Daily Press Briefing - January 6, 2017
Index for Today's Briefing:
2:16 p.m. EST
MR KIRBY: What’s on the scarf?
QUESTION: USA Hockey.
MR KIRBY: Okay. All right, that’s acceptable.
QUESTION: It’s from the winter Olympics from --
MR KIRBY: Really?
QUESTION: Remember the winter Olympics in Sochi.
MR KIRBY: I do remember the winter Olympics, yes.
QUESTION: I had to special order this.
MR KIRBY: Did you really, Matt? It’s very sporty. That’s okay. So would a NASCAR driver-- that would have been okay as well. USA Hockey.
QUESTION: Guess you didn’t watch the game, Kirby.
MR KIRBY: What game? That game? (Laughter.) I grew up in south Florida. So while I can appreciate the athleticism of hockey, I don’t really spend a lot of time watching it.
QUESTION: You’ve got two teams.
MR KIRBY: Is there only two teams in all of hockey? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: No, in Florida.
MR KIRBY: Two hockey teams in Florida. Yes, I know that, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy watching it.
MR KIRBY: Look, any sport that has the word “ice” in it is not going to attract my attention. (Laughter.) Can I get on with the briefing? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Talk about hockey.
MR KIRBY: So a couple just at the top. One, I’d like to just provide a brief readout. I think you know that the deputy secretary met yesterday with his counterparts from the Republic of Korea and Japan. We issued a fact sheet about that meeting – a communique, if you will – which I can point you to on our website. But the Deputy Secretary, as he said afterward, quote, “We share a common purpose in addressing the region’s most acute threat: North Korea. The United States is committed to protecting ourselves, defending our allies, meeting our treaty obligations, and providing extended deterrence guaranteed by the full spectrum of U.S. defense capabilities,” end quote.
So since April 2015, inaugural – I’m sorry – since the April 2015 inaugural trilateral meeting in Washington, our three countries have coordinated responses to the growing nuclear ballistic missile threat from North Korea. We’ve joined efforts to address a range of other regional security issues, and we work together to forge innovative approaches to global priorities such as space security, cyber security, cancer research, development assistance, and women’s empowerment. So it was a good full day of discussions. And again, we can point you to our website and the fact sheet for more detail on that.
A trip note just briefly. On Monday, the Secretary will be heading up to Boston. He will highlight climate change, innovation, and the global transition to a clean energy future during a speech at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That will be at 10:30 on Monday morning.
Following the speech, he will be joined by the Deputy Secretary to participate in a roundtable discussion with members of MIT and policy experts on what is being called “the future of work.” The discussion will focus on how rapid advances in technological innovation, including digitization and automation, are impacting the future of jobs and transferring economies all around the world. The roundtable was part of the department’s Innovation Forum, which convenes senior policymakers and industry experts for discussions on issues at the intersection of foreign policy and innovation.
And with that, we’ll go to Matt.
QUESTION: Are you going?
MR KIRBY: I will not be making the trip on Monday.
QUESTION: Because you know what they have in Boston?
MR KIRBY: A lot of snow and ice. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: A hockey team, too.
MR KIRBY: Yes, I know. I’ve heard that they play hockey up there, yes.
QUESTION: That’s probably why you’re not going, right?
MR KIRBY: It’s not – no, I’m – it’s not because of the hockey. The snow and ice, that’s another issue. That may be factoring into it.
QUESTION: All right. Listen, I don’t have anything huge to start with, but I did want to follow up on something the Secretary mentioned yesterday when he was asked about Syria by Samir. He essentially said you’re not giving up. You’re continuing to encourage this process that is now effectively being led by the Turks and the Russians. He said that he had still been in contact, and in contact in recent days, with Foreign Minister Lavrov and the Turkish foreign minister. Do you – can you be a little bit more specific about that? And has he also been in touch with Gulf – his Gulf counterparts specifically about the ceasefire that took effect on the 30th and the prospects for getting some kind of negotiation back on the – started?
MR KIRBY: The – yeah, the most recent discussion that he’s had with Foreign Minister Lavrov was just after Christmas on the 27th, and the last time I show him speaking to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu would be on the 20th of December, so --
QUESTION: Okay, so this is not that recently.
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, if it was – not in the last --
QUESTION: Like two weeks, but it wasn’t --
MR KIRBY: -- couple of days but, yeah, in recent days, in recent weeks.
QUESTION: Okay. And so what is the – in terms of the – what the Administration – we know – I think it’s been explained what the Administration is hoping for, hoping that this can work and that you would be supportive of anything that could bring about a political resolution. But in terms of your – the Administration’s involvement directly in this, how would you describe that?
MR KIRBY: In the --
QUESTION: Ongoing --
MR KIRBY: -- bilateral work that --
QUESTION: No, not necessarily the bilateral work, the multilateral work that’s going on that the Turks and Russia --
MR KIRBY: Russia, Turkey, Iran?
MR KIRBY: Yeah. We are not actively involved in those discussions.
QUESTION: Can I --
MR KIRBY: We’re not actively involved in those discussions. They are being coordinated by those three countries in particular. We’re not at the table. We’re not involved in the planning, and we’re obviously not speaking to whatever outcomes are – that are coming out of these discussions. That’s point one.
Point two – and I think the Secretary talked about this yesterday – is that while we are not at the table and, by the way, have not been invited to participate – he has and fully intends to stay, at least for the next couple of weeks, in touch with his counterparts on whatever outcomes are being arrived at through these discussions. So he’s staying in touch with that – with foreign leaders with respect to what they’re doing.
And then the last thing I would say is that while I understand the focus on these multilateral discussions, first of all, we still subscribe to what we believe should be a UN-led political process. And so while he said yesterday and said it again today that we support discussions – if it’s in Astana, that’s fine, support those, but to the – within the context of them eventually leading to and being folded into the Geneva process, the UN-led process by Staffan de Mistura. And that’s where – so nothing’s changed about our policy with respect to that.
QUESTION: Right, but I guess the question – and this may have been addressed while I was away, but the question is since October, essentially, you guys have ceded what had been a pretty major leadership role in the ISSG and trying to convene – trying to convene the talks that de Mistura was leading. And now it seems as though you’ve just given up, at least in term – not in terms of hoping what the outcome will be, but in terms of your actual participation. Is that a comfortable position for the Administration, for the Secretary to be in as he closes out his time?
MR KIRBY: Well, a couple of thoughts on that. I would disagree that we’ve ceded anything. It’s not the first time --
QUESTION: Well --
MR KIRBY: Hang on, Matt. It’s not the first time that there have been multilateral discussions about ceasefires and humanitarian aid where we weren’t invited and didn’t participate. So we – and the Secretary, I thought, was very forcefully eloquent yesterday about his intention – and again, at least for the time that he’s left in office – of staying fully engaged. And U.S. leadership on trying to find a diplomatic solution in Syria has not stopped, has not waned, and will not while he’s – at least as long as he is Secretary. That doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge that there are multilateral efforts going on and discussions that we’re not participating in. The – so we haven’t ceded anything in that regard.
The other thing I’d say is that if those discussions with or without us can lead to a better outcome on any one of those three things, then we obviously support that.
QUESTION: Yeah. I guess my question – and I’ll stop after this – is I just don’t understand how it is that if you’re not participating, let alone not inviting – not invited, how it is exactly that you’re showing any kind of leadership role. Don’t you have to be at the table or a part of the --
MR KIRBY: There --
QUESTION: -- of the process in order to be able to push things in the direction that you want them to go when the players actually sit down?
MR KIRBY: Well, we still are at the proverbial table. We may not be at the table in Astana, we may not be at the table in Moscow.
QUESTION: But you were --
MR KIRBY: I understand that. But it’s not like we are walking away from Syria. It’s not like we’re stopping our engagement. It’s not like we’re still not part of the ISSG or that the ISSG doesn’t exist.
QUESTION: It doesn’t exist.
MR KIRBY: Of course it does. We are still --
QUESTION: When was the last time it met in any kind of way, shape, or form?
MR KIRBY: No, it’s been a long time, several months, but that doesn’t mean that it’s been disbanded. I mean, there’s a UN --
QUESTION: Right, so --
MR KIRBY: -- Security Council resolution that codifies the ISSG.
QUESTION: Does that mean that the League of Nations still exists too? I mean, it still --
MR KIRBY: It still exists.
QUESTION: It does? (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: No, not the League of Nations. (Laughter.) The ISSG still exists. So, Matt, look, I mean, the larger point is we’re not giving up --
QUESTION: Can you explain exactly what it is that you’re doing that constitutes leadership in a process that you’re not at all involved in?
MR KIRBY: We’re not involved in this particular process, but it doesn’t mean that that is the only level of discussion that’s going on on Syria. You’re right; there haven’t been any recent ISSG meetings. You would also be right if you were to say, well, there hasn’t been any political talks in Geneva for a while, and – whether it’s opposition/regime-related or multilateral-related with respect to a ceasefire. Totally, all that’s fair, but it doesn’t mean that we have stepped back off the stage in terms of trying to exert some sort of influence to get to a better outcome. And as the Secretary said yesterday, if we can get to that outcome and the United States is not at the table, then he’s okay with that --
QUESTION: Right, but that’s --
MR KIRBY: -- because that’s what --
QUESTION: -- that’s ceding it. That’s stepping it --
MR KIRBY: It’s not --
QUESTION: That’s backing away from the stage.
MR KIRBY: Well, we’re certainly – first of all, we weren’t invited to the stage, so it’s – you can’t back away from something you weren’t invited to. So it’s not about – and we’re not ceding leadership.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, then you’ve been excluded.
MR KIRBY: No, but --
QUESTION: Excluded. Right.
QUESTION: Maybe you haven’t ceded it.
MR KIRBY: But you asked the other question, which I want to get to.
QUESTION: All right.
MR KIRBY: This is the – is he comfortable? No, he’s not comfortable. Of course he’s not comfortable with where we are on Syria. Is he uncomfortable that there are meetings going on where we’re not in attendance? No, that – as he said yesterday, that doesn’t particularly bother him, because he is staying in touch. We are aware and we are still involved in the process – the larger diplomatic process.
QUESTION: But --
MR KIRBY: But is he satisfied with where we are in Syria? Is he at all comfortable with what’s going on? Of course we’re not.
QUESTION: Okay, and this is the last one, which is the other phone calls like Gulf, Arab.
MR KIRBY: I don’t have any --
QUESTION: Any – how about any call on Syria --
MR KIRBY: Well, again, we’re just coming off the holidays, so I don’t have any recent calls to --
QUESTION: All right, I understand. But you can make phone calls over the holidays.
MR KIRBY: Yes. So there were – I mean, I’ve got --
QUESTION: So I’m just wondering if there has been any – this engagement --
MR KIRBY: There has been.
QUESTION: -- that you keep talking about.
MR KIRBY: There has been.
MR KIRBY: Over the course of the holiday period, I’m looking at several calls to Gulf allies. Yes.
QUESTION: Okay, so those have been made.
MR KIRBY: Yes, over the course of the holidays.
QUESTION: Kirby, is anyone from the U.S. going to go to the Astana? I mean, are you have – he might not have been invited or --
MR KIRBY: I am aware of no U.S. participation in those discussions.
QUESTION: Do you think --
QUESTION: So – and then de Mistura said – or the UN said today that they were going to go ahead with the February meeting in Geneva. What about those meetings?
MR KIRBY: Well, they haven’t – we haven’t been a party to them. Those are UN-led, UN-brokered discussions between the opposition and the regime. I think in the past, we have had somebody go as an observer – Special Envoy Ratney, for instance. I don’t – I wouldn’t – I don’t know whether that will be the case in February. We can try to get an answer for you. I would expect that, as in the past, we would have at least somebody there sort of at a distance and observing, but not participating.
The whole purpose of those talks is to have the opposition and the regime both fairly represented, both involved in some sort of level of dialogue. The farthest they’ve been able to get was what we call “proximity talks” where they’re not actually in the same room, but being – discussions being brokered by Special Envoy de Mistura.
I don’t know what the format in February is going to look like. That’s really for him to speak to. But I certainly couldn’t rule out that there would be some U.S. attendance as an observer only, not to be participating. That’s never been the design.
QUESTION: And then as these three countries get together – Turkey, Iran, and Russia – to discuss what’s going on in Syria, and maybe the end product of it, which could be a transition from Assad or maybe he stays. Is – does the U.S. – I think it goes back to what Matt’s saying – does the U.S. not feel uncomfortable that these discussions and decisions are being made about a country where you have an influence – I mean, and you have – you’ve got planes flying – airstrikes going on? I mean, is there not – I mean, how do you – you’re not part of those, those discussions. Is there not some kind of --
MR KIRBY: Well, first of all, the military efforts in Syria are Daesh-related, not related to the civil war. And to the discussions that happen if it – in Astana or elsewhere without our participation, they have no impact on the coalition efforts to counter Daesh inside Syria. Those are not connected in that way.
But look, of course we’re concerned by the discussions. Of course we are interested in whatever outcomes. And that is why, as the Secretary said, he’s going to stay in touch with his Turkish and Russian counterparts going forward here – has and will continue to – at least for as long as he’s in office – about whatever outcomes and results and whatever comes out of these meetings, he will certainly stay in touch on that. We are interested in that and we do have concerns about whatever those outcomes are.
That said, Lesley, we continue to stand solidly behind a UN-led process here, which is enshrined in our UN Security Council resolution which codified itself the ISSG process. And that is still the operative process and that is what we will continue to support. And so, as the Secretary said yesterday, if they want to meet in Astana, that’s perfectly within their right to do it. And if that discussion in Astana can lead us to a quicker result or more progress in Geneva under UN auspices, well, that’s all to the good as well. It’s not like – so it’s not like – while we aren’t connected to this piece of it, it’s not like we’re pulling out from the whole puzzle.
QUESTION: Yes, but then what do you do if they agree that Assad should stay?
MR KIRBY: Our policy on Assad has not changed and I don’t expect that it will change for as long as this Administration is in office. That we continue to believe he cannot be part of the long-term future of Syria. As I have said for many, many months, the – his role in a transition will be determined – should be determined by those political talks. We want the Syrians to decide that. That’s the way it’s been set up. Our view, what we want to see as the end result, is not changed, but ultimately the discussion of how and what his role is in the transition is going to be – should be the byproduct – not just the byproduct – the product of those political talks.
QUESTION: John, let me just follow up. Do you have any comment on this – the apparent scaling back of Russian military presence in Syria? Have you heard those announcements?
MR KIRBY: I did. I mean, we – I’ve seen the reports that they’re pulling back, I think, some artillery units is my understanding. I can’t confirm the veracity of that. The Russian defense ministry should speak to that. And I also think that whether they pull out these units or not, it’s pretty apparent that they continue to pursue a pretty robust military presence in Syria and continue to pursue military strategies to bolster the Assad regime. And as the Secretary said yesterday, those strategies will only lengthen the war, attract extremists, fling more people into refugee status, and perhaps put at risk and prolong any useful political talks that could lead to a lasting peace.
QUESTION: How do you read this announcement if it is true? Because we’ve heard months back the Russians also announced some scaling back, but then they went back in again and, you know, bolstered him. So how do you – is this like --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I’ve also seen them announce scaling back when it’s really just rotational deployments. I mean, so, again, you’d have to talk to the --
QUESTION: And is it possible that it is rotational deployment?
MR KIRBY: It could be. I don’t know. You’d have to talk to the Russian defense ministry. We’ve seen them say, well, we’re pulling troops out, when really all they’re doing is they’re just rotating. They’re pulling people or pulling equipment and units out that need to go back home for refurbishment. So I don’t know what they’re up to here. They should speak to that. If this reduction actually is intended to and does lead to a change in calculus more towards political outcomes than military outcomes in Syria, well, then that would be to the good. But again, it’s just too soon to know.
QUESTION: Okay. Let me just follow up with a couple of more things on the ceasefire. It seems to be holding. That’s what Jan Egeland said today, but he said that humanitarian assistance – trucks, convoys – something like only 5 of 21 slated convoys got to the people that need it. Do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: Well, I can’t confirm reports that it’s holding. Again, we’ve – I’ve seen mixed reporting over recent days about the degree to which there is or isn’t a ceasefire, and that should come as no surprise to anybody. First of all, information isn’t perfect coming out of there, and in the past it’s been very difficult to have a ceasefire announced and then maintained for any great length of time because Russia won’t meet its commitments to the international community.
On the humanitarian assistance, while I can’t confirm those specific numbers, we certainly don’t take issue with the notion that it is still in desperate need and has not reached anywhere near the numbers of Syrian people that it needs to reach.
QUESTION: And lastly, I want to ask you about comments made by the Turkish Minister of Defense Fikri Isik. And when you say – he described your policy in Syria or your strategy in Syria as a total failure and disappointing, and he said we look forward to the – we hope that the next administration will be able to cooperate and coordinate better on the Syria situation. Do you have any comment on that?
MR KIRBY: I haven’t seen those comments, Said. Again, I would just say that, obviously, no one is content here by the situation in Syria. But to label it as a U.S. failure is to miss so much of the larger context about what’s going on here. I mean, the Secretary would be the first to tell you, and I think he told you yesterday, that he’s frustrated by what’s going on and by the fact that we haven’t been able to get there. But it’s not for lack of trying and it’s not for lack of U.S. leadership that there has been a general failure by the regime, certainly with its backers in Moscow and Tehran, to do what was required of them – requirements that Russia codified themselves in I don’t know how many communiques and what was in a UN Security Council resolution about trying to reduce the level of violence.
So yeah, there’s been failings there, but to label – to place it all at the feet of the United States simply doesn’t comport with the facts. And as I said, for the remainder of the time – and we’re all – we all recognize it’s two weeks here – the Secretary’s going to stay engaged. Okay?
QUESTION: I wanted to follow up on something that Secretary Kerry said yesterday. He argued that Obama had not abandoned the red line set in Syria because – but instead it was the perception that he had abandoned it that really hurt. I just wanted to clarify that a bit because it seems like there was a report released in October of last year saying that there were three chemical weapon attacks in 2014 and 2015, and there wasn’t any U.S. military engagement. So I’m just trying to understand, are you going to argue that it’s just the perception that it was abandoned?
MR KIRBY: Well, I can’t speak for the specific reports about chemical weapons attacks in – at those times. I mean, we do know that they have continued to use chlorine as a weapon, and maybe that’s what that refers to. I don’t know. But we do know that all of the declared – declared – this was – and we’ve said this all along – the declared chemical weapons stockpiles and chemical material stockpiles were removed safely. We also said at the time – and I think I said this even in my prior hat at the Pentagon – that we knew that there could be undeclared stockpiles that he could have hidden somewhere, and we certainly have been nothing but open about the use of chlorine as a weapon, which they’ve done now. It’s an industrial agent; I get that. But the weaponizing of it, or the using it in an attack, is against international law, and that has still happened.
The Secretary was – what he was referring to was that the President never took off the option of military options. He went to the Congress, didn’t get the permission to go forward, and decided that that wasn’t prudent at that point. But we still got the result of what – and maybe a better result than had military action actually occurred. And that’s the Secretary’s larger point.
QUESTION: Very small, very quickly on something that he said yesterday, because apparently with his reference to the British parliament and its role and so on, he’s getting a lot of criticism and flack out there (inaudible) --
MR KIRBY: Unfairly so, too, if you look at what he said, absolutely unfairly. I mean, he – all he said was that the President’s decision to consult Congress was done in the context of the same discussion that Prime Minister Cameron had with parliament. I mean, that had happened before the President’s decision to go to Congress, but it helped inform the President’s decision to go to Congress. It wasn’t a – the reporting --
QUESTION: He’s not laying the blame on the --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, the reporting, the shrill headlines I’ve seen coming out of some of the British press on this are – it’s absolutely not founded by what he was trying to say.
MR KIRBY: Shrill. Shrill and hyperbolic.
QUESTION: How is a headline shrill?
MR KIRBY: Oh, come on, Matthew. (Laughter.) You’ve never seen a headline shrill?
MR KIRBY: No?
QUESTION: I’ve heard people read a headline in a shrill voice. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I’ve heard it in a shrill way.
QUESTION: I’m sure that you’ve heard it lots (inaudible).
MR KIRBY: I have read headlines in a shrill voice. I am guilty of that. But --
QUESTION: In italics. Underlined in italics in, like, some weird font, I’m not sure. Is it (inaudible) --
MR KIRBY: A headline that claims that the Secretary blamed the UK and Prime Minister Cameron for the redline issue is shrill, hyperbolic, and untrue.
QUESTION: Can I ask one question about Taiwan?
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: So what --
MR KIRBY: You can ask about anything, not just Taiwan. Is there something else on your mind?
QUESTION: Yeah. Dr. Tsai will make a stopover in Houston and San Francisco during this week – this weekend about her transit to Central America. Will any current U.S. officials contact with Tsai in any forms, even as private citizens, including personal meeting, phone call, text message, or social media? (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: Post card – look, I don’t mean to make light of your question. I’m simply not able to speak for the details of discussions that might occur.
QUESTION: But do you encourage the current officials to contact with her?
MR KIRBY: The – it is a longstanding practice to provide a transit opportunity for the comfort of the traveler, and whatever discussions that that leader intends to have is really for them and their staffs to speak to, not me.
QUESTION: So will she receive a different treatment or reception at U.S. border and customs from her previous travels?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to talk for the customs and border service. This is something – this is a longstanding practice that we have provided in the past for her travel, and that’s – there’s nothing unusual about that. It really is for comfort, and I’d let her and her staff speak to how she intends to follow through and implement those comfort stops. Okay?
QUESTION: So – last question.
QUESTION: John --
MR KIRBY: Are you still on this?
QUESTION: Have you – have State Department proactively given any advice or caution his – Trump’s team about the Taiwanese?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to talk about our communications with the Trump transition team. I’ve made it a pretty hard and fast rule not to do that.
QUESTION: Excuse me, John, can you explain this --
QUESTION: John, is there --
MR KIRBY: So look, I think I can break this down pretty easily, as I’ve seen the press coverage on this as well. All political appointees for the Obama Administration were directed to submit their letters of resignation, and the due date was December 7th, and the resignations are to take effect at noon on January 20th. All political appointees were directed to do that. That is common, typical practice. And when you’re a political appointee for this or any other administration, you have no expectation of staying beyond the inauguration of a new administration. That’s the way it works. For career Foreign Service officers, there this year has been no such directive, no such expectation for them to have to submit resignations at the end of the term.
Now, I can’t speak for the incoming team, but all political appointees – and frankly, even careers as ambassadors or military admirals and generals – you serve at the pleasure of the president. So the incoming team can make decisions on their own about who they want in what chair and for how long. But all political appointees under this Administration, including a knucklehead like me, you have to submit your resignation and be prepared to have January 20th be your last day in office. You serve at the pleasure of the president, and when your president – his terms runs out, you have every expectation that your term will run out. That’s the way it works.
QUESTION: And John, in the past there have been exceptions made for personal reasons. This time there was a blanket denial. Why was that?
MR KIRBY: Well, you’d have to talk to the incoming --
QUESTION: So the --
MR KIRBY: -- the Trump transition team to discuss --
QUESTION: John --
MR KIRBY: Hang on, please. I’m still in my mid-sentence here with Carol. We will – I got all day, so we’ll get to you, I promise. And I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be asking me about this.
You’d have to talk to the Trump transition team about why they decided to not be willing to broker exceptions or waivers, requests to extend. I can’t speak to that. That’s really for them. But – hang on. But you’re right that in the past there have been a handful, a small number, of extension requests granted, but that is totally in the prerogative of the incoming team. And for – it’s for them to determine whether they’d be willing to accept or deny individual requests to extend. It’s really for them to speak to.
QUESTION: So what happens? Let’s say an ambassador leaves. Is the DCM the – or the – is the DCM --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: -- left in charge?
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is that a civil – is that a civil servant?
MR KIRBY: That’s exactly the way it works.
QUESTION: Is he a political appointee also?
MR KIRBY: That’s exactly the way it works. That’s why you have deputy chiefs of mission who are extremely competent and professionals – extremely competent professionals who are trained to be in those jobs and are expected to be able to fill in and step in for the ambassador at other times of absence as well. So yes, in those cases where we have a politically appointed ambassador who will be leaving office of the 20th on the afternoon of the 20th, those duties will fall to the DCM, as appropriate, until such time as a new ambassador can be confirmed and appointed – or appointed, confirmed, and put in office.
QUESTION: And you’re saying that the extensions in the past have been afforded to only a handful of people?
MR KIRBY: As my understanding is, looking at the past two transitions, only a very small number. I don’t have the exact number, but I’m told it’s very small.
QUESTION: Can you get that?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to promise you an exact number. I’m given to understand it’s been a very small number of extensions have been approved by incoming administrations, and typically they are for very specific family reasons. It’s not – it’s not intended to be a stopgap. They’re temporary as extensions are and for extenuating circumstances. But it’s up to the incoming team.
This is – this is nothing new. This is the way the system works. You serve at the pleasure of the president. When your president’s term ends, your term ends and you are – and you are directed to submit your resignation. That’s the way it works. That’s – frankly, that’s in keeping with the whole electoral process in this country. The American people voted. They spoke. They elected Donald Trump as their president, and therefore they have elected his worldview. And so the incoming team will, by design, be able to fashion that worldview around the staffing of certain individual diplomatic posts, to include ambassadors. That’s the way the system works.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you for one clarification on this? You said that all political appointees are required to submit their resignation. But career diplomats are political appointees if they are appointed ambassador or assistant secretary or under secretary. You seem to make a distinction by saying that the career – career diplomats who are now serving in ambassador positions were not required to submit resignations, but they are, by definition, political appointees as well.
MR KIRBY: They are presidential appointees for their job, but they are – so let me be --
QUESTION: So --
MR KIRBY: Let me try to be more clear.
QUESTION: So are you saying that in this year, career Foreign Service Officer Ambassador X serving as ambassador to Country Y was not asked to submit a resignation letter?
MR KIRBY: That is correct. The ones who were asked this year to submit letters of resignation are political, non-career political appointee ambassadors.
QUESTION: Do you have the numbers, how it breaks down? How many ambassadors are --
MR KIRBY: Roughly, roughly, 70 percent of our ambassadorial cadre are career Foreign Service ambassadors. The remaining roughly 30 percent are politically – are political appointees. That’s the lexicon that we use.
QUESTION: Do you – on Iraq, the U.S. is --
QUESTION: Can we stay on Ambassador?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, we’ll stay on this issue. I’ll come back to you. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, a knucklehead like me would like to ask some follow-up questions. So all the politically appointed ambassadors were directed to leave by December 7th. Who directed – who made the mandate? Is that from the White House --
MR KIRBY: The White House.
QUESTION: -- or from the transition?
MR KIRBY: The White House.
QUESTION: The White House. And so I just want to clarify – so 70 percent are career diplomats and ambassadors. They are --
MR KIRBY: Roughly 70 percent of our ambassadors are career Foreign Service officers, yes.
QUESTION: John --
QUESTION: They were not asked to leave; they can stay?
MR KIRBY: They were not asked to submit letters of resignation like political appointees were, but as I said, look, the incoming administration also gets to make decisions about how they want to staff embassies and posts. And to Matt’s point, I mean, even career Foreign Service officers as ambassadors are presidential appointees.
And so the incoming administration will have to take a look at and see if the 70-30 split is what they want or if they – how they want to staff these posts, but I can’t speak for them. All I can tell you is what we’ve done and this year, career Foreign Service officers that are serving as ambassadors were not asked to submit their letters of resignation with the outgoing Administration. Political appointees – purely political appointees – were.
QUESTION: John, are you going to stay – after January 20th, are you going to still stay here or are you move?
MR KIRBY: No, I will not be staying.
QUESTION: So you go different position?
MR KIRBY: I expect I’ll be unemployed for a little while. (Laughter.) If you have any ideas, I’m open to them, but I’m planning on taking a nice long nap. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: You’re leaving?
MR KIRBY: Huh? What’s that?
QUESTION: Sorry. So how we continue? Are you staying in this building or --
MR KIRBY: (Laughter.)
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) -- up from that podium.
QUESTION: It’s a fair question.
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean – I’ll – (laughter) – I’m not sure how to answer that one.
QUESTION: It is definitely Friday. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: I will be – I’ll be around for a little while, as I said, sleeping.
MR KIRBY: And we could – after this is over, I’m happy to give you my personal contact information. (Laughter.) I don’t want to do that from the – I don’t want to do that from the podium. I will say, though, if you want to call and talk about an issue like the DPRK, I am not your guy, because – (laughter) – I will not be informed. On the 21st of January, all my knowledge will go out the window, so I won’t be much help.
QUESTION: You are not DPRK expert. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: That is classic. So I’m not even informed now is what you’re saying. I love it. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I’m not even discussing or talking about – not for DPRK. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: Okay.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, let’s go to something light: Iraq.
QUESTION: The United States is loaning Iraq – you are loaning Iraq $1 billion.
QUESTION: After all this time.
QUESTION: Is there any understanding, formal or informal, about allocating part of that loan for the benefit of the Kurdistan region?
MR KIRBY: All right. So let me unpack that just a little bit. There wasn’t a loan to Iraq of a billion dollars. What there was yesterday was that the United States signed a loan guarantee agreement with Iraq for up to a billion dollars. And a loan guarantee is much different than a loan. What this does is it makes it more affordable for the Government of Iraq to be able to borrow money from international capital markets. And it will help Iraq achieve its longer-term economic goals and reform goals, quite frankly, that the prime minister has been pursuing.
On your specific question in terms of allocation – so this – let’s put that off the table, because it isn’t a loan. It’s just a guarantee. It doesn’t put anything, by itself, into the bank. But back in December, just last month, the Government of Iraq did approve a budget that would provide for the KRG to receive federal revenues consistent with Article 121 of the Iraqi constitution and requirements in the budget law. Proceeds from the United States-guaranteed loan – the guarantee – will benefit there for all of Iraq because of their own budgeting law, because of their own budget that they passed. Does that make sense?
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: John, I have --
MR KIRBY: You have another one?
QUESTION: I have another question on Iraq.
MR KIRBY: Okay.
QUESTION: It has to do with the Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki who has been in Tehran, and he’s made several very strong points claiming Iran was the only country to provide arms to Iraq when it needed them, and he’s attacked – Maliki has attacked, while he’s been in Tehran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. He says they’re hatching plots to disintegrate the region, and he attacked Israel. And he also said that the Hashd al-Shaabi should be – could be deployed to Syria if it was needed. What is your comment on this? How do you understand what Maliki is doing? Do you think he’s just appealing to a sectarian audience?
MR KIRBY: I would refer you to Vice President Maliki’s office to characterize his comments. I couldn’t possibly do that. That’s really for him to speak to. I would just tell you that we remain proud of the support that we are offering to the Government of Iraq in Baghdad – military support, economic support, some of which we just talked about, certainly the political support to the reforms that the prime minister is pursuing. So I mean, I just can’t speak to everything – all the criticism that he made. I can just speak for what we’re doing and how strongly we feel about continuing that level of support going forward.
QUESTION: Well, it’s – among the things that Maliki said while he was in Tehran was that Israel is the greatest terrorist threat in the region. Is it? The United States is supporting the Baghdad government, and he’s the vice president of the Baghdad government. How do you feel about someone saying something like that?
MR KIRBY: Well, we certainly don’t agree with the sentiment.
QUESTION: Do you condemn it?
MR KIRBY: We certainly don’t agree with the sentiment that Israel is a terrorist threat. I mean, that just flies in the face of fact. And there’s just – but I – I’m not – again, I’m not going to try to characterize everything he said. It’s for him to speak to.
Look, Iraq’s got lots of neighbors, and many of those neighbors are involved in efforts in Iraq to counter Daesh. Iran is one of those countries. And what we’ve said many times before still holds today: We understand that Iraq’s neighbors would be interested in the security situation in Iraq – whether it’s Turkey or whether it’s Iran, Jordan. And all we require is that those nations who are going to be thus involved, that they do it in a way that supports the legitimate, democratically elected government in Baghdad, and does so also in a way that doesn’t inflame sectarian tensions.
And again, I can’t speak for the motivation behind those comments. I can just reaffirm, as I said before, our strong view that the government in Baghdad needs to continue to be supported in ways that it has deemed appropriate and fit to the fight that they’re under right now. Some – at least in terms of the United States, we still talk about our presence in Iraq like it’s our decision. It’s their decision. They – the – Prime Minister Abadi, he’s the one who approves whether or not there are foreign troops on his soil and what they’re doing. And that’s the way it should be; it’s a sovereign state.
MR KIRBY: Sure.
QUESTION: On the issue of Jerusalem. The Secretary of State told CBS News that moving the embassy to Jerusalem would be explosive. Is that something that he concluded after conversations with the leaders of the region? How did he arrive at --
MR KIRBY: I think that’s a conclusion the Secretary came to certainly from – certainly informed by his discussion with the foreign leaders, by their public statements – and there have been some public statements by some foreign leaders in the wake of media reports that the embassy was going to be moved. It’s also informed by the Secretary’s long, long career in public service, and particularly in the Senate, supporting Israel through, I don’t know, countless votes. I mean, the Secretary doesn’t need a primer on the situation there. He’s stepped in it. He understands. Okay?
QUESTION: Let me just follow up also on his speech. He said that if the occupation continues, millions of Palestinians will continue to live under Israeli rule separate and unequal. And will Israel accept that? Will the United States accept that? Will the world accept that? I mean, I’m paraphrasing, but that’s basically what he said.
So should there be a sort of a timetable as to when this becomes a point of no return, where – when the occupation ought to end? Should there be, like, saying within five years, 10 years, or something like this before this can happen?
MR KIRBY: I think that’s a question for the leaders in the region to ask themselves, Said.
QUESTION: I’m asking --
MR KIRBY: I know you’re asking me, but that’s a question really that’s better put to them.
QUESTION: I’m sorry, John, but it was the Secretary that said if the occupation continues, millions of Palestinians will continue to live --
MR KIRBY: I know.
QUESTION: -- separate and unequal. I mean, I’m talking about what he said.
MR KIRBY: I understand that’s what he said, but he didn’t put a timeframe on that.
QUESTION: I’m saying: Should he?
MR KIRBY: I think the Secretary was very careful in how he characterized it, and I’m not going to put words in his mouth in terms of timeframe. I mean, I think he was speaking about a fact based on trends. And he wasn’t trying to predict out how long that should or would take.
But the larger point is the whole purpose of his speech was, as a friend of Israel – and he is a very strong and enduring friend of Israel who believes in the importance of a two-state solution – that to achieve that goal, you need leadership. You need leadership there in the region to move forward. And again, I think the whole – one of the main – the purposes of his speech was to show that there hasn’t been that leadership, and that’s been lacking, and that’s what’s needed.
QUESTION: Yesterday, the House voted overwhelmingly 342 to 80 to undo – I don’t know how they would do that – take measures to undo UN Resolution 2334. Is that really disappointing to the Secretary of State who, when the President took the decision to abstain and so on, or --
MR KIRBY: The Secretary is, as I think he’s said many times since the vote, more than comfortable in our abstention. Now look, we also recognize that Congress has every right to express their views, and he respects that. As a former member of Congress, he certainly respects that. But as we’ve said many times, the vote in the UN was about preserving the two-state solution, which we continue to believe is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and a democratic state – living side-by-side in peace and security with a viable and independent Palestinian state.
QUESTION: And lastly, he also mentioned that he will be making a couple of trips before he leaves office. Are we to expect that he will participate in the Paris talks, the Paris peace conference?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have any additional detail to what the Secretary said. Today I was able to announce his trip to Boston on Monday, and if there’s additional trips and visits to speak to, we’ll do that in due course. I just don’t have anything additional today.
QUESTION: I wasn’t going to ask about this, but I’m curious about your use of the phrase about the resolution. What does that mean the Secretary was “more than comfortable in our abstention?”
MR KIRBY: Meaning that he supported the decision by --
QUESTION: I guess I’m just wondering – I mean, an abstention is not voting at all.
MR KIRBY: It’s still a decision. You just – it’s a decision to abstain --
QUESTION: Yes, but I mean, if you support the resolution enough to allow it to go through, why don’t you just vote yes?
MR KIRBY: I don’t think it’s – I don’t want to re-litigate the decision to abstain, Matt. He’s --
QUESTION: Well, I just want to know --
MR KIRBY: My point was that he very much supported the decision to abstain; that we couldn’t, in good conscience, approach it in any other way.
QUESTION: But – I know, but you talk about leadership and you talk about decisiveness, and an abstention is really – I mean, why isn’t an abstention a cop-out here? You allowed it to go through, yet you didn’t vote, yet you clearly – or it would seem that you supported it, because you didn’t veto it. So why not take a stand for what you apparently believe in and vote --
MR KIRBY: Well, look I mean, I --
QUESTION: -- and vote yes? Or no if you disagree with it.
MR KIRBY: I’ll give you – we – there was a lengthy explanation of vote put out by Samantha Power. I would --
MR KIRBY: I would point you to that to justify it. I don’t know that it’s worth us re-litigating that here.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, I don’t want to re-litigate it, I just wanted to – you put on a – you talk about leadership and you’re taking an active role, and then you essentially vote present.
MR KIRBY: It’s --
QUESTION: Which is – it doesn’t seem to be taking a leadership position on something. Anyway.
MR KIRBY: Yeah, again, I think --
QUESTION: I mean, either a for or against – not in between, right? Anyway – I don’t want to re-litigate it, so --
MR KIRBY: Yeah, I don’t either, but look, I – only thing I’d say is we abstained on a resolution that makes clear both sides have to take steps to preserve the two-state solution. You talk about leadership and I just talked about leadership, the leadership in the region that’s important. And we believe the resolution is consistent with longstanding bipartisan U.S. policy as it relates to our opposition to Israeli settlements – and our opposition as well, and condemnation of incitement and terrorists.
QUESTION: Well, it sounds like you supported it, so why didn’t you vote yes?
MR KIRBY: Above all – about – well, obviously, we had significant disagreements with the way that things are characterized in the resolution too. I mean, that --
QUESTION: Then you should have voted --
MR KIRBY: That’s what led to the abstention.
QUESTION: Then you – but then you should have voted no.
MR KIRBY: Well, look, there’s a decision – you have three ways here when you come up with a resolution: You can either vote yes, no, or abstain. We chose – and it was an active choice – to abstain. And again, I’d point you to the explanation of vote.
QUESTION: I don’t know how brave a choice it is.
MR KIRBY: I’ll point you to the explanation of vote.
QUESTION: You could’ve written your own resolution and you’d be happy to vote for --
QUESTION: Thank you. (Laughter.)
MR KIRBY: I think Matt is done. Matt’s done.
QUESTION: No, no, no.
QUESTION: You suggested three options; I was suggesting a fourth.
MR KIRBY: What’s your fourth?
QUESTION: You could vote yes, no, abstain; or you can write your own resolution if you have the backing.
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to revisit this whole thing.
MR KIRBY: Look, I think our view on this situation has not changed and --
QUESTION: The installation of a statue in Busan, South Korea?
MR KIRBY: I don’t have anything on the statue specifically. I’m not aware of that. But when it comes to the “comfort women” issue, back in December, I think you know, of 2015, both the governments of Japan and Korea showed – Republic of Korea, excuse me – showed courage and vision in announcing an agreement regarding this sensitive historical legacy issue, which we believe was an important milestone toward reconciliation. We believe that that agreement has served to strengthen relations between the two countries and multifaceted cooperation over the last year, and that these deepened ties will in the future, going forward, help both governments continue to approach historical issues in a way that promotes healing and reconciliation. I don’t have anything on this particular statue issue, but that’s where we are on this particular one.
QUESTION: Also on South Korea, I was wondering if the meeting between Deputy Secretary Blinken and South Korean Deputy National Security Advisor Cho Tae-yong actually happened today and whether or not you have a readout of that.
MR KIRBY: They did meet for what is known as the fifth round of the U.S.-ROK Strategic Consultations on DPRK Policy. During today’s productive discussions, the Deputy Secretary and Ambassador Cho reaffirmed the importance of our close coordination in responding to North Korea’s destabilizing behavior. They also discussed the success of breaking new ground together by sustaining the international community’s response to the DPRK’s violations of various UN Security Council resolutions, and they reviewed progress in holding North Korea accountable for its unlawful actions.
Okay. Thanks, everybody. Have a great weekend.
QUESTION: I have another one on (inaudible).
MR KIRBY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I was wondering if you have any comment on the Okinawan prefectural government’s opposition to the restarting of retraining – training for refueling for the Ospreys.
MR KIRBY: No. Have a great weekend.
(The briefing was concluded at 3:09 p.m.)