Daily Press Briefing - January 13, 2017

Mark C. Toner
Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 13, 2017


12:25 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Hey, everybody. Happy Friday. I normally don’t do this, but I do have a hard stop at 1:00. So I apologize for being out here a little later than I wanted to. Very quickly a few things at the top.

A quick recap of the Secretary’s day. As you all know, he’s in Vietnam, where he met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vice Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son, and Secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee Dinh La Thang, I believe – I apologize for my pronunciation issues here – on January 13th to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues of mutual interest and to reaffirm our shared commitment to deepening U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations and to make concrete progress on many of our shared interests. He also spoke – and I think many of you saw the transcript – he spoke about the future of U.S.-Vietnam – the U.S.- Vietnam partnership as well.

A story that many of you follow – yesterday, late yesterday – but the – yesterday, the United States and Cuba signed an agreement to further normalize our migration policy. Under the agreement, the Department of Homeland Security revoked the so called “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuban migrants that has been in place since the mid-1990s. DHS also ended the special Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. Yesterday’s actions were important steps forward to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy.

And then finally, I just wanted to mention briefly, and many of you were on the call earlier today and saw the announcement out of the White House and subsequently I think our statement just a short time ago issued in my name. But six months ago, the United States began a comprehensive engagement plan with the Government of Sudan aimed at ending the government’s offensive military operations, improving humanitarian access, and ending Sudan’s destabilizing role in South Sudan, countering terrorist groups, as well as ending the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA.

Since then, Sudan has met our benchmarks and made significant progress toward these goals as well as new commitments. As a result, the United States has decided to issue a general license lifting the sanctions on U.S. trade and investment in Sudan.

Our engagement with Sudan, under the plan, has had multiple benefits for U.S. interests and the region and the people of Sudan. It has had a positive effect on reducing conflict and addressing Sudan’s humanitarian crisis. For example, in December, Sudan revised a number – revised 3 1/13/2017

national regulations that govern humanitarian action, bringing them into line with international standards for the first time.

Moreover, for the first time in five years, Sudan opened access for humanitarian aircraft to reach Golo, Central Darfur, and allowed a needs assessment to occur that will inform assistance efforts in Golo and other previously inaccessible areas. And regionally, Sudan has stopped providing arms to South Sudanese opposition groups, is cooperating with the United States to address the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army, and has begun working with the United States to combat wildlife trafficking. Finally, Sudan has become an important partner in countering Daesh and other regional terrorist threats.

Despite these advances, we recognize there’s still much to be done to end Sudan’s internal conflicts, ensure accountability for crimes of international concern, improve its human rights record, allow unfettered humanitarian access to vulnerable populations, and create space for greater political participation, civil society activity, and media freedom. The United States sees progress – sees the progress made over the past six months as the beginning of a longer-term process for addressing these critically important issues.

I’ll end there. Matt, over to you.

QUESTION: Okay. Couple logistical things --

MR TONER: Sure thing.

QUESTION: -- real quickly. But first on Sudan.

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: The one thing – of the main things that the Sudanese Government had been pushing for was the removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list. My understanding is that there has to be a six-month review of that, and you just mentioned that six months ago you began the – this greater engagement. And I’m just wondering, I mean, is this something that’s in the cards at least for this Administration until it ends in – a week from today? Or has – and does this – does not removing them mean that they have not met the required benchmarks for un-designation or de-designation?

MR TONER: How I would answer that question is we believe that they’ve – while they have made positive steps in other – in counterterrorism coordination, the Government of Sudan still needs to meet all the criteria of the relevant statutes to allow --

QUESTION: Which criteria are they not --

MR TONER: -- for rescission of the state sponsor of terrorism designation.

QUESTION: Which criteria have they not met? 4 1/13/2017

MR TONER: Sure. Well, again, I’d have to probably get back to you on that. I don’t have the details of what specific areas they still have yet to meet.


MR TONER: But my understanding is that they’re not – sorry, just to finish the answer. You said whether the six-months process had already begun. To my understanding, it has not begun yet.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. So the start of the engagement in September or whenever it was, was not the review period for rescission, correct?

MR TONER: For rescission on the state sponsorship of terror, I don’t believe so, no.

QUESTION: But has – I mean, has – to the best of your – has the Government of Sudan renounced terrorism, as is required by – that’s one of the --

MR TONER: Again, I’d want to get a more thorough accounting of the steps that they’ve taken specifically with regard to the criteria and meeting the criteria – I just don’t have that in front of me – before I answer that question. I’ll get that for you.

QUESTION: And then other logistic.


QUESTION: The Syria meeting in Astana --


QUESTION: -- that’s going to be on the 23rd, I realize this is essentially going to be up to the next administration since that’s the first business day of their term or their time. But have you gotten – have you received an invitation? I see that the Russians today said that you would be – well, the Russians and the Turks have both indicated that you would be welcome to participate. So without prejudging what the incoming team is going to decide, can you say at least whether this current Administration has, one, gotten an invitation or, two, has an opinion about what the next administration should do in terms of participation?

MR TONER: Sure. I think – to my knowledge, we’ve not received an invitation, a formal invitation, to the talks. I’ve also seen the same press reports and comments that you cited in your question, but we’ve not received any kind of formal invitation to the Astana meeting.

Look, I think our recommendation would be – and we’ve said this before – that we support any effort aimed at getting political negotiations back up and running in Geneva and aim at solidifying the ceasefire in Syria. And while we haven’t been a direct party to these – this specific initiative, we have been in close contact with both the Russians and the Turks as this has gone forward, and we would encourage the incoming administration to continue to pursue those efforts. 5 1/13/2017

QUESTION: Okay. Well, does that mean that you are not averse to some kind of participation?

MR TONER: No, I thought I said that. Yeah, we’re not averse to it. Yeah. Sorry.

QUESTION: All right.

MR TONER: We just haven’t received any – anything in the mail yet.

QUESTION: Okay. In the mail?

MR TONER: I’m just kidding. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Are you expecting, like, an engraved --

MR TONER: Exactly.

QUESTION: Not a Paperless Post?

MR TONER: Gold-trimmed. Yeah.

QUESTION: And then lastly on logistics --


QUESTION: -- because I know that Ambassador Power was asked about this. But do you have anything more to say than you did yesterday about the conference, the Mideast conference in Paris on Sunday and what you’re – the Secretary is hoping to achieve from that? Or is it pretty much the same as yesterday?

MR TONER: So a few things. In terms of expectations for the conference, we went back and forth a little bit on this yesterday. I mean look, the Secretary is there to represent U.S. interests. This is obviously, as I said yesterday, an issue that has – that he has long been committed to throughout his career as a politician and as Secretary of State.

That said, we’re not expecting any major new announcements to necessarily come out of this meeting. I mean, you’d have to, obviously, talk to the French about their intentions, but our understanding is that this is an opportunity for various governments and foreign ministers to get around the table and to talk about the way forward. But I don’t know that – I wouldn’t expect any specific initiatives to come out of it.

QUESTION: Well, okay. But then what’s really – what’s the point of --

MR TONER: What’s that? To --

QUESTION: I mean, you’re basically saying that it’s not going to accomplish anything, so why bother even – why bother going? 6 1/13/2017

MR TONER: Well, I mean, look – I mean, this is – I hate to put it like this, but this is diplomacy. I mean, I don’t – I wouldn’t expect any – this isn’t a first step – a chance for – again, I think some 60-some foreign ministers are going to be there.

QUESTION: Seventy.

MR TONER: Seventy? Thank you. To talk about Middle East peace. So I think it would be --

QUESTION: Well, I mean, that’s great talking about it. But if you don’t get anything – this is diplomacy? That’s the answer? This is diplomacy?

MR TONER: No, I’m just saying that --

QUESTION: I mean, I think there are some people out there that might say this is the problem with diplomacy.

MR TONER: Not at all, Matt.

QUESTION: We’ve got a bunch of people who are around for basically a yak --

MR TONER: My point is – and I didn’t mean to denigrate diplomacy, obviously.


MR TONER: What I’m saying is, is that --

QUESTION: Are you saying that you’ve wasted your time, your career --

MR TONER: No, that’s a long – that’s another – (laughter).

No, Matt, all I’m saying is these kinds of meetings, I wouldn’t expect some kind of game-changing result out of them. It is an opportunity for all engaged and interested stakeholders in the Middle East peace process to get together, share ideas, and try to discuss a way forward. But I’m also not going to say that there’s going to be some significant outcome out of this.

QUESTION: All right.


QUESTION: What is your recommendation, let’s say, to go to the UN? I mean, like not – I guess they will not adopt a resolution. They will issue some sort of a statement. But as part of that statement, suppose they have very clear points on that we will move forward to the Security Council, the UN Security Council and so on. What is your likely position in this case?

MR TONER: Well, our understanding is that the French don’t have any plans to follow up their conference at the Security Council. Obviously, I’d refer you to them to more definitively address that question. But the President said about that, about pursuing that goal through the Security Council, he said that a resolution that outlines final status issues we believe is not appropriate, 7 1/13/2017

and we would continue to reject any UN Security Council product that is biased or seeks to impose a solution.

QUESTION: Let me just follow up on the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

MR TONER: Yeah, of course.

QUESTION: I have a couple more points. Today in The Washington Post, former Ambassador Dennis Ross wrote – suggested that there ought to be a Plan B. Of course, he dissed your reluctance to or your lack of vetoing the resolution --


QUESTION: -- and suggested that what Israel ought to do is just basically declare, “We are going to keep these settlements” – I mean, in essence, that’s what he’s suggesting – and then allow more movement, better economics and so on, in Area C. So is that something that you would encourage or would sort of support, or explain to the incoming administration that it is a good idea? Because apparently it is addressed to them.

MR TONER: I mean, to be honest, I also saw the commentary, or the op-ed piece that he wrote. I think, first of all, it’s not for us or him or them to impose a set of criteria or impose a solution. It still remains for the two parties involved – the Palestinians and the Israeli Government – to sit around a table and to talk through what a negotiated settlement looks like. And so while we can all talk about the parameters going forward, what might work, an option B versus the current plan – and in fact, when we talk about the idea of a democratic state of Israel – our concern remains that settlements pose a real obstruction to that effort, to a peaceful settlement. And so we maintain that position.

That’s not – I’m not demeaning or denigrating other ideas or constructive ideas that are out there. I think what our preference is is that both sides create the kind of environment where they can go back to the negotiating table. And currently, with the increase in settlements, and with, again, on the Palestinian side, some of the incitement that we’ve seen, both sides need to do better at creating that kind of environment. But ultimately it’s for them to talk about and talk through these issues.

Sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Quick question. Also, there was a lengthy report today in Haaretz, written by Gideon Levy. He describes a very chilling account of how Israeli soldiers increasingly are just raiding homes and so on with children under 13, under 12 and so on, arresting them. It is horrifying. And this is part of apparently a intimidation kind of tactic to discourage people from protesting and so on. And so I wonder if you have any comment on that.

MR TONER: I think I would just say what I’ve said before when we’ve seen these kind of reports, Said, which is that we respect Israel’s right to self-defense and right to protect its citizens, but in carrying out those duties we would also like to see them conduct themselves in a way that respects basic human rights and the dignity of the Palestinian people. I can’t speak to 8 1/13/2017

these specific charges, so I’m just speaking globally here. I haven’t seen the article to which you’re referring, but as I said, generally speaking we understand the security measures that they take, Israeli Security Forces take, but always we would ask that they conduct those measures with restraint and show respect for the dignity of the Palestinians.


MR TONER: Turkey.

QUESTION: Thanks. Over the past two weeks, there’s been another load of accusations/criticism from Turkey. Turkish officials have accused the U.S. of not doing enough to support Turkey in its operations in Syria, and with that they’ve questioned U.S. presence at the Incirlik base. Also, they blasted the U.S. for its support of Kurdish fighters in Syria. And a week ago, the Turkish energy minister, Berat Albayrak, said his ministry had come under a U.S.- originated cyber attack. What does the – and there have been other reports as well, but what does the totality of what you hear from Turkey tell you about U.S.-Turkey relations at this time?

MR TONER: Well, look, I’ll start from this absolute, which is that Turkey is an important partner and a NATO ally – longstanding NATO ally – of the United States, and we take our partnership and our relationship with Turkey very seriously. And we work at it hard and we understand the pressures that Turkey is under given its geographic location, the fact that its southern border with Syria – because of its southern border at Syria – with Syria, it’s seen a large influx of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria. It’s also seen its territory be used as a transition or a transit point, rather – excuse me – for recruits to ISIL or Daesh. And we’ve also seen it, as we all know in this room and elsewhere, as an increasing target of Daesh-related terrorism or Daesh-instigated terrorism. So we understand and are sensitive to the pressures that Turkey is under.

That said, we’re also alarmed by some of the rhetoric that we’ve seen from various quarters in Turkey over the past weeks, some of which you remarked on. I mean, the idea that the U.S. is not actively countering Daesh, for example, is ridiculous given all that we’ve accomplished over the past year and a half in really reducing Daesh’s foothold in Syria as well as in Iraq. The other allegations that I won’t even address or speak to, but there’s a lot of ludicrous statements – and I’ll put it that way – out there about U.S. involvement in incidents and terrorist incidents in Turkey that are just – as I said, just beyond the pale. They’re just – they’re not only not true, but they’re harmful to our relationship.

So --

QUESTION: Those – wait, those statements still – the ludicrous statements that you said --


QUESTION: -- they do not change and affect the absolute that you began with about Turkey being a partner and an ally? 9 1/13/2017

MR TONER: Well, no. I mean, and I guess – I mean, we’re alarmed by these statements, but it in no way touches – in no way – I mean, as I – I tried to give you the framework of the context, that we understand that Turkey right now is under a lot of pressure – Turkish Government, Turkish people. They’ve been touched by terrorism. They’ve been affected by a influx of refugees. They’ve been affected by what’s happening in Syria and they’re concerned about it. But we are alarmed by some – as I said, some of the rhetoric and some of the claims being made about U.S. intentions and U.S. activities or lack thereof with regard to Daesh and other issues.

QUESTION: Looking at the past four, eight years, do you think relations with Turkey have deteriorated, have worsened, and if you agree with that, why?

MR TONER: I think that – I would never say that they’ve worsened. I would say that they’ve become more complex given the events happening in Syria that, as I said, have a direct effect on Turkey. And so we are in common cause when we’re going after Daesh. We – Turkey and the U.S. agree, as do many countries around the world, that Daesh needs to be rooted out, destroyed. And for Turkey it’s really a tangible threat on their border. But – we’ve talked about this a lot in this briefing – that is a complex environment, to put it mildly, in Syria, and we don’t agree on every issue or every approach with Turkey on destroying Daesh or removing Daesh from the battlefield.

That said, we are cooperating with them. We are talking through these things, and this is what mature countries and democracies do when they face these kinds of challenges. They talk through them. It’s not to say – it’s absurd to assume that countries, even allies, get along on every issue every day of the year. They don’t.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: So I’m just saying, like, the fact that we have a mature relationship with Turkey, we talk through these issues, and we work with them to resolve them in a way that’s mutually acceptable to both countries.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: My last one --

MR TONER: One more question. I’ll get to you.

QUESTION: In an op-ed, the Turkish foreign minister said, quote, “It is sadly true that the Turkey-U.S. bilateral relationship is under severe strain.” Do you agree with that assessment?

MR TONER: Again, I’d – no, I don’t want to characterize it in any way. I would say that when we do have concerns about some of the things that are said, some of the rhetoric that we see in Turkey and Turkish media or from Turkish officials, we make those concerns clear. And again, that’s part of having a mature, open, frank relationship with an ally like Turkey.

Steve. 10 1/13/2017

QUESTION: Is it on this?

QUESTION: Go ahead. No.

QUESTION: I just wanted to – you said, “I would never say that they have worsened,” in relation to U.S.-Turkey ties. What --

MR TONER: I did not say what – I just said, “I wouldn’t say that they’ve worsened,” no.

QUESTION: I mean, you said you would never – “I would never say that they were.” What if they had demonstrably worsened? Would you say it then?

MR TONER: (Laughter.) I’m sorry, I was --

QUESTION: Or are you just ignoring the fact that they have gotten --

MR TONER: I wasn’t trying to state categorically; I was simply making a point that I would not say emphatically that they have worsened. I think that they’ve – I was simply saying that they’re very complex right now. I’ll put it that way.

QUESTION: Right. But I mean, haven’t they demonstrably worsened?

MR TONER: Again, I think that that part of the world has gotten very difficult and they’re under enormous pressure. So I don’t want to say that they’ve worsened.


QUESTION: While the United States is preparing for a peaceful transition of power next Friday, the day before that --


QUESTION: -- may not be the case in Gambia.


QUESTION: The Associated Press says it has seen a Nigerian army memo that Nigeria is now putting 800 troops on standby, a battalion to go in as part of an ECOWAS force to persuade President Jammeh to leave and not hand over power.

Does the United States support a military intervention to go in and remove the president if he doesn’t hand over to his democratically elected successor?

MR TONER: Well, you’re right that the security situation in The Gambia remains very uncertain. We would call on and we – I’ll do it again now. We call on President Jammeh to listen to his own people, to listen to the Gambian people who have clearly called on him to accept the results of the December 1st election, and to again agree to what he already agreed to, which is a peaceful handover of power to President-elect Barrow. 11 1/13/2017

I would refer you to ECOWAS for next steps, but we believe that ECOWAS can certainly play an important role in providing for security and addressing some of the concerns that there could be violence around the transition. But for more details about their plan going forward, I’d have to refer you to them.

QUESTION: But in the past when there have been these sort of regional interventions, hasn’t the United States been supportive of that?

MR TONER: We do, and I’m not trying to back away from that in any way, shape, or form. I just would say that we do, obviously, support ECOWAS as a force for peace and security in the region, and specifically in The Gambia.

QUESTION: As a military force?

MR TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to speak to what possible actions they may take. I don’t want to get out in front of those decisions.

QUESTION: Can I go back to where Matt started on Astana? I have just a --


QUESTION: -- a question to clarify. From a protocol point of view or a decorum point of view, if let’s say you receive an invitation on the 19th to participate on the 23rd, what happens in this case? Do you say, “Yes, we will go?” I think Matt probably asked the same question, but I didn’t understand it. So if you get it on the 19th and you – or the 18th --

MR TONER: Obviously --

QUESTION: -- do you need to respond or you say, “We got to wait until the administration” --

MR TONER: Well, you’re right. The timing isn’t great, but I think all we can do – all the outgoing Administration can do is simply make a recommendation to the incoming administration --


MR TONER: -- and certainly it is --

QUESTION: Can’t it commit?

MR TONER: What’s that?

QUESTION: Can’t it commit to going, to participating?

MR TONER: Probably not, to be honest, because ultimately it’s for the incoming administration; it falls in their – within their start date. So again, the timing isn’t terrific in that sense. But if we do receive an invitation, we will certainly make a recommendation. 12 1/13/2017

QUESTION: So would – an invitation at that time would be disingenuous in your view?

MR TONER: I’m sorry, how’s --

QUESTION: I mean, would it be a sincere invitation --

MR TONER: (Laughter) I think it would be – I mean, it – we understand that the timing has to be – we’d have to receive an invitation before the actual date. Whether they would reach out, I don’t know. I can’t speculate on how they might contact the incoming administration. I just don’t know.

Is that it, guys?

QUESTION: No, I got just one more. You probably have seen --

MR TONER: Excuse me.

QUESTION: -- reports starting yesterday, but then more of them this morning, about contact between the incoming national security advisor and the Russian ambassador. I’m just wondering, from the State Department’s point of view, is this something that’s of concern at all? Or – I’ll just leave it there and then follow up.

MR TONER: Again, not necessarily – I’ve seen the reports. I don’t think they’ve been confirmed or corroborated yet. But that’s – as he’s part of the transition team, that’s really for them to speak to in how they are engaging. I mean --

QUESTION: Right, but --

MR TONER: -- the president-elect is also engaged on his own with many world leaders.


MR TONER: So I don’t want to speculate and I don’t want to --

QUESTION: So there’s nothing – this building doesn’t see anything necessarily inappropriate about contact between members of the incoming administration and foreign officials --


QUESTION: -- no matter what country they’re from?



MR TONER: No. And again, this has been ongoing. I mean, we stand ready if they want to work through the State Department to contact some of these individuals, but we have no comment or no problem with them doing such on their own. 13 1/13/2017

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 12:54 p.m.)