Department Press Briefing - February 19, 2019

Robert Palladino
Deputy Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
February 19, 2019



TRANSCRIPT:

3:03 p.m. EST

MR PALLADINO: Hello. Welcome, welcome. I’ve been traveling. Some of you have been traveling; that’s right. And I have nothing for the top, so if there’s any questions – I know it’s a shocker. I know. Nothing to announce at the top.

Shaun, please. Go right ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks. Could we begin with India and Pakistan?

MR PALLADINO: Okay.

QUESTION: I know that there’s a statement by Secretary Pompeo and by the White House after the attack in Kashmir.

MR PALLADINO: Right.

QUESTION: India today was calling for credible and visible action by Pakistan against Jaish-e-Mohammed, the militant group. I was wondering if the United States agrees with that and whether the United States has been in contact with the two sides about that or other aspects on this.

MR PALLADINO: Let me start by saying again that we condemn in the strongest terms possible the terrorist attack that occurred last week on an Indian Central Reserve Police Force convoy in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. We’re committed to working with the Indian government to combat terrorism in all of its forms. The perpetrator of that heinous act claimed allegiance to the United Nations-designated, Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, and we call on all countries to uphold their responsibilities pursuant to the United Nations Security Council resolutions to deny safe haven and support for terrorists.

QUESTION: Can you --

MR PALLADINO: Did you have a second question there, too?

QUESTION: Well, to follow up on that --

MR PALLADINO: Yeah.

QUESTION: What would you like to see Pakistan specifically do in the case of Jaish-e-Mohammed? Are there legal actions they could take in terms of detentions, in terms of proscribing organizations that could come after this attack?

MR PALLADINO: We – I believe you’ve asked about whether we’ve been in touch with the two governments, and I can say that we have been in close communication with the Government of India to express not only our condolences but our strong support for India as it confronts this terrorism. And we – as you know, we have a close, cooperative relationship with India, a security relationship, and that includes counterterrorism operations. And so we’re committed to working with India, the Indian government, and on these counterterrorism efforts, both bilaterally and multilaterally, including at the United Nations.

As far as Pakistan goes, we’ve been in contact with Pakistan on this issue. We urge Pakistan to fully cooperate with the investigation into the attack and to punish anyone responsible.

QUESTION: Just one quick follow-up.

QUESTION: A follow-up? I had a follow-up here.

QUESTION: Just briefly to follow it up.

QUESTION: A follow-up?

MR PALLADINO: All right. Go, Shaun.

QUESTION: When you say that you’re in close contact, could you say on whose part? Is it on the part of the Secretary or other --

MR PALLADINO: I don’t have any – I don’t have further details on the level, but we call on countries to uphold their responsibilities pursuant to the United Nations Security Council to deny safe haven and support for terrorists, and that includes many things, as you know – freezing assets without delay, et cetera. All right?

QUESTION: Robert --

MR PALLADINO: That’s all I – I have nothing – I don’t have much more on that.

QUESTION: Just one, Robert?

MR PALLADINO: No more on India. Let’s move on to the next question. Michelle.

QUESTION: Thank you. On some housekeeping issues. Are you going to be the acting spokesperson? Who is the acting spokesperson? Is the State Department going to name one? Are you going to take over Heather’s responsibilities?

MR PALLADINO: We have no personnel announcements today. I am the deputy spokesperson, and I am here to answer your questions.

MR PALLADINO: Anything further on that?

QUESTION: Robert --

QUESTION: Well, my question was who is doing Heather’s job as spokesperson? You temporarily or --

MR PALLADINO: I am here answering your questions today, absolutely. Do you have a foreign policy question? I’d be happy to answer. Yeah.

QUESTION: Well, those were housekeeping questions.

MR PALLADINO: Sure, sure, sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: First out of the – out of the --

MR PALLADINO: Okay. We all – right.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

MR PALLADINO: No, no, no. Is there anything else?

QUESTION: You were about to say something.

MR PALLADINO: No. You were about to ask something. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Well, I wasn’t clear on whether you are currently doing Heather Nauert’s job as spokesperson or not.

MR PALLADINO: I’m the deputy spokesperson, and in that function I fulfill many of the responsibilities that a spokesperson performs in any given federal agency. That includes --

QUESTION: And --

QUESTION: Robert, one --

MR PALLADINO: Please, she’s still talking over here. Please, go ahead, Michelle.

QUESTION: And on the UN ambassadorship, are you – is the State Department currently working with the White House on next steps on that, or can you say what the next steps are from the perspective of the State Department?

MR PALLADINO: That’s for the White House to answer, not something we do from the State Department. Any --

QUESTION: Robert, one a follow-up on India?

MR PALLADINO: Okay, please. Let’s go with Fox.

QUESTION: One follow-up on India.

MR PALLADINO: Please, right here. Fox, go.

QUESTION: On Haiti, there are reports that five Americans were arrested on conspiracy charges there. I wanted to see if you had any comment on that. And if true, have they been granted consular access?

MR PALLADINO: I’ll just – we’ve seen those reports. The Haitian national police have detained a group of individuals, which includes some American citizens. Due to privacy considerations, we’re unable to comment further. But I can say that whenever United States citizens are arrested, we seek consular access as soon as possible to provide appropriate consular relief. And then that’s all I have on that.

QUESTION: You can’t say the number of Americans?

MR PALLADINO: I am not able to go beyond that for privacy considerations reason.

QUESTION: But you’re not giving away any personal information if you say the number of Americans detained. That has nothing to do with individual privacy.

MR PALLADINO: I’ve seen the press reports, but I have no further information that I can provide at this time. For any further information on numbers or questions related to the arrests I would refer you to the Haitian national police.

Please.

QUESTION: May I have one follow-up on India, please?

QUESTION: One more follow-up. Another American, an ISIS fighter from Alabama named Hoda Muthana, is being held in a Kurdish detention camp and is being asked to return to the United States to face justice. CBP has referred to State. I wonder if you have any comment on that.

MR PALLADINO: Yeah, I would say that the situation of American citizens or possible American citizens in Syria is by definition extremely complicated, and we’re looking into these cases to better understand the details. But I’m not going to be able to public – to comment publicly any further on that at this point due to privacy and security – for security reasons.

Please.

QUESTION: Robert, can we go for one follow-up --

QUESTION: A follow-up on this.

MR PALLADINO: A follow-up? Let’s go over here, please.

QUESTION: When you say you’re looking into the cases, what are the possibilities that you’re considering? Would you want her to receive jail time, send her to Guantanamo Bay or something like that?

MR PALLADINO: I’m not speaking about any individual here. I’m not speaking about any individual case. I can speak generically about the situation in which American citizens or potential American citizens or alleged American citizens could find themself in such a situation. And our policy in this regard would be to repatriate them, and it’s what we call on all countries to do who have FTF fighters in Syria too. So our position for other countries is the same as for our own, and we would – and that’s a possibility. As far as Guantanamo goes, your question, the United States government is considering various alternative disposition options for foreign terrorist fighters who cannot be repatriated.

QUESTION: So the --

QUESTION: Non-U.S. citizens --

MR PALLADINO: Go ahead, go ahead.

QUESTION: Non-U.S. citizens, you’re saying?

MR PALLADINO: For – right. Correct, correct.

QUESTION: And then just broadly speaking, not on her case individually, but for women who joined ISIS who may not have been fighters, would they also face criminal procedures back in the U.S.? Would you want them to repatriate to this country?

MR PALLADINO: We’ve been clear on this and we’ve spoken on this publicly recently. Repatriating these foreign terrorist fighters to their countries of origin, ensuring that they are prosecuted and detained – that’s the best solution to preventing them from returning to the battlefield. We view these fighters as a global threat and we seek global cooperation to resolve that threat.

QUESTION: So what is the State Department’s take on the British decision to strip citizenship from the other ISIS wife?

MR PALLADINO: I have nothing for you on that today.

QUESTION: Robert --

MR PALLADINO: Please, let’s go to Said. Please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Robert. A couple questions on the Palestinian issue. On the 17th, the Israeli army removed a Palestinian family from their home in East Jerusalem, in the Old City, and they immediately replaced them by settlers. Does that bother you? I mean, your ally the UK issued a statement condemning this action. And at what point does it become ethnic cleansing? When there’s 10 homes or 20 homes or 30 homes? In your view.

MR PALLADINO: I’m aware of that report but I don’t have any further details on it, so I would refer you to the Government of Israel on that.

QUESTION: Well, let me – one more issue. The Israelis also deducted close to $140 million from Palestinian taxes. They’re saying that concurs with the amount that the Palestinians pay to the families of prisoners and fighters and so on. Do you agree with that or is that considered some sort of a piracy by the Israelis?

MR PALLADINO: I --

QUESTION: How do you term that?

MR PALLADINO: I would refer you to the Government of Israel for information regarding their transfer of customs revenue to the Palestinian Authority. That’s something for them to respond to. But I would say we condemn the abhorrent practice of Palestinian Authority payments to imprisoned terrorists and the families of terrorists.

QUESTION: And lastly, on the 4th of March the U.S consulate in East Jerusalem will close its doors after 175 years. The Palestinians, who have always gone to the consulate over these 175 years to get visas, to do their affairs to emigrate to America, look after things and so on, will no longer be able to do that. Do you have any comment on that?

MR PALLADINO: Well, we have an embassy --

QUESTION: Breaking a strong and deeply rooted American tradition.

MR PALLADINO: We have an embassy in Jerusalem, as you know, and we have active involvement in all of Israel from our embassy.

QUESTION: Syria?

MR PALLADINO: Please, Laurie, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Could you explain what the latest is regarding the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria? Have other countries stepped in and said they’ll help out and replace the U.S. troops?

MR PALLADINO: As President Trump has stated from the outset, the United States is withdrawing its forces from Syria in a manner that is deliberate and coordinated, and we’re going to continue to work together to fight ISIS, and – but that’s something that’s going to continue. We have no timelines to discuss at the current time, but our new plan, Secretary Pompeo has spoken to this several times. The withdrawal of troops is a tactical change but not a change in our mission. And our mission very much remains the same and our commitment to ISIS’s enduring defeat is – both in the region and globally, that’s not changing at all. We are – that mission set has not changed.

As far as – what was your second part of the question, Laurie?

QUESTION: It has to deal with the – there’s going to be a security – you’re planning a security zone or a safe zone.

MR PALLADINO: Okay.

QUESTION: There were many reports about that.

MR PALLADINO: Right. We are – we are actively engaging with Turkey on this, and that is part of our efforts to ensure a safe withdrawal of United States forces and a stabilized northeast Syria. It’s also, we take Turkey’s legitimate security concerns seriously. We take them into account in our activities and we are – we have ongoing coordination. We’re not going to discuss specifics on these talks, but they continue.

QUESTION: And are you still contemplating international observers or some others?

MR PALLADINO: I have nothing – I’m not going to go into details on the discussions that we’re currently having.

QUESTION: Afghanistan please.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go right here. Please.

QUESTION: On North Korea (inaudible) President Trump just said that, quote, “As long as there is no testing,” I am not – “I am in no rush,” end of quote. So is this an indication that there’s no timeline of CVID in the Korean Peninsula? And is the U.S. still planning to press North Korea for CVID during the second summit?

MR PALLADINO: Our policy goals haven’t changed at all. Our Special Representative for North Korea Steve Biegun is traveling to Hanoi today, and he’ll be continuing the United States preparations for the second summit that will take place next week. As far as our objectives, nothing has changed. And we remain confident in the commitments made by President Trump and Chairman Kim that those commitments made at the Singapore summit will be fulfilled, and it’s Chairman Kim’s commitment to denuclearization upon which the world is focused right now and that’s – that is our – that remains our goal.

QUESTION: Follow-up?

MR PALLADINO: Follow-up?

QUESTION: Syria.

MR PALLADINO: On North Korea?

QUESTION: Yes.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go to North Korea.

QUESTION: Special Representative Biegun said that he would have another meeting with the North Koreans ahead of the summit. So will he be meeting with his counterpart while he is in Hanoi?

MR PALLADINO: I have no further details on the meetings that he will be having at this time, but he is on his way today to return to have – for preparations for next week’s summit.

QUESTION: And while we’re speaking to reports that have come out in the last 24 hours, is the idea of exchanging liaison officers with North Korea on the table as far as what could come out of the summit?

MR PALLADINO: I’m not going to get ahead of diplomatic conversations or ahead of the President. A lot of things are being discussed and we are very much looking forward to next week.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

QUESTION: Follow-up?

MR PALLADINO: Any more on North Korea?

QUESTION: North Korea.

MR PALLADINO: Let’s go Christina.

QUESTION: Thanks, Robert. I want to ask you about the State Department’s assessment of the current nuclear threat from North Korea, understanding the Secretary has spoken a lot about progress he says has been made since the last summit – return of remains, lack of testing – but I’m wondering, can you quantify the State Department’s stance on the current threat of the nuclear program? And I ask because this weekend on 60 Minutes, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe said it’s his understanding the President does not believe the intelligence assessments that the North Koreans can hit U.S. targets. So I’m just trying to figure out if the State Department is with the intel assessments or what our understanding of the President’s position is.

MR PALLADINO: We take all of the intel, of course, into consideration. It’s not something I’m going to talk about from the podium in a public setting. The State Department, we’re focused on the policy, where we’re trying to go. That’s our strategy. And that is the focus of what’s coming up right now, and where we’re looking. We have – our approach is different, frankly, than what’s happened in the past. This is a top-down approach that allows – with the chairman and the President meeting directly, and that allows for a breadth of actions, frankly, that, if successful, could fundamentally transform relations between our two countries. So we remain optimistic going into this, and I’ll stop there.

QUESTION: But – I understand that, but are the State Department and the White House on the same page going into these negotiations about the current state of the North Korean nuclear program?

MR PALLADINO: A hundred percent. We are closely coordinated on all aspects. And yes, absolutely.

QUESTION: One last follow-up?

QUESTION: Follow-up?

MR PALLADINO: Okay, please. NHK.

QUESTION: Yeah. After Biegun met with his counterparts in Pyongyang earlier this month, there were some reports that came out that said the U.S. has made an offer of declaration of nonaggression, or a possible peace declaration. Could you comment or confirm that?

MR PALLADINO: Yeah, I’m not going to go into details of private diplomatic conversations. But the Singapore summit last year, there were four areas that we were – that the United States and North Korea are focused on, and I’d add the fifth, and the fifth is a brighter future for the North Korean people as well. All of this is what we remain very much focused on. Thanks.

Carol, please.

QUESTION: I’d like to talk about Venezuela a little bit. Could – yesterday in Miami, John Bolton told reporters that you might be using volunteers to get some of that aid in. I’m wondering if you’re organizing people, and if you’re thinking church groups, or I was just hoping you could expand on that a little bit.

MR PALLADINO: I don’t have any further details and I’d have to refer you to the National Security Council on that. But the message that the President delivered yesterday was clear, and millions of Venezuelans are starving and suffering, frankly, while a small handful at the top of the Maduro regime continue to plunder the nation into poverty and death. And we call on these individuals to think of their own people and to think of their own futures, and understand that they’re risking both. I’ll leave it at that.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on Venezuela?

MR PALLADINO: Sure.

QUESTION: Can you confirm whether Elliott Abrams has met with representatives of the Maduro government, whatever you guys are calling it now? Maduro himself said that
Mr. Abrams met with the foreign minister, Arreaza. We saw your comment last week saying that it could – would be expected that such conversations might occur, but could you just say yes or no whether those meetings have taken place?

MR PALLADINO: We’re focused on the security of our personnel in Venezuela, and part of that naturally would be to talk about those with the guns, frankly. And so we remain focused on ensuring the security of our personnel in Venezuela. And I’d leave it at that.

QUESTION: Can you just confirm whether those meetings have taken place?

MR PALLADINO: Didn’t we say that? Did you just tell me last week it was confirmed?

QUESTION: The statement did not say explicitly that those meetings were confirmed.

MR PALLADINO: My understanding is we have had – there has been one meeting, but I’d have to look further to get further detail on that.

QUESTION: Robert, how are the conversations with the government going on protection of life and property down there?

MR PALLADINO: We continue --

QUESTION: You’re facing a deadline this weekend.

MR PALLADINO: We continue to monitor this situation 24/7. There can be no higher priority for the Department of State than ensuring that our facilities and personnel are protected, and it’s something that we’ll continue to do. It’s something that the Secretary of State remains very focused on, and we’ll continue to keep it that way.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Robert. Robert.

MR PALLADINO: Too many. Too many. Hands. Okay, right here, please.

QUESTION: I just would like to go back to North Korea quickly. Steve Biegun said that the United States will take corresponding measures as North Korea start to denuclearize. Does the corresponding measure include sanction relief?

MR PALLADINO: We’ve been clear on sanctions. These are the world’s sanctions, and that is something that we’re going to – that is something that will continue to be maintained until we’ve achieved our final result of a fully, finally verified denuclearization. But I don’t want to get ahead on any further details on what’s being negotiated regarding that question.

QUESTION: How would you characterize the progress of the negotiation with North Korea right now? Is everything on schedule?

MR PALLADINO: We’re having – summit’s going to take place next week. Steve Biegun is on his way back right now to tie up the remainder, and we’re optimistic and looking forward to next week.

QUESTION: Will he stay in Hanoi until the summit or is he coming back?

MR PALLADINO: I have no further details on his travel at this time other than that.

QUESTION: Can I just --

QUESTION: Robert.

QUESTION: Follow-up on North Korea.

QUESTION: LGBT issues.

MR PALLADINO: LGBT issues.

QUESTION: Yeah. Apparently there’s this new push by the State Department to try to get other countries to decriminalize homosexuality. Can you talk about where that is right now and what exactly is this initiative?

MR PALLADINO: I believe you’re referring to a strategy meeting that MSNBC was reporting on out of Germany, and that was in advance of a strategy meeting that Ambassador Grenell and his staff at Embassy Berlin had today with 11 activists from different countries in Europe. It’s – this really is not a big policy departure. This is longstanding and it’s bipartisan.

QUESTION: So this – would you characterize this as some new initiative or something, or is it just a continuation or an intensification of efforts that the State Department does?

MR PALLADINO: I would say that this is a good opportunity to listen and to discuss ideas about how the United States can advance decriminalization of homosexuality around the world, and that’s been our policy.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

QUESTION: Afghanistan, please, sir.

QUESTION: Robert. Robert.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PALLADINO: Okay, let’s go to Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Nazira Karimi, Afghan independent journalist. Sir, as you know, the peace process in Afghanistan going on – are you optimistic? Do you have any update?

And also, Pakistan has been canceled the meeting with the Taliban. What was the reason?

MR PALLADINO: We continue to facilitate a peace process that protects our national interests and brings all parties together in an intra-Afghan dialogue. The United States – our policy is we support all steps that would lead to a genuine intra-Afghan dialogue, and that includes the Afghan government, the Taliban, and other Afghans. And we encourage all countries to support this peace process.

Special Representative Khalilzad – he just left Kabul, and there he met with President Ghani, as you probably saw. He met with student groups, he left – met with civil society groups, including women and youth. And this is all part of our effort to have an inclusive, intra-Afghan peace dialogue. And so that’s something that the special representative will be continuing. He’s currently in Turkey right now and he’s meeting with the Turkish government. I’ll stop there.

Okay. Sure.

QUESTION: Stay on Iran? Can we go to Iran?

MR PALLADINO: Iran. Okay, let’s try Iran.

QUESTION: Iran and Pakistan, that Iran is accusing Pakistan of terrorist attacks and do you have any comments on that?

MR PALLADINO: I don’t, no.

QUESTION: And the Pakistani prime minister today said that even after you have given all the evidence from the UN and all, the Pakistani prime minister said that without hard evidence, he’s not going to act on any terrorist organizations. And if India attacks, he’s going to retaliate. So do you think there is a chance of escalation?

MR PALLADINO: We call on all countries to uphold their responsibilities, pursuant to United Nations Security Council resolutions, to deny safe havens and support for terrorists.

QUESTION: And the Saudi prince conference is – was in Pakistan, and now today he’s in India. Do you feel that – what do you expect from that visit? Anything? Kind of a peace maker? You would like to see --

MR PALLADINO: Yeah, I – we – I don’t have anything on that visit to share at this time.

Please.

QUESTION: Russia.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) China?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Robert.

MR PALLADINO: China? Who said China? I don’t know, Nick. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Syria. Syria.

MR PALLADINO: Another --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PALLADINO: I want to talk about snow. Are we going to get snow tonight, Michelle? That’s what I hear.

QUESTION: Well, a place where it might not have snow, Nigeria.

MR PALLADINO: I’m just kidding.

QUESTION: Robert.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR PALLADINO: Nigeria.

QUESTION: Nigeria.

MR PALLADINO: Okay, something different. Thank you, Shaun. What is your question about Nigeria?

QUESTION: Well, the elections were postponed.

MR PALLADINO: Right.

QUESTION: I know that the embassy in Abuja released a statement supportive of that move. Since then, the opposition has been saying that there potentially could be a plot to rig the election. Do you take these concerns seriously? Do you stand by the support for delaying the election? What would you like to see happen at this point?

MR PALLADINO: Okay, so you’re referring to this week – a week-long delay that took place in the elections. This was something that the – Nigeria’s independent national electoral commission announced. We – United States calls on all Nigerians to maintain calm as the electoral commission finalizes its electoral preparations, and to peacefully participate in the electoral process. We emphasize the importance of continuing to maintain the safety of election personnel and the integrity of all election materials. And we are confident that the delay in voting will not sway the commitment of the Nigerian people to free, transparent, and peaceful elections. Did you have another, second part to that?

QUESTION: Well, has – what has been the contact level of the United States on it? Has – I know the Secretary issued a statement a while back on it. Since then, what, if anything, has the U.S. been doing to keep in contact on this?

MR PALLADINO: I don’t want to misspeak, Shaun, and I don’t know if I have anything up to date on the level of contact. Of course, our embassy is very much engaged on this process, but – and I would add – and the Secretary also called last Friday, frankly, and he spoke to Nigerian President Buhari. So we are in contact with – during this process.

QUESTION: He spoke just to Buhari?

MR PALLADINO: That’s right, and former Nigerian Vice President Abubakar as well. Okay. So the United States is focused on this, and it’s something we’re going to continue to watch. All right.

QUESTION: Robert, one on --

MR PALLADINO: Last question. Go ahead, Michel.

QUESTION: Yeah, on Syria, Russian foreign minister has said that the U.S. plan in Syria is to split the country and to divide it. Do you have any – any reaction?

MR PALLADINO: Yeah, let me --

QUESTION: And what’s the U.S. plan in Syria?

MR PALLADINO: I think we spoke about that earlier, but I would say about the foreign minister’s comments that that’s a misrepresentation of United States policy. We support the unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and we’ve been clear that the only path in Syria is a political solution that’s led by the United Nations process in Geneva, and that includes constitutional reform, United Nations-supervised elections, and that it’s done in compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. We’ve also been clear that – I’ll stop there. That – I’ll stop there.

QUESTION: That means there is no plan to divide Syria or to split Syria?

MR PALLADINO: Absolutely not. We have been clear that we support a political solution under United Nations auspices, and that’s something we’re going to continue to do. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR PALLADINO: All right, guys, we’re going to close her up there. Look forward to seeing you all soon.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:35 p.m.)