Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Tillerson and DHS Secretary Kelly's Travel to Mexico

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
February 21, 2017


MODERATOR: Thanks, Dak, and thanks to everyone for joining us this morning. This is a background call to preview Secretary Tillerson’s – as well as Secretary Kelly from the Department of Homeland Security – trip to Mexico. This is, on the part of Secretary Tillerson, of course, his first bilateral trip as Secretary of State, which is worth noting and I think speaks to the importance that he and we, of course, place on this vital bilateral relationship.

We do have with us today two senior administration officials, both from the State Department and Department of Homeland Security, who can walk us through the trip that, as I say, includes both Secretary Tillerson as well as Secretary John Kelly.

I can just say at the top that they will be meeting with Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto and with members of President Nieto’s cabinet. And that includes, of course, the Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray. I’m sure you’ve already seen this, but the trip’s been officially announced. And just a reminder that this call will be embargoed until wheels-down in Mexico City, and a reminder that this is an on-background call and we will post a transcript of the call on state.gov tomorrow once the traveling party is wheels-down in Mexico City.

I do want to hand the mike over to the first speaker, who is [Senior Administration Official One]. Our second speaker this morning will be [Senior Administration Official Two]. So with that, I’ll hand it over to our Senior Administration Official Number One. Go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you, [Moderator], and good morning to everyone. As [Moderator] said, Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly will meet up in Mexico City for meetings together with President Pena Nieto and several cabinet-level Mexican officials. The visit is a result of the conversation between President Trump and President Pena Nieto on January 27th. In that hour-long call, the two presidents discussed the bilateral relationship between the two countries; the current trade deficit the United States has with Mexico; the importance of the friendship between the two nations; and the need for the two nations to work together to stop drug cartels, drug trafficking, and illegal guns and arms sales. President Trump and President Pena Nieto also instructed their teams to continue the dialogue to strengthen this important strategic and economic relationship in a constructive way.

So that’s what we’re doing here. We’re continuing the dialogue on security cooperation, migration, economic relations, border issues, and foreign policy. The visit builds on the talks that Secretary Tillerson and Foreign Secretary Videgaray began on the phone on Secretary Tillerson’s first full day in office on February 2nd, and then a meeting the two held here in Washington on February 8th.

In addition to the meetings with President Pena Nieto and Foreign Secretary Videgaray, Secretaries Kelly and Tillerson will also meet with Secretary of National Defense General Cienfuegos and Secretary of the Navy Admiral Soberon. They will also meet with the Mexican Secretary of Government Osorio and Secretary of Finance Meade, who will participate in the meeting with Foreign Secretary Videgaray.

We expect the visit to be forward-looking and to discuss ways to strengthen our cooperation in order to advance the security and economic well-belling – well-being of both our peoples. The visit will be the first in what we envision will be a close, ongoing working relationship with Mexico.

On security, we expect to address ways in which we can improve our cooperation in combatting heroin production and trafficking, including eradication, targeting criminal organizations, extradition, and arms and bulk cash trafficking. We also plan to look at means to strengthen our excellent collaboration in the area of counterterrorism.

On migration, we’ll discuss how we might deepen our cooperation in strengthening Mexico’s southern border as well as how we can work together in Central America to help the countries in the region reduce violence, promote development, and create effective institutions that respond to their people’s needs, thereby weakening the push factors that drive people to migrate.

On economic relations, we expect to talk about our broad economic ties, including ways to facilitate the secure flow of goods and people on the border; energy security; and opportunities created by Mexico’s internal economic reforms.

On border management, we have common interest in discussing cooperation on critical issues such as sharing of water resources, dealing with public health threats, and addressing environmental concerns.

On foreign policy, we expect to review ways in which we work together to resolve regional and global challenges, including cooperation at the Organization of American States and the United Nations.

As you can see, we have an ambitious agenda which reflects the importance our two presidents attach to our bilateral relationship. In sum, the visit will focus on security, specifically drugs, criminal groups, and counterterrorism cooperation; migration, with the goal of sharply reducing irregular migration to the United States; the economy; border issues that directly affect the daily lives of Americans; and foreign policy cooperation on global and regional challenges.

And now I’ll turn it over to my colleague, [Senior Administration Official Two].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: Thank you. So as many of you know, Secretary Kelly, this will be his first trip to the region as secretary. But again, as many of you know, from his time as the commander of U.S. Southern Command, he has many personal and professional relationships in the region, and he looks very much forward to getting down in his current capacity as the Secretary of Homeland Security. As my colleague said, the relationship, the partnership, and friendship between our two countries is long and enduring.

From the Homeland Security perspective, obviously, our countries are also connected by a 1,900-mile border, but we’re also connected by trade, culture, history, and a commitment to democracy. Because of the long border between our two countries, Homeland Security personnel interact on a daily basis with their Mexican counterparts – sharing information, combatting the transit of illegal goods, facilitating secure travel and trade. As many of you know, Mexico is a – one of the largest trading partners that the United States has. More than $1.5 billion in trade passes between the countries every day. And so again, from a Homeland Security perspective: keeping those economic lines safe and secure; securing the people on both sides of the border; and again, managing that flow of people from Mexico into the United States.

Secretary Kelly will obviously talk with his counterparts about the President’s executive orders and how the Department of Homeland Security is implementing those – again, with an eye toward securing our borders and ensuring that our relationship with Mexico and our partners there is maintained throughout. In addition to the meetings that my counterpart talked about that Secretary Kelly and Secretary Tillerson will participate in, Secretary Kelly will also spend time meeting with Department of Homeland Security staff who live and work in Mexico, as well as embassy personnel.

And I’ll leave it there, and we’ll open for questions whenever we’re ready.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks so much [Senior Administration Official Two]. We’ll hand it over to our operator to get some of your questions in. Thanks.

OPERATOR: Certainly. And ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you’ve been placed in queue, and you may remove yourself from the queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speakerphone, we ask that you please pick up your handset before asking your questions. Once again, if you would like to ask a question, you’ll press *1 at this time.

And our first question will come from the line of Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I’m wondering how Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly will address the continued dispute between Trump and Mexico over the issue that he’s demanding that Mexico pay for the wall that the U.S. wants to build. How will they confront that issue and those tensions? Thanks.

MODERATOR: [Senior Administration Official One], do you want to take a first swing at that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, sure. I mean, this issue was addressed in the joint statement that was issued after the President spoke by phone on the 27th, where they both acknowledged that we have clear differences on the payment issue but agree that we need to work these differences out as part of a comprehensive discussion on all aspects of the bilateral relationship. And so basically, this trip is focusing on how we can build a constructive relationship, work through our common interests on security, on migration, on the economic elements of the relationship. It’s forward-looking. And again, the wall is just one part of a broader relationship that we have.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks so much. Next question.

OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Josh Lederman with the Associated Press. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey guys. Thanks for doing this. Following up on the previous question, one of the aspects of one of the memos from Homeland Security on implementing some of this relates to trying to quantify all of the aid that we are – that different government agencies give to Mexico, and what appears to be setting up the appearance of here’s the aid that we could cut off if Mexico doesn’t see things our way on the wall. So I was wondering if you can say whether that is intended to send a message to the Mexicans related to paying for the wall, and whether the secretaries plan to discuss that with their counterparts in Mexico City.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you for that phone call. I mean, certainly, from our perspective, the Merida Initiative, which started in 2008, and through which we’ve provided – $2.6 billion worth of assistance has been allocated for Mexico, remains an important piece of our relationship. It furthers our mutual goals in combatting narcotrafficking; strengthening the rule of law in Mexico, including both police professionalization as well support for judicial reform in the country. It also enables us to work and support Mexico’s efforts to modernize its border controls and also to build resilient communities. We think it’s paid off in terms of results, and we remain committed to working through Mexico – working with Mexico in terms of our cooperation in these key areas.

Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And from the department, as you mentioned, Secretary Kelly’s implementation memos that went out today do address identifying the amount of aid that the department has provided to – excuse me – to the Government of Mexico over the last five fiscal years. It is part of a broader effort that the President directed the heads of all executive departments to identify and quantify the sources of direct and indirect aid to the Government of Mexico. So to that end, the Department of Homeland Security will undergo a review and provide that information back to the President as directed.

MODERATOR: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of Steve Herman with Voice of America. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. Thanks for doing this. I’d like to ask a similar question regarding the two new cabinet secretaries. A similar question was asked to Vice President Pence in Brussels yesterday, and that is: How much concern is there among the agencies and the cabinet secretaries that whatever careful negotiations and agreements they may have might be upended with one presidential tweet? We’re in a different area – era of diplomacy now, it seems. And how much of a concern is that in – at the State Department and DHS?

MODERATOR: Steve, I can just jump in before handing it over to Senior Administration Official Number One. Look, I mean, we said very clearly at the top of this backgrounder that this was – this whole trip is prefaced on the basis of a very good phone conversation between the two presidents. And I think it’s important to stress that both presidents are very forward-looking about the relationship and want to build a strong, prosperous relationship going forward. I don’t know, [Senior Administration Official One], if you have anything you want to add to this.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No, I would just echo those comments, that basically the two presidents talked, they identified an agenda, instructed their teams to conduct a dialogue to advance that in a constructive way. That’s what we’re doing. And I think we’ll achieve a lot of success, will benefit both our peoples in terms of the security cooperation, economic relationship, and cooperation on migration. Thanks.

MODERATOR: I think it’s important just to view this with a very long lens and a long-term – building a long-term prosperity between the two countries.

[Senior Administration Official Two], anything to add or next question?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: No. No, thanks.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Tracy Wilkinson with Los Angeles Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. Not to beat a dead horse here, but you talk about rebuilding a constructive relationship, but in fact, Mexico and the United States had a very constructive relationship until Trump. And so I guess my question is: What can Tillerson, or Kelly, for that matter, say in Mexico that is at all going to reassure the Mexicans that they really do have a partner to work – to continue working with? The phone call, [Moderator], that you’ve described has been described in other quarters as not so friendly and not so productive. So I guess my question is: What can you folks really say to the Mexicans or give to the Mexicans – what kind of reassurances can you really give them that will mean anything?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you for that question. As [Senior Administration Official Two] alluded to, we have enduring interests, common interests between our two countries. We have an almost 2,000 mile border. We have strong people-to-people ties. We have strong economic relationships. We have mutual interest in promoting safe, orderly, legal migration; a mutual interest in controlling and combatting narcotrafficking, as well as counterterrorism. In all of those elements, we have a long history of cooperation.

The two presidents reiterated their desire to continue to build upon that in the phone conversation, acknowledging that we have some differences on specific issues. But basically from the State perspective, the fact that Secretary Tillerson, one of his first phone calls was with his Mexican counterpart, the fact that they met here in Washington on the 8th, that the Secretary’s first foreign bilateral trip is down to Mexico shows that, in that spirit, we continue to look for ways to address the concerns of both countries, produce results for both peoples, and we’re confident that through this process we’ll continue the long and good relationship that we’ve had between the two governments.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL TWO: And I would add from Homeland Security, to view this, again, as taking the direction from our President, as well as the Mexican president, to get our senior officials together face-to-face and have those kind of candid discussions and find the areas that are win-win for both sides – both from a government perspective, but also for our people. And having these type of face-to-face meetings – as I mentioned, Secretary Kelly has personal relationships there and will continue to stress areas of advancement and opportunity for our two governments, acknowledging, again, there were – there will be areas that we don’t always agree on.

And part of this too is to help under – help our counterparts in Mexico understand clearly what is happening and how we see things, and not just relying on rumor or stories that they hear elsewhere. So sitting face-to-face with our counterparts, going through explaining here’s what we’re doing, here’s what – not – what we’re not doing, here’s why we’re doing these things, so that there is a very clear understanding throughout of where those, again, areas of cooperation, areas of advancement are as we continue to move forward.

MODERATOR: Thanks for that. Yeah. And if I could just add, Tracy, this is a profoundly important bilateral relationship and, as I said, it’s his first – Secretary Tillerson’s first trip to a bilateral or to a neighboring country. It underscores that. These are long-standing issues that are going to be discussed. And I think what’s really important is that it – through this trip, both Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly are trying to set the right tone, a positive tone, a forward-looking turn – tone going forward.

Next question. We have time for a few more questions, I think. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. The next question will come from the line of Nicole Gaouette with CNN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you for this call. I have to come back to this scene because, [Moderator], you say that these are long-standing issues, but Tracy’s point holds. These are long-standing issues, but the relationship has been a good and solid one, and the President’s rhetoric has introduced an incredible degree of uncertainty and even hostility into this conversation that used to be quite civil.

So again – and given the President’s propensity to, sort of, tweet off the cuff – why should Secretary Kelly and Tillerson’s Mexican counterparts take them at their word, think that they actually represent U.S. Government positions when the relationship has been so upended by the President and there’s no clarity on where he’s going?

And I’ll just note that directives like asking agencies to let him know how much direct and indirect aid they give to Mexico sort of do carry an undercurrent of threat, given his comments. So why should the Mexicans take the positive messages that Tillerson and Kelly are bringing at face value?

MODERATOR: Sorry. Let [Senior Administration Official One] or senior administration official weigh in as well. But Nicole, just to reiterate what I just said is this is – these are – this is an important relationship. There’s a range of issues. We don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue. But it’s in both countries’ interests to build a strong relationship going forward.

And as to your question about whether they should trust or take at face value what comes out of these meetings and what comes out of this visit, I think, again, the fact that this is among the first trips and the first contact that Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly have had in their tenures speaks to the importance that they place in this relationship and the importance that they see in addressing the full range of issues between our two countries. And again, reiterating coming out of the President’s phone call on January 27th, both presidents are keen to set a positive tone, a constructive tone in the relationship moving forward.

I don’t know if you have anything to add, [Senior Administration Official One].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah. No, I would – I’d just reiterate,[Moderator], that this is a dialogue that the presidents asked for on both sides on the 27th. It’s going to be a process, and a key element of this is establishing good relationships, clear lines of communication, to discuss misunderstandings, be able to provide transparency to the relationship. The Secretary has already spoken with his Mexican counterpart by phone. They had a meeting here in Washington. This builds on that and it creates those kind of relationships which will enable us to manage some of the differences and to find solutions moving forward, but this is going to play out over time. Building the relationships, establishing these clear channels is crucial to making that a success.

MODERATOR: Time for just a – I think one or two more questions, please.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go the line of Lucia Leal with EFE. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Thanks for doing this. I wanted to know first, for planning purposes, you said that this call is embargoed until they are wheels-down on Mexico. Just wanted to know at what time do you expect that to happen, and if you could give us like a rough schedule of events – when are they scheduled to meet with the president, the Mexican president, and with the different ministers, and also if you expect that this trip will lead to a rescheduling of the Mexican president’s visit or the – or of a possible visit by the U.S. President to Mexico.

MODERATOR: I’ll let a senior administration official speak to some of this, but just in terms of the timing and stuff, let us get to you – get back to you offline about the timing of the wheels-down in Mexico City as well as the timing of some of the events on the ground, which are still being worked out, to be honest. [Senior Administration Official One], can you --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, thanks, [Moderator]. No, I mean, obviously, this is – as I mentioned, the meetings that Secretary Kelly and Secretary Tillerson will be having with their Mexican counterparts is part of a process establishing a dialogue on these key issues. And so that – it’s an important step. It’s one that will continue.

I don’t want to speculate on presidential visits or anything at this time. The President set up a process that’s going to work through these issues, and at the appropriate moments they’ll decide in terms of presidential-level visits, but I don’t want to speculate on that at this moment, other than to emphasize that we want to establish a good relationship and work through some of these issues, define some processes for addressing them, and this visit will contribute to that.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Last question here, please.

OPERATOR: Okay, and our final question will come from the line of Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks to everyone for doing the call. When the foreign secretary was in Washington, he said there were no plans for when Nieto might come to the – to Washington, so I was wondering if there’s been any talks about rescheduling that visit or if that was part of the conversations you’d be having.

And then second, are Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Kelly going to do some sort of joint press conference? Will either of them do a press conference?

And also, just a logistical question: [Moderator], how should we refer to you in the call? Are you on background as well? Thanks.

MODERATOR: Felicia, I was just thinking about that. Just refer to me as senior administration official, please. In any case, good question. I think we answered the question about President Nieto in the previous answer, which is that we’re not going to speculate at this point on any presidential trips or presidential visits. That would be something for the White House to speak to. This is about establishing from the early phases of this administration a good working relationship moving forward, and that’s going to be the emphasis for this trip.

In terms of press events, we can talk about this offline. We’re still finalizing the schedule in terms of whether there would be any press avails. I think you can count on camera sprays and – before the meetings, but as to any press availability, we’re still working on that.

I don’t know if any other – [Senior Administration Official One], anything to add, or [Senior Administration Official Two]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: No, I don’t, [Moderator]. Thanks.

MODERATOR: All right. Thanks so much, everyone, for joining us, and look forward to a very productive trip to Mexico City. Thanks, all.