Department Press Briefing - February 08, 2018

Heather Nauert
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 8, 2018


2:44 p.m. EST

MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody. How are you? I think this is the busiest briefing room I’ve seen since maybe the Secretary was here or day one on the job. So it’s nice to see you all today. A couple things I want to start with. Oh, and by the way, we have some students in the back. That’s why. You’re all from?

PARTICIPANT: Miami University of Ohio.

MS NAUERT: Miami of Ohio. Got it. You’re journalism students?


MS NAUERT: Some of you are. Okay. Well, welcome. We’re thrilled to have you here, and you should talk to some of these folks before you head out of the room. Thanks so much for coming; thanks for the time.

I’d like to start out with some news that has come out of Greece today, and I’d like to say that we want to condemn the release of a convicted terrorist. His name is Dimitris Koufodinas. He was released on a two-day furlough from a Greek prison. He is a convicted terrorist. He is responsible for killing 11 civilians – some British, U.S., and also Turkish embassy staff who had worked for the United States, and obviously the UK and Turkey. They released him on a two-day furlough. They did that just three months ago as well. We fundamentally believe that convicted terrorists do not deserve a vacation from prison. Our embassy in Athens has conveyed our serious concerns about the decision to the Greek Government.

Next, I’d like to mention something taking place in Uzbekistan. The United States Government welcomes the release of a journalist and activist named Dilmurod Saidov. He was sentenced in 2009 for 12 years for bribery and other criminal charges, but he has always maintained his innocence. We recognize the president of Uzbekistan for releasing dozens of prisoners of conscience since assuming the presidency in September of 2016 and for taking important steps to reform the rule of law in Uzbekistan. Support for the rule of law remains a core element of U.S. foreign policy and a cornerstone of any democracy. I’d also like to mention that our Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Alice Wells traveled to Uzbekistan last week. She met with senior government officials to review progress that was made under the president’s reform agenda, including on issues of human rights, fundamental freedoms, as well as security and economic cooperation, and this too was one of the matters that they discussed.

Next, in Turkey, where we’d like to say the United States is deeply concerned by the February 8th conviction without credible evidence of U.S. citizen Serkan Golge for being a member of a terror organization. We will continue to follow his case closely along with those of other U.S. citizens whose ongoing prosecution under the state of emergency raises serious concerns about respect for judicial independence, protections enshrined in the Turkish constitution, including an individual’s right to a fair trial. The safety of U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Turkey remains a concern. He was arrested, by the way, back in July of 2017. [1] He’s a NASA scientist, if that helps you to remember his case. We’d like to call on the Turkish Government to end the protracted state of emergency, to release those detained arbitrarily under emergency authorities, and to safeguard the rule of law consistent with Turkey’s own domestic and international obligations and commitments.

Finally, Secretary Tillerson today hosted the Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi here at the State Department for a bilateral meeting which was followed by a lunch in the James Madison Room that’s upstairs on the 8th floor. They agreed on the importance of continuing a constructive and productive relationship aimed at cooperation on mutual challenges and addressing our differences forthrightly.

During the meeting, both sides reaffirmed President Trump and President Xi’s commitment to keep up pressure on North Korea’s illegal nuclear weapons and missile programs. They discussed the need to achieve a fair and reciprocal bilateral economic relationship and shared approaches to stemming the flow of deadly narcotics. Secretary Tillerson and the state councilor look forward to continuing discussions on these and other topics at the next Diplomatic and Security Dialogue during the first half of 2018, and we were happy to welcome that delegation after their 13-hour flight when they just arrived to Washington from Beijing.

Josh, I’d be happy to start with your questions.

QUESTION: Great. Thanks, Heather. Let’s start with Syria?


QUESTION: So as you’ve said many times before, our U.S. mission in Syria is to defeat the Islamic State group and prevent their re-emergence, but overnight U.S. forces killed about a hundred people, none of whom were IS. So how does the U.S. maintain that our mission really has not expanded beyond Islamic State?

MS NAUERT: Well, the State Department can’t confirm exactly who was killed in that mission, but we can say we don’t hesitate – and the military has been clear in stating this, and they put out a press release, I believe it was earlier today or last night, to this effect – saying that we will use force if our troops are threatened, and that was clearly the case. Beyond that, I’d have to refer you to DOD for the details of that.

QUESTION: And how effective – I mean, you’ve put a lot of credence in the past in this deconfliction channel with Russia as our primary mechanism to really try to prevent clashes along that line. How effectively would you say that the deconfliction line seems to be working these days?

MS NAUERT: Well, that would also be in Department of Defense’s lane. What this essentially is is a phone line where the U.S. military and also the Russian military can pick up the phone and have conversations about where one another’s forces are. That deconfliction channel continues to serve its purpose. It’s considered a professional exchange between our two militaries. But beyond that, you’d have to talk to DOD. It’s still in effect, though.

QUESTION: So if – I mean, I just want to understand something. You’re saying that your forces were threatened. Which forces, first of all? When you say our forces were threatened, which forces are those?

MS NAUERT: As you well know, we have coalition forces there and we also work with the Syrian Democratic Forces, and I won’t go beyond that.

QUESTION: And now, to my understanding – in fact, if we go back a week or two and so on --

QUESTION: It was U.S. forces that were threatened, right?

QUESTION: Yeah, you’re saying that --

QUESTION: Not coalition or --

MS NAUERT: My understanding – and again, this would have to go over to DOD, but my understanding is U.S. forces working with the SDF.

QUESTION: So they’re like maybe trainers or training personnel and so on --

MS NAUERT: I’m not going to comment on the work or the activities or the mission of U.S. forces over there.

QUESTION: But walk us through this. Like, it’s quite confusing because a couple weeks ago the SDF actually called on the Syrian forces to protect them. So there’s some sort of an alliance between these two forces, and the Syrians are saying, “Our forces or those affiliated with us, we’re actually attacking ISIS.” So walk us – explain this to us, if you can.

MS NAUERT: Said, I think I’d have to refer you to Department of Defense. They have a – I believe it’s an on-camera briefing at – about at this hour right now. So I’d have to refer you to them.

QUESTION: Let me – if I can have your response --

MS NAUERT: Okay, then we’re going to have --

QUESTION: One last one.

MS NAUERT: Then we’re going to have to move on.

QUESTION: What? Yes, absolutely. One last question.

MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.

QUESTION: Your counterpart, Maria Zakharova in Moscow, basically said that you or the United States is intent on dividing Syria and keeping the conflict going. Do you have any response to her?

MS NAUERT: The United States is there to defeat ISIS. I think everybody knows – everybody knows the horror that that country has been through. The United States is there to defeat ISIS, for no other purpose. We are there also to stabilize the country so that the country hopefully can get through the Geneva process and to have elections and decide what they want to do with its future. We’ve been clear about that all along. There is no other reason that the United States is going to be there. Our --

QUESTION: And you’re committed to the unity of Syria?

MS NAUERT: We have said that.

QUESTION: You remain --

MS NAUERT: We have said that all along, yes.

Arshad, I think you had a question about Syria.

QUESTION: No longer, thanks.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay, Michelle.

QUESTION: Syria? In the past, and most recently, the State Department has termed its collaboration with Russia in Syria as a test, and it was talked about pretty optimistically not that long ago. So given these recent events in other areas, would you say that that test has failed?

MS NAUERT: I wouldn’t say that the test has failed, Michelle. What I would say, it’s a very complicated, complex relationship, and the Secretary has been very clear about where our relationship currently stands. You may recall last year he said that the relationship was at a low point. We would like to rebuild that relationship because we have a lot of areas of mutual concern. DPRK is one of them. They have signed on to four successive UN Security Council unanimous resolutions. We need more help from Russia on the matter of North Korea and denuclearization. That is one area.

Another area where we manage to work together right now successfully is in that zone in southwestern Syria, and that’s where a ceasefire has held since July of last year. So we have those areas where we can work together, but we have a lot of areas of serious concern with that country. And I think we’ve covered that pretty well.

Okay, anything else on Syria?


QUESTION: On Syria, yeah.

MS NAUERT: Hey, Barbara.

QUESTION: Just to see, Heather, if you have anything at all on this New York Times report that the SDF has picked up these two British ISIS guys that – they were members of the Beatles group, the one that Jihadi John was heading. Apparently, the SDF has them detained. Do you have anything on that?

MS NAUERT: I just saw that report as I was coming out to the briefing room. I’m afraid I don’t have anything for you on that, but that would probably be something that DOD could best address.

Okay, hi.

QUESTION: On Syria, you issued a statement saying the attacks on civilians must stop, but what if they don’t? Because I think Michelle was asking on Tuesday if your previous statements were a final warning, and it wasn’t because there’s a new warning. So are you going to issue warnings every day, every week, once a --

MS NAUERT: I think I’m not going to get ahead of any actions that we may or may not take. Some of those would be determined in an interagency process and it wouldn’t just be the State Department weighing into that. This is something that we watch very carefully. It is something that Secretary Tillerson is engaged in every single day along with his counterparts at some of the U.S. Government agencies. The Secretary recently talked about this, and let me just underscore and highlight some of the important things that we would like to see take place with regard to Russia as it pertains to Syria.

They need to stop using chemical weapons – Syria does. But we also know that chemical weapons use is enabled by Russia. They need to support a new mandate, like the JIM -the J-I-M – which has been foiled multiple times at the UN Security Council. Secretary Tillerson – we talked about this the other day – took part in the Paris signing of a new entity that’s been set up by the French with – I believe it’s 25 other governments who care about having an investigative mechanism put in place so that we can prevent the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

Let me remind you, six times in the last 30 days some form of chemical weapons have been used on the Syrian people. It’s disgusting, it’s horrific, and it’s evil, and we would like to see that stop. But we’ll keep following this, we’ll keep working on it. The government is meeting – I have to assure you that this is a top issue for us.

Anything else on Syria?

QUESTION: To Francesco’s point on that --

MS NAUERT: Okay, yeah.

QUESTION: -- despite all of these statements about the use of chemical weapons, these attempts do continue. And Secretary Tillerson yesterday on the flight to Kingston, Jamaica – I don’t remember which leg it was – said that there’s little --

MS NAUERT: You were on the whole trip, right?

QUESTION: -- that the U.S. can do to effect change, to change Russia’s behavior. Is that a concession that the U.S. doesn’t have the leverage that it needs to effect change?

MS NAUERT: The United States doesn’t give up. We just flat-out don’t give up. As American people, we don’t give up. We stand up, we do what’s right, we fight on behalf of people who are being humiliated, people who are being terrorized. That is why we are in Syria. We are there to help the people. We will continue to put pressure on the Russian Government to do the right thing, but it’s not the United States alone. Let me remind you there are 73, 74 – I forget – members of the D-ISIS coalition who care just as much as we do about these activities. So it’s not the United States alone.


QUESTION: So would you say that the U.S. has a responsibility to protect civilians, a humanitarian responsibility, in Syria?

MS NAUERT: We have called for numerous ceasefires. We’d like to see a UN ceasefire take place in Syria right now to be able to get humanitarian aid in to the civilians who deserve it and who desperately need it. We’ve been clear about that all along.

Okay, let’s move on to Iraq. You want to talk about Iraq?

QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)

MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, I shouldn’t jump to conclusions there. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I had several questions. We’ll do Iraq. On the Iraqi reconstruction conference next week, which you sent out a message – a note about, there’ll be both government and private sector there, as you suggested. And how will the government – money from governments that will go to UN agencies. Is that correct?

MS NAUERT: Okay. Well, this is something that’s being put on by the Government of Iraq, Kuwait, and also the World Bank. Secretary Tillerson will be traveling to Kuwait next week sometime to participate in this. He’s leading the U.S. delegation.

My understanding is that about 2,300 members of the private sector will also be joining, in which they’ll talk about ways that they can help facilitate the large-scale reconstruction taking place in Iraq. Our policy posture has changed since previous administrations – remember, we used to be in the whole nation-building. The United States Government is not doing that any longer. We are providing basic stabilization – we’ve talked about this – turning the lights back on, providing clean water, getting the basic setup. But ultimately, we see that it’s best for the countries and best for the region, too – and U.S. taxpayers – to have other people participate in the reconstruction, large-scale reconstruction of these countries.

In – up at the UN in New York back in September, there was a ministerial meeting of likeminded countries for the Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and one of the things many other nations there were talking about is the importance and how they wanted to participate in the rebuilding of some of these countries, specifically Iraq. So I think that’s the direction that the overall region is heading in right now.

QUESTION: Will you be – will you, the U.S. Government, be making – announcing a contribution at this conference?

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of any announcements that we will be making. I can tell you overall, over the past few years we have spent – the United States Government has – $1.7 billion in humanitarian aid in Iraq alone; $190 million on stabilization efforts; $112 million just to clear IEDs; and of course, there’s the blood, sweat, and tears that our brave men and women have put into protecting Iraq.

QUESTION: Final question on this. I understand that you are pushing for Baghdad to allow Kurdish representation in this conference. Is there – have – how does that stand now? Is there any news?

MS NAUERT: I’m not – I don’t have any details on that, but I think the Iraqi Government would be in charge of its own delegation and exactly who participates and who attends.

I’m going to have to cut the briefing short today. I just want to make you all aware. I should’ve announced that up front. Laurie, did you just gasp? Abdul, sorry I didn’t get to you the other day. Go right ahead

QUESTION: Thank you. About Egypt. In the run-up to the presidential election in March, the Egyptian Government continues to hold several journalists without trial including my Al-Jazeera colleague Mahmoud Hussein. Are you having any kind of conversation with the Egyptians about press freedom in their country in the run up to the election?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. First, let me say I didn’t realize that it was one of your colleagues. I know that overall press freedoms in Egypt is a major concern to many journalists and people who believe in free speech and who want that. Last week or the week before, I was briefing over at the Foreign Press Center, and another Egyptian journalist had asked me about the overall situation there. It’s something that we’re watching very carefully. We’re concerned about reports that Egypt’s prosecutor general had launched an investigation into some opposition figures, so I want to wrap that into this overall discussion.

In terms of any updates on your colleague, I don’t have anything for you on that. I can say overall that as a part of our U.S. Government discussions with Egyptian officials we have these types of conversations, not only about election freedoms and allowing opposition parties and opposition figures to take part in elections, but also having a free, fair and open process. That’s something we consistently bring up.

QUESTION: And as a follow-up, in terms of Ahmed Shafik pulling out of the running, in terms of Sami Anan being detained as a candidate in the election, and so on, what are your expectations of the election process and how it should be?

MS NAUERT: I think what – the answer to that would be what we say in many other countries. We want for other countries to have a free and fair electoral process in which all people can participate in the election. Free and fair is something that’s important. As I said, we’re concerned about reports that Egypt’s prosecutor general launched an investigation into opposition figures, and I’ll just leave it at that. Okay.

QUESTION: Just one more, I promise.

MS NAUERT: Okay, but I’ve – I want to get to a couple other people here before I --

QUESTION: I promise, just --

MS NAUERT: -- have to head up.

QUESTION: Just a --

MS NAUERT: And we haven’t even talked about Asia.

QUESTION: Okay, just a last one.


QUESTION: So many Egyptians listening to you will say the U.S. is meddling in the internal politics of Egypt. Do you respect that logic?

MS NAUERT: Look, you’re asking – you’re asking to have it both ways now. You want to hear our concern about press freedoms and about fee and fair elections, but then on the other hand, you say, “You’re meddling.” The United States doesn’t meddle. We share our concerns and we have diplomatic conversations with many nations around the world, and that’s fair to say. And those countries, likewise, have conversations with us about concerns that they may have about U.S. foreign policy or, in some instances, even domestic events.

Okay. Let’s go on over to Asia. Michelle, sorry, I didn’t get to these folks in the back. Hey, how are you doing? Good to see you.

QUESTION: I just have two quick one. First, recently, Secretary Tillerson labeled China as a new imperial power. He criticized China’s trade practice in Latin America. I wonder if his criticism in this – on the trade issue came up during today’s meeting.

MS NAUERT: Yeah. Some of our meetings with countries we consider to be very private conversations. Some of those relationships with certain countries we have better conversations and we work better together when we keep some of those things private, and China would be one of those countries. I can say we have a constructive relationship with China. We have a frank exchange of ideas and information and our viewpoints. Our President has made it very clear his concerns about trade imbalances. That’s the kind of thing that comes up. We have a lot of conversations about those.

QUESTION: Yes. But when you talk about the cooperation, on the other hand, in the National Security Strategy the United States labeled China as “strategic competitor,” and in the State of the Union, China was “rivalry,” and now the new word, “new imperial power.” So how do you define your relationship with China? Is it getting more and more negative?

MS NAUERT: We have a broad relationship with China. We have areas of cooperation, obviously, where we agree on the issue of North Korea and the importance of denuclearization. On that matter, we expect, we hope, that China will do more, because we know that they can do more in terms of adhering to UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions that have been put in place against North Korea.

We’re not seeking an adversarial relationship with the Government of China. We are simply identifying actions that China has taken that undermine a rules-based order. Our conversations are deep and broad. They can, in addition to including trade and issues of national security, also include cyber issues, also including human rights. Democracy is something that often comes up, and freedom of the press is something that comes up as well.

QUESTION: Heather.

MS NAUERT: Hey, Cindy. How are you?

QUESTION: Good, thank you. Yesterday Secretary Tillerson said the U.S. is not going to be lulled in by the North Korean charm offensive, marching with the South Koreans at the Olympics. Would the U.S. be open to a diplomatic breakthrough between North and South Korea, and are there any concerns about a possible clash between the U.S. and South Korea on this?

MS NAUERT: Let me go back and remind folks that we have an incredibly strong ally relationship with not only the Republic of Korea, but also Japan. These are ironclad relationships. You saw the Vice President’s meetings that he had with President Moon. They were terrific, strong, productive meetings. We are on the same page. Do we sometimes approach things differently from a different mindset? Well, absolutely, of course we do. Think about the proximity of South Korea to North Korea. Think about what that country has been through. Think about the story that happened back in 1988 when a plane was exploded and South Koreans died. It is no wonder that its citizens would be naturally concerned about the threat that is right at their doorstep.

The United States will not back away from its ally, and no one is going to drive a wedge between the United States and the Republic of Korea and the United States and also Japan. The Vice President spoke very eloquently about his meetings that he had. My colleague, Marc Knapper, our charge d’affaires, who’s based in Seoul at our embassy there, he was in the meeting with the Vice President. If I can, I’d like to just provide you all a little bit of a readout and note that we received from Marc. Bear with me one second and let me find it in this big old book.

He describes it as this – and again, he was in the meeting with the Vice President – “It was a good meeting. It was extremely open and warm. Both sides emphasized our rock-solid alliance and enduring friendship while stressing our shared commitment to pursuing North Korea’s denuclearization through the ongoing pressure campaign. We hope that the North-South progress will yield progress to denuke while under – while there is the underlying need for strong deterrence posture and a continued vigilance. We have high hopes and support for a successful Olympics.”

So I think that shows the strength of our relationship, the strength of our agreements that we share, the value and the desire to have a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Okay?

QUESTION: Heather --

MS NAUERT: I’ve got time for one more question on Asia, and then I’ve got to head upstairs.

QUESTION: A follow-up on Korea?

QUESTION: A follow-up?

QUESTION: Still on Korea?

MS NAUERT: Hold on.

QUESTION: One on North Korea?

MS NAUERT: Okay, okay. Wait --

QUESTION: Follow-up, please?

MS NAUERT: Janne, hold on. Michelle, go right ahead.

QUESTION: Okay, just very quickly. Now that South Korea is apparently actively trying to broker some kind of meeting between U.S. and North Korea officials, is that something that the State Department would welcome?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, so I don’t want to get ahead of the Vice President. My job is not to make news while the Vice President is traveling in the region. That’s part of it. I can help facilitate some conversations about that. But let me highlight some of the things that he said about a potential meeting or whatever you want to call it.

He said, “We have no requested a meeting in North Korea, but if I have any contact with them in any context over the next two days, my message will be the same as it is here today: North Korea needs to once and for all abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, and the pressure will continue on them economically and diplomatically until that is accomplished. The time has come for North Korea to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions, set aside its long pattern of deception and provocation, and then, only then, can we begin to move forward to a peaceable outcome on the Peninsula.” Okay?

QUESTION: Words like that that he’s now said repeatedly while he’s on this trip --


QUESTION: -- how does that encourage the North Koreans to maybe want to move in the direction of diplomacy?

MS NAUERT: I think, Michelle, what we’re focused right now is having a successful Olympics. We are excited to have our athletes bring home the gold. We got some hats in the back with promoting the Olympics. They were trying to get me to wear a hat today; I said no.

QUESTION: Heather --

MS NAUERT: So at any – in any event, Michelle, in all seriousness, we are looking forward to a successful Olympics. The fact that North and South were talking about the Olympics and they are participating under one flag is something that people might expect two countries, neighboring countries to perhaps do together. But I’m not going to get away – away in any of that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MS NAUERT: Last question. I have to go. Janne.

QUESTION: Thank you, Heather. North Korean Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, will come to Seoul tomorrow using Kim Jong-un’s own airplane. And do you know that Kim Yo-jong’s name on the U.S. sanctions list. Is it exceptional or how did you allow this?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, here’s what I can say about that, that the United States and the Republic of Korea are closely coordinating and having conversations about all of this. The sanctions that you’re referring to, we are confident that the Republic of Korea is working in conjunction with the United Nations to handle whatever waivers might be necessary for that. We are not going to get involved in that. We would leave that to the Republic of Korea.

QUESTION: But there are too many exceptions to do, so I was wondering --

MS NAUERT: I’m not going to comment on that. Okay? Thanks, everybody. We’ve got to --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: We’ve got to wrap it up, because I have to get upstairs for somethings that’s – we’ll get it next time, okay? Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:10 p.m.)


[1] Mr. Golge was arrested in July 2016