Press Gaggle - January 25, 2018

Special Briefing
Heather Nauert
Department Spokesperson
Press Correspondents' Room
Washington, DC
January 25, 2018

MS NAUERT: So you may need something on the record, so I’ll just – I want to give you something on the record regarding Venezuela, I’ll give you an update on something we are announcing for next week regarding Qatar, and then give you a little bit on the Secretary’s travel in Europe today, and then take some of your questions. And I’m sorry, we’re going to have to keep today short because we have to go over to the Foreign Press Center.

Okay. On Venezuela, you may have seen yesterday that I issued a statement on Venezuela, and I want to reiterate that the United States strongly rejects the call by Venezuela’s illegitimate Constituent Assembly for snap presidential elections before April 30th. The vote would neither be free nor fair; it would only deepen, not help resolve national tensions. It would not reflect the will of the Venezuelan people and would not be seen as – and would be seen as undemocratic and illegitimate in the eyes of the international community.

We call on the Maduro regime to respect the human rights of all of its citizens and to return to democratic constitutional order. A free, fair, transparent electoral process open to credible international observation is essential to the restoration of a democratic constitutional order in Venezuela. We call on the Venezuelan Government to fulfill its commitments under the OAS charter and under the Inter-American Democratic Charter. We support the Lima Group’s January 23rd statement that calls for an inclusive and transparent democratic process. I could take some questions for you all on that in just a minute.

Regarding Qatar, we are happy to announce that we will be holding the inaugural United States-Qatar strategic dialogue. It will be here at the State Department on Tuesday, January the 30th. Secretary Tillerson and Secretary Mattis will co-chair the opening session of the dialogue jointly with our Qatari counterparts, Deputy Prime Minister – excuse me, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister al-Thani and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for State of Defense al-Attiyah – pardon me.

We’re pleased to host the senior Qatari officials at an event that reaffirms our close ties and commitments to cultivating a strategic relationship with the state of Qatar. They’re a strategic partner and we seek to use this dialogue to deepen our collaboration with them. We look forward to discussing many important areas of cooperation between our countries, including trade, investment, defense, security, law enforcement, counterterrorism, and also aviation. We also talk about the critical regional issues of defeating ISIS, the ongoing Gulf disputes, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Then in terms of the Secretary today, as you all know, he is at Davos accompanying the President as part of the U.S. delegation. When the Secretary travels with the President, he pretty much follows the President’s schedule, so he was a part of some of the President’s meetings today, including with Benjamin Netanyahu. The Secretary also held a meeting today with Nechirvan Barzani and also with Prime Minister Abadi of Iraq. This evening – excuse me, that takes place this evening.


MS NAUERT: Has that happened already? That happened already, okay. So I don’t have the details or any readouts of those meetings, but I know you probably saw what the – or heard what the Secretary said going into his meeting with Barzani earlier. The Secretary will remain in Davos tonight before he heads to Warsaw tomorrow afternoon. In Poland, he’ll meet with senior Polish officials to discuss the range of issues in the strong U.S.-Poland bilateral relationship, including global challenges, regional security, and also economic prosperity. He will also participate – the Secretary will – in a wreath-laying ceremony Sunday – excuse me, Saturday marks the – is it the 75th anniversary of --

MR GREENAN: Seventy-third.

MS NAUERT: Pardon me?

MR GREENAN: Seventy-third.

MS NAUERT: Seventy-third anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. And so he is going to be there to mark that day. Let’s see.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: I believe – no, no, no. It’s --

MR GREENAN: It will be in --

MS NAUERT: -- at a – it’s a memorial, right? Is it – yeah. Let me look at our detailed scheduled here that I think has some additional information on it. He’ll be at the Warsaw Ghetto Heroes Monument.

QUESTION: This is – but the wreath he’s laying is to the people who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, right? It’s not specifically related to Auschwitz?

MS NAUERT: I know that Saturday marks that day.


MS NAUERT: So I believe it was – yes, both. Because you wouldn’t go just commemorate Auschwitz without acknowledging what had happened in Warsaw as well.

The Secretary will also meet with mission personnel before heading back to the U.S. Okay. That’s what I’ve got for that --

QUESTION: Question about --


QUESTION: Middle East.

QUESTION: -- aid to the Palestinians. President Trump said that aid is now on the table for everything. What are you telling the Palestinians? Is this all U.S. aid is now under review?

MS NAUERT: You saw our position on UNRWA. The President has now spoken. He made his comments, so I’m not going to speak for the President, but --

QUESTION: But this is beyond UNRWA, this is --


QUESTION: -- bilateral aid.

MS NAUERT: Right, right.

QUESTION: Does that mean that you guys are reviewing all U.S. assistance to the Palestinians and that --

MS NAUERT: Look --

QUESTION: -- it’s dependent on peace talks?

MS NAUERT: I think there are a lot of things under review. I know the President sees – and I can’t speak for the President, but the President sees that nothing has happened with regard to the peace process over many decades. And they’re looking for ways to get people back to the table and get people back to peace talks.

QUESTION: The U.S. Government has given the Palestinian Authority aid to support its security forces for many years and part of that has been an effort to help them prevent attacks on Israelis. Is that under review too?

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of that. I can check on that and get back to you.

QUESTION: Heather, has --

QUESTION: Heather, the President mentioned that – possibly cutting off aid in the same sentence that he mentioned the Palestinians disrespecting Vice President Pence by not letting him visit. Is slighting of the Vice President one of the factors the U.S. is taking into consideration as it reviews future aid to the Palestinians?

MS NAUERT: I wouldn’t say that. I’m not going to speak on behalf of the President, so I’m going to let his comments stand for themselves, but one of the things that we are doing is looking for ways to kind of shake things up a bit, to try to get both sides to come back to the table. And we look forward to trying to facilitate any kind of peace talks.

QUESTION: Can I ask you on UNRWA? You mentioned that UNRWA needs to be reformed. Has this administration given UNRWA a specific list of demands of the things that it wants to see reformed?

MS NAUERT: We have spoken with representatives from UNRWA. We’ve also spoken with other countries about the need to get other countries to provide more money and resources for UNRWA. We’re pleased some countries have stepped up. Belgium is one of those countries that has; there are some others as well. So we’re pleased that other countries recognize that they’re – other countries need to do more.

In terms of the first part of your question, have we given specifics to UNRWA? Yes. Some of those are just – we consider to be more private diplomatic type conversations, but we have made clear to them the need to reform their funding mechanism, for example. The Secretary has spoken about this here at the State Department where he said, look, every year at the end of the year there is an emergency appeal for money. The system and the structure shouldn’t be set up in such a way that every year they are running out of money and need to plead for emergency funds. So it’s just not a sustainable program the way the funding mechanism is currently set up, and so we are promoting for UNRWA to develop a funding mechanism structure that is better sustaining. So that would be one of the examples, and we could --

QUESTION: Could you talk a little bit about why you – why you think that by cutting these funds for economic development programs, humanitarian aid, why that will do anything other than make people more hungry and angry and frustrated and drawn to radicalism?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. I’m just going to go back to what the President said before. And I’m not quoting him, but in general we have seen a lack of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for many, many decades – more decades than some of you have been alive. And so there needs to be a new way to try to get people back to the table, and perhaps this is one way that it can encourage and will encourage both sides to eventually return to the peace process.

QUESTION: Are you blaming only the Palestinians or primarily the Palestinians --

MS NAUERT: I think --

QUESTION: -- for that situation recently?

MS NAUERT: I think we’ve – I think we’ve talked to both the Israelis and we’ve certainly made clear to the Palestinian – Palestinians in the past that both sides need to come to the table, and that it’s not going to be easy. Both sides will have to compromise.

QUESTION: The President --

QUESTION: And you’re quite clear that the Israelis are ready to come to the table?

MS NAUERT: I think they are. I think they are. They’ve indicated that in the recent past, so I don’t – I haven’t heard or seen anything that would indicate otherwise.

QUESTION: The President again stressed repeatedly today that he’s taken Jerusalem off the table. Now that’s done, that issue is done, he kept saying. Is Jerusalem off the table for negotiations?

MS NAUERT: In what way?

QUESTION: Whether or not – I mean, the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their future capital.

MS NAUERT: That would be --

QUESTION: So is that off the table for the Palestinians?

MS NAUERT: That would be a final status negotiation that would have to be determined by the Israelis and the Palestinians.

QUESTION: But he says he’s taken it off the table.

MS NAUERT: I think – and I can’t parse the President’s words. I’m not in the position to do so. I think you all recognize that. But I think what the President was referring to at the time – if you go back and look at the time in which that was said, I think he was referring to – saying that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel from a U.S. perspective.

QUESTION: But he also said that the Israelis will have to pay for that in future talks. He said that again today.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Well, then I’d have to refer you to the White House on that, because I can’t speak for the President and I wasn’t there as part of the comments.

QUESTION: Just to be clear – because the two things seem to have overlapped a bit in this discussion – the withholding of the money to UNRWA is to get UNRWA reformed?

MS NAUERT: Reformed, yeah.

QUESTION: It has nothing to do with whether the Palestinians come to the negotiating table?

MS NAUERT: That is correct. Yes. And we have --

QUESTION: So what the President is talking about today is different aid?

MS NAUERT: Yes. I think he’s talking about aid in general.


QUESTION: So can I ask why --

QUESTION: And why does the State Department --

MS NAUERT: Do you guys want to stick on Israeli-Palestinian stuff? Because I’m going to have to go quickly. Is that – do you want to talk about other things?

QUESTION: Can I have a quick one on Turkey about yesterday’s phone call between President Trump and Erdogan?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: It seems that the Turks are telling – claiming there is a mischaracterization of the content of the call in the White House readout. What do you make of this claim from Turkey?

MS NAUERT: I think our – the call readout that was provided by the White House was very specific, it was very detailed, and it was firm. And I think it expressed both the President and the Secretary’s extreme concern about the situation in northwestern Syria, in the Afrin area. So I think they were clear about that. I think the President and the Secretary – as the Secretary has in recent calls with the foreign minister of Turkey – been very clear that we want a de-escalation of tensions. This is a part of Syria that had been relatively stable. Again, it’s Syria, but it had been relatively stable. And now we’re seeing something altogether different happen. We recognize and respect Turkey’s legitimate security concerns, their concerns about the PKK. Turkey is a NATO partner and ally, so we understand and respect that, but I want to make something clear, that we don’t have a U.S. presence in Afrin. Our U.S. presence is elsewhere. It’s more in the eastern part of the country, where we’ve been fighting – where we have been fighting ISIS. So we’re not a part of that. We work with the Syrian Democratic Forces in the eastern part of that country to fight ISIS. We continue to do that, so – and we encourage the Turks and everybody else to put the focus on ISIS and not other groups.

QUESTION: Heather, the Turkish foreign minister and other Turkish officials said publicly that Tillerson proposed this idea for a 30-kilometer buffer zone. Tillerson said, “I didn’t propose anything.” The Turks have come back and said no, really, you did. Do you have any clarity on – I mean, did they discuss it but it wasn’t a formal proposal, or – can you, like, parse that for us?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, and we put out some comments on this yesterday, and I want to talk a little bit about some of what the Secretary said. And he talked to I believe one of the pool reporters today when he landed in Davos. He said, “We discussed a number of possible options, but we didn’t propose anything.” So back to the readout for a second that was provided, we stand by the readout. We stand by the President’s assertion of cautioning Turkey about the escalation of tensions in the Afrin area, and then the Secretary I think has also been clear by saying, look, we discussed a range of options with the Turks.

QUESTION: Was the 30-mile or kilometer buffer zone one of them?

MS NAUERT: I don’t have that level of specificity that I can provide to you, but I think there was no formal proposal of anything. I think the Secretary was talking with Turkey – NATO ally – about hey, what do you all need, just as though he would talk to the Kurds, because he was speaking with Barzani today. So he’s talking with both sides about what they would all need.

QUESTION: The Turks are talking – you were saying that you’re not involved in Afrin, but they’re talking about moving on to Manbij, which – where there is a U.S. military base. Has the Secretary kind of drawn any red lines about where they can go?

MS NAUERT: We have been clear with the Turks.

QUESTION: Have we relocated any U.S. personnel out of Manbij to make sure they don’t get bombed by the Turks?

MS NAUERT: State Department personnel?


MS NAUERT: I – yeah, I can’t comment on any DOD personnel because I just wouldn’t have that level of knowledge, but I’m not aware of any State Department personnel who’ve been moved.

QUESTION: Can you explain what you mean – what – that Tillerson has been clear? Because Michele asked you whether he’d drawn any red lines if they move to Manbij. What – when you say that Tillerson’s been clear, clear about what?

MS NAUERT: We’ve been clear with – and some of these conversations I just can’t get into that level of specificity, but we’ve been very clear with the Turkish Government, Turkish officials both on the ground in Turkey and in the Secretary’s private conversations with the foreign minister, as well as with President Trump’s conversations with President Erdogan, that we do not want to see an escalation of tensions in any way, shape, or form. And part of that would of course include the town, the community of Manbij.

QUESTION: Right, but the – but in terms of any U.S. action if the – because the U.S. troops are there.

MS NAUERT: I’m not going to go forward with what we may or may not do, but all of them have made it clear that that would be an area that would be of major concern.

QUESTION: And what is your level of confidence that the Turks are hearing those messages?

MS NAUERT: I don’t know. We’re putting those messages out. We certainly hope that they will listen. As a NATO partner and ally, we think they should. We think that that would be a good thing. We don’t – we’re not the only country that has this concern about an escalation of tensions. There are many other partners and allies who are equally concerned about instability in Syria and taking the eye off of ISIS.

QUESTION: Would you say that the Turks have given assurances of any kind, or how would you characterize --

MS NAUERT: I would not say that they’ve given assurances. We’re following this very closely.

QUESTION: Quick one on Burma/Myanmar.


QUESTION: Do you have anything to say with regard to former Secretary Richardson’s comments from yesterday beyond what you said yesterday? And secondly, were his comments in any way whatsoever coordinated with the State Department or the Trump administration?

MS NAUERT: No, they were not coordinated with the administration. They were not. I can tell you that we share his concern. You all read his letter. It was very frank. He was not operating under the auspices of the U.S. Government. He was over there as a private citizen. And I think it was certainly a good opportunity, and we were certainly hopeful that he was named to that commission, but I’ll let his words speak for themselves about what he felt – how he felt that commission was going.

QUESTION: And what makes you think that the criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi is going to strengthen either her ability or her will to try to do some of the things that you would like seen done in Burma?

MS NAUERT: Well, we didn’t put out that statement. That was put out by Ambassador Richardson.

QUESTION: But you said, “We share his concerns.”

MS NAUERT: Well, we share his concern. Yeah, absolutely.

QUESTION: Right, right. So by that, I take it as kind of an endorsement with what he said. You share the concerns that he has, so --

MS NAUERT: Yeah, let me back up, then, because I can’t endorse his actual words because he’s not operating on behalf of the U.S. Government. But certainly it is a concerning situation and certainly we would like to see the advisory commission be able to help the situation there.

QUESTION: What I don’t get is why starting to be more explicit in criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi will necessarily help her or make her any more inclined to push the country in the direction that you would like against the wishes of the military, which still basically have more power under their constitution than she does. So --

MS NAUERT: As you know, we’ve had a series of conversations with the government there, both with Aung San Suu Kyi and also General Min. Those conversations are ongoing with the government in general. Our people on the ground, Ambassador Scot Marciel is very involved in this. So we continue to have those conversations.

We would eventually like to see the Rohingya be able to go home in a safe and voluntary fashion. We don’t believe that it would be safe or voluntary if they were to be sent home right now. We’re continuing to monitor that situation. It is a tremendous concern of the United States Government. We have put a lot of money, a lot of taxpayer dollars, into assisting the Rohingya both in Bangladesh and in Burma as well. So it remains a concern. We certainly note what Ambassador Richardson said about his concerns and why he says he’s pulling out of the commission panel.

QUESTION: You don’t think that undermines Aung San Suu Kyi?

MS NAUERT: Well, that was his – it was his choice. It was certainly his choice because he had concerns about the way that the advisory panel was running. And so I’d just refer you back to his comments about that.

QUESTION: Heather, one of their tension points that both he has discussed and Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman has said is that he wanted to address the fate of these Reuters journalists who were actually there specifically investigating what happened to the Rohingya, and that the position of Myanmar’s Government is these are completely unrelated because this is a press freedom thing, this is a Rohingya thing. Is it the position of the United States that the fate of those journalists is completely untethered from the Rohingya crisis?

MS NAUERT: I don’t know that we’ve stated whether it’s tied to it or it’s not. It’s certainly related. It’s certainly related to democratic reforms that we would like to see take place in that country. I mean, we consistently call for greater press access to allow press to go out and report the facts. And one of our major concerns about the situation in the Northern Rakhine State is that reporters – and frankly, aid groups to some extent – have not been able to get in to report what’s going on on the ground.

So I don’t have the specifics of the reporters’ case. I mean, I’ve read reports, but I can’t personally confirm what exactly the reporters were doing there. But if they were just out reporting the facts, and reporting the reality and the situation on the ground, that deserves to be shared with the world.

We’re going to have to get going in a few minutes.

QUESTION: India is hosting – this time I’ll go on. India is hosting Asian countries’ leaders this – today or tomorrow for the --


QUESTION: Do you have anything on that, the relations between India and Asian countries, part of the India-U.S. collaboration with East Asia?

MS NAUERT: I’m afraid I don’t. I don’t have any information on this meeting. I know that Alice Wells was recently in India. When does she --

QUESTION: Yeah, I see that.

QUESTION: I don’t have the dates for that.

QUESTION: I see that.

MS NAUERT: She was – yeah. She was recently there within the past few days or so. But I don’t have anything on – for you on that.

QUESTION: Last one, Heather?

QUESTION: And – and on Pakistan, Pakistan has said that any unilateral action from the U.S. – they were referring in terms of a drone attack yesterday – would be detrimental to the U.S.-Pakistan cooperation. How do you see their statement?

MS NAUERT: Yeah. I don’t have any comment on that story you’re referring to.


MS NAUERT: I think that some of that would be DOD.

QUESTION: Can I ask really quickly do you have a readout of Susan Thornton’s meetings in Asia?

MS NAUERT: I do not. Her trip is still ongoing, so we hope to get a readout for you all upon her return if we’re able to do that. I can tell you she was in Indonesia, she was in Mongolia, and she was in China. Big topic, of course, regional issues and the DPRK and our maximum pressure campaign.

QUESTION: Do you have any sense what Susan – what kind of reception Susan had in Beijing and what the Chinese reaction was to what was decided in Vancouver?

MS NAUERT: I know she talked about the DPRK and our maximum pressure campaign. And we consistently ask for China to do more. That’s one of the things with the regard to putting pressure on the DPRK, that’s one of the things that she did address with them, of course.

QUESTION: Yeah, but they were pretty critical of this Vancouver meeting coming up. They said they didn’t think it would accomplish much. And I was wondering if she had any indication they warmed up to what was discussed there, and what was the efforts?

MS NAUERT: I know we’ll keep pushing and keep talking to the Chinese Government and ask them to apply maximum pressure along with us.

QUESTION: Heather, is the Secretary upset that USAID has suspended their participation in the overhaul?

MS NAUERT: I haven’t asked him that question. I’m not sure he’s aware of that particular report.

QUESTION: Can you – can you – do you have anything more to say about that, about whether – I mean is AID cooperating with his redesign, or how’s it going?

MS NAUERT: I don’t know the status of that. That was actually something Robert was spending his whole day on while I was dealing with Turkey yesterday, so I’ll refer you to Robert on that.

MR GREENAN: We’ve got to go, though.


MR GREENAN: We’ve got to get you over there. Sorry.

MS NAUERT: Yeah. Okay.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: All right. Thanks, you guys.

QUESTION: Thank you.