Interview With Matt Lee and Joshua Lederman of Associated Press

Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
Washington, DC
January 5, 2018

QUESTION: Okay, well, Happy New Year and thanks for doing this. We’ve got a lot of stuff that we want to ask, so we’ll try to (inaudible) quickly. Joshua? Or do you just want to --

QUESTION: Sure. Yeah, well, why don’t I start on North Korea and ask you a little bit about that especially as you head into this – this meeting in Canada next week, and maybe we’ll start with the more recent preliminary discussions between South Korea and North Korea. Given that that’s supposed to be limited in scope as far as the Olympics issue, if North Korea is unwilling to budge from their position on their nuclear program or to even discuss the nuclear program, do you feel that those talks can still be sustainable, and can they lead to something, a broader opportunity for conversation with North Korea?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think the upcoming talks between the South and the North where it’s just going to be the two of them – and I did sit in on the President’s call with President Moon yesterday morning. President Moon confirmed that is the subject; that’s the reason they’re meeting. The South Koreans are hopeful that the North Koreans will participate and it’s how is that all going to work.

The South Koreans indicated to us that they have no intention of engaging on anything further than that because the parties are not at the table to deal with those issues. So what – is this the beginning of something? I think it’s just – it’s premature to know. We’ll see. We’ll get a readout of that meeting and we’ll see is there – did the North Koreans come with more than just wanting to talk about the Olympics? We don’t know yet.

QUESTION: Do you hope it’s the beginning of something more?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we’ll see. I think it depends if that’s the vehicle through which they would like to tell us that they’d like to have some discussions. And discussions are not negotiations, and I want to try to be clear with that because I think I have confused perhaps some people with the way I’ve talked about the first talks and that we’ve been open to these talks, and we still have our channels that are open.

And I’ve often said the first meeting isn’t going to be negotiations. We’re going to have – we’re going to sit down and we’ll talk with one another and see if there’s any reason to try to construct a series of negotiations. We may learn in the first set of talks there’s no reason because the party – they’re not ready to engage on what they have to understand is the ultimate outcome of these negotiations, which is a complete, verifiable, and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That is the U.S. policy. It’s also the policy of the entire rest of the world. So negotiations versus talks, those are two different things.

QUESTION: Do you see – is it appropriate for this North-South meeting to focus entirely on the Olympics, or would it be inappropriate if the North Koreans tried to raise something else?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the North Koreans will raise whatever the North Koreans want to raise. I think the other part of the question is what the South Koreans do. And what we’ve been told is they’ll take note of it but there’ll be no discussions.

QUESTION: Okay. So you would expect then out of Vancouver what?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the Vancouver ministerial was called, as you know, well before this development. I think this development that’s come about, the meeting between North-South, we do believe it’s an indication that the pressure campaign is causing the leadership of the regime in North Korea to begin to think about this can’t go on forever. And that’s what we tell them is this pressure campaign is going to stay in place and it’s going to continue to be intensified until we achieve our policy objective and the objective of the world.

Vancouver was called to discuss just that: How do we further improve the effectiveness of the sanctions? What other ways are there to put pressure on the regime in North Korea? This is a meeting of foreign ministers, so it is a meeting of the diplomatic side of this effort, and it’s a sharing opportunity as to are we missing other things that we should be considering that would move us – that would move us toward achieving this objective of having North Korea, the North Korean regime, come to the conclusion that their future is going to be less secure and less prosperous, not more so.

QUESTION: Should – should the North Koreans read anything into the composition of the Vancouver meeting, note that the countries who are there --

SECRETARY TILLERSON: The sending states.

QUESTION: Yes, exactly.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, that was very deliberate because, as you know, any successful diplomatic effort – and particularly one that deals with an issue as serious as this one – has to be backed up by a strong military alternative. It’s just part of the necessity of impressing upon all parties the serious nature of this and the resolve of the United States and others that we are not going to accept a nuclear North Korea. And that’s been made clear by everyone, including all the neighbors in the region have made that clear.

QUESTION: Kim Jong-un essentially ended 2017 by declaring a victory in the establishment of a viable nuclear weapons program. As it stands now, do you consider North Korea to be a nuclear weapon state?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: They – North Korea has nuclear weapons. I think whether they have the ability to integrate a system to the level of delivery in a reliable, targeted way is still unknown to us, uncertain. So what he wanted to declare to his people, that’s his message.

QUESTION: And when – when the President taunts the North Korean leader by saying his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong-un’s, do you worry at all about the risk of miscalculation or the two countries slipping into a military conflict?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think that that risk has been there from the very beginning because of the regime we’re dealing with. And the lack of communication with the North Korean regime, the fact that Kim Jong-un has by and large isolated himself not just from the United States, he’s isolated himself from everyone. Which I think is why this upcoming first approach to South Korea, it could be meaningful, it could be important, it could be a meeting about the Olympics, and then nothing else happens.

QUESTION: Moving onto Iran and the recent protests, which this administration’s taken a different approach from the one the Obama administration took in 2009, are you troubled by the fact that your European allies have yet to take the kind of stronger stand that you’ve appealed to them to take?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We’re a bit disappointed that the European Union has not taken a more definitive stance in supporting those voices in the country that are calling for a reform. I think it’s fair to say that there are a number of member countries of the European Union that see it very much the way we do, that there – it is important that we give voice to those people that are in the street. Now, we’ve – we have been very clear. We support the peaceful demonstrations, and the country should allow those peaceful expressions of what their people want. We do not support violence.

And I think our role has been to amplify their voices and to amplify them not just to the rest of the world, but importantly, to amplify them to the leadership in Iran that you need to be listening to this.

QUESTION: Well, on that – on that note as far as the U.S. role, Iran’s already accused the CIA of plotting this whole thing. Do you see a role for the U.S. in actively supporting the protesters not just in rhetoric but in action through cyber means to help open up the internet or otherwise?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think those are areas that I’m not in a position or would want to comment on.

QUESTION: Can I ask you about the upcoming – next week there are some deadlines coming up relating to Iran. Is there – do you see any point at all in continuing with the sanctions relief under the nuclear deal given the situation and the President’s strong feelings about the deal?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the President’s not made a decision yet. We’re going to continue to talk about that. I want to take you back to the decision he took almost six months or whatever it was – three months ago – to not certify, but to waive. And that was to provide the Congress then an opportunity to address many of the flaws that we see in the deal itself by amending Iran – the INARA Act, which is our domestic governing law around it.

And we – from the beginning we’ve seen that as kind of a stepwise process that we – let’s fix – let’s fix what we can fix domestically, work with our European partners to have them support what we want to address in terms of how we see deficiencies in the agreement. And we’ve gotten a lot of very good cooperation from the Europeans since we took this approach. We’ve had very strong cooperation and support from them in the Joint Commission meetings themselves in terms of demanding more of Iran. And so I think we would like to build on that, and I think we need to wait and see. The Congress has been working on a fix to INARA. I wouldn’t want to get ahead of any of the congressional leadership, but we’ve had engagements with them on a very active basis to ensure they understand how we think that congressional amendment to INARA, how we would use that from a policy standpoint to continue to advance the President’s policy on Iran, and how we think we can use it to also achieve the objective of denying Iran a nuclear weapon, which is the intent.

So it’s still – I don’t want to suggest that we’re across the finish line on anything yet, and I think it’s why the President has not made a final decision either.

QUESTION: What, you think that you can get legislation through before the 12th?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: We’re working hard on it.

QUESTION: That’s really optimistic. (Laughter.)

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know that the 12th, but I think we are in – we’re in discussions with the leadership. I think ultimately they’re going to probably want to have a conversation with the White House as well to discuss where they feel they are. And if it’s not by the 12th, but it’s – if we’re just talking about it’s imminent within some short period of time, we’ll see. But it’ll be the President’s decision to make.

QUESTION: When we were in Vienna, I think it was last month, you described the Ukraine crisis as the key issue preventing the U.S. and Russia from normalizing relations. Why is that conflict more concerning to the United States than Russia’s attempts to undermine American democracy?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, it is the genesis of the entire sanctions architecture, both from the U.S. – I mean, this is where the Russian sanctions, the first sanctions were put in place over the taking of Crimea, and then they’ve been increased over time. And it is also the entire basis for the sanctions architecture with Europe. This is what Russia is most interested in. And that’s the reason we see this as important to solving this if we can – if we’re going to improve our relationship with Russia. As long as this sits out here unsolved, sanctions are going to stay in place; they may be tightened even further if things deteriorate, and quite frankly, they’ve been deteriorating in the last couple months of the year because we had a step-up in violence in the east, more civilians being killed, more ceasefire violations. And in our conversations with the Russians, we’ve said this is what we can’t have. We have to first get the violence down and make the ceasefires hold.

So solving those kinds of really tough problems – first, it’s important in order to achieve what Russia would like, which is a pathway to restoring normal relationships, which are always embedded in economic relationships; but it’s also important to reestablishing some level of confidence between our two governments that we can solve problems.

And having said that, you’re aware of what we’ve been working on in Syria with Russian cooperation, collaboration. I don’t want to say always full agreement, because we don’t agree on everything down there. But we’re – we are trying to make progress there where we can.

The interference in the elections, we bring it up to the Russians. I’ve said to them I don’t understand what you think you were going to gain out of that. It’s – quite frankly, I’m a bit baffled by it. I don’t – I mean, if I put myself in their shoes, I don’t get it. But clearly it’s not just been with the United States. There’s evidence that they’ve been meddling in elections in Europe as well. It’s something Russia’s going to have to come to grips with and understand how’s this advancing any of their objectives. I don’t understand how it advances their objectives.

So we – we’re concentrating on conflict areas right now because we think that is the highest priority, is let’s get these conflict areas solved. We want to first stop the situation where civilians are dying, lives are being lost. Let’s see if we can solve these things working together.

QUESTION: Does that mean – when you say that you’re baffled by what the Russians did, you don’t buy the explanation that Putin just wanted to do whatever he could to hurt Clinton’s chances?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I don’t know what all of his motivations were. I mean, I – there are a lot of – there’s books been written about it, there’s report after report after report. Everybody has a view of what the motivations were, and I don’t want to suggest that I have some kind of knowledge beyond what anybody else has. I – what matters to me is I don’t understand why, and I don’t understand why they would want to continue it.

QUESTION: Yeah. I want to – a lot has been written and spoken about this President’s somewhat, shall we say, unorthodox style. Josh mentioned the tweets, but not just that – just in general, blunt – perhaps something that not many people are used to from a U.S. president.

But from your perspective, do you see any risk of something like a tweet raising more than eyebrows, really, not just with North Korea but with others – with Pakistan, with any number of countries who might be mentioned?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think that our policies are quite clear, and those have been – a lot of that – that’s what a lot of 2017 was, was pivoting from existing policies under the prior administration. The President ran on certain issues and he said he was going to change these policies, and so the State Department, by and large we spent a lot of 2017 working with the White House to shift these policies, and as those policies get put in place, the President chooses to comment on them and communicate and support them in his way.

From our perspective, we develop the policies here at the State Department. They germinate here. We get – we come up with the ideas, the options. We take them through the interagency process where they’re strengthened. And then when the President decides, every one of the agencies knows what their role is. And then how the President wants to weigh in to give those certain emphasis, if he feels there’s a moment in time that him weighing in by pushing a message out there, that’s the President’s part of implementing the policy. The rest of us are out implementing in the way we’re supposed to, engaged directly with partners, with – in the countries, with adversaries – whatever the policy implementation may be.

QUESTION: Right, but you do – don’t hear concerns from your foreign counterparts about --

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think now that we’re a year into it, I think most of them have become rather accustomed to it.

QUESTION: Accustomed or kind of inured to it?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I would use the word accustomed.

QUESTION: Uh-huh. So you’re saying that it doesn’t – it doesn’t – people – your foreign counterparts don’t express concern or alarm about --

SECRETARY TILLERSON: You’d have to ask them. They don’t express a lot of concern or alarm to me.

QUESTION: Okay. So they’re – you’re certain that they understand --


QUESTION: -- what the policies are?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think they’ve become accustomed to it. I mean, I – that’s the best way I could describe it. And I – it’s – you’re right. This President’s different, and so everybody had to – had to understand that this is going to be different.

MS NAUERT: Matt, we’ve got about 10 minutes left.

QUESTION: Have you ever had any moments in serving this President, in this administration, where you felt like you were being asked to compromise your own values?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: No. And I wouldn’t do it if I was.

QUESTION: What would you – what would you do?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I wouldn’t do it. I’d say no.

QUESTION: Has that – has that happened?


QUESTION: Obviously, you ended your first year as Secretary of State with these relentless rumors about that you’re going to quit, he’s going to fire you, the “moron” comment. You’ve disputed those repeatedly – not the “moron” comment specifically, but – as being false, but I’m wondering whether you acknowledge that true or untrue, the widespread perception of all of this tension affects your ability to do your job and the way that you’re perceived by the same people that you’re trying to influence overseas. And as we head into the new year, I mean, do you think that was a communications problem? Was there something that you’re able to do to fix that in your second year?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, first, I don’t agree with the precept of the question. I think we had a very successful 2017, putting some remarkably complicated policies into place, from the priorities the President set on North Korea and defeat ISIS first, because those were the most imminent threats, to a new policy in South Asia with Afghanistan and Pakistan – very complicated policy to develop and put in place – to how we want to position ourselves in dealing with China and the Russian engagement policies. All of these – and Iran – these are not simple subjects.

And so throughout the year, that’s what I concentrated on. In my engagement with my counterparts, I have never detected that any of them in the least bit have a lack of confidence in what I’m doing, who I represent, or what we’re trying to advance. And in fact, I get great support from them and great cooperation in dealing with them. And coming into 2018, I’m ready to – we’re now looking ahead and now executing against a lot of the policies. Again, ’17 was a year of developing the policies, getting them in place. Now we’re in the process of executing against them. And of course, we’re furthest along with North Korea, because it was the first one put in place. We’re only into kind of the early stages of the South Asia strategy, and I would say even to a certain extent the Iran strategy. So ’18 is going to be a year of execution: How do we implement against these policies. And we will, I’m sure, encounter course corrections. You put a plan together, you begin to execute it, but you know what your objectives are. And until the President decides the objective has changed, that’s the pathway we stay on.

QUESTION: You have – in your answer to Josh before, you’ve never had an issue with the President that would lead you to suggest that you should not be in your job.


QUESTION: And you’ve never --


QUESTION: -- lost confidence in him as a leader?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Nor vice versa. I’ve never had any indication from him either.


SECRETARY TILLERSON: And look, I’m probably with him more than any other cabinet secretary. Jim Mattis may have the same amount of time, I don’t know, but I probably spend more time with him than any other cabinet secretary. So he’s had plenty of opportunity to say those things to me. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Gotcha. All right. And when you mentioned that 2017 was a year of pivoting and that – is that correct? So can you think are there any of the – any policies that the previous administration undertook or have that are worth preserving?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, there are elements of their policy that we’re building upon. And again, the JCPOA is flawed, and I agree it was flawed. And the President said he was either going to fix it or cancel it, and we’re in the process of trying to deliver on that commitment he made to fix it. And as I said, the first step is to address it with our domestic law and continue to work with our counterparts in Europe to address it within the framework of that agreement itself, but also to expand the Iran policy far beyond just the nuclear issue.

And I think – so when you say “are there any of the,” well, there is a piece that we’re trying to work with, whether it survives or not remains to be seen. But quite frankly, on North Korea there wasn’t much of a policy when the President came into office, and we really had to almost start from whole cloth.

On Afghanistan, you know what the prior policy was. It was a date certain we’re getting out. So that – it’s almost a complete – I won’t call it a 180, but we had to make some pretty significant shifts. And those were huge decisions for this president to make. They’re consequential decisions. They are not easy decisions. The issues are complicated and complex, and it is a real commitment then to say what he decided, for instance, in South Asia and the policy we now have.

There was no engagement with Russia. It just was nonexistent. And I – in the President’s view, and he said this during his campaign: We ought to have a better relationship with Russia. And I agree with that.

So if you’re asking me what elements can I identify, NATO was in a ditch. The President’s pulling NATO out of a ditch. It’s hard – I’ll have to think a while, because we spent all of last year either creating policy where none existed, or it existed in a fairly dormant stage, there wasn’t much happening, to having to take policies that were in – underway and literally reposition them in another direction.

QUESTION: Do – go ahead.

MS NAUERT: We have less than five minutes.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about the Cuba attacks.

QUESTION: Just before we get to that --

QUESTION: Oh, sure. Go ahead.

QUESTION: This will be very, very, hopefully brief. A lot of your predecessors have come into this office with some kind of a grand goal or some kind of a strategic objective. I could name a couple of them. But I’m just wondering if you have something that you would like to be your signature policy achievement.

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Yes, stop people from dying. I mean, it’s that simple, literally. Look, what motivated me to do this, as I have said many times in my confirmation, I didn’t know it but I’d been on a 12-year listening tour prior to doing this for my old role in life. I met with heads of state frequently. I met with ministers of these countries. I would listen to how frustrated they were and what they were worried about. And I looked at the world and I said, “I have never seen so many hotspots and conflict areas at one time that are a real threat to the United States.” My motivation for coming here and my legacy will be: Can we solve some of these. That’s all I care about. If people don’t remember who the 69th secretary of state was 20 years from now, it’s not going to bother me one bit.

QUESTION: Just on --

MS NAUERT: Last question.

QUESTION: Sure, yeah. I just want to ask you about the Cuba attacks which we reported on extensively. One of the other things you said on your first day was your top goal was to keep our people safe. By law, after a serious injury to diplomats, you’re required to set up an accountability review board, but more than a year after these attacks have started, we don’t seem to know who did it or to be able to provide any evidence. Lawmakers that you have briefed on this have said that your answer that, well, Cuba’s a small country, they should be able to figure this out, is really totally insufficient to justify the steps that we’ve taken and that we don’t seem to be able now to resolve without finding some way to say it’s going to be able to stop.

So is it fair at this point to say that the investigation into what happened here has gone cold?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: No. The investigation has not gone cold. It is still actively underway, including the complete medical evaluation of exactly what is happening to these people, and the conditions continue to change. We’re not going to talk a lot about it for – and I’ve said this in the past – part of it’s out of respect for the privacy of the people who have been affected by this. But it’s also out of an understanding that we’re not real keen on providing the perpetrators of this a lot of knowledge about what they’ve done.

I still believe that the Cuban Government, someone within the Cuban Government, can bring this to an end. And until they can tell us that they have, I’m simply not comfortable putting people back in the country because I don’t want to suggest to you that the attacks necessarily have all ended. Okay? So if I can be convinced that I’m not putting people back intentionally in harm’s way, then that’s the way I feel about it. I would be intentionally putting them back in harm’s way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them? We don’t know how to protect people from this, so why would I do that? And I will push back against anybody that wants to force me to do that until I’m convinced that I’m not putting people in harm’s way.

QUESTION: Are you satisfied with how the administration and the State Department handled the response to this?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Yes, I am. I know there’s people that didn’t like the decision. I understand. These are dedicated people, very dedicated to the mission, so they’re concerned for the right reasons. But I’ve met with – I’ve met with the victims, I’ve met with their families. I will – I’m concerned about their health and well-being, and that trumps everything in my book.

QUESTION: Have you --

MS NAUERT: We’ve got to go, guys.

QUESTION: Have there been incidents that are being looked at more recently than --

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I don’t want to comment.

QUESTION: -- August? I mean, not confirmed ones --


QUESTION: -- but you have reason to believe that the last ones weren’t in August?

SECRETARY TILLERSON: I’m not sure they’ve ended.


QUESTION: Thank you so much, Mr. Secretary.

QUESTION: Thank you.