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Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - April 24, 2017
Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Department Press Briefing
Washington, DC
April 24, 2017



Index for Today's Briefing
  • SECRETARY TRAVEL
  • DEPARTMENT
  • DPRK/CHINA/UNITED NATIONS
  • PALESTINIANS/ISRAEL
  • IRAN
  • SYRIA
  • VISA ISSUES
  • AFGHANISTAN
  • AFGHANISTAN/RUSSIA
  • VISA ISSUES
  • IRAQ/KUWAIT/REGION
  • DEPARTMENT
  • DEPARTMENT

    TRANSCRIPT:

    1:45 p.m. EDT

    MR TONER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the State Department.

    QUESTION: Welcome back.

    MR TONER: Thanks. I’d say it’s good to be back, but I had a really enjoyable time off. But it’s good to see you.

    QUESTION: Restful?

    MR TONER: Yes, it was restful. Thanks, Matt. Just one brief announcement at the top, and then I’ll get to your questions. And I apologize in advance; I rarely do this, you know, but I am on a pretty tight schedule today. I apologize; I have something to run to after this.

    But very briefly, I wanted to talk about the Secretary’s travel later this week to New York. Secretary of State Tillerson will travel to New York City on Friday, April 28, to share a Special Ministerial Meeting of the United Nations Security Council. That will take place at 10 a.m.

    As you all know here, the DPRK, North Korea, poses one of the gravest threats to international peace and security through its pursuit of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and other weapons of mass destruction, as well as its other prohibited activities.

    This meeting will give the Security Council members an opportunity to discuss ways to maximize the impact of existing Security Council measures and to show their resolve to respond to further provocations with appropriate new measures.

    With that, Matt, over to you.

    QUESTION: Let’s start with – actually, I have a couple on North Korea.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: But why don’t we just start with a logistical thing, and I don’t know if you’ll have an answer to this. But you know there’s a possibility of a government shutdown on midnight Friday. Has each agency – at least it has – they have in the past – draws up contingency plans. Has one been drawn up yet for State?

    MR TONER: Well, you answered my question. I was just going to say, yeah, we did – well, we do, we have drawn up – obviously, when any federal agency, out of due diligence --

    QUESTION: Right.

    MR TONER: -- draws up a contingency plan. I don’t have that in front of me to share with you, because frankly, we’re not dealing with a certainty yet of a shutdown. I know that the White House and OMB are working diligently with Congress to --

    QUESTION: Right, but can you even give us an idea what embassy operations overseas, Americans in trouble, that kind of --

    MR TONER: I will. As we get closer, I’ll give you a snapshot of that.

    QUESTION: All right, thank you. And then North Korea. One, do you have anything – do you know, have the Swedes been able to meet with this latest American who’s been detained?

    MR TONER: Right. You’re talking about --

    QUESTION: The professor.

    MR TONER: Yeah, the professor. So – and for any of you who was, I guess, in a cave over the weekend that didn’t hear this news report, there were reports received over the weekend that a U.S. citizen has been detained in North Korea. Obviously, we can’t discuss the name of this individual because we don’t have a Privacy Act waiver. I’m not aware, Matt, in answer to your question, that we’ve been able to gain access to this individual yet. Obviously, that’s something we’re working through our protecting power, the Swedes, to --

    QUESTION: Right. But they told you that they had been informed of this detention, correct – the Swedes?

    MR TONER: Yes, that is correct.

    QUESTION: Right. So --

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: But you don’t know yet whether or not the Swedes have --

    MR TONER: Right. But we have not – as far as I know, we have not gained access to the individual in question.

    QUESTION: And then – oh, right. So there’s a lot of speculation that the North Koreans may conduct another nuclear test, as possibly as early as this evening. Do you have anything you can say about that ahead of the Security Council meeting that the Secretary’s going to be at on Friday?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, as you know, Matt, we’re usually pretty close-lipped about possible actions or tests that the North Korean regime may take. Obviously, we’ll respond accordingly if and when such actions are taken, such tests are taken.

    I think in general with respect to the Secretary’s meeting later this week – I mean, first of all, you’ve got the meeting at the White House today obviously chaired by the President along with our Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, and you’ve got bookended on Friday this meeting that Secretary will chair at the UN Security Council. This is a really important week that I think highlights U.S. engagement with the UN Security Council with the other members of the Security Council and, frankly, underscores our concerns about exactly the issue you raise, which is North Korea’s ongoing violations and provocative actions in the face of international concerns.

    And I think what the Secretary is going to be looking at and conveying to the other members of the Security Council on Friday is – well, among a number of things, but one of the messages I think he’s going to convey is that there are already very strong sanctions in place against North Korea and it is incumbent on every member of the UN to carry out or to enforce those sanctions to the utmost. And by doing that, we believe that we can significantly augment the pressure that North Korea, the regime in Pyongyang, is already feeling, and that we can augment that if everyone does their part. That’s something we’ve been conveying to allies and partners in the region. It’s something we’ve obviously been conveying to China in our discussions with them. So that’s going to be a central part of the message.

    QUESTION: Other than China, which countries are not 100 percent enforcing --

    MR TONER: I’m not going to necessarily name and shame.

    QUESTION: Why not? You did with China.

    MR TONER: We believe China has – and we’ve talked about this before – has unique leverage when it comes to North Korea and that, frankly, China – China’s influence on North Korea is outsized in the sense of, if they fully implement – and we’ve seen them take additional steps in that regard – the sanctions, that they can apply the kind of pressure that will make Pyongyang take notice.

    QUESTION: Well, so are there other countries other than China that are not doing what they have to do?

    MR TONER: I’ll just leave it where I left it, which is that all countries are obliged to --

    QUESTION: Well, who other than China is not?

    MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to get into --

    QUESTION: Why?

    MR TONER: Because I’m not going to get into the specific --

    QUESTION: Well, it seems to have worked. You talked about naming and shaming. It seems to have worked with the Chinese, right, in this case? You just said that they have taken additional actions. So if you really want --

    MR TONER: And that’s something --

    QUESTION: If there are other countries that are not --

    MR TONER: And that’s something we’re pursuing through our private diplomatic conversations with these other countries.

    QUESTION: Okay. But so why – I don’t understand why China gets named and shamed and no one else does.

    MR TONER: I would just say that China plays a significant influential role in that regard.

    Please, Lesley.

    QUESTION: Mark, after the meetings today at the White House with UN Security Council ambassadors, what exactly is it that the U.S. – I mean, this was happening at the White House. What exactly is it that Tillerson’s hoping to do? I mean, obviously, the President was trying to influence the ambassadors. What is it that Tillerson’s going to hope to do? Is that – is it to get more support for further sanctions?

    MR TONER: Well, I think – look, I mean, I think there’s several aspects to it. Again, I think today’s meeting and Friday’s meeting obviously underscore our engagement on the issue and our focus on the issue, and this is obviously also following up on the heels of Vice President Pence’s visit to the region. So we’ve been focused on our concerns about North Korea for – ever since the beginning of this administration.

    And I think what we have signaled clearly is that given the level of provocations, the pace of provocations that North Korea continues to carry out, that it’s time to both look at how we can implement existing sanctions, that existing regime, which as I said is very – if fully implemented, can have a very profound effect on Pyongyang and the regime there, but also to look at and discuss additional measures that may be taken. And we’ve said all along that no option’s off the table.

    QUESTION: Do you believe that China has been getting the word – a firm word to Pyongyang over the last few days?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, obviously, President Trump spoke with President Xi yesterday, and you saw the readout about that.

    QUESTION: Not much of a readout but --

    MR TONER: Understood.

    QUESTION: That’s why I’m hoping you can --

    MR TONER: Of course.

    QUESTION: I’m trying to understand what this – the actual diplomacy is doing.

    MR TONER: No, no, I understand.

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MR TONER: So look, this has been, as I said, front and center in our conversations with all our partners and our allies in the region but certainly with respect to China, and we’ve been engaged from Secretary Tillerson’s travel to Beijing to President Xi’s travel to meet with President Trump in Mar-a-Lago, and this has been front and center of our discussions with the Chinese Government. We believe we have made headway in convincing them of the urgency of this situation and that they are going to take steps to address it.

    QUESTION: Okay, so with North Korea making these same kinds of threats – that it has the capability now to hit the mainland U.S., that it could take out a carrier in that region with a single strike – do you have any reason to believe that this is anything more than rhetoric? Do you think those claims are true?

    MR TONER: Well, again, without – and I want to tread softly here because I don’t want to get into intelligence assessments, but I think what’s very clear is that they’re pursuing a nuclear ballistic capability and continuing to carry out tests to give them that capability of reaching not just other countries in the region but possibly the United States. And that is, to put it mildly, a game changer and it’s one of the reasons why you’ve seen administration officials talking so candidly about our concerns and about the fact that the time for strategic patience and that policy is over, that we have to look at real ways to provide pressure on Pyongyang to convince them – excuse me – to convince them – I apologize --

    QUESTION: That’s okay.

    MR TONER: -- to address the international community’s concerns. That’s what we’re looking at. I don’t have anything to preview. I know I talk a lot about sanctions implementation, but that’s an important component. But I think what this week will hopefully accomplish is an opportunity for us to sit around the table with the other members of the Security Council and talk about other possible next steps.

    QUESTION: The last administration made it clear that they didn’t think that they had that kind of – that capability yet. And everyone knows that they’re working on it and they may be getting closer, but do you feel like they’ve made significant gains?

    MR TONER: Again, I’m just not going to provide that kind of assessment from this podium today. I think what I can say is that we are concerned that they are pursuing that capability all-out.

    QUESTION: Okay. And just quickly --

    QUESTION: Mark?

    MR TONER: Yeah, please. I’ll let her finish and then --

    QUESTION: So, I mean, we’ve been dealing with this same kind of threat for a long time – the rhetoric from North Korea, the nuclear test, the missile tests – so how would you say that the threat is significantly different now than it was, say, a year and a half ago or two years ago? Or is it not technically significantly different?

    MR TONER: Well, I think – look, how I would characterize it is that we have seen, given the pace of missile tests, ballistic missile tests, nuclear tests – Matt alluded to the possibility of a new one even as early as today – given the pace of that – of those efforts, that we are very concerned and we have a right to be concerned. And it’s a reason why, as I said, we’re no longer looking at Six-Party Talks and strategic patience as necessarily a viable way forward. Look, we’re willing to sit down and talk with North Korea about denuclearizing the peninsula, but only if it comes to those talks serious about doing it and not just having talks for talks’ sake. So I think this is something we’re – there’s an urgency here.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Can I change topic?

    MR TONER: Nike, and then I’ll get to you, as promised.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Mark, as you mentioned, the Chinese President Xi has a phone call with President Trump. The Chinese statement – Chinese readout highlighted their desire to pursue to solve this problem peacefully. So what is the U.S. reaction to the proposed three-party talks, meaning the U.S., China, and Korea, not with North Korea, or the five-party talk --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- U.S., China, Japan, Korea, and Russia?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, I think we – the U.S. remains open to credible talks on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but I think, as Secretary Tillerson said, conditions have to change before there’s any scope for the talks to resume. So this isn’t to say we’re necessarily dismissing the idea of talks, but I think what’s important to note here is that we need to see a real effort by North Korea to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear program before we believe that having such talks is worthwhile.

    QUESTION: So the three-party and five-party talk are still on the table?

    MR TONER: I think, yes, any talk, any credible effort to sit down and negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is on the table, but we need to see more. We’re not – as I said, what’s happened up to this time with the Six-Party Talks is they’ve just been a delay mechanism. We don’t want that to happen.

    QUESTION: If I may, I have one last question on China. Could you please update us the first round of U.S.-China diplomatic and security dialogue? Where are we, and then what would be a major mechanism for the bilateral --

    MR TONER: Yeah, I’m aware – I’ll have to get back to you on that, Nike. I’m aware that it came up yesterday in the conversation with President Xi, but I don’t have any more details to provide at this time.

    QUESTION: Mark --

    QUESTION: Just to clarify on North Korea quickly, so President Trump today talked about imposing new sanctions, said to the Security Council members to think about that; but you’re saying Tillerson is not going to suggest that on Friday, he’s just going to talk about implementing existing sanctions.

    MR TONER: I was simply previewing one aspect of what he --

    QUESTION: But the question is will – right, then the question is: Will he follow up on President Trump’s statement?

    MR TONER: I – without getting ahead of what he’ll discuss at the Security Council, I think one is that, as I said, he’ll look at how the UN can more effectively implement the sanctions that are already existing and already, as we know, stringent, and how we can use them to better apply pressure on Pyongyang. But another element of Friday’s discussion is going to be new ideas and the possibility of new measures to be taken, and that always includes sanctions.

    QUESTION: And just if I could ask another question, but on the Syria sanctions.

    MR TONER: Okay. I promise I’ll get to you next, Said.

    QUESTION: Sorry.

    MR TONER: What are you --

    QUESTION: On Iran.

    MR TONER: Okay, great.

    QUESTION: I have just one --

    QUESTION: On North Korea --

    MR TONER: Let’s finish North Korea.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: And then we’ll get to you, I promise.

    QUESTION: Okay. Then --

    MR TONER: Oh, okay, we’re done with North Korea?

    QUESTION: No, no, no, I got --

    QUESTION: One more on North Korea.

    MR TONER: Great. Okay, sorry.

    QUESTION: Just quickly --

    MR TONER: Okay, got it.

    QUESTION: -- to go back to Lesley’s line of questioning, what evidence does the U.S. have that China has taken steps to put pressure on North Korea?

    MR TONER: One is we saw the efforts to – or not the efforts, but China turning away North Korean coal ships, which is, frankly, a pretty significant trading mechanism for them. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: And is that part of the pressure you think that President Trump has put on them, or is that to meet existing UN Security Council resolutions?

    MR TONER: Look, I think I can’t say categorically that it was – but I think what we have been, what this administration has been, from Secretary Tillerson on up to President Trump, has been very clear that we need more effort on the part of China to address the threat that North Korea poses. Whether there’s a connection there, I’ll leave it to you.

    QUESTION: Mark?

    QUESTION: So is it just the coal shipments then, turning coal shipments --

    MR TONER: I can get more detail. That’s one that just popped into my head, but I’ll try to get more for you on that.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    QUESTION: Mark, could I ask a question on the Palestinian-Israeli issue?

    MR TONER: Let’s go there, and then we’ll get around.

    QUESTION: Can I get one on North Korea?

    QUESTION: We have a delegation in town.

    MR TONER: Oh, North Korea?

    QUESTION: Yeah, I’m sorry, just --

    QUESTION: North Korea.

    MR TONER: One more – two more on North Korea. We’ve got to finish.

    QUESTION: Does the Secretary have any plans for any bilateral, multilateral meetings on the sidelines of --

    MR TONER: We’ll announce those when they’re firmed up.

    Please.

    QUESTION: Just a follow-up to Matt’s question.

    MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

    QUESTION: Do you know whether China has stopped supplying or helping build the transporters, the missile transporters that were seen in the military parade the other day?

    MR TONER: I’d have to take that question and see what we can answer. I don’t have an answer with me.

    Please, Said.

    QUESTION: There is a high-level Palestinian delegation in town preparing for the meeting next week between President Trump and Palestinian Authority President Abbas. Are there any plans for you guys to meet with them this week, or is this just a White House event or a White House affair? Are you involved in any way?

    MR TONER: Is which a White House affair?

    QUESTION: There is a high-level --

    MR TONER: I mean, preliminary meetings?

    QUESTION: Well, because they’re --

    MR TONER: No, but I’m asking you --

    QUESTION: -- preparing – I’m sure that – do they have any scheduled meetings at the State Department?

    MR TONER: There’s no scheduled meetings. So you’re talking about the group that’s in town this week?

    QUESTION: This group that’s in town with chief Palestinian negotiator --

    MR TONER: Right, right, right. With Saeb Erekat.

    QUESTION: -- Saeb Erekat.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: And intelligence --

    MR TONER: So as far as I’m aware, there’s no scheduled meetings with Secretary Tillerson this week with any of the Palestinian officials who are in town. That said, I can’t preclude that State Department officials won’t take part in some of the other meetings that are being held at the White House or elsewhere.

    QUESTION: Okay. Who’s involved from the State, from State? Who’s involved with these talks?

    MR TONER: Those would be --

    QUESTION: Is Mr. Ratney involved? Is Mr. Stuart Jones – I mean, who’s --

    MR TONER: I can get more detail, but it would be senior leadership from the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, whether that’s Michael Ratney or acting Assistant Secretary Stu Jones. I can’t confirm which one.

    QUESTION: Okay. And I wanted to ask you on the issue of the hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners.

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: I wonder if you’re aware of the situation – it’s becoming quite dire – and if you have any comments on that.

    MR TONER: You’re talking about the – excuse me – the hunger strike by a Palestinian prisoner now in its eighth day.

    QUESTION: Right. Well, all Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strike.

    MR TONER: Well --

    QUESTION: But the leader is – his health is deteriorating and so on.

    MR TONER: Yeah. I – we’re looking into news reports about it. Obviously, we’re concerned about the health of any prisoner, but I’d have to refer you to Israeli authorities.

    QUESTION: And they’re striking because they’re asking for better conditions and so on.

    MR TONER: I’m aware.

    QUESTION: Something that --

    MR TONER: I’m aware.

    QUESTION: -- Secretary Kerry, former Secretary Kerry has talked about in the past.

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: Is that something that you guys would push the Israelis on?

    MR TONER: Well, look, we’ve talked about this before. We always – with respect to the treatment of any prisoner anywhere, but certainly the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, we would expect them to be treated in accordance with existing human rights standards and with dignity and respect. That said, I can’t speak to the specific case. I’d refer you to Israeli authorities.

    QUESTION: Just a quick question on the Syria sanctions. Sorry.

    QUESTION: Can we move to Iran?

    MR TONER: Yeah, let’s go.

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: I’ll get back to you.

    QUESTION: -- last week Secretary Tillerson announced the review, a major change in U.S. policy, in regards to the Iran deal, saying that it essentially is not going to work, or represents the same failed approach that took place with North Korea. Does that change the JCPOA meeting from the U.S. perspective tomorrow in Vienna? And will the U.S. be discussing options outside of the JCPOA at that meeting with partners?

    MR TONER: Okay. So big question – complicated question, but a good one. I’ll try to answer it. So first of all, to go back to next week, Secretary Tillerson said the Trump administration is conducting a – I think a 90-day review, comprehensive review, of our Iran policy.

    [1] And once we have finalized conclusions, then we’ll be ready, we believe, to better meet the challenges that Iran poses to the region.

    QUESTION: It seems as though he already has come to somewhat of a conclusion --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- though, that it’s --

    MR TONER: Well, look, I think these are concerns that have long been held about Iran, and that is Iran – no one’s under any illusions that Iran has been a malign influence on the region. Whether it’s Syria, whether it’s Lebanon, whether it’s through Hizballah, whether it’s through other nefarious activities, Iran is a state sponsor of terror. And that is separate and apart from our concerns, and the international community’s concerns, about its nuclear program that was addressed in the JCPOA.

    So what we’re now attempting to do is conduct a 90-day review looking at our policy vis-a-vis Iran writ large. Now, with respect to – and until that time, rather – until the review is completed, we’re going to adhere to the JCPOA and ensure that Iran is held to – held strictly accountable to its requirements.

    But you asked about the meeting tomorrow in Geneva, and that is, I think, a quarterly review. It’s called a Joint Commission meeting. So that will take place as scheduled. I think our ambassador – or rather, our lead coordinator for Iran nuclear implementation, Ambassador Steve Mull, will travel to Vienna, he’ll lead the U.S. delegation, and – look, that meeting’s going to look at whether Iran is meeting its commitments to the JCPOA. Iran’s going to be at the table, so it’s going to be a frank and candid exchange to talk about any concerns that any countries, any delegations have about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapon and whether it’s complying with the JCPOA. I don’t want to get ahead of that, but the meeting’s going to take place as normal.

    QUESTION: And do you know – there was this group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, that says it had satellite imagery showing that Iran was violating the deal. Is it something the U.S. would bring up in that – in that meeting?

    MR TONER: I can’t predict. I’m not aware of that, frankly. I’d have to look into that, but look, this is – this one of the IAEA’s responsibilities: to make sure that it maintains the access that it already has, and that it’s ensuring that Iran is complying with the deal. But as we get information and get access to information that may show otherwise, we’ll certainly share that.

    QUESTION: So Mark, the President said that the – or that Iran is not complying with the spirit of the deal. What does that mean to you?

    MR TONER: I don’t want to parse the President’s words.

    QUESTION: Well, I’m not asking you to parse it.

    MR TONER: I think --

    QUESTION: I just want to know what that is --

    MR TONER: -- more broadly he is --

    QUESTION: -- because you’ve talked --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: You, the Secretary, White House, have all talked about how they’re still a state sponsor of terrorism, they’re still funding Hizballah, they’re still helping Assad, they’re involved with the Houthis in Yemen, all this kind of thing. But none of that was covered by the nuclear deal, so is it --

    MR TONER: Right.

    QUESTION: -- this administration’s view that the nuclear deal should, in fact, encompass broader sets of – patterns of behavior?

    MR TONER: Sure. I think partly this is what the review aims to look at, is how we take a more comprehensive look at Iran and its bad behavior in the region and whereas previous administration compartmentalized the nuclear agreement and concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, I think all of this is going to be on the table and it all is going to be looked at in the terms of where can we apply pressure --

    QUESTION: Right, but --

    MR TONER: -- and I think – sorry – but the reason I don’t want to parse the President’s words is because I think I don’t want to assume what he was intending to say, but I believe he was trying to speak to concerns about that Iran’s behavior hasn’t changed significantly --

    QUESTION: Right, but --

    MR TONER: -- across the board.

    QUESTION: -- the previous administration, which negotiated the deal --

    MR TONER: I know, I’m aware.

    QUESTION: -- purposely left those other things, that other bad behavior, out.

    MR TONER: I’m aware of that.

    QUESTION: So if you are – if they are complying with the letter of the – the administration believes that the Iranians are complying with the letter of the deal, right?

    MR TONER: That’s correct.

    QUESTION: Okay, but not the spirit? So is that, in this – in the view of this administration, is that a violation of the agreement if they are adhering to it that – all the technical aspects of it, but they’re not --

    MR TONER: I don’t think we’re prepared to say that. I think that’s part of the reason why this review is being done.

    QUESTION: All right. And when – in the 90 days that start – clock started ticking on that --

    MR TONER: I don’t know. I’ll have to – I would assume from last week --

    QUESTION: Because there’s another certification due in 90 days from last Tuesday? Was it Tuesday?

    MR TONER: Yeah, I --

    QUESTION: Tuesday night, yeah.

    MR TONER: I’m not sure when the clock started out. I’ll – I can try to get that for you.

    QUESTION: And Mark --

    QUESTION: Mark, the JCPOA – Mark, does it detect – did it have any kind of reference to the spirit or good behavior?

    MR TONER: No, it spoke specifically to --

    QUESTION: So it’s basically a technical thing that the Iranians --

    MR TONER: Yeah. No, it was all about – it was all about --

    QUESTION: -- are complying with, right?

    MR TONER: It was all about preventing Iran from cutting off the pathways Iran could pursue to obtaining a nuclear weapon.

    QUESTION: Right. And they are adhering to that, right? The Iranians.

    MR TONER: As far as we know, or as to our belief, yes, they are thus far.

    Please.

    QUESTION: So Mark, part of the review, is that the possibility of maybe wanting to add to the agreement the possibility of reopening negotiations to include this?

    MR TONER: I think it’s a comprehensive look at how we deal with Iran, and taking into account the fact that its behavior in the region hasn’t significantly changed, and how do we look at the tools, and how can we apply pressure. Look, this administration came in with real concerns about the nuclear deal. That said, they said we’re not going to change it or rip it up. We’re going to examine it, think about it, look at it, discuss it, and discuss it in the larger context of Iran’s role in the region and in the world, and then adjust accordingly.

    But until that time, we’re still going to honor the deal.

    QUESTION: Just about the sanctions on Syria, if I can change the topic.

    MR TONER: Oh yeah, of course, I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: So do you have any information about whether these 271 scientists actually have assets in the U.S. and/or whether the U.S. is doing business with them?

    MR TONER: Sorry, you’re talking about the --

    QUESTION: The sanctions on the 271 scientists.

    MR TONER: Yeah. Right, right, right. The ones that were just announced at the White House. Sorry, I apologize.

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: And your question? I apologize.

    QUESTION: It’s whether they – these 271 employees of the research center – do you have any information on whether they have assets in the U.S. and/or whether the U.S. is doing any business with them?

    MR TONER: A fair question, a question we get asked quite a bit on these kinds of sanctions. Excuse me. I’d have to refer you to OFAC and to the Department of Treasury to speak to any holdings that these individuals may have had. What they were in response to was the Syrian Government’s use of chemical weapons and the people we believe were behind that capability or providing that capability to the Syrian regime. And this is an effort to hold those individuals accountable. As to their possible investments or ties to the U.S. financial system, I can’t answer that.

    QUESTION: Sanctions? Syria sanctions?

    QUESTION: Syria-related, another question on Syria?

    QUESTION: One on Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Syria sanction?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Why is – why were – the airstrikes weren’t enough? Why take this action now? And has anything changed from the day of the airstrikes to allay your suspicions of what you allegedly thought went down and these sanctions?

    MR TONER: No, we’ve been --

    QUESTION: What is driving it?

    MR TONER: Sure. We’ve been pretty clear from the time the decision was made to carry out those airstrikes where we believe those – or those – the chemical attack was launched from and who was responsible for it, and that was the Syrian regime. At the same time, as you know, we’ve also said we would support an investigation by the appropriate UN bodies – the Joint Investigative Mechanism as well as the OPCW group – to look into the – to do an independent examination or investigation into the attacks, but we’re firm in our beliefs.

    QUESTION: Why don’t you wait --

    MR TONER: Please.

    QUESTION: Why don’t you wait till that --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Why don’t you wait till that review is done before you take action like this?

    MR TONER: Well, again, we’re going to continue to hold the individuals accountable that we believe carried out these chemical weapons attacks. We were very clear in our quick response to the attack two weeks ago that this could not stand, that this went beyond international standards --

    QUESTION: But why support a probe --

    MR TONER: -- and that it was against – sorry.

    QUESTION: Why support a probe if you already know what happened?

    MR TONER: Again, just in the spirit of having an investigative – an independent investigative body look at the examination – or look at the evidence, and there are, as we’ve talked about, these entities within the UN who are already mandated to carry out and have been carrying out these kinds of investigations on the multiple chemical weapons attacks that this regime – that the Assad regime has carried out already in Syria.

    QUESTION: On Afghanistan?

    QUESTION: Another subject?

    MR TONER: A couple more, guys.

    QUESTION: On another subject?

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Afghanistan?

    QUESTION: So --

    MR TONER: And then I’ll get to Afghanistan, whoever’s asking.

    QUESTION: This – I have a two-part question. The first part is: Any visa that is even decided by other departments is issued by the State Department?

    MR TONER: Any visa?

    QUESTION: Any visa.

    MR TONER: That’s correct.

    QUESTION: Yeah, okay. So based on that, has this department received any guidelines about the H1B visa from the White House? The background is that the executive order doesn’t talk about H1B visa in the hire – buy American, hire American, but there was a more-than-an-hour nearly background briefing which was dedicated to it. And so is there – there is a lot of confusion out there. The lawyers are saying it’s just a review of reform, so can you just update us what is the latest on the H1B?

    MR TONER: On the H1B visas, yeah.

    QUESTION: B, like – and is there anything that will affect the present-day holders of H1B visa?

    MR TONER: With respect to the H1B visas, I don’t have any new information to share. I mean, obviously, we want to see U.S.-India business-to-business ties remain strong. We greatly value Indian companies’ continued investment in the U.S. economy, which also, of course, supports thousands of U.S. jobs. With respect to any new requirements on visas, I’d have to check and see if that’s been updated.

    QUESTION: That – just a quick – the point is that the White House, the President, has ordered the review of the abuse and fraud. So under that, do you have – got any directives to check on --

    MR TONER: Well, I think what I would say about that is --

    QUESTION: -- where you are issuing them?

    MR TONER: Sure. Under this White House, we have been looking at ways to strengthen our processes, our visa interview and admission processes, in new ways. And that’s been from the beginnings of this administration, certainly with respect to immigration and with refugee flows as well. Those processes are ongoing.

    But I think it’s important to remember that this is always a part of how our consular bureau works and our consular officers work overseas, and our embassies and missions work overseas, and that is we’re always reviewing the processes that are in place to issue these visas and finding ways to strengthen them, because fundamentally, we want to ensure the security of the American people.

    A couple questions. One more. Yeah.

    QUESTION: On Afghanistan?

    MR TONER: Yeah, please.

    QUESTION: In Afghanistan, we’ve seen two attacks that coincide with the visit of top U.S. officials. What does the administration read into that?

    MR TONER: Excuse me. Well, you’re talking about – the second one was the Secretary of Defense Mattis’s trip there today? Well, that was after the fact. I think – look, I think – first of all, I want to strongly condemn the attack on members of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces 209th Corps in Balkh province that took place on Friday and killed more than 100 Afghan soldiers, wounded more than 60. This was an attack on these soldiers as they were returning from prayer. It was barbaric, it was unconscionable, and we condemn it fully, and we offer our condolences to the families and loved ones of those lost and injured.

    With respect to what this signifies more broadly, look, I think we continue to see, we believe, the capability of Afghan Security Forces strengthen and grow, but we’re not there yet. And clearly, attacks like these are going to happen. And obviously, the Afghan Government has taken steps; I believe there were some resignations in the aftermath. But this in no way should convey to the Taliban or anyone else in the region that the U.S. has any intention of walking away from its commitment to the Afghan Government and the Afghan people.

    What we’re working on now is continuing to strengthen, on the security side, the capabilities of the Afghan Forces to provide security for their own people, and on the political and economic side, how we can strengthen reform efforts within the government – anti-corruption efforts to make the Afghan Government more accountable to its people. This is not going to be an overnight process and no one is under any illusions that it will be. But again, I think the message – rather than what we’ll take away from this attack, the message we hope to convey by our back-to-back visits is the fact that we are committed to seeing this process through with the Afghan people.

    QUESTION: And just to follow up on that, there is now talk of sending more troops to Afghanistan. How does this fit in with the strategy of bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table when they seem to be so hostile to any U.S. presence in the country?

    MR TONER: Sure. Well, again, we continue to encourage that. That has to be an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process, and we’ve long said that. But we’ve also conveyed to the Taliban, publicly as I am now, that it’s really the only long-term solution that they have to provide peace and stability – or bring peace and stability to the country. They’re not going to win on the battlefield, but if they engage, meeting the preconditions – they recognize the constitution, they eschew violence and terrorism – that they can be, one day, a part of the political process in Afghanistan. But it’s up to them. And meantime, we’re not going to let up in our efforts to disable them and eliminate them.

    QUESTION: Iraq?

    MR TONER: Kylie.

    QUESTION: After – quick question. The U.S. top commander in Afghanistan didn’t refute the claims that the Russians are backing the Taliban and also providing them with arms. So has the U.S., the State Department, reached out to the Russians after this specific attack? We know that Lavrov and Tillerson spoke about Afghanistan last week, so how does this impact the U.S.-Russia relationship, and are they talking about these attacks?

    MR TONER: Well, again, I’m not going to get into the details of our private diplomatic concerns – our private diplomatic conversations with Russia. Excuse me. But obviously, we take the senior military – U.S. military leader assessment of the situation in Afghanistan very seriously, and I can assure you that our concerns have been conveyed to the Russian Government.

    QUESTION: Can you take this? This is Afghanistan as well. Just --

    MR TONER: Yeah.

    QUESTION: -- their visas for translators, there seem to be a low supply. I know that it’s a couple senators on the Hill – a couple senators are pushing legislation to increase the number. Do you – does the administration support those efforts?

    MR TONER: Yes. We are committed to continuing this program – the – you’re talking about the Special Immigrant Visas?

    QUESTION: Yes.

    MR TONER: Yeah. We’re committed to – I’m not aware of the exact numbers, but we want to see these efforts continue.

    QUESTION: So you do support increasing the number, is that correct?

    MR TONER: Yes.

    QUESTION: Or just continuing to see --

    MR TONER: Continuing the program. I’m not sure what the specific numbers. I’d have to check on that.

    QUESTION: Can you – can you check?

    MR TONER: Yes, will do.

    QUESTION: Thanks.

    MR TONER: One more question, guys. I apologize.

    QUESTION: I got one more – Iran.

    MR TONER: Oh, okay. Boom, boom.

    QUESTION: Go ahead.

    MR TONER: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Could you give us a readout on Brett McGurk’s visits to Iraq and Kuwait recently?

    MR TONER: I will if I can find the – he was in Iraq and Kuwait, I can confirm that. And you know this is part of Brett’s regular visits to the region. Hah, got it. Just for you.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MR TONER: As I was stalling there, Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk did travel to the region. He arrived in Baghdad I think on Friday for consultations, met with senior Iraqi leaders that included Prime Minister Abadi, Foreign Minister Jafari, Parliament Speaker Jabouri, and others. Obviously, they talked about ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS. That obviously includes the latest on the Mosul – operation to liberate Mosul, rather, and our long-term efforts to support Iraq’s stabilization post-ISIS.

    On Saturday, he went to Kuwait. He met with senior Kuwaiti leaders to provide an update on the global coalition’s effort to defeat ISIS and ways that we can intensify that fight. He also got a chance to, I think, thank the Kuwaiti Red Crescent Society for their humanitarian effort in and around Mosul including, I think, 40,000 tons of medication, more than 60,000 tons of food, and the building of five schools. And tomorrow – excuse me – tomorrow, he’s going to be traveling to Riyadh, and again, meetings with Saudi officials on ways to intensify the counter-ISIS efforts.

    QUESTION: And the Iraqis have said they expect the Mosul operation to be completed by the middle of May; is that – like in three weeks. Is that something that you agree with, that’s going to happen so soon?

    MR TONER: Not for me to give battlefield assessments. I would defer to my colleagues in the Department of Defense. I would only say that it’s – and we said this from the get-go – that it was going to be a hard, difficult effort. That effort’s ongoing. We’re confident that we’ll liberate the city, but I think the Iraqi forces have shown tremendous fortitude, tremendous perseverance, tremendous courage, tremendous sacrifice, and also tremendous care in liberating without putting civilians at too great a risk.

    Matt.

    QUESTION: IIP is in your bureau, is it not, Public Affairs?

    MR TONER: No, it’s a different --

    QUESTION: It’s not in Public Affairs?

    MR TONER: It’s a different entity.

    QUESTION: Okay.

    MR TONER: Other – their focus --

    QUESTION: Can you take this question, then --

    MR TONER: Sure.

    QUESTION: -- since you wouldn’t – have – if it’s not in your bureau, you might not know about it. But it’s come to some people’s attention that IIP has produced an article which is being promoted on at least the embassy of – the U.S. Embassy in London as well as a site called ShareAmerica, and this article is a feature about Mar-a-Lago. And I’m wondering if this whole thing in its appearance – the appearance of this article on government websites has been vetted by anybody, because Mar-a-Lago –

    MR TONER: I’ll look into it. It’s the first time I’m hearing about the article.

    QUESTION: It’s not like Camp David; it’s privately – it’s a private club and so --

    MR TONER: So you’re asking me – just so – sorry, just so I’m clear, the message – you’re asking whether the article had been vetted by appropriate --

    QUESTION: I want to know if --

    MR TONER: -- security folks or just in general?

    QUESTION: Yeah – no, no, no, no, no. Not security, ethics.

    QUESTION: Well, I’m being told that the content was produced by the State Department and put on the embassy’s website.

    MR TONER: I’ll check into it. I don’t have anything to offer.

    QUESTION: It’s not a --

    MR TONER: Last question. I know, it’s not a security issue. I understand what you’re saying.

    QUESTION: But I want you – it’s not a security, it’s an ethics issue.

    MR TONER: Last question.

    QUESTION: Mark, three months into this administration now, there’s still an overwhelming number of senior positions here at the State Department, and I believe 181 ambassadorships around the world that have still not – there are no nominations for. Could you explain why that is, and do you think there are any nominations coming soon?

    MR TONER: Well, I mean, look, so I’ll refer you to the White House on questions regarding nominations for senior-level positions including ambassadorships because that’s their purview. But with respect to the vacancies, I can assure everyone in this room and everyone in the United States and around the world that these are not vacancies, that there are senior State Department official serving in acting capacities, but these folks are seasoned veterans of the Foreign Service and seasoned diplomats. I know many of them personally, and I can speak – attest to their expertise and their professionalism. But this is a process, and with any new administration it takes time. Would we like to see it move faster? Certainly. And I think we’re looking at efforts on how to make that move faster. But it takes two to tango; we need Congress’s support and the Senate’s support to get there.

    Thanks, guys.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    (The briefing was concluded at 2:28 p.m.)

    DPB # 22



    [1] On April 18, Secretary Tillerson announced that President Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that will evaluate whether suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the JCPOA is vital to the national security interests of the United States. The NSC has not provided a timetable for this review.



    Mon, 24 Apr 2017 18:24:39 EDT


    Department Press Briefings : Department Press Briefing - April 13, 2017
    Mark C. Toner
    Acting Spokesperson
    Department Press Briefing
    Washington, DC
    April 13, 2017



    Index for Today's Briefing
    • DEPARTMENT
    • RUSSIA/SYRIA/REGION
    • RUSSIA/UKRAINE
    • RUSSIA/AFGHANISTAN/REGION
    • TURKEY
    • JAPAN/NORTH KOREA/SOUTH KOREA/REGION
    • DEPARTMENT
    • VENEZUELA
    • JAPAN/NORTH KOREA/SOUTH KOREA/REGION
    • SYRIA/RUSSIA/REGION
    • RUSSIA/DEPARTMENT
    • AFGHANISTAN/REGION
    • INDIA/DEPARTMENT
    • MIDDLE EAST PEACE
    • AFGHANISTAN/RUSSIA/REGION

      TRANSCRIPT:

      2:09 p.m. EDT

      MR TONER: Hey, guys. Welcome to the State Department. Happy Thursday. I don’t have anything at the top, except for one thing.

      I did notice – or I’m getting a lot of question, and I’ve seen some commentary on social media about what may or may not be happening in the corridor just outside the briefing room. I just wanted to assuage any conspiracy-minded folks that the PA Bureau is undergoing a renovation of its office space. It’s a long-planned project; it’s overseen by the Bureau of Administration’s Real Property Management Office, which manages all domestic State Department property, and that includes in this building.

      They are taking every necessary precaution to ensure that the asbestos abatement is done according to environmental safety standards, and that does include having to temporarily remove the portraits of the legions of previous spokespeople that have graced this podium before me. But I can assure you that they will be restored in all their glory. They’re not being consigned to the trash heap of history. And, look, it’s really for you all to lobby, but – granted I’ve only been acting spokesman, but I have briefed up here more than any other spokesperson in history, with the possible exception of Boucher.

      With that little self-aggrandizement, I will turn it over to you, Matt Lee.

      QUESTION: Well, I just want to make sure the asbestos situation is going to be under control. We’re not going to be quarantined or anything?

      MR TONER: No, I can assure you you won’t be, but it’s the reason why they have to put up those scary warnings. Anyway, what’s up?

      QUESTION: All right. And when the new photos go back – well, when the old photos go back up, will there be a new one?

      MR TONER: I have nothing to announce at this time. (Laughter.)

      QUESTION: Well, I’m just trying to get a --

      MR TONER: I know you are. I know you are.

      QUESTION: -- just get a – and on-the-record response to --

      MR TONER: And we will keep you informed.

      QUESTION: -- whether or not this is the last – your last briefing.

      MR TONER: My last briefing? I never say never, so I’ll withhold on that.

      QUESTION: Okay.

      MR TONER: And I’ll send out commentary later if it does turn out to be my last briefing. No, just kidding.

      QUESTION: Well, no, because if – you’re not going to get away with not having some words said about you when that does happen.

      MR TONER: Thank you. Appreciate it.

      QUESTION: Anyway, let’s start with real news.

      MR TONER: Of course. Yeah.

      QUESTION: On Russia.

      MR TONER: Yes, sir.

      QUESTION: I wanted to clear up one logistical thing and then ask a policy type of thing. One, the logistical thing is: To the best of your knowledge, was there ever any indication that over the course of the last week that the Secretary’s meeting with President Putin would not happen?

      MR TONER: So – (coughing). Excuse me. Was there – sorry, let me make sure I got the question right. Was there ever any indication that it would not happen? So routinely – and I think others opined on this yesterday – it is the case that the president will see a visiting secretary of state, and that’s been the case in the past. It’s also pretty routine that they’re not formally announced until the day of or even hours before. And that’s ultimately something for the Kremlin and President Putin himself to announce, which is part of the reason why we were being mum on it. I think it’s something we expected all along and were planning on, but --

      QUESTION: Right. But did you ever get any indication from the Russians that the meeting might be off?

      MR TONER: We were never given any indication that there --

      QUESTION: All right.

      MR TONER: -- that there might not be a meeting. Yeah.

      QUESTION: And then there seemed to be a line of commentary that Secretary Tillerson had been kept waiting by President Putin. The meeting, I believe, was scheduled and had been long scheduled for 5:30 local time, and the way I understood it, the Secretary was running about half an hour late after his meetings with the foreign minister. So the meeting began less than half an hour after it was – or about half an hour after it was supposed to have been – is that correct?

      MR TONER: I can assure you he was not – I double-checked on this, and he was not kept waiting.

      QUESTION: All right.

      MR TONER: Yeah.

      QUESTION: Okay. Now on the --

      MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

      QUESTION: Onto the substance.

      MR TONER: Sure.

      QUESTION: The Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov both announced that they would be creating working groups – I think Foreign Minister Lavrov used the word “special envoys,” but I don’t know if that was a translation issue or not, but let’s say working groups – to look at various irritants and see how they – can you be more specific about what those areas are that these working groups, or if it’s just one working group, what it will be looking at and what you hope to achieve?

      MR TONER: So a couple thoughts on that. And I – if I’m shy on specifics, I apologize. But first of all, both in his bilateral meeting, but also in his meeting with – sorry, with his – in his bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, but also in his bilat with President Putin, there was, I think, an acknowledgment that there are almost historical low level of trust – levels of trust between our two countries. And I think Secretary Tillerson said right out of the bat in his press avail yesterday that’s a problem.

      I think in his – certainly in his meeting with President Putin they went over the history of why we’re where we’re at, and I think it allowed the two of them to both appreciate and better understand why each country is frustrated with the other on certain issues. And I think by the end of that, they were able to acknowledge that with this understanding in place there’s a way for the two countries to find ways to rebuild some of that trust, find opportunities. And with that respect, I think that’s – the idea of this working group is to look at – look for those opportunities or ways to kind of rebuild a trust or --

      QUESTION: So it’s singular? It’s not multiple?

      MR TONER: It’s my understanding it is a singular group at this point.

      QUESTION: Okay. And --

      MR TONER: And sorry, just in terms of the working group’s mandate, that’s still being worked out, the exact details. There’s been some speculation this is kind of a return to the bilateral presidential commission. That’s not the case. But I think this is a group that’s going to focus on looking at some of these irritants and looking at ways that we can possibly find opportunities to cooperate.

      QUESTION: When you say mandate is being looked at, does that include the membership of it? Like, who would be on it?

      MR TONER: I believe so, yeah. And who will be on it, yes.

      QUESTION: All right. And then you said that they went over the history of why we’re at where we’re at? Was this like the airing of grievances or something? I don’t – I mean, how far back did they go?

      MR TONER: I don’t know. I was told a short history. I don’t know.

      Look, I think – I think it was helpful to hear – for both sides to hear each other’s perspective on why we’re where we’re at. I mean, none of this is going to come as news to anybody in this room who’s followed how we’ve gotten to where we are, but I think it’s important in any kind of bilateral situation like that to hear the other side’s point of view. He did that – Secretary Tillerson. And again, it’s part of an effort to appreciate their perspective. It’s not one we agree on, but it helps us understand so that we can find a way to work forward.

      QUESTION: Right. But I mean, is the idea that they would focus on smaller issues of – and not huge differences like Syria, or NATO expansion, or missile --

      MR TONER: I wouldn’t even – I wouldn’t necessarily even qualify it that way. I think they’re looking at where we can find common ground. I mean, look, even out of Syria there was the common ground that they found that we’ve all agreed to what end state we want to see in Syria, which is a Syria whole and with all religious groups and minorities represented. But how we get there, that’s a difficult – I get it. That’s a difficult challenge.

      QUESTION: Yeah, but that’s been the common – that’s been the common goal since Geneva I.

      MR TONER: You’re right. And – but it’s the getting there that’s difficult. But I think it’s --

      QUESTION: So what’s the point of agreeing to something that you previously agreed to and then – I mean, I just – was there any – if there’s no progress on the means to get to the end, then I don’t understand what – why it’s so productive to – for the two sides to run down a list of what pisses you off about the other side. I don’t get it.

      MR TONER: Well, I think, again, I’ll just say as part of this effort to find common ground, find areas of cooperation – not common ground, but areas of cooperation, there was a good-faith effort for each other to listen to the other’s grievances.

      QUESTION: Can I follow up? Yeah?

      MR TONER: Yeah, go ahead, Lesley.

      QUESTION: Just to come back, so you don’t know when the working group is going to start?

      MR TONER: I don’t. I don’t. If I get more on that, I will let you know, but I think it’s TBD.

      QUESTION: Okay. And I know this – was there maybe a discussion about a follow-up meeting between the two, between Lavrov and the Secretary?

      MR TONER: Lavrov and Secretary Tillerson?

      QUESTION: Are you aware of anything?

      MR TONER: I’m not aware of any physical meeting. Of course, they’ll obviously follow up on – by phone, I expect. I have nothing to announce in that regard too, but I have no expectation yet of a follow-up meeting.

      QUESTION: Do you – you probably saw that the AP had an interview today with Assad.

      MR TONER: Saw that.

      QUESTION: Who called it – who called the accusations of a chemical attack a fabrication. You saw earlier this morning the Syrian Army statement, which the U.S. then put down, saying that the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS that hit a chemical weapons depot by ISIS. What’s going on? A day after these meetings, there seems to be pushback. This doesn’t look like somebody who looks like he’s about to change course.

      MR TONER: Well, it’s – sadly, it’s vintage Assad. It is an attempt by him to throw up false flags, create confusion. Frankly, it’s a tactic we’ve seen on Russia’s part as well in the past. There can be little doubt that the recent attacks and the chemical weapons attack in Idlib was by the Syrian Government, by the Syrian regime, and that it wasn’t only a violation of the laws of war but it was, we believe, a war crime.

      QUESTION: Mark, I just want to follow up on this.

      MR TONER: Yeah.

      QUESTION: But before that, I want to ask you about Russia.

      MR TONER: (Sneezes.) Excuse me.

      QUESTION: The President said that – basically sort of toned down the rhetoric. And he said that ultimately, everybody will come – the President --

      MR TONER: Who? President Putin?

      QUESTION: No. The President of the United States, President Trump --

      MR TONER: Sorry. I apologize.

      QUESTION: -- said that everybody will come back to their senses and they are going to have better relations and so on. Is that a result of the conversation between Secretary Tillerson and the president? Is that the outcome? Because that up and down – or more hopeful about the future relations with Russia than it was yesterday.

      MR TONER: Well, certainly I’ll let the President’s tweet stand for itself. I’d just say that the President also made this point in his press avail with the NATO secretary general yesterday, and it’s simply that the world is a complicated and difficult place, and there’s enough hard challenges out there that we would like to be able to have a constructive relationship with Russia. But we’re not there. And I think – but I think our ultimate goal is to find, as I said, areas – small at start, but areas where we can rebuild that trust that’s sorely lacking.

      QUESTION: And on the Assad interview, now he keeps saying that you have refutable evidence. I mean, today, the United States is saying that they intercepted some communications between the pilot and some chemical scientist and so on on how to do this. I mean, that is – that seems to be the evidence. I find that difficult – I mean – or isn’t it a bit odd that the pilot would be talking to whoever the scientists are and so on to drop this bomb? Is that the only evidence you have?

      MR TONER: I’m not aware of that report. What I --

      QUESTION: But that --

      MR TONER: What I am – sure.

      QUESTION: That’s what CNN said.

      MR TONER: What I – sure.

      QUESTION: Because they were told by a high official and so on.

      MR TONER: Well, what I am aware of – and I think there was a backgrounder done on this by some of the – of our intelligence officials who looked at and analyzed this data, what went into our analysis and our ultimate conclusion that this was a chemical weapons attack that was carried out by the Syrian regime and that was laid out, I think, in some articles the other day. They briefed on background, given their status as intelligence officials. But it’s pretty clear-cut in our book.

      Look, that said, as I think Secretary Tillerson said, there are – we have the joint investigative mechanism. We have other mechanisms. The OPCW has these mechanisms to investigate, conduct an impartial investigation into these allegations. We know what happened. We have reached our own conclusion. We carried out the airstrikes.

      QUESTION: Right.

      MR TONER: But by all means, those independent mechanisms should be allowed to carry out their investigations. But again, what we saw yesterday was – what did Russia do? It vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have allowed those investigations to move forward.

      QUESTION: There is a lot to go through there. But if – let’s say you have an investigation, and the investigation somehow concludes that there was no Syria chemical strike. I mean, you already struck. You already destroyed that airbase. So how would that be dealt with?

      MR TONER: I can only say that we are – we undertook that action with the utmost confidence that it – this – that we were hitting the airstrip and the airbase, rather, that carried out that strike.

      QUESTION: And lastly --

      MR TONER: Yeah.

      QUESTION: -- I just want you to clarify something, because I don’t understand it. What – isn’t it that the U.S. Army, who was supposed to dispose of these chemical weapons and, in fact, they did; they destroyed something like 600 tons, which is all the chemical weapons that was at least declared by Syria at the time? Isn’t that true? Would you clarify that for us? Because you keep – or you keep hearing that Russia was responsible to guarantee that these weapons are destroyed or accounted for and so on.

      MR TONER: Right. Well, they were, in fact – as signatories to that agreement, Russia pledged to assure that the Assad regime – and the Assad regime also pledged to ensure that it would give up its declared chemical weapons. There were – I don’t have the exact amounts in front of me, but there was a massive amount of chemical weapons that were, in fact, taken out of Syria and neutralized. So you can’t say that that effort was in vain. It wasn’t. It got chemical weapons out of that conflict area. But that said, clearly either they remained their capacity to produce additional chemical weapons or they didn’t declare all their chemical weapons.

      Yes, sir.

      QUESTION: You said the Security Council resolution the Russians vetoed yesterday would have allowed an investigation. My understanding was that the agreement back in – that you just referred to, that that allowed for investigations. So is it actually correct that --

      MR TONER: Sorry. It sought – I apologize. It sought to hold the perpetrators of the chemical weapons attack accountable, called on the regime to cooperate with an independent international investigation. I apologize.

      QUESTION: Right. But an investigation – the – yesterday’s resolution was not required for there to be an investigation.

      MR TONER: Right. These – my understanding is that these bodies – I mean, that’s what they exist for, is to carry out these investigations.

      QUESTION: So it didn’t need – it didn’t need --

      MR TONER: But they – it did not need to pass.

      QUESTION: They don’t – they didn’t need a new authorization from the Security Council to conduct an investigation.

      MR TONER: That’s my understanding. Yeah.

      Go ahead, sir. And then I’ll get to you, Goyal.

      QUESTION: I have a question about yesterday’s meeting with – in Moscow --

      MR TONER: Yeah. Sure.

      QUESTION: -- but in frame of Ukraine issue. So yesterday, Secretary of State said in Moscow that he discussed Ukraine and Minsk agreement with Foreign Minister Lavrov. However, there was no acknowledgment that Mr. Tillerson talked about it with Mr. Putin. So could you give more detail on that? And was the Ukraine issue raised during the meeting with Russian president?

      MR TONER: So I can – as you noted, I can say that he did raise Ukraine in his bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov. I don’t have the details, full details, of his bilat with President Putin or his meeting with President Putin. I can’t confirm – I’m sorry – that Ukraine was raised in that setting. I think it probably was, since they went through the range of issues where we don’t see eye to eye with Russia on. And as Secretary Tillerson was very clear, that on those issues that we don’t see eye to eye on, he’ll continue to raise those in his meetings with Russian officials. I just can’t confirm absolutely that it was raised in that meeting. I just don’t have that level of clarity.

      QUESTION: Yeah.

      QUESTION: Syria?

      MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

      QUESTION: Still on Russia, but kind of a pivot.

      MR TONER: Okay.

      QUESTION: Russia is hosting multination consultations on Afghanistan tomorrow.

      MR TONER: Oh, sure. Yeah.

      QUESTION: What, if any, role will the U.S. play in those talks? And is there concern that through those talks, Russia is trying to expand its role and influence in Afghanistan?

      MR TONER: Good question. So first of all, we don’t plan to participate in these regional talks. I think they’re April 14th, which is tomorrow. They have been organized by the Russian Government. We do generally support regional efforts that work with the Afghan Government to build support for a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan, and I think we – going forward, we do plan to work with Russia and other key regional stakeholders to enhance dialogue on Afghanistan. It’s been – long been our argument that all countries in the region need to form a unified front with respect to Afghanistan and make it very clear that the only way to end that conflict definitively is through peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. And we’ve said – also made it perfectly clear that Taliban have no viable alternative but to enter into direct talks in order to achieve their goals.

      I think just to end it, we just felt that these talks – it was unclear to us what the purpose was. It seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region that we felt wasn’t constructive at this time.

      QUESTION: Just following up on --

      QUESTION: Staying on Afghanistan.

      MR TONER: Goyal, and then I’ll get –

      QUESTION: Thank you. Follow on Afghanistan.

      MR TONER: Yes, sir.

      QUESTION: As far as – thank you very much, Mark.

      MR TONER: Of course.

      QUESTION: As far as U.S. bombings in Afghanistan is concerned, it’s not a big surprise to the high-level Afghan officials because they were here – the advisor to the president of Afghanistan and also foreign minister of Afghanistan were here and speaking with the reporters and also at the think tanks. What they were saying that the terrorism problem in Afghanistan is being created by Pakistan, and all the terrorists are coming into Afghanistan and back and forth and back and forth because there is no – there is no check and balance and they are not holding them.

      MR TONER: Right.

      QUESTION: My question is here that as far as this bombing to eliminate those ISIS and Talibans – is this because of those high-level official who also met somebody here at the State Department? Also, recently, you just issued a travel warning to Pakistan.

      MR TONER: When you say “this bombing,” you’re – I think you’re referring to the bombing that took place just a few hours ago. Is that --

      QUESTION: That’s right. Yes, sir.

      QUESTION: The mother of all bombs.

      MR TONER: The mother of all bombs.

      QUESTION: Yeah, White House announced just at the briefing.

      MR TONER: No, okay. I just wanted to make sure I was on the – look, a couple points. One is I’ll refer you to what’s already been said about this airstrike that was taken – that took place in Afghanistan. I think it was aimed at a network of tunnels that was being used by terrorist organizations. I can’t say that this was an immediate outcome of any conversations we had with the Afghan Government. I think it’s part of our ongoing efforts to take the fight to the Taliban, to take the fight to ISIS affiliates that are operating in that territory, al-Qaida affiliates that are operating on Afghan soil, and that’s going to continue.

      You spoke about Pakistan and their role in this. We’ve been very clear, while we understand that Pakistan has made efforts to confront terrorism and terrorist organizations on its own soil, that there are still what we call safe havens that exist for terrorist groups to operate from and carry strikes out on Afghanistan. That’s a problem. Again, it’s in Pakistan’s interest to work with – constructively with Afghanistan to address those security concerns.

      QUESTION: I have one on India, please.

      MR TONER: I’ll get back to you, I promise.

      QUESTION: All right. Thank you.

      MR TONER: Michele, go ahead.

      QUESTION: I have a question on Turkey --

      MR TONER: Yep.

      QUESTION: -- and the Pastor Brunson case.

      QUESTION: Can we stay on Afghanistan?

      MR TONER: Let me just get to her and then I promise I’ll come back to you. Sorry.

      QUESTION: Vice President Pence has written a letter to the family talking about how this is a top priority for the Trump administration, so I’m wondering what specifically the U.S. is doing to win his release. And then I have a follow-up.

      MR TONER: Sure. You’re talking about --

      QUESTION: Andrew Brunson.

      MR TONER: Yeah, of course. So we can confirm that Turkish authorities detained Andrew Brunson on October 7th, 2016. Since his arrest, I can tell you that consular officers have been able to visit him regularly. We continue to provide appropriate support, consular services, to both – to Mr. Brunson as well as his family. It goes without saying that we take very seriously our obligation to assist any U.S. citizen, but certainly in this case, who is – who are arrested abroad. With respect to his legal case, I’d have to refer you to Mr. Brunson’s attorney.

      QUESTION: So the – when Tillerson was in Ankara, he was asked and Cavusoglu, the foreign minister, was asked about it, and he said that we’re about to finalize the charges against him. And I wonder if there’s been any movement in that case. I mean, as you say, he’s been held since October.

      MR TONER: Excuse me. Well, we have asked Turkish officials to consider releasing Mr. Brunson from custody, subject to whatever judicial conditions or controls may be appropriate while his legal case is resolved. Agree he’s been in detention far too long, and this has been done with other individuals under investigation. And of course, we call on Turkish authorities to resolve his case in a timely and fair manner, respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the protections of a fair trial guarantee that are necessary for his defense.

      So our position in this is we’ve made clear our concerns to the Turkish Government; we’re going to continue to offer whatever support we can to Mr. Brunson and his family; and again, our desire to see this resolved as quickly as possible.

      QUESTION: Staying on Turkey?

      QUESTION: Turkey?

      MR TONER: Sure thing. Let’s stay on Turkey, and then we’ll get back to Syria, because I know Tejinder was looking at me.

      QUESTION: Turkey.

      QUESTION: Can I have another one after that?

      MR TONER: Sure.

      QUESTION: Afghanistan.

      QUESTION: On Turkey. Just today, UN experts issued report regarding referendum on Sunday, and they concluded that if the constitution amendments pass on Sunday, then will be existing major violations of social and cultural rights in Turkey will even increase. Not only UN, but also EU, other international watchdogs, witness commissions, and many other experts basically conclude same: If the constitutional changes pass, Turkey’s democratic standards, separation of powers, and many other values will be basically wiped out. What is your conclusion? I am sure you have seen the proposal so far.

      MR TONER: The proposals of – I’m sorry.

      QUESTION: Proposal of the constitutional changes that will be voted.

      MR TONER: Look, I’d just say we’re obviously following this issue very closely. As I said the other day, we are concerned about the quality of Turkey’s democracy. These are discussions that we have on a somewhat regular basis with the Turkish Government. Because we’re strong allies and partners, we can have those kinds of conversations.

      I don’t think I have much to – much to say beyond what I said the other day, which is that we’re – you spoke about the OSCE’s final report. We’re looking at that and studying it very closely, but we’re going to, obviously, watch this very closely and – as it moves forward, the referendum, and hope that it’s carried out in such a way that guarantees and strengthens democracy in Turkey.

      QUESTION: Certainly. But so far, the standards and the conditions already – don’t you think the fairness of the freeness of the elections already under huge questions, since we have seen severe limitations on the campaigning in Turkey?

      MR TONER: Several limitations?

      QUESTION: Severe --

      MR TONER: Limitations, okay.

      QUESTION: -- limitations in Turkey.

      MR TONER: I mean look, we never want to see, in any case, as part of any kind of free and fair electoral process, any kind of limitation on all sides to express their viewpoints peacefully. So again, we’re watching this very closely.

      In the back, and then --

      QUESTION: And aren’t you concerned about the environment in which the referendum is going to be held? I mean, hundreds, if not thousands, of dissidents, including the leader of the main Kurdish opposition party, are in prison. How can they campaign for the no voters? I mean, is this referendum not going to be really a fair referendum, according to the United States?

      MR TONER: Well, again, I – there are election observers on the ground. We’re going to let them look at and analyze this referendum as it – and that’s going to include in the lead up to it – and pronounce their judgment of whether it was free and fair. I’m going to withhold comment beyond what I have said already, which is, of course, we’re watching this. We’re monitoring it very closely.

      QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

      QUESTION: Syria?

      QUESTION: Afghanistan?

      MR TONER: Sure. But let me – I’ll get back to you. I promise. I’m just – in the middle there. Sorry. You.

      QUESTION: Right here?

      MR TONER: Yep.

      QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. So I want to go to Asia. So --

      MR TONER: We can go.

      QUESTION: (Laughter.) Thanks.

      MR TONER: Yeah.

      QUESTION: Not too long ago, Prime Minister Abe said that North Korea may have the capacity to deliver missiles with sarin nerve gas. And I know sarin nerve gas is in the news a lot recently, so first, I want to ask: Do you agree with that assessment? And then I have a follow-up.

      MR TONER: You know what, I – to be perfectly honest, I have not seen those reports. Obviously, we’re concerned about North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons in the region, and even to the United States. And that continues to be a major concern or a primary concern, but – excuse me – it also goes without saying that North Korea has shown itself willing to pursue other weapons of mass destruction. So I can’t say whether those reports are valid or not. I just don’t know, but it’s something we would take very seriously.

      QUESTION: And then – so then just the other day as well, Sean Spicer said that there’s no evidence that North Korea has the capacity of a nuclear strike at this time. And, of course, a lot of eyes are on the country this weekend because of the holiday. So are you saying that either both with sarin gas and nuclear weapons – like, the country doesn’t have capacity for either, or both?

      MR TONER: Well, they’re clearly pursuing ballistic missile testing. They’re clearly trying to – I mean, we’ve seen this multiple times, that they’re – in the past six months alone, that they’re trying to test out systems that can deliver whatever, whether it’s a nuclear weapon or something else, in the region. And that’s why, frankly, we are so utterly seized with the threat that North Korea now poses. And it’s also one of the reasons why – and this was made very clear in the President’s meetings with Chinese leadership last week – that the time for action is now, and by that, we need to look at ways to put increased pressure on North Korea in order for it to recognize the reality that it needs to pursue denuclearization, that it needs to answer the international community’s very real concerns about its ongoing efforts to pursue nuclear weaponry and the means to deliver those in the region.

      QUESTION: Mark?

      QUESTION: Stay on the topic?

      QUESTION: Also on North Korea.

      QUESTION: I have a follow-up.

      MR TONER: We’ll stay on North Korea, sure.

      QUESTION: Yeah.

      MR TONER: Let’s kill – let’s go through all these questions and then --

      QUESTION: Yes, North Korea.

      MR TONER: Kill this topic, sorry.

      QUESTION: Thank you. The last time Secretary Tillerson said that the strategic patience is over and need a new approach to the North Korea. What is the United States new approach toward North Korea? What specifically included?

      MR TONER: Well, good question. I think that, as I just said, provocations from North Korea have grown, frankly, too common, too dangerous to ignore anymore. So we’re working with the international community, and that includes our partners in the region – certainly Republic of Korea, Japan are among those stalwart partners and allies that we’re working with to address this concern. But we’re looking at how we hold the Kim Jong-un regime accountable for its reckless behavior. And the way we’re doing that is pursuing right now efforts to isolate, to cut off North Korea from the rest of the world, and that’s being done through diplomatic efforts, but it’s also through security and economic measures as well. All of this is with the aim of persuading North Korea that its pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them is only going to take it farther from what it professes to want, which is a prosperous, engaged role in the world.

      Please.

      QUESTION: Another one on North Korea?

      QUESTION: Really? But has it ever said that it wanted an engaged role in the world?

      MR TONER: Well, I think there’s been some – there’s been lots of talk --

      QUESTION: That North Korea wants to be --

      MR TONER: -- or lots of discussion within the Six-Party Talks that --

      QUESTION: The Six-Party is done at the working level.

      MR TONER: -- that they want – sorry, I’m answering two questions at one time – that they want prosperity, that they want to be heard. That’s what I’m talking about.

      QUESTION: Yeah --

      QUESTION: What do you mean by saying it’s too dangerous to ignore anymore? Is this administration’s position that the previous administration and the ones before it ignored North Korea?

      MR TONER: I think it’s a – no, but I would say that there’s – look, I think in the past several months, we have seen only an acceleration of North Korea’s efforts to – as I said, to pursue nuclear weaponry, but also the means to deliver it. So I think there’s a realization that the time for talk, the time for some of this – if I could put it this – kind of long-term negotiation strategy and engagement is past. We --

      QUESTION: Well, it’s a crowd-pleasing line, isn’t it, to say that, like, it’s too dangerous to ignore anymore. But, like, it’s one thing, as the Secretary has said, that the policy of strategic patience or such has failed, but that doesn’t mean that previous administrations, whether it’s the Clinton administration, Bush Administration, or Obama administration, ignored the problem. They just didn’t deal with it in a way that has been able to abate it, wouldn’t you say?

      MR TONER: I would say that the --

      QUESTION: Are you saying that strategic patience is akin to ignoring North Korea?

      MR TONER: No, no, and that’s a fair point. What I would say is that we can no longer, I think, engage in that kind of longer-range approach to North Korea, that we need short-term solutions. And that’s not to – look, the Secretary was also very clear we’re not looking to – for regime change here. We’re looking at denuclearization.

      QUESTION: Well, do you need short-term solutions, or do you need – I understand – it sounds like you’re mixing your metaphors a little, because yes, you need – I understand what you’re saying about not looking --

      MR TONER: That’s what we spokespeople do.

      QUESTION: -- for a long-term – thinking about long-term negotiations, but a short-term solution is not going to deal with the North Korean problem in the long term. Don’t you think?

      MR TONER: (Laughter.)

      QUESTION: A short-term solution is a short-term solution.

      MR TONER: I understand what you’re saying. Look, let me try to --

      QUESTION: You don’t want to curb the --

      MR TONER: Right. So --

      QUESTION: That’s just --

      MR TONER: Okay. So there is an urgency to the situation that wasn’t necessarily there in the past because of the actions that they’ve taken over the past six months. And so I think that’s been made very clear by Secretary Tillerson, by President Trump, and we’ve made that clear to the Chinese as well, as well as our other allies and partners in the region.

      QUESTION: President Trump said that if China is not help to resolve North Korea nuclear issues, the United States will take its own actions. What do you expect from China to do so?

      MR TONER: Well, I think we expect China to – obviously to assert its leverage that it has. I think just today it was talking about even though it’s enacted all of the UN Security Council resolutions – or UN Security Council sanctions, rather, regime against North Korea, it’s also got a very robust trading program with North Korea. So clearly, it has economic influence over North Korea. We’re looking at it to leverage its unique relationship with North Korea to persuade the regime in Pyongyang to reconsider.

      QUESTION: Mark, can I change the subject?

      MR TONER: Yeah, let’s change subject. Sorry, I’ll get back to you.

      QUESTION: Yeah, let’s finish this. So --

      MR TONER: I’ll get back to you when I have time. I’ll get back to you when I have time.

      QUESTION: There is an internal memo that went around as well as something that was updated online that even though the OMB lifted the hiring freeze, the federal hiring freeze, that the Secretary Tillerson, that the State Department was going to maintain its hiring freeze. Do you know what led to that decision?

      MR TONER: Sure. So OMB --

      QUESTION: And what is it about?

      MR TONER: Okay. So the OMB on Wednesday announced the lifting of the hiring freeze, as you noted, and provided also extensive further guidance to all the various federal agencies on the implementation of and requirements pursuant to the OMB memorandum which is called, I think, Comprehensive Plan for Reforming the Federal Government and Reducing the Federal Civilian Workforce, which is a mouthful. I apologize.

      QUESTION: Yeah.

      MR TONER: And this document, this memo, provides guidance on new requirements on the presidential memorandum that was initially issued on January 23rd.

      QUESTION: Correct.

      MR TONER: This was the one that issued the hiring freeze, as well as the executive order issued on March 13th that required a comprehensive plan to reorganize all the executive branch departments and agencies.

      So as part of that process, the department and this Secretary are going to be undertaking a reorganization later in the year, and the decision was taken that the hiring freeze will continue until that plan is fully developed and agreement is reached on its implementation.

      And this is just part of prudent planning. We can’t be onboarding people when we don’t know what our reorganization is ultimately going to look at – look like. But until then – and this is an important point – the Secretary does retain authority to waive the ruling – or the hiring freeze and will do so in instances where national security interests and the department’s core mission and responsibilities require. So he does --

      QUESTION: So it doesn’t break any federal law that he’s done this?

      MR TONER: It does not. It’s his decision to maintain this hiring freeze.

      QUESTION: Even though that – even though the Congress has – the appropriations has approved money for it, or even if the Congress has said that that’s fine to lift it. So there is a law, a federal law, that if appropriations has moved on some kind of spending or whatever --

      MR TONER: Right.

      QUESTION: -- and he says, “No, I’m not going to touch that,” isn’t that against a law?

      MR TONER: My understanding is that he has the jurisdiction to – basically to keep this freeze in place as we go about this presidentially mandated reorganization.

      QUESTION: Are we talking about Civil and Foreign Service officers, political appointees? What --

      MR TONER: Across the board.

      QUESTION: So he’s – wait a minute. So he’s not going to hire any political appointees --

      MR TONER: I --

      QUESTION: -- before the reorg?

      MR TONER: I believe it’s a hiring freeze across the board. I don’t know about political appointees. I’ll check on that.

      QUESTION: Could you check on that? So what are you – yeah, I mean --

      MR TONER: I can check on that.

      QUESTION: That would – essentially, if that’s true, what you’re saying, that there’s a hiring freeze across the board, that you would not be hiring any assistant secretaries --

      MR TONER: I will check on political appointments. I’m not sure about political appointments.

      QUESTION: -- under secretaries, a deputy secretary of state.

      MR TONER: Yeah, I’m not sure about political appointments.

      QUESTION: That can’t be right.

      MR TONER: Yeah, I’ll check on that.

      QUESTION: So effectively he’s put this on, the freeze, until he’s done the reorganization. Have those plans actually started? And how are they going to be fleshed out? Does --

      MR TONER: I believe they have started. As to how they’re going to be fleshed out, I don’t have any more details.

      QUESTION: I mean, it’s going to go on for the rest of the year?

      MR TONER: I don’t know if there’s a time, date. I don’t have any kind of timeframe for you. If I get one, I’ll let you know.

      QUESTION: And I gather that he would have got White House or congressional approval for this?

      MR TONER: Yes, I would imagine he would.

      QUESTION: I just want to point out something that --

      MR TONER: On the political appointees, though, it’s a good question.

      QUESTION: Yeah, no, because I mean Foreign Minister Lavrov even said yesterday that – I mean, we can consider the source, but other diplomats from other --

      MR TONER: No, I’m not responding, I’m just --

      QUESTION: I understand, but other diplomats from other countries have also said that the lack of staff at the State Department has become an impediment to having interlocutors to deal with, whether it’s long-term foreign policy cooperation, short-term foreign policy crises. So I mean, I would really like some clarification on that. Because if you’re saying that there’s a hiring freeze across the board, I really would say that suggests that that will continue to be a problem.

      MR TONER: It’s a fair question.

      QUESTION: Related to this, though, Mark, you said that he has the – he retains authority to waive it, right?

      MR TONER: Yeah, authority. Thank you. Yes, he does. Yeah. In instances where national security interests and the department’s core mission --

      QUESTION: Has he?

      MR TONER: -- responsibilities – I would assume that political appointees in high positions would fall under the department’s core mission responsibilities.

      QUESTION: Do you think that would apply to the – do you think that would apply to the newly nominated deputy? You think he’d get away with it?

      MR TONER: I would think that would apply.

      QUESTION: Mark, can I --

      QUESTION: So – hold on a second; I’m not done.

      MR TONER: Yeah.

      QUESTION: Back in February, two months ago tomorrow --

      QUESTION: Sorry, Matt.

      QUESTION: -- the department sought and received a waiver from the – what was then the hiring freeze. You were given permission by OMB to bring on 175 new staff – 70 entry level, 80 mid level, and 25 consular fellows. Did those people actually come on board? And has the department – did the department seek additional exemptions between February 14th and Wednesday?

      MR TONER: I’ll check on both. Yeah, I’ll check on both. I’ll take those questions.

      QUESTION: Can I --

      QUESTION: Another subject?

      MR TONER: Yeah, we can change the subject, but I haven’t gotten to – I’ll get back to you, I swear to God.

      QUESTION: Regarding Venezuela.

      MR TONER: Sure.

      QUESTION: Thousands of protesters are demanding new elections in Venezuela. And opposition leaders consider that the government of the President Nicolas Maduro, it’s no longer respecting democratic institutions and it’s sliding toward authoritarian practices. Can you comment on that, please?

      MR TONER: Sure. First of all, we’re – I want to start with some of the reports of violence against protesters during demonstrations in Venezuela. We’re aware of those reports. We obviously regret any loss of life. We call, once again, on the Government of Venezuela to conduct full, fair, and transparent investigations into this violence. We also call on the government and security forces to respect the freedom of assembly – peaceful assembly – as a universal human right, which the Venezuelan authorities should respect. We, as I said, also urge the demonstrators to express themselves nonviolently.

      With respect to your broader question, we urge the Maduro government to reconsider its decision this past week, I believe, or past weekend, to bar Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles and – from participating in the country’s public life for I think some 15 years. It’s something we view with grave concern. It’s absolutely vital that Venezuelans have the right to exercise their – and elect their representatives in free and fair elections in accordance with the Venezuelan constitution and consistent with international instruments. And that includes the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

      We firmly support as well the consensus of the Organization of American States Permanent Council, which affirms it is essential that the Government of Venezuela ensure the full restoration of democratic order.

      Thanks. Please.

      QUESTION: Yes.

      QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

      QUESTION: You mentioned the need to work with South Korea and Japan --

      MR TONER: Yes.

      QUESTION: -- on North Korea. And Vice President Pence is about to travel to that region and will be visiting both South Korea and Japan. I was wondering if you could discuss what message he’ll be sending to leaders in the region and what he’ll be discussing in those meetings, and then I have a --

      MR TONER: Well, look, I would have to refer you to the Vice President and his office to talk about the specifics about his trip. But, obviously, I think that it’s very clear given Secretary Tillerson’s travel to the region, given that both leadership from Republic of Korea and Japan have been here for high-level meetings, that we are very concerned, primarily concerned with North Korea and its actions and how to deal with North Korea. And in that regard, I think he’s going to be sending a very clear message, certainly in Seoul and elsewhere, of our steadfast, ironclad support for our allies and partners in the region. And that stands absolute.

      So I’ll let – I’ll leave it to him to speak in greater detail. Please.

      QUESTION: Okay, and then also --

      QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

      QUESTION: -- in Japan, he’ll --

      QUESTION: Couple questions about Syria.

      MR TONER: Of course.

      QUESTION: So Foreign Minister Lavrov talked about – he offered to reinstate this de-confliction channel, and – but there were terms, and I was wondering, this thing about the de-confliction in the airs – in the air, between airplanes in – that was suspended, and Secretary Tillerson didn’t say anything about whether he accepted the terms that Lavrov set. So we’re wondering, where does that stand, how important is that channel, and what’s the plan when it comes to preventing any mishaps in the air over Syria?

      MR TONER: Frankly, my understanding was that that does remain intact. There was some question that it was going to be pulled down. That was a Russia claim, at least. Look, we consider that de-confliction channel to be very important, because it helps ensure that neither our pilots nor Russia’s pilots are unduly or unnecessarily put in harm’s way when we’re carrying out military missions in the – in that region.

      So I can’t speak to how it may change. My understanding is that it does remain in effect.

      QUESTION: Because – I mean, was – my understanding is that that channel was suspended after the missile strike.

      MR TONER: I had heard that – I had seen those same reports, but my understanding was that – my understanding is that after that, it was reinstated. If that’s incorrect, I’ll let you know.

      QUESTION: Can I --

      MR TONER: Please. Yeah, please.

      QUESTION: A fact check.

      QUESTION: I have a follow-up question.

      MR TONER: Yeah, of course, finish up. And then --

      QUESTION: Yeah, so did Secretary Tillerson meet with any members of civil society when he was – while he was in Moscow or Russia?

      MR TONER: I don’t believe he did. Frankly, it was an issue of time. He did, of course, raise our concerns, as he does in every meeting with our Russian counterparts. But I don’t believe he actually had the time to meet with any members of civil society while he was on the ground.

      QUESTION: Just a follow-up on that, and then I have a question on Afghanistan.

      MR TONER: Please.

      QUESTION: Do you anticipate this is something that he’ll make as a kind of regular feature of his travel? I mean, past secretaries to some extent – some more, some less – have made that a kind of staple of their --

      MR TONER: Meeting with civil society members?

      QUESTION: Of – yeah.

      MR TONER: You’re right. I mean, it’s – it has been, because it’s an – it’s a great way to send the message that it’s a matter of concern, it’s an issue of concern to us. Again, I think in any given visit, given the other demands on the Secretary’s schedule, of course, I can’t speak categorically, but I know for a fact that he does consider human rights, healthy civil society to be something that he’s going to press in all of his interactions.

      QUESTION: I have a question --

      MR TONER: Yes, sir – ma’am.

      QUESTION: -- if we could just go back to Afghanistan for a second.

      MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

      QUESTION: I know you kind of punted to the Pentagon on the actual strike itself, but we haven’t really heard a lot about ISIS in the kind of Afghan-Pakistan region. And I’m wondering if you could kind of bring us up to date on your discussions with those governments about the growth of ISIS. Because, like I said, we really haven’t – I mean, I know that they had some small presence, but it kind of was surprising to see the depth of which the --

      MR TONER: Right.

      QUESTION: -- to which you have this concern.

      MR TONER: Well, and it’s a fair point to bring up. I mean, look, we’ve been very clear that, just like we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, but certainly in Afghanistan, where ISIS has attempted to co-opt some existing groups on the ground in an effort to create affiliates. And we’re going to see this, I think – and this is something that was discussed in the ministerial a few weeks ago – that as ISIS continues to get pressed in Syria and in Iraq, it’s going to seek to do that, I think, more and more. So it’s something we’re watching very closely, and we’re working with the Government of Afghanistan and our partners in the region in order to deny any terrorist organization – that includes al-Qaida as well – safe haven or any kind of material support on the ground. And as we’ve also been very clear, we’re – when we see targets of opportunity and leadership, opportunities to take out key leadership, we’re going to take those opportunities.

      QUESTION: I understand that this was a target of opportunity, but are you saying that this target was – were they working with other types of – like so-called affiliates?

      MR TONER: That’s a common practice for ISIS to – yeah.

      QUESTION: No, I understand, but I’m just saying, this particular --

      MR TONER: I don’t know the specifics. I don’t have enough specifics on this.

      QUESTION: I’m just – as opposed to, like, the actual strike and the weapon and how it was done, I’m interested in this particular target --

      MR TONER: Right.

      QUESTION: -- and why it was chosen in terms of their threat. And given that the State Department has really been the lead in terms of the coalition against ISIS, I’d be interested a little bit more in --

      MR TONER: Sure. I don’t have a lot of detail on this particular strike and why this – I mean, other than that they were ISIS-affiliated group or ISIS --

      QUESTION: ISIS-affiliated group or members of ISIS, like official leadership?

      MR TONER: I’ll check. I’ll check.

      QUESTION: Thank you.

      MR TONER: Yeah.

      QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

      MR TONER: Couple more questions, guys. Tejinder, I haven’t gotten to you yet.

      QUESTION: I have the patience, and wishing you a quick, fast recovery --

      MR TONER: Thanks.

      QUESTION: -- because I saw you limping.

      MR TONER: I’m limping, I’m coughing.

      QUESTION: Oh, yes.

      MR TONER: I need vacation. Luckily, it’s coming up.

      QUESTION: Yeah. I have empathy, I’m coughing also.

      MR TONER: Yeah.

      QUESTION: The – one short follow-up on Afghanistan and then one on India-related. Afghanistan is that day before yesterday, after the briefing in the Pentagon, the Defense Secretary, when I asked him that – is Afghanistan on back burner, he said not at all, nothing has changed. So that’s from the Defense. On the --

      MR TONER: What he said, yes.

      QUESTION: On the diplomatic side, with Russia taking that initiative, has anything changed from this side on the diplomatic front?

      MR TONER: Not at all, and in fact, I think it was just a couple weeks ago the Afghan foreign minister, I think it was, in conjunction with the counter-ISIS ministerial was here in town, and they had a very good bilateral discussion – one of the few bilateral meetings he was able to take given his schedule, Secretary Tillerson’s schedule. But he made the point of taking that meeting because he wanted to express our firm support for the Afghan Government’s continued efforts to confront the Taliban, to confront other terrorist groups on its territory, and to solidify and continue to enact needed political and economic reforms.

      QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

      QUESTION: And the other --

      MR TONER: You had another – yeah, finish up, and then --

      QUESTION: I have second one.

      QUESTION: The second one is about --

      MR TONER: Okay. I’m going to do three more questions. I got to you. I got to you already. Three more questions.

      QUESTION: The second one is --

      MR TONER: Please.

      QUESTION: The second one is about the diplomatic efforts from the U.S. The Indian media is flush with this hate crimes against people of Indian origin. Now, what – a kind of journalistic investigation revealed that most of these Indians were either misidentified or misunderstood because of religious symbols or other things, but when the Indian ambassador rushes to State Department and expresses his deep concerns about this, and then we find out that the Hardish Patel, the county sheriff says that it was not a hate crime. So what – how can you clarify that these incidents are not against Indians or people from Indian origin? They’re misidentified. There is – it’s not about condoning hate crime, it’s about misrepresenting the facts. If you can clarify from the podium.

      MR TONER: So a couple of thoughts on this – first of all is we obviously strongly condemn any hate crime, any crime carried out against someone based on their ethnicity, their sexual orientation, whatever. We condemn it. Secondly, though, with respect to these particular crimes, that’s really something for either local, regional, or federal law enforcement to speak to. All of these crimes need to be thoroughly investigated, and that’s why I’m very hesitant to comment on one particular case or not, because I don’t know the facts and it would be imprudent for me, except to say that, largely speaking, there are – there’s a strong Indian American community in this country. They’re a vibrant part of American culture and society and the economy here. And we, as Americans, welcome their contribution. And as I said, any crime based on – that potentially based on someone’s ethnicity or heritage should be heartily condemned.

      QUESTION: I was trying to clarify one --

      MR TONER: Sure.

      QUESTION: I was just trying to clarify that this crimes were even ethnicity-based were not against the Indian ethnicity. They were mis --

      MR TONER: Identified? I just don’t have the details. I apologize, Tejinder.

      QUESTION: Could we do a quick one --

      MR TONER: Said. Yeah, very quick.

      QUESTION: -- on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

      MR TONER: Yep.

      QUESTION: A couple of days ago, you issued an advisory, a travel advisory --

      MR TONER: Yep.

      QUESTION: -- to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. But you also urged American citizens to leave Gaza.

      MR TONER: Yep.

      QUESTION: And this coincided with the escalating tensions, and the Israelis are amassing troops. Are you concerned that there may have – there may be another war that could – may –

      MR TONER: No, I – look – sure. I’m aware of --

      QUESTION: -- which will urge the Israelis --

      MR TONER: I’m aware the timing was linked or was close to it, but this was, as my understanding of it, just a periodic update, and that the information concerning Gaza was similar to language from our previous travel warnings.

      So as many of you know in this room, we have to periodically update the language to ensure they remain valid and up-to-date. This was a routine update. I think the previous one was issued on August 23rd, 2016, but it contained very similar guidance. Our travel warning warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Gaza Strip and urges those present to depart as soon as possible when border crossings are open. And I think the way – by way of explanation, given the security conditions in Gaza, U.S. government personnel have been long restricted from travel to Gaza, and so that restricts our ability to provide any assistance or support to any U.S. citizen in Gaza. So it’s out of that reality, if you will, that we caution.

      QUESTION: Thank you.

      QUESTION: And this --

      MR TONER: John, last question.

      QUESTION: Yeah. And this Russia-hosted conference on Afghanistan --

      MR TONER: Yes, sir.

      QUESTION: You said that it seemed to be a unilateral Russian attempt to assert influence in the region. This dropping of this massive bomb in Afghanistan that has a fairly large optical element to it, could you – could one interpret that as a unilateral attempt to assert influence in the region?

      MR TONER: No. Look, again, I’m --

      QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

      MR TONER: I’m not going to attempt to speak way outside my box and talk about, you know, military matters.

      QUESTION: But it does have – when it’s a bomb that large, there’s a diplomatic effect to dropping something like that.

      MR TONER: There is, John. But – I imagine, but I’m going to stay mum on that. Thanks, everybody. Thanks so much.

      (The briefing was concluded at 3:07 p.m.)

      DPB # 21



      Thu, 13 Apr 2017 18:42:02 EDT