Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing – August 3, 2017

2:45 p.m. EDT

MS NAUERT: Hi, everybody.

QUESTION: Good afternoon.

QUESTION: Hello.

MS NAUERT: Hi, welcome. So this is your first briefing at the State Department, right? I hope you enjoy it.

QUESTION: I’m sure I will.

MS NAUERT: We will miss Nicolas, but welcome you here.

QUESTION: I will, too.

MS NAUERT: All right. Hi, everybody. How are you doing today?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: A couple pieces of news I want to bring you first, and that is an announcement that’s come out of USAID today, and that is that the United States has now announced $169 million in humanitarian assistance to support the people of Ethiopia and Kenya, two countries that are now experiencing a severe and prolonged drought. With the new funding, we’re providing vital emergency food assistance, safe drinking water, and health services to millions of Ethiopians and Kenyans in the worst drought-affected areas.

The additional aid comes at a critical moment for Ethiopia and Kenya as the threat of hunger, malnutrition, and dehydration are reaching alarming levels right now. The drought is especially severe in Ethiopia, where an estimated 7.8 million people now require urgent humanitarian assistance. We’re also closely monitoring food and security in Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen, where conflict – and in Somalia, drought – have created near-famine conditions that require large humanitarian responses.

This fiscal year, the United States has provided nearly $2 billion in response to these crises. The United States is the world’s largest humanitarian donor and we remain committed to saving lives and supporting the most vulnerable people. We also strongly encourage additional contributions from governments of Ethiopia and Kenya and other humanitarian donors to address the growing needs of people who are affected by that drought.

And then a related piece of news – and we are very, very happy to tell you about this today, hopefully I’m bringing this to you for the first time – hi, Elise – that for USAID Andrew Green was confirmed today by the Senate. We would like to welcome today’s Senate confirmation of Mark Andrew Green as the new administrator for the USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. We look forward to his accomplishments as he assumes leadership of USAID and working closely with him to achieve the President’s national security and development goals.

Now, I know many of you know Ambassador Green from his previous work as having served as ambassador to Tanzania, as the president of the International Republican Institute – they do a lot of good work around the globe in promoting free and fair elections. Perhaps most importantly, I’d say, he’s a Wisconsin Badger. So we’d like to welcome Mark Green to the State Department and USAID and look forward to working with him.

And with that, I’ll take your questions. Who would like to start today?

QUESTION: Can I?

MS NAUERT: All right. Hi.

QUESTION: Thanks, Heather. Can we start with Venezuela?

MS NAUERT: Sure.

QUESTION: So the company that provided the software for this election that you urged Maduro’s government not to hold says that the votes were manipulated to try to make it look like more people had participated. Does the U.S. share that assessment that the vote was not a legitimate, straightforward vote?

MS NAUERT: So you may recall here on Tuesday we talked about this and we called it an illegitimate election. That’s something also that Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury Secretary, had called it an illegitimate election as well. That remains a concern of ours. We stand in support with the Venezuelan people who support democracy, who are tremendously concerned about what President Maduro has done to his country. Much of the devastation and the terrible situation there is a result of his regime and from the greed that they have shown.

QUESTION: But are you calling it illegitimate because the fact that they were holding the vote in the first place was illegitimate, as you had said prior, or that the actual veracity of the tabulation is in question?

MS NAUERT: So we have not been able to take a look at the actual tabulation of the vote. So if we get anything for you on that, if there’s something that I’m perhaps not aware of, I’ll get you an answer on that. But the election itself is something that we view as illegitimate. We recognize the national assembly as being the free and fair party and not the constituent assembly.

QUESTION: And Maduro’s government is accusing this company – it’s called, I think, Smartmatic – of bowing to U.S. pressure by issuing these doubts about the veracity of the vote. Can you say whether the State Department or other parts of the U.S. Government was in contact with Smartmatic, whether there was any pressure put on them to question the outcome of this vote?

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of any calls or correspondence between the United States and the company that you just mentioned. We have, for a very long period of time, expressed our severe concerns about the situation in Venezuela – not just the humanitarian situation, but also what we see as an eroding of the democracy in that country. And that’s why I continue to say we stand with the people of Venezuela. We view that as an illegitimate election and we stand by the national assembly.

QUESTION: And just lastly on this one, the swift and strong economic steps that you had threatened if this took place, should we assume that for the time being, that the sanctions that were announced on Maduro himself are that response? Or should we be seeing potentially additional economic steps specifically in retaliation for that election?

MS NAUERT: We have long said that, first, we’re not going to sort of preview what steps the United States Government may take. That may be an area that we are looking at right now. We saw some strong sanctions go down earlier this week and last week as a result on Maduro himself and others in his – in his so-called party. But in terms of what we might do in the future, I’m not going to look ahead at that. But all – those types of options are certainly on the table.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MS NAUERT: Okay?

QUESTION: May I take a follow-up to that?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: So the Secretary said on Tuesday that he or the U.S. wanted to create the conditions that would convince Maduro it was a good idea to leave. I mean, I’m paraphrasing. Is that what he’s talking about – sanctions, or is there something else he’s talking about?

MS NAUERT: Well, we wouldn’t forecast the sanctions, so those would most likely be coming out of the Department of the Treasury, so I would refer all that to the Treasury when they are ready to talk about it, if there are additional sanctions coming into play. But the Secretary is paying very close attention to it. You know this is an area of the world that we care about very deeply. We promote democracy here. We support democracies here. And what President Maduro has done has been a disaster for democracy, so the United States will continue to take a look at that and express our concerns.

QUESTION: Heather?

MS NAUERT: Okay. Anything else on Venezuela? Venezuela?

QUESTION: When you’re finished, North Korea?

MS NAUERT: Okay, let’s move on. Okay, hi. North Korea. How are you?

QUESTION: Heather, yeah.

MS NAUERT: Good to see you.

QUESTION: One in South Korea and another one for North Korea, two questions.

MS NAUERT: Sorry? You want to start where?

QUESTION: One is South Korean issues.

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: One is the North Korean issues. The United States ambassador to South Korea has not – has not yet been appointed. Reason why so delay?

MS NAUERT: I’m not aware of who the nominee is on South Korea, so I’m sorry, apologies to that person if there is one. If I have something for you, I’ll get back to you on that. Okay?

QUESTION: North Korea. The dialogue with North Korea that United – U.S. wants is a preconditions, but the dialogue with North Korea that South Korea wants is the unconditionals. What is different? Why? How does it looks different?

MS NAUERT: Well, we have long said that North Korea has a long way to go before the United States would consider having talks with them, negotiations with them. The Secretary addressed this the other day where – and I’ll paraphrase here, and then I’d like to read you a quote of his just to make sure that we are very clear on this. They have a long way to go. They need to take steps to show us, show the United States – and the world for that matter – that they are serious about their attempts to denuclearize. We have not seen that. We just saw two ICBM tests within a period of less than a month. They’re not showing signs that they are committed to doing that at this point.

So let me just read for you a couple things that the Secretary has said, because I’ve seen a lot of misreporting in the news about some of the Secretary’s comments and what we will or would not be willing to do. The Secretary said this here from this podium. He said, “We want to first seek peaceful pressure on the regime in North Korea to have them develop a willingness to sit and talk with us and others but with an understanding that a condition of those talks there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less in the homeland.”

He goes on then to say, and let me just finish this, “We don’t think having a dialogue where North Koreans come to the table assuming that they are going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive.” That’s what the Secretary said.

Susan Thornton – and many of you joined us on that call with the acting assistant secretary for near – for East Asia Pacific – said, “We are seeking to exert pressure on the North Korean regime in order to change their calculus…the abandonment of their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” She then went on to say, “Bringing the regime in Pyongyang to the realization that they are not worth keeping and they would enter into a serious discussion with the international community about how to abandon and what the process would be for giving up those weapons, and what could they expect to gain from that decision.” She went on to say, “But it is, as I mentioned, it’s in the future. As of right now, we don’t see any indication that the North Koreans are willing to enter into such a serious discussion with us.”

QUESTION: So yes, without the North Korea to give up – without to give up their nuclear weapons, no way to talk with North Korea?

MS NAUERT: They have to start taking some serious steps, showing us some steps. Susan referred to that, the Secretary referred to that, and others have as well. I think they’ve been —

QUESTION: So yesterday —

MS NAUERT: They have been very clear.

QUESTION: Yeah. Yesterday, Vice President Pence said that there will be no direct talk with North Korea.

MS NAUERT: The Vice President said – among other things, he said this, “I think President Trump is taking a different approach. He really believes that leveraging our allies in the region and China to economically and diplomatically isolate North Korea will ultimately be more productive.” We are all on the same page here. North Korea has a long way to go. They know what they need to do. We’ve been clear on our expectations of that government. The world, in fact, has been clear about what we expect North Korea to do, what we will encourage them to do. The pressure campaign – still in its early stages, where we are asking countries around the world to do more to put leverage – to use their leverage on North Korea.

Okay.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

MS NAUERT: Yeah. Hey, Elise.

QUESTION: On Susan – what Susan Thornton said.

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: She also talked about a diplomatic isolation of North Korea, not just – Secretary Tillerson has talked about that before and what you’re looking for countries to do around the world, but specifically at ASEAN, is there an effort to marginalize him? I know he’ll be there and you can’t do anything about that. But is there an effort to marginalize him from specific meetings at ASEAN? Will he be invited to all of the meetings that other members —

MS NAUERT: So I’m not aware of the entire meeting schedule and who’s invited to what meetings or included in certain meetings. Susan Thornton, our acting assistant secretary, spoke to this just yesterday.

QUESTION: Yeah, I know.

MS NAUERT: She talked about that pressure campaign.

QUESTION: Right.

MS NAUERT: And this is perhaps another version of a pressure campaign, and that is talking with the ASEAN and the Regional Forum members about whether or not North Korea is in compliance. ASEAN is a program that focuses on security, and perhaps North Korea is out of sync with the principles of that organization and entity. She said something along the lines of it’s too late to do something about it this year, but that’s something that’s a conversation that she expects to be underway next year.

QUESTION: So are you looking to suspend North Korea’s membership from ASEAN?

MS NAUERT: I don’t know that that would be the United States decision to begin with. I just —

QUESTION: Well, I think as a member that you can propose.

MS NAUERT: I just can’t speak to that, exactly what the plan will be. I know that we’ll be talking with other countries while we’re there about what to do about the North Korea problem. Of course, that’s not just a regional problem; it’s a worldwide problem.

Okay.

QUESTION: Can I ask a quick follow-up to that?

MS NAUERT: Okay. Yeah. Hi.

QUESTION: So you just said the pressure campaign is in its early days, and the Secretary has also talked about it needing a lot of work, but he also said there isn’t that much time. So how do you square that circle, if you’ve got a strategy that takes time when there isn’t time? And also, off the back of the two —

MS NAUERT: This is – hold on. This isn’t just our strategy. It’s a strategy that many countries around the world have agreed to. We’ve been activity at the United Nations as well. So this isn’t just the United States campaign of concern about North Korea and all the destabilizing activities that it’s engaged with. We recognize that this cannot be achieved overnight. It took years and years to get to this point. But when I say it’s in the early stages that means we’re six months into this new administration, six months into this new campaign, and we’re driving it. We’re working this one hard, and a lot of other countries care about it just as much as we do.

QUESTION: Can we stay in the region?

QUESTION: Afghan —

MS NAUERT: Yeah. Hey, James.

QUESTION: Hi. The idea that the U.S. would seek to enlist regional partners in the effort to constrain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions is hardly new, as you know. The whole premise of the Six-Party Talks was the idea that there would be regional buy-in, and it wouldn’t just be the U.S. that was making demands with North Korea in some bilateral way. And so what’s really new here?

MS NAUERT: What is new here is a lot. One, the pace of this campaign – increasingly putting pressure on many of these nations to – and I’ve talked about this here with this group before – when countries have North Korean guest workers, for example, and this is just one example, have North Korean guest workers working in that nation, we know that those guest workers do not take home 100 percent of the money they earn. Much of that money, in some instances I understand all of that money, will not go to that individual doing the hard work, but rather goes back to the North Korean regime. What we are saying is, “Countries, cut your guest worker programs.” We have seen some success with that in the past and in recent months as well.

Another initiative is asking countries that are looking to open up North Korean diplomatic missions in their countries to not do that. There are some specific countries – I cannot name them for security reasons right now, but there are some specific countries that have chosen not to open embassies or consulates for North Korea because of this very reason and because of this campaign. So just two quick examples of some of the things that we are doing, ways that we believe the pressure campaign is working, because we are seeing success. We are seeing some of these countries adhere to what we’re asking them to do. And these are countries all around the world, in places that you would not expect would have North Korean workers. The Washington Post wrote about North Korean workers in some African nations not long ago. And that’s the same type of thing. And cutting the number of those workers to help keep that money from going into North Korea’s illegal weapons program.

QUESTION: The one move over the last 10 or so years that seemed to have the greatest impact in affecting the calculus of the North Koreans was what we sort of referred to generically as Banco Delta Asia, right, which was an effort to cut off the North Korean Government from the international financial system. And that’s what is generally seen as having provoked them or prodded them to make whatever measure – take whatever measures they have to date to fall in line with international expectations and their own commitments. Where do you see – how would you characterize the state of North Korea’s current engagement with the international financial system, and is that a pressure point that is still open to this administration to pursue?

MS NAUERT: I think this is something I get to punt to Treasury. (Laughter.) I’m not aware of what exactly we are doing with regard to the banking system in North Korea. I can see if I can get an answer for you on that; I’m not sure that that would fall under the purview of the State Department, but I’ll look into it for you, okay?

QUESTION: But when you’re looking at sanctioning, whether it’s China or other countries, is the effort to punish those countries – is the measure to punish those countries, or is it directed at trying to stop the illicit flow of money to North Korea?

MS NAUERT: Oh, you say it’s “countries.” When you’re talking —

QUESTION: Secondary sanctions.

MS NAUERT: — yeah – when you’re talking about secondary sanctions, third-party – that type of thing, as a general matter, it’s not necessarily focused on a country. Sometimes it could be an entity or an individual. So part of that is to take a look at the people who are doing the things that we’re asking them not to do. In some instances, it’s an individual; for some – in some situations, it’s saying to that country, “Hey, we’re aware of what’s going on, and we’re not – this is not okay.”

QUESTION: Follow on that?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay.

QUESTION: Wait —

MS NAUERT: Hold on. Sorry.

QUESTION: Where have you had success? Who’s kicked out guest worker programs?

MS NAUERT: Those I cannot say.

QUESTION: Why?

MS NAUERT: Well, for a couple – for a few reasons here. One, because it can discourage other countries from doing it. And I’ve seen it, and this has been a subject of some bilateral conversations – a lot of this information is classified – where there have been countries that have kicked out guest workers, who have shrunk the number of guest workers who are there. We want to keep giving other countries the flexibility to be able to work with us in stalling these types of programs. So I can’t – I’m afraid I just can’t say too much about that.

QUESTION: See, that just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, because if you’re up there praising these countries for helping in this international effort, why would that discourage other countries from doing it?

MS NAUERT: Because other countries may have better relationships with North Korea, and they don’t want to lose out altogether. Look, I’ve been in these – I’ve sat in these meetings; I’ve heard some of these conversations as they have taken place that this is a project that is underway. It’s a big part of our campaign, and we see it working. I’m sorry I just can’t give you all the information.

QUESTION: Can you characterize the basic numbers? A few hundreds, a few thousands?

MS NAUERT: No, I can’t. Sorry.

QUESTION: Afghanistan?

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: On North Korea? One more.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Hi.

QUESTION: One of the President’s advisors, Sebastian Gorka, said today that, when asked whether – what more the United States could do to encourage China to apply leverage to North Korea, he said, “We have the President’s Twitter” account. Do – does Secretary Tillerson agree that presidential tweets going after China for not doing enough are helpful here?

MS NAUERT: I think the Secretary has talked about the use of social media, and one of the things he’s said is that the President’s an effective communicator, and that’s a tool that the President certainly is welcome to continue using. He’s the President of the United States. He knows how to effectively communicate with people around the world, including Americans. And if he wants to send out messages about any particular topic, he can certainly do so. Anything beyond that, I’d refer you to the White House.

Okay? Should we move on?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Hey, Nazil – let’s talk about Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Nazira Azim Karimi, independent Afghan journalist. Heather, as you know, NBC News had a report regarding recent President Trump’s meeting, that he was a little mad, and he proposed to General Mattis to fire General John Nicholson, high official general in Afghanistan, because of the newest strategies of U.S. in Afghanistan. That’s why it’s not announced yet. Do you think that that based off – full of experience of General Nicholson, is it fair to propose to President Trump? And what do you think generally about Afghanistan?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, so —

QUESTION: Any update about new U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan?

MS NAUERT: Well, a lot going on, certainly, in Afghanistan. And as you know, our administration’s policy review is still underway at this point. That review has not been finalized. It is an important region of the world to the United States and many other places. Our NATO partners certainly serve there in addition to the 9,000 or so U.S. forces who serve in Afghanistan. In terms of what you just mentioned, that report, I’m not going to comment on that report because it’s an alleged report with anonymous leaked conversations. So I’m just not going to get into that. General Nicholson is a good man, he’s certainly served his country well, and we care a lot about Afghanistan and what happens there, and that will continue to be a focus of ours. Okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS NAUERT: Thanks.

QUESTION: Japan?

MS NAUERT: Hi. What do you want to – sorry.

QUESTION: Japan.

MS NAUERT: Japan. Okay.

QUESTION: So Japan has announced in a cabinet reshuffle that Taro Kono will replace Fumio Kishida as foreign minister, and Itsunori Onodera will replace Tomomi Inada as defense minister. How will this affect ongoing conversations on issues such as North Korea with Japan? And also, will this affect plans to schedule a 2+2 meeting with Japan later this month?

MS NAUERT: Well, first let me say, as you know and many of you know, we have an ironclad relationship with Japan. That will not change. We are certainly aware of the cabinet reshuffling or changes, if you will. Whoever is in that cabinet will continue to work with the United States. We will continue looking forward to working with those individuals. Our relationship will not change.

As for the meetings that you mentioned, I don’t believe we have a date that’s scheduled for those meetings to be held just yet. But when those do happen, we certainly look forward to it.

QUESTION: And do you have an idea of when the Secretary will be reaching out to the new foreign minister in Japan?

MS NAUERT: I do not, no. Thank you.

QUESTION: Turkey?

QUESTION: Will they touch base in Manila perhaps?

MS NAUERT: If I have anything for you, I’ll certainly give it to you. Okay?

QUESTION: Turkey?

QUESTION: Iraq? Iraq?

MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay. Are we – wait, wait, hold on a second. Are we done with Afghanistan and Japan?

QUESTION: South Asia? South Asia?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: We’re done with Afghanistan and Japan? Okay.

QUESTION: Thanks.

MS NAUERT: Hey, James.

QUESTION: U.S.-Russian relations, if you would. And I’m sure you had an opportunity to see the rather lengthy and blistering Facebook post from Prime Minister Medvedev, and there are several aspects of it I wanted to pursue with you if I could. One is that he announces the end of any hope for improvement between the two countries under the present U.S. administration. Is it?

MS NAUERT: Is it what?

QUESTION: The end?

MS NAUERT: Is it the end? Look, we are two nuclear superpowers.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: I think many folks around the world agree that the United States and Russia should be able to work together in areas of mutual cooperation. If you look at the ceasefire in southwest Syria, that has now taken hold and, for the most part, succeeded for nearly a month now. So that is an —

QUESTION: But to be clear —

MS NAUERT: That is an example of good U.S.-Russian cooperation. Certainly our relationship is at a low point, but we have to find areas of mutual cooperation.

QUESTION: So he didn’t say that it is the end of cooperation; he said it is the end of any hope for improvement. Is it the end of any hope for improvement?

MS NAUERT: Look, there’s always hope for improvement. We know that people say extreme things, especially at heated times. I’m just not going to get into the specifics of that, but we have areas where we can work together and will work together.

QUESTION: He stated that the sanctions measure that the President signed is an economic declaration of war against the Russian Federation. Is it?

MS NAUERT: Is it an economic declaration of – again, I’m not going to get into characterizing what he said. We have seen – we —

QUESTION: If we had declared war, I think you’d be prepared to tell us so.

MS NAUERT: Yeah. I – we have seen a lot of leaders, a lot of countries say provocative things, and we may just need to settle things down a little bit.

QUESTION: I’m just trying to establish the record. Was it an economic declaration of war on the Russian Federation?

MS NAUERT: I – if that is what Russia is saying, Russia is certainly entitled to say that, and that’s as far as I’m going to go. I’m not going to – I’m not going to take the bait on that.

QUESTION: Lastly – last question about it. The statement seemed, at numerous times, calculated to try to —

MS NAUERT: Whose statement?

QUESTION: The Medvedev Facebook post, at various times, seemed to be calculated to play on what the Russians perceive to be President Trump’s own vanity or sensitivity to insult. So at various points, the statement described his dealings with the Congress on this issue, the sanctions measure, as a humiliation for him and telegraphing weakness and so forth. Is it the assessment of this building that this was an intent of the Medvedev statement?

MS NAUERT: I’m not going to assume what Medvedev said about anything. So if you want to ask for greater clarification on that, I would refer you to him. I’m not going to characterize what he said, okay?

QUESTION: On the sanctions, Heather.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Anything else? Anything else on Russia?

QUESTION: Yeah, on Russia.

QUESTION: South Asia?

QUESTION: Yeah, on Russia.

QUESTION: Russia.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS NAUERT: Whoa, whoa. Okay, all right.

QUESTION: South Asia.

MS NAUERT: Hold on, everybody. Let’s take it down a notch. Go right ahead.

QUESTION: So along those lines, I had a few questions on the funding of the Global Engagement Center.

MS NAUERT: Yeah, okay.

QUESTION: So far the State Department has not requested any of the $80 million that was allocated last December by Congress specifically for the funding of the center. Is there a reason why they haven’t made that request, and can you respond to some of the reporting that it’s because of a desire not to upset Moscow or to —

MS NAUERT: So I have seen that report. I want you to know I was just over at the Global Engagement Center a short while ago, and the place is busy. It’s buzzing, people packed in their cubicles working on anti-ISIS propaganda – to counter ISIS propaganda, that is. Russia is also an area of interest to them as well. So their work is well underway; their people are busy. I met with the head of their program a couple weeks ago to talk about these two very issues. That has not changed. They are still operating, hard at work. Our Deputy Secretary John Sullivan has talked about the GEC and talked about how that is an important part of the State Department’s mission.

Now, when the Secretary comes in and we have a bunch of money that we can look at spending, the Secretary as a businessman is going to come in and look at how is this money being spent, is this money being spent effectively, which programs is this money going to. So the Secretary is merely doing what he was brought in to do, and that is take a look at our priorities and our budgeting priorities. The program is staying. The program’s not going away. Those folks are hard at work, and it’s something that we care about and that’s not going to change.

QUESTION: So following up on that, there’s $250 million that was set aside in the recent Russia sanctions bill specifically citing the Global Engagement Center and efforts, again, to counter propaganda by state actors such as Russia. Will the State Department be utilizing the $250 million with funds set aside in that bill?

MS NAUERT: So – a bill was just signed into law by the President. Exactly how that money will be spent and where it will go, we’re not certain about that just yet. We want to thank the Congress for providing that money. They are clearly recognizing the importance of the work that our people at the GEC do and we don’t see that changing. We welcome that support. When I have something more for you, I’ll bring it to you, okay?

Okay, anything more on the Global Engagement Center?

QUESTION: Can I get one on the bill itself?

QUESTION: On Ukraine. On Ukraine.

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: Russia.

MS NAUERT: Go right ahead.

QUESTION: The President’s signing statement – he said that parts of the legislation were clearly unconstitutional. Is it the department’s intent to carry out the bill in its full effect despite the fact that parts of it are, quote-unquote, “unconstitutional?”

MS NAUERT: I think we have to follow the law, and the President signing in – into law is something that we certainly will follow. The President and the Secretary had both expressed concerns, as have past administrations – both Republican and Democrat administrations have expressed concern about Congress getting involved in certain sanctioning activities because it can hamstring the Secretary, the President from being able to dial up and dial back sanctions activity as they need to do it. So the belief is that administrations – again, Democrats supported this too – need to have that flexibility to tighten things down on a country and then also be able to pull back a little bit when a country starts to cooperate.

QUESTION: Well, but if I might, one of the reasons that lawmakers on both sides obviously said that they felt compelled to do that is because they were concerned that this White House would too precipitously lift sanctions on Russia in an effort to improve the relationship as opposed to as a result of increased cooperation or improved behavior. So, I mean, I think it was more an indictment – it was less an indictment on giving the Executive – but more of an indictment on this particular president and his attitude towards Russia.

MS NAUERT: Well, then that is something I could refer you to Congress on. I know the Secretary —

QUESTION: Well, I mean, they’ve said it out loud, yeah.

MS NAUERT: That’s fine. That’s fine. That’s fine. If they want to say that in our country – the right to free speech and to believe and promote whatever kind of legislative activity that they want to. We know that the American public is concerned about Russian meddling in our election and that’s reflected in that vote in Congress. Nobody’s trying to hide that or skirt that in any kind of way. Congress’s vote in favor of the legislation was an expression of the will of the American public, and the Secretary talked about that over the weekend in his statement.

QUESTION: Heather —

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: But Heather, on that point —

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: — I mean, the flipside of that is you say in response to James’ question that we’re trying to communicate to the Russians that we want to have a collaborative relationship with them. The Russians hate these sanctions. The President has – says he doesn’t like —

MS NAUERT: Well, of course they do.

QUESTION: This President agrees with them that this is bad piece of legislation. The Secretary also —

MS NAUERT: Well, hold on one second. Hold on one second. And I’ll refer to the White House on this one. However, the President’s concerns were about his constitutional authority and the ability to dial up and dial back pressure on Russia. There are other – I mean, the President signed the bill, after all. The President signed the legislation.

QUESTION: Precisely. So how does the President and Secretary Tillerson then go about trying to tell the Russians, including Foreign Minister Lavrov this – this coming days, we want to work with you in good faith, when the administration is moving forward with a sanctions package that even the administration says is misguided.

MS NAUERT: Let’s remember what got us to this point, and what got us to this point was a whole host of issues. And I – let me just start to go through them. Ukraine, a very serious issue. We will continue to hold Russia accountable to that. We just appointed Kurt Volker to go out and deal with part of that issue. You know how important that is to us to try to maintain or try to get back Ukraine’s integrity and territorial sovereignty. That is something that we are passionate about. That is a direct effect because of Russian activities and some of the things that they have done. Just because we want to find areas of cooperation and to improve the relationship in – with Russia where we can because they are also a nuclear superpower does not mean that we will turn a blind eye to some of the bad acts that they are involved with, such as Ukraine.

QUESTION: Well, while we’re on Ukraine since you brought it up —

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: I know —

QUESTION: Can I – can I just jump in on that very quickly, though?

MS NAUERT: What —

QUESTION: Just a quick question because —

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: So are you saying that Russia is to blame for the lull in relations right now?

MS NAUERT: Look, Russia has been involved in a lot of activities; a lot of activities that are very concerning, I know, to many of you and to many Americans, whether it is election-related activities or their activities in Ukraine. They’ve also harassed U.S. diplomats. I mean, there – a whole host of things.

QUESTION: So why did the President say you can thank Congress in a tweet?

MS NAUERT: I would have to refer you to the President on that. He authored that. I was not sitting there by him asking him what he meant when he put that together.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: But you’re open to that if he’s —

MS NAUERT: If – you know what, if the President wants to call me and chat about it, I would love to hear the backstory. Josh, go ahead.

QUESTION: So on the Ukraine thing, I realize there hasn’t been a final decision on this question of whether we’re going to provide lethal weaponry described as defensive weapons to Ukraine, but can you at least say that a plan to entertain doing so has at this point gone from this building and the Pentagon to the White House?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, so I can’t confirm that. I can certainly say, though, that we have not provided defensive weapons nor have we ruled out the option to do so. So that’s an option that remains on the table, and that’s as far as I can go with that. Okay.

QUESTION: On the diplomats being expelled —

MS NAUERT: Yes.

QUESTION: — are we in the midst of formulating some proportionate response to that?

MS NAUERT: I know – proportionate is a key word, okay. So that would be the way you would describe it. We are looking at our options, what we want to do from here on out. As you all know – perhaps you know, many of the people who work in our missions, in our embassies overseas, are locally-employed staff, so what Russia intends to do is kick out some of our workers, some of our employees, some of our diplomats. However, let me be clear and point out that Russians will suffer as a result of this, because many of the people who currently work there are Russian citizens. The economy is already hurting there in Russia. This will hurt more of their citizens. That is a decision that Russia has chosen to make. We’re sorry to see them make that decision, but they’re hurting their own people.

QUESTION: So you’re studying the response, correct?

MS NAUERT: Of course.

QUESTION: From this current period with Russia, this new low in relations that everyone seems to agree really is a new low, is it the view of this department that the United States needs an exit plan or are we content to stay with this as the status quo because it suits our interest to do so?

MS NAUERT: An exit plan from what?

QUESTION: From this new nadir in our relations with the – with Russia.

MS NAUERT: We – when this administration first came in, we knew that our relationship was at a low point. Various U.S. officials have talked about that extensively, about just how strained that relationship is right now. We’re not giving up on it, we certainly are going to look for areas of mutual cooperation, but it is at a tense point right now. Okay?

QUESTION: Can I just confirm that there will be a response? There – the U.S. will take a response —

MS NAUERT: Look, I know we are talking about various options and what our plan will be, and we’re just not ready to go there yet. Okay?

QUESTION: Well, is it —

QUESTION: Can we go to Iraq?

QUESTION: Do you see this as a response to the Obama administration? You know what I mean, like, can you really see this in a —

QUESTION: Tillerson called it symmetrical, didn’t he?

MS NAUERT: I – I —

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) symmetrical.

MS NAUERT: I can’t get into anything with the previous administration and how they characterized things.

QUESTION: No, but what I’m saying is you say you’re – you say you’re kind of considering a response, but —

MS NAUERT: Well, the administration is considering a response, yeah.

QUESTION: No, I understand, but what this was was a response to a previous administration’s actions that actually President Trump had said – had thanked and praised President Putin for holding off and delaying. So this is – this is more like a kind of tit for tat. Do you think that if you initiate a response to their response, that this is just going to continue to cycle and spiral downwards?

MS NAUERT: It’s a hypothetical. I’m just not going to get into that and predicting what could or might not happen in the future. Sorry.

Okay. Just – let’s just get a couple – a couple more regions, okay? Hey.

QUESTION: South Asia?

QUESTION: On Iraq?

MS NAUERT: Yeah.

QUESTION: Today is the third anniversary of the Yezidi genocide. I don’t know if you have a statement on that. But also a question on the minorities, that they are concerned about their future, even after ISIS, what’s going to happen to them – the Yezidis themselves and also the Christians. So what is the United States plan to protect the Yezidis and also the other minorities in Iraq as we are going through the stabilizing phase of Iraq? So what are your plan to protect them from further genocide or aggressions in the future?

MS NAUERT: And remind me, you’re from Iraq, right?

QUESTION: Yeah. I’m from NRT from Kurdistan, yes.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Good. And thank you for being here. I always love it when our foreign journalists come in, and you all have such – some – in some cases difficult stories, in other cases very rich stories, and so I thank you for being here. It’s a good representative of what your country represents, and I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. (Inaudible) certainly been through a lot.

Today is the third anniversary of the – what happened to the Yezidis, Christians, and some Shia Muslims in Iraq. We honor and mourn those who lost their lives, who died at the hands of ISIS. It was brutal. So many of us remember the coverage of that, the video of that, the pictures, and the absolutely horrific stories of what those people were put through. We want to offer our respect for those who survived those horrors, our sympathy and prayers to those who lost their lives. Many people, as we’ve read about in the stories, still struggle with the scars of what happened to Yezidis. So I just want to say on behalf of the U.S. Government how deeply sorry we are about that and how we have not forgotten what happened to those individuals there.

We’ve talked about this, I think it was last week. We talked about the Secretary of State’s position. And his judgment is that ISIS is responsible for genocide taking place against those groups in Iraq. That includes the Yezidis. That includes Christians. That also includes Shia Muslims. Secretary Tillerson spoke about this a little bit in his confirmation hearing. I know that it is his personal opinion and is deeply regretful and sorry for what happened to those people.

There have been more than 40 mass graves that have been found in the areas around Sinjar. Just try to imagine that. We know that children, young people, old people, were massacred as a result. There were 550,000 who lived in the region pre-ISIS, and now about 360,000 or so have been displaced.

You asked me the question about what the United States Government is doing about that. We are providing some money to the Iraqi Government. Let me see if I can find the specifics on the dollar amount of that. But we’ve provided $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable, displaced, and conflict-affected Iraqis in Iraq and in the region. We’ve provided funding to the Iraqi Government to help document those atrocities for future prosecution. I know the United Nations is involved in a certain part of this. For more specifics, I’d have to get that from the United Nations. The UK is also involved in this as well. They have a proposed investigative mechanism. They see that as one way to expand Iraq’s capacity for accountability.

So it’s something that we care about. It’s something that we have certainly funded. That and the loss of the Iraqi people is not something that we’ll forget.

QUESTION: Sorry. The money was 1.4 billion?

MS NAUERT: Yeah, 1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance since Fiscal Year 2014. And USAID and State have provided more than 100 million in assistance for Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority communities, and then we’ve also led an international initiative to highlight the plight of these minority communities.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.

MS NAUERT: So thank you for asking about that.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Madam? Madam, I have –

MS NAUERT: Okay. Do we have anything else on Iraq?

QUESTION: On India?

MS NAUERT: Sir, we’ll go with India. How are you?

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much. Two questions on South —

MS NAUERT: And then we have to wrap it up and go.

QUESTION: Yes, madam.

MS NAUERT: Okay.

QUESTION: Two questions on South Asia, please. As far as U.S.-India relations are concerned after Prime Minister Modi’s visit, as far as diplomacy is concerned, one issue he raised in the White House and also here that India should get, the United States, Security Council membership. So our ambassador there, Nikki Haley, she is doing a great job, of course. Is she going to raise the issue at the United Nations?

MS NAUERT: I believe she is. I would have to double-check with her office. I can certainly do that and get back with you. I know we had a lovely visit with Mr. Modi. It was certainly wonderful to have him here in the United States. I know the President enjoyed hosting him, as did the Secretary as well. So —

QUESTION: And, madam, second question on Pakistan, quickly. Opposition leader Imran Khan had a nationwide campaign against corruption against Nawaz Sharif. Now the Pakistan supreme court dismissed him already, of course. But my question is that now Pakistan has a new prime minister, and of course from the same party, so where do we stand as far as U.S.-Pakistan relations are concerned? And finally, after his dismissal, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif —

MS NAUERT: Oh, sorry, I’m not going to be able to keep track of all of these.

QUESTION: Yes, madam. Nawaz Sharif – he was addressing his parliamentary party, where he said that President Clinton offered him $5 billion during Kargil War with India, and at the same time he said that China’s President Xiaoping offered him $3 billion as a gift. So where do we stand?

MS NAUERT: Okay. I’m not aware of any of that money and what you’re referring to from quite a few administrations ago. I can say that we’re certainly aware of the elections that India[i] will hold in 2018. We want to congratulate Prime Minister Shahid Abbasi on his election by the national assembly. We will certainly look forward to working with him on areas of mutual cooperation. As you all know, we have very strong people-to-people ties with the Government of India.[ii] We’ll look forward to working with – excuse me, with Pakistan, and we’ll look forward to working with him as well.

QUESTION: Turkey.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Okay. Final question on Turkey, okay?

QUESTION: Turkey.

QUESTION: Thank you, madam.

QUESTION: So the Turkish Government has arrested a few individuals who worked for the YPG, the Kurdish militia group in – the Kurdish rebel group in Syria, which is part – a main part of SDF and you’re supporting that group. So what’s your —

MS NAUERT: I don’t have any information on that, on those arrests.

QUESTION: One of them is a French journalist. He was —

MS NAUERT: Yeah. Sir, without any information on that report you’re referencing, I’m not going to answer any questions about that, okay?

QUESTION: Can you see if you have a statement on that? Because one of them is a journalist.

MS NAUERT: You can give us more information about it and I’ll see what I can get for you, if we can get anything. Again, I’m not aware of that report at all. Thanks, everybody.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:27 p.m.)

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