State Department Press Briefing with Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, at the Department of State, June 12, 2019
Good afternoon, everybody.
How are you? Peachy?
[Matt] Well, how are you, more importantly? Recovered?
I’m better. I’m getting there. Still have a little bit of a cold, so pardon my voice today and speak up if you can. Okay. I have several things for you to get started, if that’s okay. First of all, we at the State Department are pleased to announce that the Department has appointed Ambassador Donald E. Booth as Special Envoy on Sudan. Ambassador Booth is currently traveling with Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy to engage with parties in Khartoum and our partners on the situation in Sudan. Special Envoy Booth is a retired ambassador who previously served as chief of mission to Ethiopia, Zambia, and Liberia. He also served the Department as a special envoy for Sudan and South Sudan from August 2013 until January 2017. His appointment demonstrates that the United States has a firm commitment to the Sudanese people and efforts to advance a peaceful, political solution. Okay. Got a couple of things related to Treasury next. Yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC, designated 14 targets in connection to an international network benefitting the Assad regime as well as two Beirut-based companies for shipping Iranian petroleum to Syria. In 2012, Assad signed a decree to expel residents in poorer areas of Damascus from their homes to pave the way for luxury reconstruction projects that would financially benefit those close to him. While ordinary Syrians lose everything, Assad and his friends get rich. Samer Foz and 15 other individuals and entities designated yesterday have used their ties to the Assad regime and have exploited the horrific conflict and Assad’s ruthless actions for their own benefit. They have made fortunes mortgaging the future of the Syrian people. Additionally, OFAC designated two Lebanese companies for shipping thousands of metric tons of Iranian petroleum into Syria in support of the Assad regime over the last year. The United States is committed to accountability for those who provide to and profit from Assad’s murderous regime. We will use all elements of national power to do so, including political, diplomatic, and economic tools such as the designations and previous sanctions packages against the Assad regime supporters, such as the Iranian regime and Hizballah. Our objective is to pressure and isolate the Assad regime until it makes the necessary steps to reach a political settlement in the Syrian conflict, something it has yet to do. The United States will continue to take actions against those who support the Assad regime, and we urge all states to join us in this approach. Any effort at re-establishing or upgrading diplomatic relations or economic cooperation with the Assad regime undercuts efforts to move toward a peaceful, permanent, and political solution to the Syrian conflict in line with UNSCR 2254. One more on Treasury. In April, the Department of State designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC, in its entirety, including the Qods Force, as a foreign terrorist organization in an historic step to counter Iran-backed terrorism around the world. We support the sanctions imposed today by the Department of Treasury on the Iraq-based Islamic Revolutionary Guard-Qods Force financial conduit the Southwest Resources Company, which has trafficked hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the IRGC-Qods Force-backed Iraqi undisciplined army groups. SWRC and its two Iraqi associates have covertly facilitated the IRGC-Qods Force access to the financial, to the Iraqi financial system in order to evade sanctions. SWRC and its two associates are being designated as specially designated global terrorists, SDGTs as many of you know, pursuant to EO 13224, which targets terrorists and those providing support to terrorists or acts of terrorism. While the Iranian Qods Force continues to try and undermine Iraq’s security, stability, and sovereignty, the United States continues to take action to thwart Iran’s efforts to terrorize, intimidate, to terrorize and intimidate Iraqis with violence and corruption. As Secretary Pompeo outlined in his 12 requirements, Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of undisciplined armed groups in Iraq. The State Department is excited to be a part of the Trump administration’s next step to further promote agricultural biotechnology on behalf of Americans. Yesterday the President signed an executive order that tasked the Department of Agriculture and the State Department to work with other relevant U.S. agencies to develop international communication strategies that build acceptance for American biotechnology exports, open markets for U.S. businesses and farmers, and to minimize unjust barriers to trade. The order arose from the January 2018, Presidential Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, which unveiled comprehensive recommendations for how the U.S. Government can continue to prioritize meeting the needs of American agricultural and rural communities. Supporting America’s entrepreneurs and farmers by promoting U.S. innovation is an essential part of the U.S. Department of State’s mission abroad. Biotech crops underpin billions of dollars in U.S. exports and play a crucial role in supporting international food security globally. American farmers and ranchers deserve access to fair markets that support innovation and trade, and consumers all over the world should feel confident that the United States produces the safest and highest-quality agricultural goods. Together, by embracing innovation and good policy, the world can address the global challenges we face to sustainably produce abundant food, feed, fiber, and energy. That announcement was brought to you by a former Miss Florida Citrus. (reporters laugh) Okay. Thank you. One more and then we’ll get into your favorite part. Yesterday, the White House released the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security, which marks a bold step in the Trump administration’s commitment to promoting women’s empowerment as a cornerstone of foreign policy. To mark the launch on June 11th, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan participated in a roundtable dialogue with members of Congress and administration officials from the White House, Department of Defense, and USAID, where he reaffirmed the department’s commitment to supporting women as leaders in peace and security. Our support for women and girls socially, politically, and economically strengthens our foreign policy objectives and outcomes. Women are disproportionately impacted by conflict, violent extremism, and poverty, but they have invaluable knowledge about how to address and solve these issues. The strategy, therefore, aims to promote women’s safety and leadership in conflict prevention, management, resolution, and post-conflict relief and recovery efforts. Through implementing the strategy, the Department of State looks forward to scaling its commitments to supporting women as partners and leaders in fostering security and growing the global economy. Mr. Lee.
More women, that’s the answer.
More women. Well, there you go. You got something right finally.
Exactly. Takes me a little while. There’s a lot to talk about–
But I am going to actually defer to my colleague Abigail because I cut her off on Monday and she didn’t get that chance to ask her question.
Can we put this in the record books? Matthew Lee is deferring to a lady.
Go ahead, Abbie.
[Abbie] Well, I’d actually like to start on the Dominican Republic.
Six, at least six Americans have died there in the last year under similar circumstances, and four of them obviously stayed in the, or sorry, four of them stayed in the same hotel chain. Can you tell us how the U.S. is involved in that investigation and where it stands and say whether or not you think there’s any connection between the deaths and what advice you would have for Americans who are still looking to travel there?
Sure, thanks, Abbie. So the FBI is providing technical assistance with the toxicology reports. We don’t have those results yet, so unfortunately I’m not going to be able to give you a lot of comment as it relates to that. Certainly, when we have information, we’ll relay it. We here at the State Department and for the Secretary, our highest priority is Americans’ safety abroad, and we of course, it goes without saying but I want to really reiterate this, that we do offer our condolences and our sympathy to these families. I can’t think of anything more tragic than to lose a family member on vacation. And so we very much care about every individual case, and we are closely monitoring the ongoing investigations. We’re of course working very closely with Dominican authorities, and when we have more information other than that, I’ll be happy to share it.
You began with Syria. Last Syria, last fall, Secretary Pompeo described Syria’s Kurds as, quote, “great partners,” and said they would be represented in the political talks on Syria’s future. Is that still your position?
Yes. So as the Secretary has said many times, we want a broad representation of all Syrian communities in these talks, and we have of course advocated that they are all part of a future government. The Secretary said, as you said, that they have been great partners. And of course we are strongly supportive of the UN Security Council Resolution 2254, as I mentioned in the topper when we briefly talked about that, and the special envoy and the efforts there to get to, towards a political solution. That’s the only end of course, as we all know, that will happen in Syria, is whenever all parties commit to UNSCR 2254 and work towards a serious political solution. Carol?
I wanted to know what, do you have a reaction to the continued protests in Hong Kong that seemed to get worse today? And what do you think they say about the future of Hong Kong’s special status?
So I think we had a very direct statement on Monday regarding that. We, obviously, would like to encourage all sides to exercise restraint and to refrain from violence. Of course, we think that these peaceful protests are incredibly important. And it’s important for the Hong Kong Government to respect these freedom of expressions, respect the right of people to peacefully assemble. People are protesting, as we know, as it relates to this proposed legislation because they don’t want to be subjugated to the Chinese as it relates to some of their fundamental rights. And so we continue to urge Hong Kong authorities to ensure proper consultation, as we said on Monday, with a broad range of local and international stakeholders. And as it relates to the continued erosion of the “One Country, Two-party Systems,” that framework puts at risk Hong Kong’s long-established status in international affairs. It’s something that we think we’re all around the world monitoring very closely. Hi.
On, hi, on Sudan.
Can, go ahead, sorry.
Yeah. Does Ambassador Booth plan to stay in Khartoum longer than Assistant Secretary Nagy to assist the negotiations when they resume?
Yeah, I need to double check this–
Until now, you have issued statements, called on the parties, too, for dialogue, to restrain from violence and so on. What else can you do now to make that happen? Do you plan any measure and–
How can you leverage them?
Dialogue is what we do at the State Department, like, diplomacy is our art craft. That’s what we work to do. As it relates to the schedule, I know that they will both be there this week at least through tomorrow. I would need to double check to, on the schedules, but they’re there in meetings. And we continue to call on the security forces to end all attacks on civilians. And of course, we want to highlight, as we have before when we talked here about the Sudanese people, they’ve shown remarkable determination, they’ve been committed to peacefully protesting and civil disobedience, which continues today. So again, what our representatives are doing are urging three main things. We’re urging the Sudanese security forces to end the attacks on civilians, of course withdraw the militias, the RSF militia from Khartoum, and of course to allow an independent investigation for the recent violence. So that is something that I think we’re working incredibly hard on. Does anybody else have anything on Africa? Just try to stay in similar regions today. Michelle?
[Michelle] I was not raising my hand on Africa.
Oh, I’m sorry, okay.
[Michelle] But I do have a question on Mexico.
[Matt] No, I’m deferring to all women today, in honor of your statement.
What is the–
What did you do?
I don’t know.
Someone send a thank you note.
[Matt] I interrupted Abbie on Monday. I felt really bad about it.
Thank you very much.
On Mexico, yesterday, the foreign minister in his lengthy and very detailed press conference talked about regional aid that would come out of what was discussed with the U.S. And he talked about ratifying an agreement that was reached last year on millions of dollars that the U.S. would give, including to programs in El Salvador. But the Secretary two days ago seemed to be dismissing any thought of money going to Central America, so how can you rectify those two statements?
I don’t think that there, there is no change in our policy, as the Secretary indicated a few days ago. I’ll be happy to look into it and to double check to see what exactly the foreign minister was referring to, but there has been no change in our policy as it relates to the Northern Triangle and funding there. Of course, when we have something to announce, we’ll do, last week was, especially last Friday, as we talked about on Monday, I think really showed the enduring strength of our bilateral relationship with Mexico. I know that the Secretary has been working very closely with the foreign minister, will continue to do so, and we are focused with our counterparts in the Mexican Government on results at the end of this very successful negotiation on Friday.
And so on the 45 and 90-day increments of assessing the situation, normally numbers drop dramatically over the summer anyway. So is that a realistic timeframe to look at real results versus cyclical numbers?
Sure. So what the Secretary I believe said on Monday, or at least alluded to this, is that we’re gonna be reviewing the results every single day. And the only way that this is successful, and I would add that the Mexican Government feels very confident in the measures that they pursued on Wednesday with us, they’re confident that we’re going to see dramatic reduction in attempts to illegally cross our border. That’s how we define success, and that’s what we’re going to be looking at every single day. Does anybody have anything else on Mexico? No, go, oh.
[Matt] Can I go to Iran just real quickly?
Okay, we’ll let Matt go. Sorry, go ahead, Matt.
[Matt] I’m just wondering if, what you would think–
I’m probably gonna regret this, but–
Yeah, maybe. (laughs) Just wondering what you have to, what you think, if anything, of the Japanese prime minister’s visit–
To Iran, his comments, concern about potential miscalculations and conflict, as well as the Iranian president’s comments.
Well, the, of course, the President was recently with Prime Minister Abe. As we announced yesterday, we will be joining the President on the G20 at the end of the month. And we believe that we are in full agreement and full alignment with our allies. I’ve been with the Secretary over the past few months. Numerous times, in Europe, for example, we’ve spoken to German Foreign Minister Maas, we were in Switzerland talking about this. I mean, this has been the bulk of many of our meetings, and we, and I’ve seen firsthand that our allies are in agreement with us that Iran’s destabilizing and malign activities must stop. So as, whatever the Japanese prime minister is able to do, we of course are supportive of anyone, we said this when we were really in the height of the tensions just a few weeks ago, we’ve said that anything that the international community can do to deter the Iranian regime from further escalation by conveying military confirmation, excuse me, military confrontation will not be tolerated, is a message that we hope our allies continue to send. We are very, as we said on Monday, we’re very confident that the German foreign minister delivered that message, and we’re confident that the Japanese prime minister will as well.
Okay. And then secondly, related to that, yesterday at the IAEA your ambassador said that Iran was out of compliance, or in violation of the JCPOA, of the nuclear deal, and that it should get back into compliance, and that the other, the remaining parties to the deal should make that a priority. This suggests to me that even though you guys say that this is the worst deal ever negotiated and a horrible failure, that you actually see some value in it. Why would you call for Iran to comply with a deal that you think is essentially garbage if–
[Matt] Is it better than nothing? Is that what the position of the administration is?
Our position on the JCPOA has not changed. But we, of course, do not want Iran to get a nuclear weapon. We also want them to stop their malign activities, supporting terrorists. There’s a lot of news in the Middle East today, as you saw the Houthis, of course, with more potentially reported missile attacks on civilian Saudi infrastructure. So we look at, whether it’s the JCPOA or our maximum pressure campaign towards Iran, holistically. It’s not, it’s certainly about a nuclear weapon, and I know that our European counterparts would like the Iranians to stay in the JCPOA. We certainly do not want them to have a nuclear weapon. But more broadly, I mean, can you imagine if all of you were getting ready to fly to Miami airport and there was a group like the Houthis, a militia like the Houthis, that were using, reportedly using missiles in order to attack an airport before you flew in? Can you imagine how the United States would respond to that, how Canada would respond if that was happening in Ottawa? I mean, these are common-sense things here that we want the Iranians to stop terrorizing innocent people.
I get that. But this is specifically about the nuclear deal, which only covered the nuclear deal, and that’s one of the issues that you have with it–
Because you didn’t think it went far enough. But as it relates purely to the nuclear deal, to the nuclear aspect and the centrifuges, which is what the operation of advanced centrifuges, which is what you say they are violating, why do you care if the deal is, if the deal is bad? Saying that, demanding that Iran come back into compliance with a deal that you have withdrawn from because you see no value in it seems to be contradictory to me.
I don’t think it’s contradictory in the fact that we have stated very loudly since the beginning of this administration that we do not want the Iranian regime to get a nuclear weapon. We think it would be disastrous–
[Matt] Well, fair enough, but are you saying, then–
For the Middle East. I, we haven’t changed our position.
But this seems to me that you’re saying that some limits are better than no limits, and so therefore there is value in the requirements, limits that were placed on Iran in the deal.
Iran is headed in the wrong direction, as evidenced by this now public IAEA report. They pose a challenge to international peace and security, and we will continue this maximum pressure campaign as it relates to their nuclear weapons program, their terrorism and malign activities around the region. Said.
Thank you. Very quickly, we know that Secretary Pompeo is not planning to attend the Bahrain conference on the 25th and the 26th because he has an Asian trip–
[Morgan] We will be there, yes.
Which, and I believe the 24th, you will be in Bahrain?
[Matt] I travel with the Secretary.
No, you will, no, he will be traveling–
He’s stuck with me.
To New Delhi and so on–
And Osaka and all this.
But will anyone from the State Department, like his deputy, John Sullivan, will he be attending the conference? Or is it going to be just at the level of Mr. Brian Hook or maybe the USAID administrator? That’s for the Bahrain conference between the 25th and 26th.
I think that, well, I think that the White House has already announced that Secretary Mnuchin will be attending. We–
I understand. We’re talking about the State Department here.
Yeah, I know. We have not announced who is attending from State, but I will talk to the team and make sure that when we’re ready to announce that, we’ll have that information for you.
[Said] And a quick follow-up on my question–
On Monday. I mean, it’s, when Ambassador Friedman makes such a statement, is he doing foreign policy ad hoc? Is he on his own? Or does he clear that in any way with the Secretary of State, who, at the end of the day, is the top–
None of us do–
This is major policy.
[Said] I mean, this is not something light.
None of us do ad hoc foreign policy. We all, of course, serve at the pleasure of the Secretary, and ultimately at the pleasure of the President. And that goes from an ambassador down to a GS-5, if that even exists. That’s all I have for you, Said.
So would the ambassador–
[Said] Would the ambassador make–
That’s it for, that’s all I have, Said. Thank you.
[Janne] Thank you very much, Morgan.
On North Korea. Yesterday, President Trump said that the President had received a beautiful letter from North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un. How does the State, I mean, Secretary of State Pompeo’s respond on these letters?
How does the Secretary–
See the letter?
So, I mean, what we’re working on fundamentally here, our policy over the past year, I guess it’s a year today since Singapore, is really the transformation of U.S.-North Korean relations. We’re looking, of course, to build a lasting peace. We’re looking for a complete denuclearization. The President, as obvious by his statement yesterday, maintains a warm relationship with Chairman Kim, and here at the State Department, we are ready and willing to continue engagement on working-level negotiations with the North Koreans. We would like to, of course, continue to discuss with our counterparts how to make progress toward the commitments that were made one year ago.
So are you continuing contact with the North Korean delegations still through New York channel or other North Korean?
Yeah, so you know that day to day, the ins and outs of talks as it relates to our negotiation with the North Korean counterparts are something that we ever, don’t ever talk about here from the podium. But we, of course, the Secretary, the President, and Steve Biegun, of course, look forward to building a bright economic future for the North Korean people. And again, we hope that the commitments that we made one year ago will come to fruition, and we’re certainly ready on the working level to do that. And of course, while that happens, while we work towards that, economic sanctions do remain in effect. Yes.
One more on North Korea.
Thank you, Morgan. Grace Lee from Tokyo Broadcasting System.
[Grace] Do you have anything from Biegun’s meeting at the UN today, and if he actually met with any North Koreans?
Yes, just a second. Let me see, so he is in New York today. He does have some UN-related meetings. As you mentioned, he is also there meeting with think tanks and other foreign partners. And I don’t have a readout from those meetings, but yes, he is there.
[Michelle] Can we go back to North Korea?
That’s not exactly true what you said about not characterizing communications day to day from this podium, because in the past, many times the State Department has, and they’ve said that there has been daily, daily communication or they’ve characterized it in some way. So can you characterize what has gone on in communications between the State Department and North Korea since then?
I haven’t said that. I don’t know who you’re referring to, but that wasn’t me.
[Michel] Yeah, I have two questions, one on Saudi Arabia and the attack on Abha Airport, if you had anything.
And the other one on Ambassador Satterfield discussions in Beirut regarding the location of border between Israel and Lebanon.
Yeah, two questions. These are, if you have anything on–
Oh, what was the, what was, as it relates to Saudi?
On the attack.
[Michel] On the Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia today.
Mm-hmm. What’s our, I mean, I think I alluded to that earlier, what we were talking–
[Michel] Yes, well, yeah, but we need something on camera, if you–
(laughs) Always, of course, for you. As we said earlier, obviously it’s incredibly troubling, these attacks that we saw. I mean, it would disturb anyone around the world when you’re sending your family to an airport, and of course these reports are disturbing, right? If you’re sending your family to a civilian airport and it can be targeted by a militia with very, very sophisticated weaponry that they’re obviously getting from the Iranians, it should trouble everyone, because it’s not just Saudi civilians that are at risk here. I mean, this is, I’ve, having lived in Saudi Arabia, I’ve been in and out of Riyadh International Airport. My family has, my husband visited me there. I mean, we have tons of American civilians and people from around the world that go in and out of this airport, so it’s incredibly troubling and disturbing. I think that the President’s, yeah, I’m so sorry. I think that the President’s gonna be having a press conference soon. I certainly want to get off the camera before he does, so do you have anything, Matt, before we go?
[Matt] (laughs) No.
And I don’t, I can follow up with you on that. I don’t have any specific readout to give you on those meetings, though, for Satterfield. I know what you’re referring to. Anything, Matt?
I have nothing else.
Okay. (reporters chattering)
[Matt] Abbie wants to go again. (laughs)
I’ll be back tomorrow. Yeah, you’re not gonna be nice tomorrow, are you?
[Michel] Thank you.