Daily Press Briefing - December 22, 2015

Elizabeth Trudeau
Director, Press Office
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
December 22, 2015


2:01 p.m. EST

MS TRUDEAU:  Hi.  Welcome to the State Department.  I have nothing from the top, so let’s open it up.


QUESTION:  Can I – I just want to pick up on your statement now about Mr. Pu’s suspended sentence. 

MS TRUDEAU:  Mm-hmm.

QUESTION:  What do you mean by that the U.S. wishes that the sentence be vacated?  Are you asking for it to be withdrawn?

MS TRUDEAU:  Well, what we’re saying is, as you’ve seen the statement, the U.S. welcomes reports that Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent Chinese defense lawyer, has been released from detention.  We are disturbed, however, that Mr. Pu was convicted and given a three-year suspended sentence following 19 months of imprisonment on vague charges of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”  We urge Chinese authorities to vacate that conviction immediately and unconditionally.  Mr. Pu Zhiqiang is a courageous defense attorney, recognized around the world for his work to strengthen the rule of law in China.  Civil society leaders should be allowed to contribute to the building of a prosperous and stable China. 

I would note, as we have on many occasions, we remain – as we have expressed on many occasions, we remain concerned by the systemic pattern of arrest and detention of public interest lawyers, internet activists, journalists, religious leaders, and others who peacefully question official Chinese policies and action.  We believe they should be embraced as partners and not enemies of the government.  We continue to call upon China to uphold fundamental civil rights and fair trial guarantees, as enshrined in China’s constitution and its international human rights commitments. 

QUESTION:  Coming back to that word “vacate” because it doesn’t quite make sense to me on --

MS TRUDEAU:  To set it aside.

QUESTION:  So you want to set it aside, to withdraw it?

MS TRUDEAU:  We do. 

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you. 

MS TRUDEAU:  That’s great.   Matt, I’m sorry.  Can we go back to you?

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Sorry, I was --

MS TRUDEAU:  I was fast. 

QUESTION:  Yes, you were quick.  I want to go back to something that we talked about with John yesterday briefly. 


QUESTION:  This is the Visa Waiver provisions.

MS TRUDEAU:  Mm-hmm.

QUESTION:  There has been a lot of concern expressed up on the Hill that the Secretary, in his letter to Foreign Minister Zarif, suggested or even said outright that the Administration was prepared to waive the requirement in the law that dual Iranian nationals, or people who are – have dual nationality with Iran and members of – and Visa Waiver Program members, member countries, do not have to get visas.  Is that correct?

MS TRUDEAU:  Well, as the Secretary noted in his letter to the foreign minister, we have a number of potential tools to ensure this new legislation does not unduly interfere with the JCPOA implementation or legitimate business travel.  The new legislation includes waiver authority for the Department of Homeland Security, but it would be too early to say what and if when that authority will be used.  So I don't want to get ahead of a decision.  It is in the bill.

QUESTION:  Okay.  So in fact, the Administration can decide that it can choose not to --

MS TRUDEAU:  So it’s --

QUESTION:  -- require people who would be covered by this --

MS TRUDEAU:  So the new legislation --

QUESTION:  -- from getting a visa?

MS TRUDEAU:  -- does include waiver authority.

QUESTION:  And sorry, that would be DHS that decides that?


QUESTION:  So it’s not a State Department function?

MS TRUDEAU:  So Visa Waiver Program is, in fact, DHS. 

QUESTION:  Okay.  So why is Secretary Kerry writing to the Iranian foreign minister about --

MS TRUDEAU:  It’s my understanding this was a follow-up to a conversation they had on Friday.

QUESTION:  All right.  So is your understanding that the – that Secretary Johnson at DHS shares Secretary Kerry’s view that --

MS TRUDEAU:  Well, as I said, it’s too early to see if or when that authority will be used, but we will say it is included in the legislation. 

QUESTION:  I don’t – why is it too early to say?

MS TRUDEAU:  Because I think at this time they’re still looking at it; they’re looking at the implementation of it.  So but for --

QUESTION:  Sorry, who is?

MS TRUDEAU:  So the interagency. 

QUESTION:  They’re looking at how they would implement it.  Do they know – where is the right place to go to find out how many people --

MS TRUDEAU:  For a visa waiver --

QUESTION:  Well, how many people would be affected by – I mean, how many – currently, how many dual Iranian Visa Waiver Program members come into the United States on the Visa Waiver Program?  Where is that?  Where is that --

MS TRUDEAU:  Sure.  For questions for Visa Waiver, we’d refer you to DHS.

QUESTION:  Okay.  And then second – unless someone else has more on this?

MS TRUDEAU:  I skipped around.  Why don’t we stay with you and we can --

QUESTION:  All right.  I’ve got – this is a different subject.


QUESTION:  Actually, just sticking on that first one.


QUESTION:  When would this decision be made whether to use the authority?

MS TRUDEAU:  I can’t speculate on that.  I know they’re in conversations now.  The letter that the Secretary sent was a follow-up to his conversation on Friday, but I know that these conversations are continuing.

QUESTION:  Okay.  But it takes effect immediately, right?  I mean, doesn’t it – isn’t it in effect now?

MS TRUDEAU:  So I think they’re still looking at how with – if or when those authorities that are in contention --

QUESTION:  No, no.  Not the wavier authority.  I’m talking about the actual provision, the requirement.  Is it --

MS TRUDEAU:  On that, I’m going to refer you to DHS, because again, Visa Waiver Program is a DHS program. 

QUESTION:  All right. 

MS TRUDEAU:  Thanks, Matt.

QUESTION:  And on the other – the other topic is also from the Hill.


QUESTION:  There are calls from Senator Cruz, among others, for the State Department – for the Administration to close down the PLO office in Washington because of what these lawmakers say is the Palestinian Authority’s continued incitement of violence against Israel.  What’s your response to that?

MS TRUDEAU:  Okay.  So we are aware of the letter.  We’ve received the letter.  We’ll respond to that letter, as we do with all of our congressional correspondence.  As a former senator, Secretary Kerry very much respects the role of Congress on that and will engage. 

I would note we believe closing the PLO office would be detrimental to our ongoing efforts to calm current tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, advance a two-state solution, and strengthen the U.S.-Palestinian partnership.  We believe the PLO is an important partner, and, as the official representative body of the Palestinian people before the international community, the PLO has a role to play in our efforts to advance a two-state solution.  Every administration, either Republican or Democrat, has regularly exercised available waiver authorities since 1994 allowing the PLO office to remain open. 

Obviously – and certainly we’ve spoken about it from this podium as well as people much higher than me in the Administration – we remain deeply concerned about ongoing violence in Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.  We completely reject the notion that there is any justification for violence against innocent civilians.  We continue to stress the importance of – to Palestinian leadership of strongly opposing violence in all forms.  We’ve said affirmative steps are needed to calm tensions and reduce violence.

QUESTION:  Okay.  So if – tell me if I’m wrong then.  The response to this letter is going to be: Thank you very much for your letter.  No, we --

MS TRUDEAU:  I can’t get ahead of that.  What I’ll say is we will --

QUESTION:  Well, what you just said is you think you would oppose --

MS TRUDEAU:  What I’ll say is what our position is, which is we believe the PLO is an important partner in advancing the two-state solution.

QUESTION:  Right.  So – and you also said that you believe that the office – closing the office would be detrimental to your efforts to calm the situation.

MS TRUDEAU:  Exactly. 

QUESTION:  So you’re opposed to this?

MS TRUDEAU:  So we believe that the PLO has a valid place. 


MS TRUDEAU:  We’d like to see that office – and we’d oppose those efforts, yes.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU:  That’s great.  Goyal.

QUESTION:  Two questions.  Thank you.  Do you see – or what role you think U.S. has played in Saudi Arabia and Iraq?  Recently in Saudi Arabia, they allowed a woman to vote and also womens were elected for the first time in 60 years. 

And second, in Iraq yesterday after 1972 under the pressure from Baghdadi, who threatened that they cannot hold Miss Iraq pageant in Iraq, and which they held this yesterday, an Iraqi woman was the chosen – was the one who became the Miss Iraq pageant.  So you think there is a now shift coming up, despite threats from the Baghdadi and terrorists that they cannot hold these kind of functions in Iraq or under the Islamic law?

MS TRUDEAU:  So there’s a lot in there, okay.  So I think you saw our statement on Saudi elections as well as the participation by women in that.  Obviously, we welcome this.  This is an important step, and I think you saw our statement on that.

While I may not be the most qualified person to speak to Miss Iraq pageants, what we would say is that we welcome the opening of society and women, of course, as a full and equal partner in society.  We welcome that everywhere in the world. 

QUESTION:  And if I may have one general question on ISIS/ISIL or the terrorism as we enter the new year, 2016, end of the 2015.  Who are the ISIS or ISIL?  Who are they and where they come from?  Are they the same people from al-Qaida or Taliban?  Because during – before we – we’ve been dealing for the last 20 years or so with Taliban and al-Qaida, and head was, of course, Usama bin Ladin and others, his deputies and all the commanders.  But now he’s gone, some of his deputies are gone, but with a new name other organizations are now playing bigger role against innocent people around the globe in many, many countries.  Now we see ISIS --

MS TRUDEAU:  And I thought your previous question was big.  No?

QUESTION:  So who are these people?  Where they come from?  Are they same people?  Because even young people were joining al-Qaida and Taliban also from different countries under the leadership --

MS TRUDEAU:  I think what you’re asking really is sort of what we call ISIL-affiliated groups or ISIL aspirational groups; these groups around the world who took one off one t-shirt, they’re putting on another one; people who seek to associate themselves maybe with the high level of visibility that ISIL has gotten. 

What I can talk to is sort of the issue of countering violent extremism and countering terror around the world.  The United States remains engaged with our partners and our allies around the world on taking a look at this.  Some of this goes back to sort of the root causes of terror and addressing those issues, and it’s country-by-country, region-by-region specific.  I think it would be very difficult right now from this podium – and there’s people a lot smarter than me on this – to characterize everyone who claims to be ISIL or ISIL-affiliated.  We’ve seen this in the past.

But I will say that I think, especially this year and moving forward, you see an international community coming together who is seeking to address this, not only the causes but the outputs of groups like that.

QUESTION:  We have not seen any role played by China.  Only one is the country that major – that we have not seen.  Either China is playing the double role, buying their oil or supplying their arms, or where is China as far as fighting these terrorists?

MS TRUDEAU:  So China has played a role.  I think China is one of the countries that has talked about the threat of terror.  But again, it’s going to be very hard to characterize this country by country.  And I don’t think that’s something that we can do from here.  But certainly, the international community has, I wouldn’t say woken up to this, but it’s something that I think all of us are facing head on.

Guy --

QUESTION:  And finally --

QUESTION:  Related --

MS TRUDEAU:  I’m sorry.  One more with Goyal and then we’ll move to you, Guy.  One second.

QUESTION:  I’m sorry.  Finally, just one more.  Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU:  Of course.

QUESTION:  As far as U.S.-India relations are concerned --

MS TRUDEAU:  Of course.

QUESTION:  -- Indian parliament is now considering a bill which will help the U.S. companies to do business in India easily, easier than in the past.  What role do you think U.S. is playing?  And also, how much you – are you considering --

MS TRUDEAU:  So this is pending legislation within the Indian parliament.

QUESTION:  And what is the relation between – where do you stand on --

MS TRUDEAU:  You know I’m not going to speak to pending legislation in another country’s parliament.  I won’t even speak to it in ours.

QUESTION:  No, what I meant – sorry.


QUESTION:  What I meant is where do you put today, 2015, the relations between the two countries?

MS TRUDEAU:  Oh, excellent.  India is an important partner.  Our cultural ties are deep.  We share huge concerns as large democracies.  Thank you.


QUESTION:  Thank you very much.

QUESTION:  I have a related question about ISIL affiliates, and particularly in the Balkans --


QUESTION:  -- where federal police in Bosnia have just today engaged in a pretty major sweep that rounded up at least 11 individuals alleged to be involved in some way with the Islamic State.  Does this department support the Bosnian Government’s crackdown?  Are there concerns that it may be heavy-handed?  And then, separately, how serious are concerns here that ISIL is trying to get some kind of foothold in that region of the world with these affiliates that you mentioned?

MS TRUDEAU:  So thanks, Guy.  So we have seen those reports.  I’m going to refer you to the proper authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly on that.  But as I said when I was speaking with Goyal, we work with our partners around the world, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on counterterrorism measures to defeat terrorism wherever it exists, and we’ll continue to do that.

We’ve seen tangible progress since we’ve made this effort.  Again, not speaking particularly for this because I’ve just seen these reports coming out, but the U.S. currently has information-sharing agreements with over 45 international partners to identify and track the travel of foreign terrorists.  This type of information-sharing agreements remain one of the best ways that we can increase cooperation to mitigate the flow of foreign terrorist fighters.  A total of 44 countries have passed or updated existing laws to effectively identify and prosecute foreign terror fighters.  Twenty-two countries have passed new legal frameworks since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2178.

We understand the seriousness of this.  We understand that countries around the world are facing this issue.  Particularly when it comes to these arrests, I just can’t speak to the details of those.  It’s my understanding the investigation’s ongoing.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thank you.  Pam.

QUESTION:  New topic?


QUESTION:  What is the U.S. response to Haiti’s decision to postpone its presidential runoff election until January?

MS TRUDEAU:  Pam, let me find that and then I’m going to come right back to you on that, okay?  My apologies.  Actually, got it.  I’m as bad as Kirby up here.

We urge all actors to work together in a peaceful manner towards the goal of seating a new parliament by January 11th and inaugurating a new president by February 7th, as mandated by the Haitian constitution.  As Haiti moves to the final round of elections, the United States reaffirms its commitment to working with the CEP and Haiti’s international partners in support of fair and credible elections that reflect the will of the Haitian people.


QUESTION:  Hi.  President Obama on Friday, at his year-end new conference, said, “I think that Assad is going to have to leave in order for the country to stop the bloodshed for all the parties involved to be able to move forward in a nonsectarian way.”  And we’ve heard similar statements from this podium.  I have a few simple end-of-the-year questions.

Is it the position of the U.S. that Assad can stay through the transition process?

MS TRUDEAU:  Our position is that Assad has lost legitimacy.  He cannot be part of a Syrian government.  How and when he goes is still under debate.

QUESTION:  So can Assad stay through the transition process?

MS TRUDEAU:  So as I said, at the end, where Assad goes – and we actually did a pretty deep dive on this yesterday, so I’d also direct you to that transcript.  But --

QUESTION:  (Off-mike.)

MS TRUDEAU:  But as we go, at the end, he cannot be part of a government that governs a free, pluralistic Syria.  How and where he goes in that transition process is still being worked out.

QUESTION:  I understand how you see the future, but what about the transition process?

MS TRUDEAU:  How and when he goes is still being discussed.

QUESTION:  Is his departure – just to clarify, Assad’s departure is not a precondition for the transition process to begin, is it?

MS TRUDEAU:  How and where he goes is part of what is under discussion right now.

QUESTION:  Would you agree --

QUESTION:  Is there not --

QUESTION:  Would you agree – I’m sorry.  Would you agree that the U.S. position has evolved from, say, that --

MS TRUDEAU:  I would say that our position actually is the same.  We’ve always said that Assad cannot be part of the government that will eventually govern the free Syria.  We talked about this yesterday.  I think Secretary Kerry made this clear.  We’ve seen progress.  We’ve seen progress as we go.  There are still disagreements within the ISSG.  There’s still a lot of discussion that’s going on.  But what we’re seeing now is those dialogues, those discussions happen.

QUESTION:  But would you say that it is still being discussed and decided whether or not he can be part of the transition process?

MS TRUDEAU:  So what I’d say it is still being decided and discussed what that transitional process looks like.  Our position that Assad must go, that he has lost legitimacy, he cannot govern a free and sovereign Syria, has not changed.

Okay, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Yes, on Japan.  The – Japan’s ruling party launched a study group to review its modern history, and this is placed directly under Prime Minister Abe.  And given the contentious nature of history in the region, there are concerns that they would take a revisionist perspective on history.  Do you share these concerns?

MS TRUDEAU:  Okay, so you’re asking me about an internal study group taking a look at internal history of a sovereign country.


MS TRUDEAU:  Okay, we have no comment on that.

QUESTION:  Okay.  But I mean, there are concerns that there are also – they would also look at U.S.-Japanese history, including the Tokyo war crime tribunals.

MS TRUDEAU:  Yeah.  On the questions of how Japan governs its own history projects, I’m going to refer you to the Government of Japan.  Okay.

QUESTION:  Really?  So they can revise --

MS TRUDEAU:  On questions on how they do --

QUESTION:  They can revise history and it’s okay with you?

MS TRUDEAU:  Well, certainly, we have our own view of what happened in the World Wars.  History and historians – international historians, U.S. historians, independent Japanese historians – have spoken about this.  But this particular process, which is a Japanese Government process, I’m not going to speak to.

QUESTION:  Okay.  Well, if – you have spoken to other countries’ attempts to rewrite history or --

MS TRUDEAU:  Yeah.  It’s my understanding this is a brand-new process.  I think this is --

QUESTION:  Okay.  I don’t know anything about it.


QUESTION:  I’m just curious that you can say that --

QUESTION:  He’ll send around a link.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MS TRUDEAU:  Thanks.

QUESTION:  I have a follow-up.  


QUESTION:  On Burundi:  Today the government rejected a proposal for the African Union peacekeeping force in Burundi.  Do you have any comment on this and --

MS TRUDEAU:  Yeah.  We would strongly prefer that the government in Burundi welcome the AU mission on the timeline set out.  We defer to the African Union on the next steps.  We offer our full support to the AU government.  We have urged Burundi to accept the AU mission.  We will continue to support the deployment of these troops to protect civilians and to allow space for the internationally mediated dialogue to find a sustainable political solution to this crisis.  We remain gravely concerned with the situation on the ground.

It’s going to be a short one.  Abbie.

QUESTION:  Do you have any response to reports that in 2013 Iran hacked into the controls of a dam outside of New York City?  And do you think that incidents like this reveal a weakness in U.S. security?

MS TRUDEAU:  I would say cyber security remains a priority and a challenge across the federal government as well as in the private sector.  We’re continuously making improvements, we’re well positioned today, we’ve demonstrated our ability to move swiftly and to good effect.  I’m not going to speak specifically on this particular allegation.

Okay.  Hi.

QUESTION:  Hi.  I know you talked about the Chinese lawyer’s case at the top of the briefing --


QUESTION:  -- but could you comment on the reports that a foreign reporter was being physically abused by a plainclothes police officer at the court?

MS TRUDEAU:  Okay.  I’m not aware of those reports.  Obviously, we’ve spoken very strongly about freedom of expression, the importance of media freedom, okay.  But I’m not aware of those specific reports.

Last one.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  The State Department has revoked the visas of 9,500 individuals who were found to have some connection to terrorism since 2001.  Could some of them still be in the United States?

MS TRUDEAU:  Okay.  So revoking the visas – are you talking about entry into the United States?

QUESTION:  (Inaudible.)

MS TRUDEAU:  Because for people who are inside the United States, I’m going to refer you to the Department of Homeland Security.  They’re the people who control the borders, who go inside the United States.  If you’re asking about visa revocation, we – are you asking the 9,000? 

QUESTION:  The 9,000 --

MS TRUDEAU:  Clarify your question for me.

QUESTION:  9,500 --

MS TRUDEAU:  You’re asking about people who remain in the United States?

QUESTION:  That’s right, and who were found to have some connection – actually, I would like that clarified. 

MS TRUDEAU:  Yeah, it’s a complex thing.

QUESTION:  Are they in the United States or are they – but could they still be in the United States?

MS TRUDEAU:  Okay.  If visas have been revoked, they have no possibility of traveling to the United States.  If you’re asking about who’s in the United States – and I can’t speak for the Department of Homeland Security.  I don’t know the sensitivity of their records.  But if you’re asking about that, I’m going to refer you over there.

QUESTION:  But can their visas be revoked while they’re still in the United States?

MS TRUDEAU:  So if people are within the United States and then they’re – they leave, that’s a question for Homeland Security.  So we can speak to the revocation of visas.  Without visas, people cannot travel to the U.S. – or Visa Waiver Program, which is also an electronic system.

QUESTION:  But if they’re already here, does the State Department --

MS TRUDEAU:  So that’s going to be a DHS question because once people are in the U.S., it’s a Homeland Security question, okay?  And I’m happy to walk you through that.

QUESTION:  But could they – could some of them still be in the U.S. (inaudible)?

MS TRUDEAU:  I’m going to refer you to DHS to speak to that.

Thanks, guys.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:24 p.m.)