Department Press Briefing - March 15, 2018

Heather Nauert
Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
March 15, 2018



TRANSCRIPT:

3:02 p.m. EDT

MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody.

QUESTION: Welcome back.

MS NAUERT: How are you today? Great to see you all.

QUESTION: Good.

QUESTION: What’s new?

MS NAUERT: A lot new, right? Okay. A couple announcements to begin with today. First, I’d like to address something that’s taking place in Vienna, and that’s where the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs was held – a conference on that in Vienna. Our INL Deputy Assistant Secretary Walsh leading the U.S. delegation on the matter. Yesterday, the commission voted unanimously to internationally control carfentanil. It’s a synthetic opioid 10,000 times more powerful than morphine. The 46-0 vote means that 186 countries will be committed to strictly limit the production, the stockpiling, and the import and export of carfentanil. The dangerous substance, its legitimate use, is as an elephant tranquilizer, but it’s played a deadly role in America’s ongoing opioid crisis.

We express our gratitude to the 45 other members present at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs that voted for the important measure. The move by the United Nations will help save American lives. The administration has placed a top priority on dealing with the opioid abuse crisis here in the United States. Our Deputy Secretary Sullivan was at the White House not long ago for a conference on that, so this is just one more part, continuation of our priority on that issue,

Secondly, I’d like to highlight something that took place yesterday, and that is the White House hosted a conference with representatives from 20 countries, including Israel and many Arab states, to discuss solutions to the worsening humanitarian and economic conditions in Gaza. The conference, convened by White House Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, Special Representative for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt, and members of the National Security Council staff and Department of State, was attended by representatives from the United Nations, the European Union, the Office of the Quartet, and the following countries: Bahrain, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. I think that was a very impressive list.

The White House conference built upon a meeting that was held in Cairo, Egypt last week and will carry ideas forward to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, AHLC. They will hold a meeting in Brussels, Belgium at the end of the month. The administration believes that deteriorating humanitarian conditions in Gaza require immediate condition. The situation in Gaza must be solved for humanitarian reasons and for ensuring the security of Egypt and Israel. It is also a necessary step toward reaching a comprehensive peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, including Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank. The attendees yesterday discussed concrete proposals for finding realistic, effective approaches to the challenges Gaza currently faces.

White House officials presented specific project ideas, developed in conjunction with NSC staff, Department of State officials, which the AHLC may seek to fund through discussions at its upcoming meeting in Brussels. The nations and entities represented at the conference have the ability to work together and make a difference. The dialogue will continue and in the coming days in close coordination with other stakeholders as all parties take tangible steps toward making meaningful improvements on the humanitarian and economic situation in Gaza.

And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions. Hi, Matt.

QUESTION: Hi, Heather. Welcome back.

MS NAUERT: Thank you.

QUESTION: And congratulations on your interim, temporary appointment.

MS NAUERT: Thank you.

QUESTION: I – just logistically, in terms of the Secretary’s departure, I just wanted to know if you could give us an update – if there is one to give – about his status. I understand he was in the building yesterday; he had a meeting with staff. Is he in the building today? Is he planning to come every day until the 31st, until his last day? And what’s the situation there?

MS NAUERT: Certainly. The Secretary is in the building today, or at least he was as of a short while ago. He has ongoing meetings and business to attend to in wrapping up his term here at the State Department. And the plan is for him to be here as Secretary of State until the 31st or actually I should say until March 31st at midnight. Where he will go after that, that’s certainly up to the Secretary.

QUESTION: Okay. And then, when he – I realize you weren’t here for it, but hopefully since you’ve been back, you’ve been read in on the situation. He in his farewell parting remarks from the podium there, he talked about his commission would expire as Secretary of State at midnight on March 31st. Does that mean that he has not resigned or not planning to resign formally?

MS NAUERT: So the formal resignation process, as my – as I understand it, is a process itself. The Secretary still retains the title of Secretary of State. He has delegated the responsibilities, the day-to-day responsibilities and duties to our Deputy Secretary John Sullivan. Deputy Secretary Sullivan is carrying out all the meetings and duties and the paperwork that the Secretary would normally handle.

QUESTION: Right, I got that. But what – in terms of resigning, is he not resigning?

MS NAUERT: Well, he retains the title of Secretary of State. He is still here in the building. He and the President have an understanding, and I’m just not going to get into the private conversation between the Secretary and the President.

QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking you for details of a private conversation. I just want to know if – like every previous secretary of State, when they have finished they have submitted a letter of resignation if – going into a second term. Secretary Clinton did that and Secretary Powell did that, both. So I’m just wondering if he’s actually going to submit some kind of formal letter of resignation or if he’s not.

MS NAUERT: I would be happy to take that question.

QUESTION: Okay. And then --

MS NAUERT: I can just tell you he retains the title of Secretary of State. He is here in the building. The deputy secretary is handling all the day-to-day responsibilities.

QUESTION: Okay. So if that – so last one. If the deputy secretary is handling all the day-to-day responsibilities, what exactly is the Secretary doing?

MS NAUERT: Well, when someone would leave the building, especially someone of that stature and who has that important portfolio that the Secretary of State had, there’s a lot of ongoing paperwork and things that need to be completed – ethics reports that need to be finalized, various details. And he’s going to help to oversee an orderly transition to nominee Mike Pompeo, as we hope he will become – go through the process and become – get through the process and become our next Secretary of State.

QUESTION: Are there really 15 days, more than half of month, of – 16, 17 days of paperwork?

MS NAUERT: This is the arrangement that was worked out between the Secretary and the White House.

Okay. Hi. Okay.

QUESTION: Heather, I was wondering if you can have – usually Reuters go second.

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: If – I have a follow-up on that one. Is he focused on – can he make any decisions during this time, or is that all --

MS NAUERT: All of his day-to-day responsibilities, his key meetings, having the ability to sign off on particular pieces of information, that is all being handled by the deputy secretary at this time.

QUESTION: Has it been a conversation, do you know, with Mr. Pompeo – between Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Tillerson?

MS NAUERT: I know that they have plans to talk, that Secretary Tillerson has plans to talk to Director Pompeo, and I know they look forward to that conversation.

QUESTION: And has any delegation from Mr. Pompeo’s office been here to kind of just kick things off?

MS NAUERT: We have staff-to-staff conversations with Director Pompeo’s staff members at the department where he is right now, and we’re having ongoing meetings.

QUESTION: And what specifically are they talking about? Just --

MS NAUERT: Well, we would have a lot to talk about, including a transition.

QUESTION: So kind of staffing transitions or specific issues he wants to be briefed on.

MS NAUERT: I can imagine – as you can imagine, any time you have a potentially – if this happens with the U.S. Senate – having somebody new come into the building, you have a lot of details that need to be worked out – briefing materials, papers, staffing questions, and things of the sort. So there are a lot of conversations that we’d have.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hey, Andrea.

QUESTION: Just to follow up. Hi, Heather. Where – a couple questions about that, and then I want to go on to this – to one other issue, related issue. Where is Mike Pompeo working? Is he working as DCI and is that where his office will be? Or will he have a transition office after March 31st, if not before, here in the State Department?

MS NAUERT: I can’t speak to what he’s doing in his day-to-day responsibilities over at the Central Intelligence Agency. That would have to be answered by his staff. But we will provide a transition office, if they would like one. We have the ability to do that. That is normal; that is something that is typically done, and so we will provide that.

QUESTION: And do you know who is going to be a sherpa, if you will, for his confirmation process?

MS NAUERT: I have no information on that. But we are in close conversation with his staff and his colleagues.

QUESTION: And I wanted to ask you about a release of letters today to John Sullivan as --

MS NAUERT: Let’s come – we’ll come back to that. Does anyone have any questions – any additional questions about the transition? Okay. Go right ahead then.

QUESTION: The letters to John Kelly and to John Sullivan from Congressman Engel and Cummings – so Foreign Relations and Oversight – regarding whistleblower report – a whistleblower report about political pressure from outside groups as well as White House officials and the former chief of staff here and her deputy on career civil servants as well as Foreign Service officers to clean house, if you will, and get rid of or sideline people who were perceived as not being politically onboard with the Trump agenda. Can you address that?

MS NAUERT: I can tell you that we received that letter from Congress. The State Department regards those types of communications very seriously. We take those seriously. We always get back in touch with those members of Congress who ask questions for us. I’ve seen that letter. I’ve just received it. We will comply with Congress’s request. We don’t have any additional information to share on that at this time.

QUESTION: Have you personally experienced or witnessed that kind of political pressure from outside groups --

MS NAUERT: I have not.

QUESTION: -- on your colleagues here?

MS NAUERT: I have not. And I want to be very clear about this. I’ve been in this job for almost a year now. I have had the opportunity to work with many career civil servants, Foreign Service officers, and contractors here at the State Department. I have found my colleagues to be extremely professional. Those on staff who have been here for many years, I have found them almost blind to politics. They may not always like the policy that they are asked to advance on behalf of this administration and the American people, but my personal experience has been that people have done that and handled it in a very professional manner.

QUESTION: But the question is --

MS NAUERT: And that would go for the civil servants to Foreign Service officers to our contractors as well.

QUESTION: No, the question is whether you have perceived that some of those professional people whom you describe --

MS NAUERT: Ah.

QUESTION: -- have been pressured by outside groups --

MS NAUERT: I have not.

QUESTION: -- through the chief of staff and her deputy.

MS NAUERT: I have not. This is the first that I have heard of it in this letter.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: Korea.

QUESTION: Can I --

QUESTION: North Korea.

MS NAUERT: Okay, go right ahead. Yeah.

QUESTION: How is the State Department preparing for the upcoming summit between President Trump and Kim Jong-un in this particular moment of transitioning between two secretary of state? Is the State still involved in preparations?

MS NAUERT: We certainly are. And let me back up for a minute, because the last time I saw you all was on Thursday. And Thursday, last Thursday, was the day that the Republic of Korea met with the President and many others at the White House. You’ll recall at the time we talked about how our Deputy Secretary John Sullivan was in that meeting. He was in the meeting with the Oval Office when that idea was presented by the South Koreans to sit down and have a talk with the North Koreans.

So from that moment, when the deputy secretary came back to the State Department that evening, he pulled together a small group of staff members and he provided a debrief, what came out of that meeting. Not all of that I will be able to provide to you. But I can tell you that he pulled in our acting assistant secretary, Susan Thornton; Mark Lambert, who’s on our North Korea desk and is very well respected here, as is Susan. I entered that meeting and a few other people as well, in which we talked about State Department’s role.

First, I can say that we were very pleased to have received the information, because we look forward to having these meetings. This will all be spearheaded by the White House, but the State Department’s role in this will be what the State Department normally would do. We have massive staff which is good at handling the logistics, providing any policy support that the White House should need, providing staff members, providing guidance, translation services – all the things that you would expect that would come into planning a summit meeting.

After that brief meeting with Deputy Secretary Sullivan, we went into Susan Thornton’s office, where about 20 members of her staff, from the East Asia Pacific staff, started pulling together ideas and giving orders for different individuals to undertake certain actions. The exact details of what was given I’m not going to be able to tell you, but they went straight to work. These people worked very hard, they didn’t skip a beat; they all knew what their jobs, responsibilities, and roles would be to start planning.

So from the very moment that our deputy secretary came back here from the White House, they started working on this.

QUESTION: And is the White House involving them and getting them – their feedback and --

MS NAUERT: Well, they certainly are. I mean, look, this thing can’t be done with just a handful of people alone. Other departments, other agencies will be involved in this as well, just as other departments and agencies were at the President’s meeting with the Republic of Korea.

QUESTION: And just a follow-up.

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: Did the U.S. get some direct message from your own channels of communication from North Korea since the announcement last week (inaudible) --

MS NAUERT: Not that I am aware of. I do not believe that to be the case.

QUESTION: So you still didn’t have any direct message from North Korea saying that they are willing to discuss de-nuke with you?

MS NAUERT: That is the agreement that Kim Jong-un provided to the Republic of Korea. That information was presented to us, and so we are going forward in full faith and understanding that a meeting will go forward.

QUESTION: And that doesn’t worry you, not hearing from Pyongyang at the moment?

MS NAUERT: No. It does not. It does not. Okay, anything else on North Korea?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Okay, okay.

QUESTION: Heather?

MS NAUERT: Hold on a second. Hey, Kylie.

QUESTION: Okay. So it seems like right now the North Korean foreign minister is heading to Sweden – which, as you’re aware, is our protecting power – to meet with his counterpart. Is there – is this a preliminary step for the U.S.-North Korea summit? And if so, will Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton or Mark Lambert travel to Sweden to catch the North Korean foreign minister?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, so our understanding is that there is a meeting taking place between North Korea and the Swedes. We don’t have any indication that that meeting is about what we anticipate to be a meeting between the United States, other parties, and North Korea. I’d have you refer you to the Government of Sweden for any specifics on that, but we are not sending any representation.

QUESTION: Heather – Heather --

MS NAUERT: Okay, anything else on that? Hey, Josh.

QUESTION: Hi, Heather. Welcome back. I guess I’m a little confused about how much credibility foreign countries right now should put into the statements that are coming out of this building, considering that the guy that runs this place was just fired. I mean, for instance, the President was very clear that one of the reasons he fired the Secretary was they viewed the Iran deal differently. You’ve got Brian Hook, his policy architect, heading off to talk with the Europeans as this new guy’s coming in who clearly sees it very differently. So if you’re a foreign government right now, should they be taking the comments from you and others here in this building as policy, or is that all going to change?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. First let me address the issue of the meetings that Brian Hook is attending, our policy planning director. He’s attending some JCPOA meetings today. He attended some JCPOA meetings last week and I believe also the week before. The policy that Director Hook is advancing is the policy of this administration. It’s not the policy of the Secretary of State, it’s the policy of the administration. That includes identifying the malign activities that Iran has been involved with for many, many years. Our European partners and allies, they understand the totality of Iran’s bad behavior, and that’s one of the things that Director Hook is discussing with them today at those meetings. So I just want to be clear that Brian is talking about the overall administration policy, and that policy is an administration policy that is directed by the White House. So there’s no space there, if you will.

In terms of other countries and how other countries should regard us right now, let me make something clear: This building and what we do at the State Department is bigger than any one individual. Think of the numbers of secretaries of state that we have had over the centuries that the State Department has been around. We advance the values, the policy priorities of the President of the United States. The work of the State Department goes on all across the world today, so just because our Secretary, Secretary Tillerson, will no longer by the Secretary of State as of March 31st does not mean that we hit the pause button. It is the policy of this administration that we are advancing, and our people are hard at work.

QUESTION: And relatedly --

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- the overhaul of the State Department that we’ve discussed so much over the last year, does that essentially end with the end of Secretary Tillerson’s tenure, or do you expect that to continue in similar form?

MS NAUERT: Sure, and what you’re referring to is the redesign. We call it the Impact Initiative in its current phase. That information will be bundled together and we will provide that to Director Pompeo. He can take a look at it and choose what he wants to do with it. There are some things in there that are absolutely no-brainers, like upgrading our IT systems. You all have tried to email us sometimes and our IT system, our computers have just been basically broken. So I would certainly imagine --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Or they what?

QUESTION: Or they go straight to Moscow

MS NAUERT: I will imagine that that would probably be something that he would retain, but that is his choice, to look at the Impact Initiative and see what he wants to keep.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up on North Korea.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: We haven’t finished with North Korea.

MS NAUERT: Sure.

QUESTION: There was a report today that we reported on from the panel of experts on sanctions led by Hugh Griffiths from the United Nations. It’s a year-long study and it says that sanctions are working, but it describes in detail at least $200 million of cheating by pirating ships, ships that are redesigned or reflagged at sea; cheating by North Korea through embassies around the world --

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- supply of ballistic missiles and possibly chemical weapons materiel to Syria, to Myanmar, and to other countries, and does not even get into what we have separately reported, which is hundreds of millions of dollars of cyber crime giving hard currency to the regime. The question is, with so much cheating, why – how does the United States go into negotiations knowing that credibly so many hundreds of millions of dollars are going into the weapons program and other ways to get around the sanctions?

MS NAUERT: I think first I would say, whether we like it or not, there are countries around the world that are cheaters. Doesn’t mean that we can’t deal with them. North Korea has posed a grave threat not just to the region but also to the world. This administration designed its maximum pressure campaign more than a year ago. We are advancing and continuing to push that maximum pressure campaign. That includes – and you touched on this – talking with many countries around the world about their guest worker programs, for example, when North Korea has North Korean citizens who are working in an individual country on construction projects, perhaps, or other things, and that money, instead of going to the individual, goes back to the North Korean regime. That money, we believe, goes into its illegal nuclear and ballistic missile programs. That is why we’ve pushed this maximum pressure campaign so hard. The maximum pressure campaign has brought the Kim Jong-un regime to the table. Now we are at the place where we can begin to have talks about having talks. So I think that that is certainly a good sign.

Are there countries like North Korea that can skirt sanctions and get away with things like you mentioned accurately, false-flagging ships, where ships appear to come from one country but yet they really came from another, all designed as a way to get money into the North Korean regime? That’s a tremendous concern of ours and that’s why we keep, not only through the State Department and our maximum pressure campaign but also at the United Nations, to continue to orchestrate and impose sanctions, and we continue to ask countries all around the world to make sure that they are in compliance and fully implementing the sanctions that the UN and other countries have voted on.

QUESTION: Heather.

MS NAUERT: Okay? Okay.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: A quick question on North Korea (inaudible).

MS NAUERT: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: What is the status of Joseph Yun’s position? Is there any effort at the moment to fill it? Is that active or is that waiting for Mr. Pompeo to come in? And has he been asked to reconsider his retirement given the developments since he decided to retire?

MS NAUERT: So Ambassador Yun has decided to retire. Ambassador Yun has had a long career – a long, distinguished career here at the State Department. We have many others who have had or who have long, distinguished careers at the State Department. To think that Ambassador Yun is the only person who can handle the issues related to North Korea is simply false. We have many other people, including people of a higher rank, if you will, who are capable of handling these issues and, as I witnessed in the meeting in Susan Thornton’s office just one week ago, these people are prepared and are ready to have these talks and deal with negotiations with North Korea. So I’m fully confident in the capabilities of our colleagues who, in fact, are even more senior than Ambassador Yun was.

One thing I’d like to say about our – my colleagues in East Asia Pacific bureau: They are people who toil behind the scenes. They are not showboats. They are not people who run out in front of cameras and want to make it known to the world that this is what they do. They work hard, they keep their noses down, they keep their heads down, and they do their jobs not asking for credit and not looking for attention. I think that is part of the reason why so many in the media will look at Ambassador Yun and think, “Oh my goodness, he must be the only one who can handle North Korea.” Well, that is simply not the case.

QUESTION: Well, wait --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: So does that mean that that position is ended and nobody’s going to fill it?

MS NAUERT: I can tell you right now that Susan Thornton and Mark Lambert are fulfilling the --

QUESTION: No, I understand that.

MS NAUERT: -- let me finish --

QUESTION: But is the position going to be ended?

MS NAUERT: -- are fulfilling the duties of that role. I don’t have any announcements to make at this time. As you know, it is very likely that we will have a new secretary, Director Pompeo, coming in and he will have the ability to choose, as would any other secretary, some of these – make some of these staffing decisions.

QUESTION: Let me make sure that --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: You weren’t suggesting that Ambassador Yun was some kind of a showboat --

MS NAUERT: No, not at all, but you all, many of you, ask me a million questions about Joe Yun like he’s the second coming of Christ. For goodness’ sakes, there are many capable people here who could --

QUESTION: Who don’t have a relationship, a longstanding relationship --

QUESTION: Well, are you absolutely --

MS NAUERT: As – you know what? As do – hold on. As do --

QUESTION: -- 100 percent sure he is not?

MS NAUERT: (Laughter.) I am certain he is not.

QUESTION: Yeah? Are you sure? Okay.

MS NAUERT: I’m certain he is not. We have many people here who have relationships and who have negotiated with North Korea in the past. You may not know them, you may not know who they are, but we do have those people. I want to be clear about that.

QUESTION: Heather --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Can I just – do you have maybe in your guidance – I’m just wondering if you have any update about consular access the Swedes might have gotten to the Americans who are still held in North Korea.

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware – as you know, Sweden is our protecting power in North Korea, so they have assisted us in the past with American citizens. There are three American citizens who are still being unjustly held in North Korea.

QUESTION: Heather --

MS NAUERT: The safety and security of Americans is always our top priority. When this President took office, he was very clear with the State Department that that would be his top issue. That --

QUESTION: Right.

MS NAUERT: -- North Korea and also – safety and security of Americans, North Korea, and then also combating and defeating ISIS.

QUESTION: Right, but you’re not aware if there’s been any --

QUESTION: Heather – Heather --

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware.

QUESTION: -- recent access from --

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that. Okay?

QUESTION: Heather, Heather.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Hey. Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Back to the transition really quickly.

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: There is a discrepancy out there I’m hoping you can just set down for the record, this issue on Tuesday, the competing accounts between the White House and the State Department on how the Secretary came to learn that he was being fired. Now-former Under Secretary Goldstein said that he had no idea this was occurring, he did not know. The White House offered a competing narrative which was that he had been called by the Chief of Staff John Kelly while he was in Africa at 2:00 in the morning and then spent – and was told to come home early to either resign or be fired. So can you square those two competing narratives?

MS NAUERT: Some of these conversations were had strictly between the White House and between the Secretary of State. I can tell you that the Secretary received a call on Friday, and beyond that, I think we have a lot of issues in the world that are going on, important and immediate issues that we can discuss. Our under secretary will be leaving. He will be departing, and so I’m not going to get in the middle of what the White House and what the Secretary discussed. And I’ll just leave it at that.

QUESTION: Was he asked to leave because of that statement?

MS NAUERT: I would – I’m not going to comment on somebody’s personal career matters on that.

QUESTION: And can you just – I mean you don’t want to square those two? I mean, because this sort of gets to issues of his legacy, right? Like he – there is a White House version and then there’s also a State Department version, which is sort of his version, but you sort of have the White House basically calling him – saying that the Secretary’s account of what happened is not true.

MS NAUERT: Here’s what I can tell you, that the White House Chief of Staff Kelly called Secretary Tillerson while he was traveling in Africa on Friday, and I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION: Heather.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

MS NAUERT: Okay.Yeah, hold on.

QUESTION: Heather, can --

MS NAUERT: Hey, Rich. Yeah.

QUESTION: Is the United States, the State Department, discussing with NATO allies a potential multilateral response to the use of nerve agent in the United Kingdom by Russia?

MS NAUERT: When you say multilateral response, could you be more specific?

QUESTION: Would the United States join with other NATO allies in responding or retaliating against that, or is the U.S. going to let the UK respond --

MS NAUERT: Well, I think in part we already did. NATO put out a statement – the 29 NATO members – expressing their grave concern with Russia’s use of chemical weapons in that attack against an operative in the UK. So I think we’ve all spoken with one voice. There was also a statement today that was put out by the U.S., the UK, and other countries; it was a quad statement that was put out earlier today by the White House. Let me read a part of that. In it, it says that we abhor the attack that took place in Salisbury. We express our sympathies for all of them, and our admiration to the UK police and emergency services for their courageous response. This use of a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia constitutes the first offensive of the use of a nerve agent in Europe since World War II. It is an assault on UK sovereignty and any such use by a state party is a clear violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention and a breach of international law. It threatens the security of all of us. The United Kingdom briefed thoroughly its allies, and it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the attack. And it goes on.

QUESTION: That’s not retaliation.

QUESTION: With the retaliation --

MS NAUERT: The what?

QUESTION: With the retaliation that was – that the United States pursued after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, is that something that would fall under the same classification here?

MS NAUERT: It certainly could, because you’re talking about Russian compliance and whether Russia is compliant with its treaty obligations. And a use of a chemical weapon is in violation of that. Now, as you may recall – because you ask about the killing of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, right? Not stepbrother, half-brother. And then we put in places some sanctions about a week or two weeks ago related to that use. There was a gap in time between which he was killed and the time that sanctions were put in place a week or two ago. So that is something that we may end up doing, but I’m just not going to commit to any of that at this point yet.

QUESTION: In some of the language that you had – just the last --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Yeah, hold on. Said, hold on. Last question.

QUESTION: The last --

QUESTION: Okay, okay, calm down.

QUESTION: When you last briefed, you had talked a little bit about – it seemed like you had a little bit more aggressive tone towards Russia. Was there a feeling in this building with the outgoing Secretary that things had kind of reached a point, not that you weren’t willing to work with Russia anymore, but that it was time to call them out some more? Is that true and do you see that continuing, if so?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. I think if you look at Russia’s actions around the world, if you look at what they’ve done in Ukraine, if you look at what they’re doing, still doing, in Syria, as we watch the Russian Government back the regime of Bashar al-Assad – they continue with their aerial bombardments of Syrian civilians, killing innocent men, women, and children, including killing rescue workers. We had the privilege of bringing some of those search and rescue workers to the State Department last week, the White Helmets. And if I can just mention this briefly, we brought them into the State Department to screen a documentary that was about the White Helmets and the good work that they do in Syria and the work that we support on their behalf, because they’re helping to save Syrian lives.

Russia’s responsible because it continues to back the government of Bashar al-Assad. We’ve been very clear. We’ve been tough on Russia; we’ve been clear about calling them out. I think we’ve been clear about calling them out in the election meddling. We’ve spoken extensively about the activities that Russia has been engaged with in other elections that we start to see the fingerprints on: France, remember that last year; Mexico, we’ve started to see that. Other countries, some European allies, have expressed their concern about upcoming elections. So we are very aware of that. We are tough on Russia. We call out Russia I think when it is necessary. What has happened in the UK, we remain firmly standing with our ally, the British Government. We’ve had a lot of conversations with the British Government over the coming days, so we stand squarely behind them on this.

QUESTION: Who is the we, by the way? Who is the we? Because it’s not including the President of the United States. He did not come to that until --

MS NAUERT: Andrea, I think you may have heard the President spoke out very clearly about Russia --

QUESTION: And --

MS NAUERT: -- Russia responsibility the other day. I was traveling overseas. I recall seeing the President on the making a very strong statement about Russia responsibility. We’ve been clear --

QUESTION: No. Only after Nikki Haley at the UN.

MS NAUERT: We have been clear about Russia responsibility, as has Ambassador Haley. The Department of Defense has been as well. This administration is speaking with one voice about Russia responsibility, and we will not hesitate to --

QUESTION: There are credible reports --

MS NAUERT: May I finish? We will not hesitate to call out Russia where Russia is responsible. They have been responsible for some terrible things, and I think interestingly enough, you’ve not asked me about Russian sanctions today.

QUESTION: Well --

MS NAUERT: And the Treasury Department has announced some new --

QUESTION: That was my next one.

MS NAUERT: -- significant sanctions --

QUESTION: Which have --

MS NAUERT: -- on Russia today. And this is --

QUESTION: Which have been criticized by the Hill as insufficient. But let me just say --

MS NAUERT: Let me remind you that sanctions are ongoing. Just because sanctions are put in place on one day, March 15th, does not mean that additional sanctions won’t be put in place in the coming days and in the coming weeks and in the coming months. These tend to happen in batches, and we’ve seen this before, and we’ll continue to look at these.

QUESTION: There are credible reports from multiple sources in the White House that infuriating the President was Secretary Tillerson’s comments about Russia on the airplane and his printed statement Monday night.

MS NAUERT: I am not aware of that. If that is the case, I’d refer you back to the White House, and you can ask the White House and the President if the President was upset with the Secretary about that.

QUESTION: What do you --

MS NAUERT: But I think we’ve been very clear in calling out Russia for its responsibility.

QUESTION: What do you make of suggestions from officials in Moscow that the sanctions that you refer to, the Ides of March sanctions --

MS NAUERT: Is that what they’re calling them?

QUESTION: Are in fact – that’s what I’m calling them.

MS NAUERT: Oh, okay. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Are in fact U.S. meddling in the upcoming Russian election.

MS NAUERT: That’s – it’s bologna. It’s bologna. Sanctions take a long time to put in place. They take a long time to investigate. We’ve been hard at work at these behind the scenes for months and months. We roll out sanctions with the sanctions are ready to be rolled out by our people who – no offense to our folks who work on sanctions – doing the green eyeshade work. They’ve been hard at work at that, and we roll them out when they’re ready.

QUESTION: Right. But I mean, the idea – you’re not trying to get back at the Russian meddling by meddling in President Putin’s re-election campaign?

MS NAUERT: They make lots of wild assertions, and I think that that would be another one. Okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: Can we move on?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. Hi, Said.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I just ask one – can I just one more question on that?

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you.

QUESTION: Just --

MS NAUERT: Okay, Conor. Hold on. Then Said is next. Said, I promise.

QUESTION: Yeah. Of course.

QUESTION: You never finished North Korea.

QUESTION: Just there’s some insinuating that because Tillerson’s comments on Monday night, it followed – were followed so soon by his firing on Tuesday, that one was the cause of the other. Can you say what was behind the firing at this time?

MS NAUERT: I think the President has spoken to this about a range of areas of disagreement with the Secretary of State over policy and other matters. We all serve – any appointee, whether it’s someone at a low level or whether it’s the Secretary of State, we serve at the pleasure of the President. And the Secretary has talked about that all along, that he will be Secretary of State until the point where the President asks him not to be, because we serve at the President’s pleasure.

QUESTION: So it wasn’t specifically because of the Russia comments or because of the upcoming North Korea talks?

MS NAUERT: I think the President and the Secretary were both clear about that.

Said, hi.

QUESTION: Can we go to Gaza where you started at the top?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, yeah.

QUESTION: There is nowhere in the statement that was issued by the White House that actually specified are there amounts of money for actual projects, or how they are going to go about implementing these projects, especially with the absence of the Palestinians. Could you explain that?

MS NAUERT: Well, Said, I think this is a terrific first step. First of all, the fact that so many countries came together to talk about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is incredible that they did that, that they were willing to come all the way to the United States to have a conference and a meeting about this. The international community clearly recognizes the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We’ve seen people without access to clean water, we’ve seen people without access to reliable electricity. And as you’ve seen, that that has had an impact on people’s health. Some hospitals have not been completely operational; people have had to leave the area to go to other hospitals just so they can be treated. That is not something that leads to a good, positive society or a – something that’s sustainable. So we’re tremendously worried about that.

As you know, over the last year, we’ve talked about various initiatives that USAID has backed, that the State Department has backed as well, to help with clean water, to help with electricity, and those. But we also see this as being a international – when – best when international countries, countries around the world, can work together to try to help the people of Gaza. You probably saw on the news the other day that the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority was on his way to Gaza to open a – they announced the opening of a new waste treatment plant, and while he was on his way there, his convoy was bombarded, was hit by an IED, and also hit by gunfire as well. He still went on to that meeting, recognizing the importance of what was taking place there. So I think the fact that so many countries came together is a terrific step in the right direction. When we have more for you on specifics and deliverables, I’d be happy to bring that to you, and I’ll get that from Jason Greenblatt and also from Ambassador Friedman’s office.

QUESTION: Heather.

QUESTION: But isn’t it a bit disingenuous when nobody mentions the siege? Today – the Ides of March, today, is – marks the 12th anniversary of the siege on Gaza employed by the Israelis. Isn’t it disingenuous that nobody called on Israel to lift the siege? Because that is really the cause of the misery. If they lift the siege, I don’t think that Gaza needs any help.

MS NAUERT: Look, I think they were focused on trying to bring international aid and hope and resources to the people of Gaza.

QUESTION: And one last question --

MS NAUERT: Okay. Laurie, go right ahead.

QUESTION: Afrin.

QUESTION: Heather.

MS NAUERT: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Turkey has the city of Afrin under siege. It’s shelling the city indiscriminately. Food supplies are running low and there is no water. What is your comment on this situation?

MS NAUERT: Laurie, we’ve certainly seen the reports that the Turks have allegedly besieged that area. We cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports at this time. We’re not involved in the movement of forces in or out of that area. As you know, we are not operating in that area. But as this does take place, we know that it takes the eye off our focus there, and our focus there is defeating ISIS and combating ISIS.

QUESTION: Is it still your position that the UN ceasefire called for Syria applies to all of Syria, including Afrin?

MS NAUERT: Yes. That position has not changed.

QUESTION: Heather.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi.

QUESTION: Pakistan --

QUESTION: Heather, on North Korea. Thank you, Heather.

QUESTION: Turkey --

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: On North Korea --

MS NAUERT: Hold on. Let’s stick with Turkey and then we’ll move on.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you.

MS NAUERT: Hi. Hi, Ilhan.

QUESTION: Thank you. Last week --

MS NAUERT: By the way, I flew through Istanbul yesterday, so --

QUESTION: Oh. I hope you seen some of Istanbul.

MS NAUERT: Unfortunately, I didn’t. I just saw the airport, but – (laughter) – it was a beautiful sunny day there and a lot warmer than Washington.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Did you have a window seat?

MS NAUERT: Did I – I did not have a window seat. I had to lean over some guy to look out the window, but he was nice enough.

QUESTION: Did you have Turkish coffee?

MS NAUERT: And I did read some of the Turkish newspapers, yeah, so --

QUESTION: Did you have Turkish coffee?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, yeah. I had a cup of coffee on Turkish Airlines and it was not as strong as Turkish coffee normally is. (Laughter.) Yeah, so we have to work on that.

Anyway, beside the point. Ilhan, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. There were two days of meetings here last week --

MS NAUERT: Yes.

QUESTION: -- working group meetings between Turkish and U.S. officials, and yesterday, I believe, Turkish foreign minister stated that Turkey and U.S. agreed on Manbij, that the Syrian Kurdish fighters, YPG, are going to leave the city. Is that your understanding?

MS NAUERT: It is not our understanding. We have a lot of conversations that we’re having with the Turkish Government at this point. We had a day and a half or a day worth of meetings last week with Turkish Government officials. We’re still working to reach an agreement with Turkey at this point and we’re not done talking with them.

QUESTION: Okay. One more: Pastor Brunson – just couple days ago, Turkish prosecutors demanded lifetime sentence for Pastor Brunson, and yesterday another American consular worker, Hamza Ulucay, his demand to get released also was rejected. These two things came together.

MS NAUERT: I’m sorry, his demands what?

QUESTION: Hamza Ulucay. His demand to get released was rejected by the Turkish judge. Do you have comments on this?

MS NAUERT: I can tell you we’re certainly aware of the reports about Pastor Brunson. His is a case that we have followed very closely over recent years. We notice that no sentence at this point has been issued, no sentence at this point has been handed down, so I want to be cautious about not commenting or getting ahead of any of the process.

Okay.

QUESTION: Heather.

MS NAUERT: Hi, Janne. Go right ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Heather. On North Korea, one more. The problem is North Korean Kim Jong-un has no reaction at all about United States and North Korea nuclear talks yet. Is there any possibility of postponed of U.S. and North Korea talks?

MS NAUERT: Last I heard we hadn’t – have not set a date yet, but we are operating in good faith and plan to go ahead with that.

QUESTION: There’s an article, a New York Times article this morning said that he mentioned about maybe it’s postponed of U.S. and North Korea --

MS NAUERT: I think that would be a hypothetical.

QUESTION: Heather.

MS NAUERT: We’re going ahead and we’re planning in good faith, okay?

QUESTION: All right.

MS NAUERT: I have to leave it there. Thanks, everybody.

(Break.)

MS NAUERT: (In progress) -- tomorrow here in Washington with the Republic of Korea and with Japan. And so --

QUESTION: Are they separate meetings?

QUESTION: So they are --

MS NAUERT: They are separate meetings.

QUESTION: So it’s not a three --

MS NAUERT: It is not a multilateral meeting. They’re separate bilateral --

QUESTION: And is there anything specific you’re asking for from --

MS NAUERT: Pardon me?

QUESTION: Is there anything specific you’re asking for from the talks?

MS NAUERT: Well, I think we continue to have close cooperation with our allies. We have very, very strong relationships with both countries, and so I know the deputy secretary looks forward to meeting with them and continuing our conversations about a lot of issues. I think the top issue is pretty clear that we’ll be talking about North Korea, but other things as well.

Okay, thanks. I’ve got to go.

QUESTION: And how will Tillerson’s absence --

MS NAUERT: I’ve got to go. Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:42 p.m.)

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