they were to go to, their first assignments.
Looking across the room at these A-100 members, I thought, “Gosh, they’re such kids.” They all look so young, and that’s why I say fresh-faced. He spoke to them, and it was so meaningful to them and it was so meaningful to myself and some of our other colleagues to see that sort of hand-down of the diplomacy process from someone so seasoned, so well respected, to these young professionals who are just beginning their careers at the State Department. Those A-100 members could not have gotten a better diplomat from which to learn.
A few months ago, I traveled with Under Secretary Shannon to Bangladesh for the sixth U.S.-Bangladesh Partnership Dialogue. Despite an overnight flight and a marathon day of meetings, he insisted on visiting the Bangabandhu Memorial Museum. I attended that with him. I was exhausted. Everybody else was exhausted. But he just forged ahead with all of the meetings and the engagements he had.
He went there to pay respect to Bangladesh’s founding father. Under Secretary Shannon didn’t have to make this stop, but his sincere curiosity and his intellect are boundless. Just as significant, the under secretary appreciated what the stop would mean to the people of Bangladesh. Ever the consummate diplomat, he asked insightful questions and impressed our hosts with his knowledge of Bangladesh’s history and its struggle for independence.
The stories like that go on and on, literally everyone here in the building, from the very top to the people who are just starting out this day at the State Department, would have a story like that to tell you about Under Secretary Shannon.
I’d like to say, sir, thank you for your service to the State Department, thank you for your friendship, thank you for your time. We know that you will be here for quite a few months to oversee a seamless transition just as you did with the Secretary of State, as you did with the deputy secretary, and so many others. But, sir, when you finally do retire, enjoy that time with your family. It’s a family that has served this nation not only with him, but within his younger sons as well. And just, sir, thank you. You’ve left a better State Department because of your service.
And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions. Josh, where would you like to start?
QUESTION: Thanks, Heather. Quite a farewell. Two quick ones.
MS NAUERT: And well-deserved for a great guy.
QUESTION: Absolutely. Two quick questions that might be somewhat obscure. Monday is the deadline under the 2010 New START Treaty for the U.S. to reach some limits as far as nuclear warheads and launchers. Do you know, is the U.S. in compliance with that at this time, and do we assess that Russia is as well?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, the answer to both is yes. That takes place this coming month – excuse me, this coming – February the 5th it is. It’s already February, right? Today is February the 1st. Okay, so it’s February the 5th.
This is an agreement, for those of you who haven’t followed it closely, between the U.S. and Russia on nuclear delivery systems. I believe it’s the eighth anniversary of this agreement that we have. The United States has met the central limits of the New START Treaty in August 2017. We assess at this time that Russia has also progressed toward meeting those limits. We have no reason to believe that the Russian Government will not meet those limits as well. Moscow has repeatedly stated its intention to meet those limits on time, and we have no reason to believe that that won’t be the case.
Within the next month or so, both countries will exchange their data under the strategic nuclear arsenals as we have done bilaterally under the treaty’s terms for the last seven years. We hope each country will confirm the compliance of the other as soon as possible after this data exchange. And then we’ll hopefully have an update for you on the 5th with additional information.
QUESTION: Great, thanks. And then on Myanmar, the AP has identified at least five mass graves in Rakhine State, indications there may be many more, which suggests that not only is there this assaults attempting to drive the Rohingya into Bangladesh, but actually systematic slaughter of them within the country. Is that information consistent with what the U.S. has seen, and do you have any reaction to those discoveries?
MS NAUERT: Absolutely. We are deeply, deeply troubled by those reports of mass graves. And I want to point out that these are in the Northern Rakhine State. That is the exact area where we have seen the Rohingya flee their country for neighboring Bangladesh. We are watching this situation very carefully. As you know, the Secretary had not long ago said that the activities taking place in the Northern Rakhine State constitute ethnic cleansing. That is something that we stand firmly by.
One of the issues, one of the problems with making further assessments, is that we are limited in our ability to get into that region. Aid groups are limited and journalists are limited, as we have all seen. We are watching this very carefully. We remain focused on helping to ensure the accountability for those responsible for human rights abuses and violations.
We have seen previous reports and the subsequent discovery of a mass grave in Inn Din Village. The new report that you’re referring to, Josh, highlights the ongoing and the urgent need for Burmese authorities and investigators to cooperate with an independent, credible investigation into allegations of atrocities in the Northern Rakhine State. With the help of forensic experts, an investigation would help provide a more comprehensive picture of exactly what happened. The world needs to know exactly what happened there.
We would like to clarify the identities of the victims there. We’d like to identify those who were responsible for human rights abuses and also violations. So we’ll keep digging into this and look into it and bring you more as we get it.
QUESTION: Thanks, Heather.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Any additional – while we are on that topic, any additional questions on Burma/Myanmar today?
QUESTION: None for me.
MS NAUERT: Okay, no more question on Burma/Myanmar. Okay, let’s move on then. Okay, thank you.
Marcin, let’s take your question. How are you?
QUESTION: Thank you, Heather. It’s about your statement released --
MS NAUERT: By the way, let me ask you, how did you like having our Secretary in Poland?
QUESTION: It was great.
MS NAUERT: Thumbs up?
QUESTION: A wonderful visit. A wonderful visit.
MS NAUERT: It was great? Good, good. Well, we were certainly happy.
QUESTION: We loved it.
MS NAUERT: We were certainly happy to have had him there. Go right ahead. Sorry.
QUESTION: So Heather, you issued this statement yesterday, quite a strong statement in which you are talking about possible repercussions for Poland’s strategic interests and the relationships, including with the United States and Israel. So it’s, of course, about this new legislation which was passed by both houses of the parliament in Poland. What repercussions do you have in mind and in what ways can this bill impact the ability to be, and I quote again, “effective partners,” because you talk about this – and again, after your statement, Polish Senate passed this bill without any changes. So where does it leave us?
MS NAUERT: So I just want to highlight that we don’t want to get ahead of talking about or forecasting any potential repercussions. This is all something that the Secretary I know addressed with the Government of Poland during his trip. I’m not going to be able to provide a ton of information about his conversations, because some of those are simply private diplomatic conversations, but I want to take the opportunity to highlight part of what we are talking about, and that is the issue over this legislation, draft legislation on the Holocaust. I mean, certainly a painful and complex discussion to have. A painful part of world history, a horrific part of world history that will never be forgotten.
We are concerned that if enacted, that legislation could undermine free speech and academic discourse. We must all be careful not to inhibit discussion and commentary on the Holocaust. We believe an open debate, scholarship, and education as the best way of countering inaccurate and hurtful speech. We are also concerned about the repercussions the legislation could have on Poland’s strategic interests and relationships, including with the United States and also Israel.
The resulting divisions that may arise among our allies only benefit our rivals. I think that’s something that’s important to keep in mind, that we shouldn’t be divided on this. We encourage Poland to re-evaluate that legislation in light of its potential impact on the principle of free speech and our ability to be effective partners with Poland. Okay?
QUESTION: Now, Heather, this bill was not re-evaluated after your statement from yesterday.
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: As I mentioned, it was passed by the Senate without any changes. So where does it leave us?
MS NAUERT: So I’m not going to comment on what the Polish legislative process is, just as I’m sure folks in Poland wouldn’t comment on our congressional process. But I can tell you we are closely watching this. We will continue to have ongoing diplomatic conversations with our counterparts in Poland and make our concerns very, very clear.
We’re concerned about the effect on our relationship and the effect on Poland’s relationship with Israel and other nations as well. I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: Can I change to --
MS NAUERT: Okay. Yeah. Sure, Said. Go right ahead.
QUESTION: Yes. Very quickly on the Palestinian issue, and two quick things there. The Jerusalem Post reports that the situation in Gaza – or quotes the UN envoy as being on the verge of collapse. I wanted to ask you if you have any kind of an emergency plan in the event that such a collapse takes place to aid Gaza.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Again, I don’t want to forecast anything that may or may not happen. We’re always very cautious about not commenting on hypothetical situations. But I can tell you that our Special Presidential Advisor Jason Greenblatt was just there a few days ago, in fact, on Sunday. And among the things he talked about was the need to help the people of Gaza. He said, and I want to quote from him, “We must all work together to help the people of Gaza to ensure Israel and Egypt’s security and also improve their lives.”
I want to remind folks that part of the reason that the situation is so dire, part of the reason that the Palestinian people face hardships is a direct result of Hamas. Let’s just make that clear where that responsibility chiefly lies, and that is on Hamas, and I think Jason Greenblatt spoke eloquently to that in his tour of the Gaza Strip and some of the surrounding areas. And he received a security briefing while he was there as well.
QUESTION: Well, he didn’t go to Gaza. I mean, he toured the tunnels around Gaza. But anyway, there is a siege going on. So let me ask you about Hamas since you mentioned it.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Yesterday, you designated Ismail Haniyeh, the politburo chief of Hamas, as a terrorist, as a designated terrorist.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: Is it because of any recent activities Mr. Hamas has done – Mr. Haniyeh has done as a chief of Hamas? Or is it something that has been in the making for a while?
MS NAUERT: Said, that may have happened under the Department of Treasury, so I’m just going to have to look into that and get back to you on that.
MS NAUERT: Okay?
QUESTION: And my – my one last question on this issue: In his – in his State of the Union address, the President suggested that those that voted against the United States at the General Assembly will actually receive some punishment of some sort by cutting off aid or anything like this. But that includes your allies, like Jordan and Egypt. Is the United States willing to cut off aid to Jordan and Egypt?
MS NAUERT: All of this – our aid is now under review. I think the President was clear in his State of the Union address that the United States and he and this administration are committed to ensuring that the American Foreign Service serves American interests first. America first does not mean American alone. I want to be clear about saying that. But all of our aid to that – to – all the aid is currently under review. And so I can’t get ahead of that process, but it’s under review right now.
QUESTION: But is it possible to conceive a situation where the relationship between the United States and Jordan – it’s a long relationship – could be jeopardized, for instance?
MS NAUERT: I don’t think so. Jordan just jumped on board today – at least I’ve read reports about – our maximum pressure campaign. This is switching to DPRK, so maybe we’ll go to North Korea next. I saw Janne’s eyes perk up. But let me tell you about that. Jordan announced today – at least according to reports, and we’re still working on assessing all of this, but – that it would cut ties with the DPRK. I think that shows the strength of our relationship with the country of Jordan, the Government of Jordan, and the king of Jordan. So I can’t see this damaging our relationships in the long term.
QUESTION: They opposed vociferously the Jerusalem recognition.
MS NAUERT: I --
QUESTION: So, I mean, that puts them in a very difficult situation.
MS NAUERT: Understood.
QUESTION: Put them in the enemy’s camp, so to speak, doesn’t it?
MS NAUERT: Okay.
MS NAUERT: Okay. Let’s move on from there.
QUESTION: Before we move from the Middle East, Syria?
MS NAUERT: Okay, let me just head over to DPRK, because that’s a nice little transition point, then we’ll get back to your region. Questions about North Korea-related issues? Okay, Janne, you go right ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you, Heather, so much. And last week, on last week, U.S. Treasury Department imposed more sanctions on North Korea, as you know that. And many South Koreans are worried about North Koreans who on the sanctions list come to the Seoul, Korea, for the Olympics. If South Korean Government allows them, how does this affect U.S. sanctions?
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, so the question is if South Koreans come to North Korea --
MS NAUERT: No.
QUESTION: North Koreans come to the --
MS NAUERT: I’m sorry. I got that backwards.
MS NAUERT: Okay. As it – restate that, I’m sorry.
QUESTION: If on the sanctions list, those persons who --
MS NAUERT: Oh, if people on the sanctions list come to South Korea.
QUESTION: Yes, yes.
MS NAUERT: What would that mean?
QUESTION: Sixteen persons on --
MS NAUERT: I see.
QUESTION: U.S. Treasury Department imposed 16 --
MS NAUERT: I see.
QUESTION: -- North Korean sanctions --
MS NAUERT: I’m afraid I’d have to refer you to the Department of Treasury about --
QUESTION: Confusing North and South Koreans.
MS NAUERT: No, no, no, not confusing in any way; I just misheard you. My apologies. I think I’d have to refer you to the Department of Treasury for that, because they were sanctions that came out under the Treasury Department. If I can get anything more for you from a State perspective, I certainly will. Okay?
QUESTION: On Syria?
MS NAUERT: Okay, hold on. Let’s stay in South Korea, North Korea region. Okay, go right ahead. How are you? Go right ahead.
MS NAUERT: Yes, yes. Of course, you.
QUESTION: So Kylie Sertic, Kyodo News. On the topic of North Korea, there’s been a lot of talk about a “bloody nose” strike recently. Is that currently the preferred policy vis-à-vis North Korea, especially if they end up testing a ballistic missile anytime soon, particularly after the Olympics are over?
MS NAUERT: So I want to be clear about this: Our policy has not changed in any way. Our policy is still the maximum pressure policy. We want a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula – boy, we’ve talked about that since the very beginning of this administration, and successive administrations as well. We would like the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. There are many countries around the world, including China and Russia, who share that same view as the United States. Diplomacy is our preferred approach; that is exactly why Secretary Tillerson spent time in Vancouver recently with about 17 other countries in which he was talking about new and creative ways to enhance our diplomatic approach to try and solve the crisis in North Korea.
So that hasn’t changed. Stories about a bloody – all that kind of stuff, let me just say: Our policy has not changed, our policy remains the same. Okay?
QUESTION: So the loss of Victor Cha as a potential ambassador, is that a loss for the State Department, or a loss for diplomacy?
MS NAUERT: I want to make something clear. I think a lot of reporters – not you – got ahead of the story, got ahead of the story and reported is as though it was fact that he was going to be the next ambassador. That was not the case.
QUESTION: Well, we knew he was under consideration.
MS NAUERT: He – may – let me finish. He was never nominated, and that is always under the White House purview. The White House has the authority to nominate the President’s representative from the United States to any individual country. So the White House, I am confident, will pick a nominee, and we’ll name a nominee when the White House has someone ready for that position. Okay?
Anything else on North Korea?
QUESTION: With the absence of the United States ambassador to South Korea almost a year, how does that affect your cooperation with South Korea counterparts?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. I can tell you that our charge d’affaires, Marc Knapper, a long-time Foreign Service Officer – how many times have you heard me talk about Marc Knapper and how terrific he is? Quite a few times. He has a strong relationship with the Republic of Korea. He is well-known there. He speaks the Korean language. He speaks many other languages from the region as well, and he was just announced as a part of the White House delegation trip that will be going to South Korea for the Olympics.
So we’re pleased and we’re proud to have him be a part of that. We are very confident that the United States Government’s priorities are well represented in South Korea until the President does select a nominee and announces that nominee.
QUESTION: Just a quick one. Do you have any reaction to the white paper on human rights violation in the United States released by North Korea?
MS NAUERT: On the --
QUESTION: The human rights in the United States. North Korea is accusing Trump administration is – accusing Trump administration as racist and it’s a billionaire club.
MS NAUERT: Oh, really. Oh. Well, that’s very humorous and ironic coming from a country that many of you – some of you from Korea – know very well, as I’m sure your families do, the history of North Korea and how it has treated its own people.
We saw a gentleman who appeared at the State of the Union address who was malnourished, who was a victim of the North Korean regime. We’ve heard stories, certainly very clear and hurtful and harmful stories, about people who have not only been malnourished. We’ve heard stories about forced abortions, we’ve heard stories about people with worms in their stomach, and of course, no one knows better than Americans themselves about the fate of Otto Warmbier. So I think that’s all I’ll have to say about his claims about the United States.
Okay, let’s move on. Laurie, go right ahead.
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Well, in terms of what took place in Sochi, we took a look at that. By the way, the United States Government was not there. We were not a participant and we were not an observer in the Sochi conference to talk about Syria.
We took a look at that and we determined that it was far too heavily tilted toward the regime; the opposition wasn’t sufficiently represented. The United States stands firmly behind the UN Geneva process. As you all know, there was a Geneva meeting held in Vienna. It was about a week ago or so, and we stand firmly behind that and Staffan de Mistura and his stewardship of the UN process. We see that as the best way forward. But it’s not the just the United States; it’s many other countries around the world that support us strongly in the Geneva process, including many countries in the region as well.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: But do you know if Staffan de Mistura --
MS NAUERT: Yes. Michele, go right ahead.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) officials today are saying that there’s a real possibility that Syria is developing new types of chemical weapons and delivery systems. First of all, what does the State Department know about that?
MS NAUERT: Right. So as I understand it, not long ago – or just within the past hour or so, I believe – there was a backgrounder call that was held on this. We’re working to get some additional information on that. Perhaps Robert may have some new information on that as we speak, so let me try to just get back with you on that to see if I have anything else for you.
QUESTION: Okay. And the incidents that you mentioned with the chlorine gas, as well as this new information that we know a little bit about, does that just represent an utter failure of Russia to have any influence over Syria on this? What can you say about that?
MS NAUERT: I think it’s clear that Russia does have influence, but Russia is making the wrong choice. It’s making the choice not to use its unique influence with the Syrian regime. To allow the Syrian regime to use chemical or other weapons against its people yet again is absolutely unconscionable. We have seen, what is it, 12 million refugees forced to flee that country over the past several years. It’s absolutely horrific.
And we call upon the Russian Government and want to make clear that. Secretary Tillerson has spoke very clearly and eloquently about that – the President has as well; Ambassador Haley has as well – that Russia needs to do more. Russia is being held to account for the activities of the Syrian regime.
It was not that long ago that the Syrian regime was almost on its way out, and what did Russia do? Russia made the decision to go in there and bolster its regime. That is why they are standing today, because Russia made that very distinct decision to prop them up.
QUESTION: And on that same subject, there was – on the subject of Russia rather, there was a briefing today by the State Department for members of Congress on the sanctions issue. And there were a lot of questions asked – still unanswered – about why --
MS NAUERT: Sorry, on which sanctions issue?
QUESTION: Sanctions on Russia over CAATSA.
MS NAUERT: CAATSA, okay.
QUESTION: Yeah. And so there were a lot of concerns among members of Congress about why the list that came out of Russian oligarchs identified by the Treasury Department seemed to be just a copy and paste of a Forbes list and didn’t really represent the time and research that the Treasury had actually put into the classified list. So does the State Department have concerns as to why this public information seems sanitized when it comes to naming Russian oligarchs?
MS NAUERT: Well, there are a couple parts to this. One, that piece of it – and you’re referring to Section 241 of the CAATSA legislation. That was congressional legislation. It was something that the President then signed off and became law. So you’re speaking about Section 241. That does not have to do with the State Department. That’s all under Treasury.
QUESTION: Yeah, but does --
MS NAUERT: So – hold on, I want to get to your point about that. I do know and can share this with you that part of that information that was provided to Congress on the part of the Treasury was classified. Part of it was open source materials, meaning that you and I can all have access to it. So it was obviously the package that went up to Congress, and obviously this package of potential sanctions had that classified material. That classified material cannot be presented to the public because it is classified. Beyond that, Treasury would have to answer additional questions.
I can handle the State part of it. That is Section 231, which is the State kind of governed part of CAATSA, if you have any questions about that.
QUESTION: So State doesn’t have any concerns that there is information that could be released to the public just isn’t for some reason?
MS NAUERT: Because it’s classified. So I’m not going to get too deep into discussing this because it’s under the Treasury Department. I don’t work for the Department of the Treasury. I’ve got a great colleague over there. His name’s Tony Sayegh. He can – hey, Tony, you can handle these questions about this. But anyway, in all seriousness, I can refer you to Treasury for that, but I can – I can try to help you out with Section 231 or provide you additional information from our background people who are the experts on Russia sanctions.
QUESTION: But Heather, you guys were kind of joking about, well, that’s Treasury, this is State, and over the rollout of these two different pieces over the last several days, it’s – both buildings have been sort of trying to differentiate, talk to the other one. I just want to make sure I understand. This was a single law that was passed by Congress to try to respond to Russia’s alleged interference in our election. So is it safe to --
MS NAUERT: And also human rights abuses as well. Yeah.
QUESTION: Sure, but is it safe to assume that these two policies, while perhaps involving two separate buildings, are part of one thoughtful, united effort to – I mean, it’s not like you have – the left hand has no idea what the right hand is doing. Right? These are all supposed to be working together to put pressure on Putin?
MS NAUERT: Well, yes, of course. This is all intended to put pressure on that government and hold them responsible for not only meddling in our elections – which, by the way, let me mention, there are lots of reports about Russian meddling in other countries’ elections as well. This is not unique to the United States. But in addition to that, this is congressional legislation that became law. I don’t have the law in front of me to be able to read it out to you, but State was handed a piece of it and Treasury was handled – handed a piece to it. So I’d refer you back to how Congress wrote out this law, and I can just tell you we are doing our very best to comply with the law. Senator Bob Corker put out a statement that said he thinks that we’re doing a pretty good job of it and working in good faith to implement it. We got feedback from the Hill from other members of Congress on that part as well.
QUESTION: But why is the Secretary not just using – okay, so the State Department took all of this time to identify entities, a lot of them foreign governments, that are still doing business with Russia defense and intelligence sectors. So if you’re not going to sanction them now for various reasons, why not just get waivers for those entities? Why – I mean, members of Congress feel like that would be conforming with the law, and that by not doing it that way, it’s just ignoring the law, basically.
MS NAUERT: Let me try to clear things up about the State Department portion of the CAATSA law. I want to reiterate something that was said on our background call which was held – I believe it was Wednesday afternoon with some of my colleagues – about our Section 231, and the beginning date of that was January 29th. This is complex legislation. It’s a complex law that in – requires us to look at things globally and requires our experts to comb through a heck a lot of transactions that face defense industries and intelligence industries that funnel into Russia, but all around the world.
So let me just underscore how complex and how tedious this process is. January 29th was the start date for this, it was not a deadline to impose new sanctions on Russia. It was the first day under which we had the authority under CAATSA to impose sanctions if we made the determination that some sanctionable activity had taken place. There is currently no end date to that authority.
Now, you all know we do not forecast sanctions because that lets those entities know that we are going to sanction them, and that can cause them to change their behavior, flee the country, things of that sort. There is no end date to this authority. The fact that we did not impose sanctions on the very first day that we had authority should by no means be interpreted as evidence that we will not impose sanctions in the future.
To the contrary, when and if we make the determination that sanctionable activity has taken place, we will absolutely use the authorities granted in the law to take that action and target that activity. Let’s remember the real goal of the legislation and the law was to stand firm and stand united in the face of Russia’s destabilizing activity, its behavior that is undertaken both in terms of human rights but also in terms of the meddling in our election. We look to impose economic, diplomatic, and material consequences for Russia’s aggression toward U.S. interests, its values, and its allies.
So let me leave it at that. I hope it helps clear things up. Let me point to one other thing, though.
QUESTION: You actually – you said “meddling in our election,” right?
MS NAUERT: That --
QUESTION: Is that what you said?
MS NAUERT: That is something that many in the U.S. Government have --
QUESTION: It’s just not --
MS NAUERT: -- have acknowledged.
QUESTION: -- often spelled out, ever. And wow, okay.
QUESTION: Could I just – to clarify?
MS NAUERT: Yeah.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that you could still possibly add names, some of the names that have been sort of floated around, like Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov or so on?
MS NAUERT: You’re – what you’re talking about is the --
QUESTION: Yeah, the sanctions.
MS NAUERT: -- oligarchs list --
MS NAUERT: -- and that’s under Treasury.
QUESTION: The oligarchs – yes.
MS NAUERT: So I can’t comment on that.
QUESTION: You cannot comment on that? But that’s – so that is not included in the sanctions that you were talking about?
MS NAUERT: That is a whole separate set. That’s under – that’s under Department of Treasury. This is how Congress worked out the legislation. I’m not one of our legislative people here at the State Department, but we adhere to the law as it was signed. Okay?
Let’s move on – okay, go right ahead.
QUESTION: According to reports, Sergey Naryshkin – excuse my pronunciation – the head of Russia’s intelligence service, was in the U.S. for meetings with U.S. intelligence officials. He is on the sanctions list. How did he enter the country and was his entrance coordinated through the State Department?
MS NAUERT: Yeah, I can tell you – and I know it’s a matter that’s frustrating to a lot of reporters – visa applications and those types of things are something that we are not able to discuss. That is considered private information under the federal law. Like it or not, that is just the law and so we have to adhere to that.
I can tell you in a general – in a general matter, if something is considered to be in the national security interest of the United States, just like other countries, we have the ability to waive that so that people can come in to the United States. It is no secret that despite our many, many differences, and we just talked about them, with the Russian Government, we also have areas where we have to work together, and one of those is combating terrorism and ISIS. And so I’ll leave it at that. I don’t have anything for you beyond that.
Okay? Anything else related to Russia today?
MS NAUERT: Okay. All right. Go right ahead. Hi.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: I have just a few questions on Cambodia.
MS NAUERT: Okay.
QUESTION: A Cambodian court rejected a plea for bail of detained opposition leader Kem Sokha, and you’ve previously called for his release from this podium. So what is your response to this?
MS NAUERT: Yeah. We have said before that we call on the Government of Cambodia to reinstate the Cambodia National Rescue Party – that’s the CNRP – and to release its leader, Kem Sokha; also opposition parties, civil society, and the media to continue their legitimate activities.
Our Deputy Assistant Secretary, DAS Murphy, Patrick Murphy, met with the daughter recently of Kem Sokha, as an indication of our support, and our support for democracy, multi-party democracy, which is something that we remain very concerned about. Freedom and multi-party democracy are enshrined in the Paris Peace Accords and in Cambodia’s constitution. Let’s make that clear. The Cambodian Government must allow space for civil society and also political parties to flourish. Legitimate elections require genuine cooperation. The government’s actions have removed any meaningful competition from the 2018 national elections. Okay?
QUESTION: Is the U.S. considering --
MS NAUERT: We’re going to have to --
QUESTION: Maybe on Syria?
QUESTION: -- any sanctions?
MS NAUERT: Hold on. Go right ahead.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. considering any sanctions or other action depending on what --
MS NAUERT: Yeah. Sanctions is something that we don’t forecast, so I’m not going to say that we have any sanctions forthcoming, but that is always an option that we can use.
MS NAUERT: Sir, go right ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Yes, on top of what you just said, you’re certainly aware of some senior officials talking to Reuters saying that the U.S. might take action again in Syria regarding these chemical weapons issues. Are you aware of those statements to --
MS NAUERT: I’m not, no. Sorry, sir, that’s the first I’ve heard of it.
QUESTION: Oh, okay.
MS NAUERT: Okay, all right. No, go right ahead. How are you? Cuba, right?
QUESTION: Thank you so much.
MS NAUERT: Okay, go right ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. It has to do with the conference that’s going to be held here at State Department on the 7th of February, the Cuba Internet Task Force. It seems that – or we’ve gotten information that the Cuban Government has said that it had protested this Internet Task Force on Cuba, and how does the State Department view this protest, and also, why the importance of doing a task force now on the 7th of February?
MS NAUERT: I think, first and foremost, we would all agree – I know you would, as journalists – that information and getting information to the public is a good thing. We want people to have broad access to information, and Cuba is no exception to that. Cuba’s low internet penetration rate is certainly not a secret. While they have opened up a little bit, not to the level that they should have. It is preposterous to claim that studying an issue such as internet access is an open and transparent manner – the Cuban Government has called this to be a subversive act. We disagree with that. We think that that is ridiculous. We are happy to host this event on the 7th of February. We received a diplomatic note – I can confirm that – from the Cuban Foreign Ministry on January 31st, yesterday, protesting the creation of the Internet Task Force. I want to make this clear, that that is not a policy-making body, but that is something where we will provide objective advice in a transparent manner from a lot of different perspectives, and that information will be accessible to the public. Okay? All right.
MS NAUERT: We’ve – we’ve got to go.
MS NAUERT: Okay, Kenya.
MS NAUERT: Let’s see if I have something for you on that.
QUESTION: Do you have a – does – what is the U.S. position on the inauguration of the political opposition party in Kenya, and how – given the fact that Kenya has been a long partner of the United States in the fight against terrorism and economic growth in Africa, how concerned is Washington regarding the political stability over there? Thank you.
MS NAUERT: I would answer that simply as saying we are gravely concerned about the situation there, concerned by the Kenyan opposition leader’s self-inauguration that took place on January the 30th. We reject accusations or actions that undermine Kenya’s constitution and the rule of law. That’s something that we consistently stand up for, the rule of law and also adherence to a constitution. Uhuru Kenyatta was elected as President of the Republic of Kenya on October the 26th, 2017 in a poll that was upheld by Kenya’s supreme court. Grievances must be resolved through appropriate legal mechanisms, and we’re going to have to leave it at that. We have – we have to go.
MS NAUERT: Guys, we’re going to have to go today. Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 4:03 p.m.)