Daily Press Briefing - January 19, 2017

John Kirby
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
January 19, 2017


2:15 p.m. EST

MR KIRBY: I really appreciate the Secretary coming in like that and for all his support. I do have a couple of things, if you’ll just stick with me, that I want to say as well, on my last day at the podium. I don't have any news toppers to give you, so if you’ll just allow me to close out by thanking you as well for the work that you do, for the context you provide to the popular understanding of complex foreign policy challenges, and for the difference that you make on a daily basis, not only in the education of the public but to the work that our diplomats do around the world.

The truth is – and it took me a little while to understand this when I came over here – that diplomacy doesn’t lend itself to clear and definitive headlines. It doesn’t explain itself. As Secretary Kerry noted in an op-ed piece this morning, which you might have seen in The New York Times, and I quote, “Diplomacy requires creativity, patience, and commitment to a steady grind, often away from the spotlight. Results are rarely immediate or reducible to 140-character bites.”

Very often the good work that our diplomats do in some pretty trying circumstances isn’t something that they necessarily want told in the first place. A delicate deal with a foreign leader, for example, whether it’s designed to bring a hostage home or improve human rights or advance trade – they can be undone, those delicate deals, with a mere word. So when that story is told, it matters greatly that it be done with skill and with precision by correspondents, independent reporters, who truly comprehend the intricacies, the risks at play, the historical setting, the cultural fabric of that time and this place. So look at the Iran deal, the situation in Syria, tensions in the South China Sea, climate change, refugee flow, Middle East peace. You know – all of you know – that these issues are not simple, and that’s why you work so hard to get it right. It’s why some of your colleagues are in harm’s way, as we speak, out there trying to pursue leads. That’s what good reporters do.

Now, I can’t say that I have always agreed with everything you’ve filed any more than you can say that you’ve always appreciated my efforts up here. I know I’ve fallen short many times. I’ve been slower to get back to you than I would have liked on occasion and have certainly been less clear than I should have been on others. I have struggled to find the right words, and I haven’t always had proper command of the information. When I showed up here at State, I couldn’t find Burundi on a map of Burundi. (Laughter.) I didn’t know the difference between INL and EAP. And I didn’t fully appreciate the difference between “deeply concerned” and “gravely concerned.” (Laughter.) Frankly, I’m not sure that I do yet. (Laughter.)

But I can say that in my short time here I have come to genuinely respect and admire the vital role that you play in scrutinizing and explaining American foreign policy. Indeed, I believe you do far more than just scrutinize. It’s a notion that was summed up well by a man named Thomas Bailey in a book that I have here today called The Man in the Street. And I’d like to read, if I could, just a small portion of it to you. I promise it won’t be long.

“The foreign correspondent is an ambassador-at-large of the American public, for he is ready” – I’m sorry – “he is reporting not only to his superiors but to the people as a whole. He provides the facts upon which the newspaper bases its editorials and the news stories upon which the readers form opinions and as a result of which they may bring pressure to bear on Washington. It would be impossible to name a single trait desirable in the ideal ambassador which the ideal correspondent should not also have, including an ability to write incisive and readable English.” Man, I wish that last part was true. (Laughter.)

But this book was written in 1948, The Man on the Street. And there’s not a single word in there that I just read – and actually, there’s a lot of great words in here – that isn’t also true today. Except – the only thing I would disagree with is it’s not just the American public that you serve. It’s a global audience you inform, global conditions that you labor to improve. As the Secretary noted, yours is a profession under strain right now, whether it’s media consolidation and shrinking budgets or online competition and fake news propagandists. You face intimidation, harassment, jail, even threats to your lives. And that’s just Mark Toner on a bad day. (Laughter.) It’s not – (laughter) – actually, that’s – he does that to me too. (Laughter.)

It’s not just – it’s not easy being you, and I get that. But I hope you never let it be easy for us. I hope you never stop serving that public and facing those dangers. Democracy doesn’t function without a free and vigorous press, and a free and vigorous press doesn’t function without thoughtful, intelligent, thorough reporters – and Matt Lee. (Laughter.)


MR KIRBY: I didn’t know it at the time – (laughter) --


MR KIRBY: I didn’t know it at the time, but I first fell in love with the idea of journalism when I worked as a sports clerk at the St. Pete Times, my hometown newspaper. The buzz in the newsroom, the excitement of the story getting called in – and yes, that’s – I had to – that’s how I learned to type, was taking dictation from reporters who were out in the field. The infectious humor that those sports writers exhibited late into every night, it captured me, and I never forgot it. I got fired soon after for goofing off – (laughter) – but when I heard a few months later that the sports department needed help, I begged to get that job back, not just because I needed gas money, but because I really did miss being around reporters.

Now, the job I have now I can’t get back – (laughter) – I know that. Today is the last day. But I’m extraordinarily grateful to Secretary Kerry for taking a chance on me and trusting me and teaching me. He has given me a front-row seat to history and he has been more gracious and more generous than I deserve. And he didn’t fire me when I goofed off and I had – he had plenty of chances to.

I also want to thank Jon Finer, who, as chief of staff, has also been a great friend, adviser, and teammate. You all know how brilliant and hardworking he is. What I also think we can all agree on is he is – that he is a good man who has doggedly pursued and informed our foreign policy agenda.

I’m grateful to my predecessors – Jen Psaki, Toria Nuland, Marie Harf – who welcomed me and then stayed with me throughout, checking in on me from time to time and giving me great advice and counsel. All of them are professionals of the highest sort and they’re the finest of individuals.

I will miss the great people here at the State Department – everyone in my bureau, the Public Affairs Bureau; my principal deputy, Susan Stevenson; Mark Toner, of course, who I shared many, many days with even before I got to this job and who has shared this podium with me and been just a terrific sounding board and friend. Of course, the tireless Elizabeth Trudeau, who downs about ten Diet Dr. Peppers a day – (laughter) – just to face the daunting task of prepping me to face you. And of course, the senior staff, diplomats, and Civil Service employees who make possible everything that American diplomacy makes possible for millions of people around the world.

But I will miss all of you dearly as well. I will still miss being around reporters. This is the best part of my day, and you and --

QUESTION: Really? (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: Not today.

QUESTION: Wow. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: That is so pathetic. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: If this is the best part of your day, my God --

QUESTION: That is – (laughter) --

MR KIRBY: What I meant was --

QUESTION: -- what is the rest of it like? (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: What I meant was the briefings are the best part of the day, not necessarily right now. And I believe that you are one of the best parts of this or any other democracy, so I’ll be cheering you on from afar. Thanks very much. (Applause.)

Okay, Matt. Over to you.

QUESTION: Thank you for those very kind words. Thanks to the Secretary as well. I’m just – I’ll be brief, because I know other people are probably going to want to say something too, but on behalf of the Correspondents Association and the people in this room, I want to say thank you, and it’s – you should be, I think, honored – take it as an honor and a privilege to be the last spokesman/briefer for the Obama Administration of any agency. So this is it, and I just want to say that your tenure here has been a good one, a great one, and a pleasure for all of us. You’ve always been professional, even when our exchanges got contentious, which was often – (laughter) – I would have to say.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: But you were always professional and always acted with integrity, and I think even people who would disagree with the policy can’t – with policies that you were trying to explain can’t deny that.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: So best of luck to you and --

MR KIRBY: Thank you, Matt.

QUESTION: -- as you go forward and Mark next week and beyond until – (laughter) – and even to the person who – he or she who eventually replaces you.

MR KIRBY: Thanks.

QUESTION: It’s been – it has been a wild ride with this Secretary over the course of the last four years, and of course, with you for the two or so years that you were here. So thank you for your service --

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: -- in the Navy, at the Pentagon, and in this role.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: And it’s been much appreciated.

MR KIRBY: Appreciate that. Thanks, Matt.

QUESTION: Thanks. Does anyone else want to say anything?

QUESTION: I’ll just --


QUESTION: I’ll just – I just want to echo what Matt said, and especially the fact that sometimes you came up there with not a lot to say – (laughter) – but that didn’t stop you from – you never shut it down; you never said “I don’t have anything for you.” You tried to offer something to help us understand what was going on and why, and that wasn’t – that isn’t always the case at the podium. And so you’ve been a true gentleman and you’ve always gotten back to us – maybe not in the most timely manner – but you’ve been available to us 24 hours, seven days a week, as you all are. And I just also want to thank you on behalf of the association for what you’ve done for us, what you’ve helped us understand – the foreign policy – and wish you luck.

MR KIRBY: Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you. Do – does --

QUESTION: Yeah, I want to say a couple words. Well, thank you for everything. Thank you for your service and thank you for being available. You have always been naturally courteous. You’re the perfect gentleman. It was really a pleasure to come and engage you day after day. I know all the issues we discussed are really difficult issues and those were very difficult times, and you handled yourself amazingly.

MR KIRBY: Thanks.

QUESTION: So I want to thank you for always being there, for always taking my questions, and as much as you can try to respond to them. And good luck. Godspeed.

MR KIRBY: Thanks very much, Said. I appreciate that. Thank you.


MR KIRBY: Fire away.

QUESTION: Enough with the thanks. Enough of this.

QUESTION: And let me just add a thank you to your team and all those who are leaving with this Administration as of noon tomorrow. It’s all been, as I said, a wild ride.

So I have a – just a very small bit on – that I want to ask about transition, because, as you I am sure are aware, they – transition team announced today that Tom Shannon will be staying on. Presumably, he will be the interim secretary until Mr. Tillerson is confirmed. And as well as him, Brett McGurk would be staying on and Susan Coppedge would be staying on. They’re among 50 – they are the State Department people who were named among about 50 that the transition said are – they want to stay on to ensure continuity.

MR KIRBY: Right.

QUESTION: Do you know, are there any others at the State Department? Are there assistant secretaries that are – or other under secretaries that are going to be remaining in place? Do you have a list of who has been asked to stay in their current position?

MR KIRBY: No, I don’t. And these would be discussions that would occur between the incoming team and these individuals, so it’s not likely that we would have a list, because these are individual decisions and discussions that are happening. So there could be more, but I’m not aware of any others.

QUESTION: Do you know – and I was – if the Secretary had taken questions, I would have asked him this, but do you know – does he have – has he met in the – this morning or this afternoon or plan to meet today or any time in the near future, that you know of, with his designated successor?

MR KIRBY: He has not met with Mr. Tillerson. Of course, he’s – stands by and is ready to meet or even just speak with him over the phone, if that’s desired, as he – he’s made clear that he’s willing to do that at Mr. Tillerson’s convenience and interest.

I think you may have seen some reporting this morning that Under Secretary Shannon did have a brief meeting with Secretary-designate Tillerson this morning in the transition offices out in town, not here at the State Department. I don’t have a readout of that meeting. I was told it was brief and cordial. Obviously, coming out of that meeting, we did get confirmation that as of noon tomorrow, in the assumption that Mr. Tillerson is not confirmed as the incoming secretary of state by noon tomorrow, Under Secretary Shannon will serve as the acting secretary of state until such time as that confirmation is finished.

QUESTION: Okay. And have you gotten any – the incoming White House spokesman, Mr. Spicer, said that a decision would be made soon on the Syria meeting in Kazakhstan. Are you aware if this building has gotten any direction from them about whether to attend, and if so, at what level or who?

MR KIRBY: No, I’m not aware that we’ve received any direction or guidance with respect to representation at the meeting in Astana. Our embassy in Moscow did receive an invitation delivered to them from the Russian foreign ministry, which they duly passed on to us here at Foggy Bottom, so we are aware that there is an actual invitation for the U.S. to participate.[i] But as far as I know, no decision has been made, and this is – as the Secretary said last week, this is something that would be up to the incoming team to decide; not him. I would remind you of what he said last week, which was that he encouraged the United States to be present at the conference, but ultimately, again, that’s the incoming team’s decision to make.

QUESTION: Can I – can I ask one? On the whole idea of the transition and a lot of the career ambassadors, or most of the career ambassadors have – the political appointees, as we’ve talked about at the podium, have been asked to leave by tomorrow. Given the fact that, obviously, there’s a senior career person acting as charge, could you just talk a little bit about the operations that are going to go on at embassies? I mean, obviously, it’s business as usual for some functions, but can you just walk us through a little bit about what it – the life of an embassy is going to be until an ambassador is confirmed at these political posts?

MR KIRBY: Well, obviously, each and every embassy in each and every location has different demands on it based on the countries that they’re working with and the leaders they’re working with. So no two embassies are ever perfectly alike. What I can tell you is that for those embassies who will not have an ambassador in place as of noon tomorrow, work will go on. In whatever form it has gone on today, it will go on tomorrow. We have exceptionally talented and professional deputy chiefs of mission who are career Foreign Service officers, who are trained and experienced to do exactly that, to step in for the ambassador when the ambassador is unavailable. And in this case, there won’t be, obviously, an ambassador available in many of these places come noon tomorrow. So they will step in as they have stepped in in the past to run the embassy, to perform all the functions that they – that are previously going on, and to perform the roles of the ambassador.

So it will be very seamless; this isn’t the – this isn’t at all new to State Department professionals. They do this all around the world almost every day; it’s just that in this case, there will be many of them that will lose an ambassador come tomorrow. But again, there will be no stoppage, no change, no --

QUESTION: Well, there will be some stoppage. I mean, look, there is going to be – obviously, the visa and consular functions will continue. But like, are decisions about business affairs and cultural affairs and – obviously, political affairs will be made by the next administration. So where’s the line between, like, the embassy holding events and continuing to function if there’s someone that’s – where are the decisions being made?

MR KIRBY: Well, so you’re right, all the functions will continue. There will be some – obviously, when you have a new administration --

QUESTION: So there’s some stoppage.

MR KIRBY: No, no, no, I wouldn’t – not stoppage, but certainly, some of the foreign policy agenda items will change, of course, under a new administration. They’ll have, perhaps – perhaps – in some places, a different worldview, a different approach to bilateral relations with that country based on the president – President-elect and soon-to-be President Trump’s agenda and initiatives, and they’ll execute that as they always do.

So some of the focus of the policies may change, but the work will go on. And a deputy chief of mission is – does and will continue to serve as the ambassador until an ambassador, in those instances where it’s going to happen, until the ambassador is confirmed and in place. The deputy chief of mission can represent the United States of America perfectly well.

QUESTION: One more. Like, I mean obviously, there – that an ambassador may be confirmed, yes, in a while, but there’s not really even much of a foreign policy that – I mean, I think in some of these countries, particularly where there is a political appointee and they’re expecting such a radical change or there’s been some tension, such as – well, just name them.

But there’s a long list of countries that have a political ambassador, that there have been issues during the campaign, and these countries are very anxious to have an interlocutor to deal with. But I mean, is the charge d’affaires really going to be empowered to have political consultations on a policy that hasn’t been formed and that they don’t know anything about? I mean, traditionally even, there’s been – while there may be some difference on tactics and stuff – largely throughout administrations, foreign policy has been pretty much consistent. And here, I think countries are expecting a kind of wholesale difference.

MR KIRBY: Well, certainly, in those countries where perhaps policies may change and no chief of mission who is going to be acting as the ambassador is going to get ahead of the next White House. They know that. Functions will continue, work will continue, support to the bilateral relationship will continue, but to the degree there are questions over policies, obviously, our ambassadors and our deputy chiefs of mission know to check back with Washington and get guidance. And if there is no guidance, then obviously, you don’t make decisions and you don’t pursue initiatives until you’re sure you’ve got healthy guidance. And that will come in time; this is not a new thing. There have – whenever administrations change there’s a period of where you have a change out in personnel and you have also changes to policies that are being crafted and formulated and disseminated, and that will happen. But in the intervening time, the bilateral relations will continue and our deputy chiefs of mission will represent, fairly and appropriately, the United States and our interests.

QUESTION: Kirby, I wanted to follow up, but also wanted to say personally, I will miss you.

MR KIRBY: Thanks.

QUESTION: Integrity was the word to describe you.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: And also, thanks for respecting our role as the press and what we do, so --

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: The – a follow-up to what Elise is asking about. Who will actually make the decision on the Astana talks? Would it have to be Tom Shannon? I mean, those talks are next week, so who would make that decision and does --

QUESTION: They’re Monday, aren’t they?

QUESTION: Yeah, and does Ratney stay on in the position as envoy --


QUESTION: -- and he’s the likely person --

MR KIRBY: Well, he is obviously still serving as the envoy. I don’t know of any changes to that position going forward. As for who decides who’s going to attend, obviously, my understanding of this would be that Ambassador Shannon, as acting Secretary of State, will consult appropriately with the new National Security Council leadership, because they will certainly – I would expect will certainly want to have a vote and a say in whether we participate and at what level. So I’m sure that Ambassador Shannon will consult appropriately with the new White House about what they would like to do.

And then, if the answer is yes, participate, then they’ll have to decide who and at what level and how that’s going to be and whether Mike Ratney is the person or not. I just – I know of no change to his status, but I don’t want to get ahead of the new team. Okay?


QUESTION: One on --

QUESTION: And – can I just follow up? You don’t know if Shannon – if Tom Shannon spoke to Mr. Tillerson about this today?

MR KIRBY: I don’t. I know that they discussed, as I said, and were able to confirm the transition team’s desire that Ambassador Shannon stay on in – as acting in the interim, but I don’t have any more details from the discussion. And as I understand it, it was a short, cordial meeting. I don’t – I think it was more a chance to meet one another and to --

QUESTION: Are you aware that – if the Secretary sought a meeting with Mr. Tillerson and we couldn’t – you couldn’t make that happen?

MR KIRBY: As I said, the Secretary made very clear that he was willing to meet with Mr. Tillerson and, as I understand it, they just weren’t able to get it on the schedule. So – but he did speak to him on the phone once. I think I read that out to you. And I – I’m sure the Secretary remains ready, willing, and able to have conversations with Mr. Tillerson even after tomorrow if it’s so desired.

QUESTION: If I might on that, so they couldn’t get it on Secretary Kerry’s schedule?

MR KIRBY: I think there was just --

QUESTION: Because obviously Ambassador Shannon met with him this morning, so did Kerry – the Secretary not have time on his schedule this morning?

MR KIRBY: I think it was trying to work both men’s schedule. As you know, the Secretary also went on a week-long trip, so he – they worked to try to – to make it happen, and they just weren’t able to get it on both men’s schedule at a time that was mutually convenient for both of them. But --

QUESTION: So you’re just emphatic that this was an issue of scheduling and not that Mr. Tillerson was not interested in meeting with the Secretary?

MR KIRBY: I can’t speak for Mr. Tillerson or the incoming team and their view of the meeting. I can tell you that the Secretary was ready, willing, and able to have such a meeting --

QUESTION: Was he ready, willing, and able to meet him today?

MR KIRBY: -- and they were trying to get one scheduled and they weren’t able to. I won’t characterize what the other side’s view of scheduling the meeting was. As I understand it, it was – they simply were not able to work out the --

QUESTION: Well, was the Secretary available to meet with him this morning?

MR KIRBY: He remains willing and able to have discussions with Mr. Tillerson.

QUESTION: I – I hear that, but was he able to meet with him this morning?

MR KIRBY: I don’t have any more detail about the Secretary’s schedule to read out with respect to today.

QUESTION: Could you take the question?

MR KIRBY: No, I don’t think – look, he’s had a full day today, and the – Ambassador Shannon had a chance to meet with Mr. Tillerson. Secretary Kerry remains willing to speak with Mr. Tillerson going forward, even after inauguration, if it’s so desired.


QUESTION: Yeah, let me go to your favorite topic --

QUESTION: Hold on, Said, I got one more transition question.


QUESTION: But this is extremely brief. So Senator – either – I can’t remember which one it was, either Corker or Cardin – during Mr. Tillerson’s confirmation hearing made mention of the fact that they were trying to work out some kind of a compromise or something on political appointed – politically appointed ambassadors who were seeking extensions for personal reasons in office. Do you know if any of those were – if there were – if any resolution was found to that for some or all --

MR KIRBY: To do extensions?

QUESTION: -- of the ambassadors who were seeking to stay at posts a little bit beyond?

MR KIRBY: I am aware of one case where a politically appointed ambassador who asked to extend was granted. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t more; I only know of one. But that was an example of a case-by-case – individual case that was approved.

QUESTION: Which case was it?

MR KIRBY: Costa Rica.

QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, that there was follow – do you know, was that done between the committee – the Foreign Relations Committee – or a specific senator, or was it --

MR KIRBY: No. As I understand this, this was done --

QUESTION: It was done between the transition and --

MR KIRBY: It was done between the ambassador and the transition team.

QUESTION: Okay. So --

MR KIRBY: That was the – the request was made to the incoming team, and they approved it.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. So no extensions for anybody then did not stay the --

MR KIRBY: Well, if you have one exception, it’s hard to say that --

QUESTION: Exactly. Right.

MR KIRBY: -- it’s hard to say that it’s a hundred percent.


MR KIRBY: But --

QUESTION: Do you know how long?

MR KIRBY: I don’t. And that’s an individual decision and an individual discussion that the ambassador had with the team. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to speak to it.


QUESTION: Yes, sir. Yesterday, the President in his last press conference – President Obama – said that the moment may be passing for the two-state solution, echoing what the Secretary of State has been saying in the last couple – few weeks and so on. In retrospect or in hindsight, would it have been more effective – these steps that were taken and these statements that were said – would they have been more effective, let’s say, had they been done or said or taken back in 2014 during the long negotiation session, the nine-month and so on?

MR KIRBY: Well, no --

QUESTION: Or thereafter? Is the feeling in this building – or your own feeling as you go through the – could it have been more effective and maybe saved the two-state solution?

MR KIRBY: The Secretary has already spoken to this, and his answer was no, that it was clear after the 2014 discussions that leadership in the region were not ready to move beyond where they were, and that trying to do this would have – would not have been more successful at the time because of the tenor of the discussions themselves.

QUESTION: And, moving forward, does the Secretary feel or do you feel that these steps that were taken lately and so on will have some sort of an impact on the policies of the coming administration and so on?

MR KIRBY: Well, that’s hard to know, Said. I mean, the incoming administration will have to determine for itself how they want to approach the issue of Middle East peace and the tensions that continue between Israelis and Palestinians and where they want this to go in terms of a viable two-state solution.

All I can tell you is that this Administration and certainly Secretary Kerry worked very hard to try to get us there, because he fervently believes that a two-state solution is the right answer, and that where – and that the direction that leadership has taken in the region is not getting us any closer to that. But it’s very difficult to predict or to know what the work this Administration has done, what Secretary Kerry has tried to do, and the decisions that – and frankly, the framework that he laid out in his speech over the holidays – it’s difficult to know what impact that will have on the incoming administration’s chances and opportunities.

We – what the Secretary would tell you is that we did everything we could to try to get – to try to get to that outcome, to try to see a two – a two-state solution better realized. But in the end, even as in 2014, the leadership there in the region wasn’t willing to make the right decisions and to move forward in the appropriate manner.


QUESTION: In the last few hours, Senegal and Nigeria have confirmed they’re moving troops into The Gambia on behalf of the newly sworn-in President Barrow to try to dislodge the defeated President Jammeh. Does the United States support this military intervention?

MR KIRBY: We do support it, and we support it because – and we’re in touch with officials in Senegal. And we support it because we understand that the purpose is to help stabilize a tense situation and to try to observe the will of the people of The Gambia. Obviously, we’re going to stay in close touch. This just – as you rightly pointed out, Steve, this – this decision was just recently made. So we’re going to be watching this very, very closely.


QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? There’s – what’s your understanding of the ground situation? I mean, are there actually Senegalese troops there? And also, I see the State Department has just put out a warning for U.S. citizens of what they should be doing.

MR KIRBY: Yeah. I don’t have a lot of tactical information in terms of what’s going on on the ground. Obviously, it’s very, very tense. And you’re right; we have advised all U.S. citizens to shelter in place due to the risk of armed conflict, the risk of armed conflict, and we – and carefully – ask them to carefully evaluate the security situation before attempting to resume any normal activities. We also stated very clearly that U.S. citizens who are able to leave The Gambia are advised to do so. The embassy is temporarily closed to all non-emergency services as of noon yesterday. It remains closed today and it will be closed tomorrow. And again, we have a number for any citizens requiring emergency services. They can call the embassy at 220-437-5270.

QUESTION: And just out of curiosity, I mean, the ambassador there, I assume, is a career person, so he’s not – he or she is not – is still there?

MR KIRBY: That’s my understanding. Yeah.


MR KIRBY: Yeah. Go ahead, Dave.

QUESTION: Okay, just to follow up on that one. You say the United States supports the intervention. That’s diplomatic support at this stage. Do you – if they request any logistical or military support in this operation?

MR KIRBY: This is an ECOWAS decision and an ECOWAS mission. I know of no request or desire for U.S. military assistance. When I did say “support,” thank you for asking me to clarify that. Yes, I meant diplomatic support for this; I didn’t mean to indicate that the United States military was getting involved in any way. I know of no such plan to do that.

QUESTION: And in previous ECOWAS deployments of this sort – I remember I was in one in Liberia once – there were – transport aircraft were provided to help the ECOWAS mission. It was civilian aircraft organized by contractors paid by a U.S. Government agency. I’m not sure whether it was this one or one over the river. That’s not the case in this deployment?

MR KIRBY: Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: And again, this just started. So we’ll monitor it closely, we’ll stay in touch with Senegalese leaders, and we’ll see where it goes.


MR KIRBY: Laurie.

QUESTION: Yeah. I first of all would like to join in the appreciation that others have expressed for you. And I’d like to add appreciation of your unusual thoughtfulness and trying to consider and look beyond the noise of daily events, so thank you.

MR KIRBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: My question: A Turkish prosecutor has asked for a prison term of 142 years for the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP. And the EU has called that outrageous. What’s your comment on that?

MR KIRBY: Yeah, we have seen reports, and we’re deeply concerned that the prosecutors requested the sentence of 142 years in prison for the leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP. We’re obviously going to follow this issue closely as well. We’re also concerned by the aggressive use of judicial inquiries to curb free speech and political discourse in Turkey. So again, we would note the importance of transparency and respect for due process as Turkey investigates allegations related to the dissemination of terrorist propaganda. The United States continues to support freedom of expression there in Turkey, and we oppose any action to encroach on the right of free speech.


MR KIRBY: Pardon?

QUESTION: And a second question. A leader of the Syrian PYD told the Russian press that the PYD, the pro-Kurdish PYD in Syria, would open an office in Washington, and there were negotiations about that. And we --


QUESTION: -- we asked you that earlier this week and you didn’t have any information, but I wondered if you had any information today on that.

MR KIRBY: I’m afraid I don’t, and I’d have to refer you to PYD representatives to discuss that. I don’t.


QUESTION: The Trump transition has named their third ambassador nominee or designate, Woody Johnson, to the UK, to the Court of St. James. I don’t imagine you have a specific reaction to his appointment, but can you say anything about how important that appointment to the UK is? We’ll all probably be writing about it today.

MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, you’re right, I won’t comment on the incoming team’s nominees. That wouldn’t be appropriate. These are obviously decisions for them to make and to discuss. But the special relationship is special, and we talk about it being special for that very reason. Our bilateral relationship with UK is perhaps the closest one we have with any other nation anywhere in the world, and for good reason. We share common values, common interests. We have shared many hardships together, and we’ve known many successes together in our bilateral relationship. By and large we share the same language. So there’s – it’s a very deep, very long, very strong relationship, and therefore the individual who represents the United States in London also has a special place and special responsibilities to safeguard that relationship and to keep it vibrant going forward.

So it is one of the most consequential ambassadorial posts that an incoming administration can make. Obviously, there are many others, but that is certainly right up there at the top of the list as one of the most consequential.

QUESTION: And with the Brexit vote, is it a particularly difficult or consequential time in that relationship?

MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, certainly there’s no question that at least for the next several years Brexit is going to – the relationship is going to be done in the context of that, no question. But our relationship is much bigger than this and much bigger than the UK’s decision to vote for Brexit. As we said at the time, this is a decision that the British people made, and we respect that, but it’s not going to change the fundamental, strong, and vibrant nature of our bilateral relationship.

QUESTION: Can you characterize, John, on your last day, the strength of this transition with the incoming Trump administration – how many people you have had in that transition office, how strong the communication has been? You all obviously were prepared with a bunch of memos from the incoming administration. How many of those memos actually got read? How confident are you that, come Monday, many of the tasks that have been routinely done here will get done? For instance, do you expect there to be a briefing on Monday or Tuesday?

MR KIRBY: A press briefing?


MR KIRBY: I don’t know. Ask Mark. (Laughter.)

So look, I’ve been very scrupulous about not characterizing our communications with the transition team or describing or characterizing their efforts, Gardiner, so I’m going to keep – I’m going to stay there today. There is a team here at State. As far as I know, it’s been a pretty consistently manned team. In other words, I don’t know that there’s been a lot of turnover or changes in their numbers. But they’ve been here since very soon after the election. We have literally daily interaction with them, and it takes the form in many different ways – face-to-face briefings, the passing to them of information papers, and obviously, plenty of phone calls and email. So there’s a very vibrant communication with the team.

What they have done with the information that they have been provided or the context that we have given them is really for them to speak to, and the degree to which they feel prepared and ready for duty tomorrow, again, is really for them to speak to.

What I can tell you is this: that Secretary Kerry was clear we were going to do everything we could to make it seamless and effective for them, and he leaves office tomorrow knowing that he did that, that he opened up this building to them and to whatever they needed and made it very clear that we were going to be open and transparent with them. And we were.

The second thing that I can say is that the incoming team – it’s not like this building’s just going to go away and everybody in it. The incoming team will inherit an unbelievable cadre of career Foreign Service officers and civil servants and contractors that are here at the State Department that are just as dedicated to seeing them succeed as they were when Secretary Kerry came in and Secretary Clinton before him. They’re an amazing bunch. I mentioned them a little bit in my opening comments because some of them work for me, and I can tell you that you won’t find finer patriots or more dedicated Americans than the people that work here, and they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work tomorrow.

QUESTION: One last thing, John. The Secretary couldn’t find time or they couldn’t find time together to meet with the incoming secretary-designate. He’s – Secretary Kerry is also not going to the inauguration tomorrow. How do we not sort of put these dots together to suggest that there’s hard feelings there?

MR KIRBY: There’s no hard feelings. Look, I don’t – on the schedule – meeting with the secretary-designate, they did speak on the phone. I think that’s important to remember. They actually did have a phone conversation.


MR KIRBY: They tried – they tried to meet face-to-face, and the schedules didn’t align. That’s – and again, I don’t want to characterize Mr. Tillerson’s view of that. I can tell you that the Secretary remained willing and able to do that, and the schedules didn’t align.

As for the inauguration, I think you guys know it’s – there’s no expectation that the outgoing Cabinet is going to attend the inauguration of an incoming administration. So I think I’ve seen some press coverage on the fact that the Secretary’s not attending, and I think – to be quite blunt, I think it’s been a little bit overblown. I mean, he never had any expectation of going. That’s really for the incoming administration and for their cabinet and for their officials, and what he wanted to be focused on was making sure that the incoming team was ready to go on day one.

And I think as he gets ready to leave here – leave office tomorrow – he’s confident that he did that and that the team here did that and that the team here will continue to do that going forward. But again, on the inauguration, there simply was no expectation from either side that he or any other Cabinet official from the outgoing Administration would be in attendance.

QUESTION: What about the (inaudible)?

QUESTION: Where will he be at noon tomorrow?

MR KIRBY: He’ll be enjoying personal time – (laughter) – as a free – as a private citizen.

QUESTION: In D.C. or Boston?

QUESTION: John. Just --


QUESTION: Just as a comms pro, do you have any parting wisdom to your future successors? You’ve obviously had a lot of experience in communications in an age of diplomacy that is increasingly digital in nature, and is probably only going to be increasingly digital, given the habits of the future president.


QUESTION: Just parting words about dealing with sensitive geopolitical issues in – to pass down?

MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t – I won’t take it upon myself to give advice or counsel to the incoming team or how they want to communicate. What I will say though, John, is when I first got this job, I came from the Pentagon, where we brief twice a week. And usually the briefings are much shorter there than they are here. And I – Mark will tell you – I actually asked the question, should – and I asked Matt and Elise when I met with them: Should we continue the daily briefing? Is it necessary? Because it seemed to me, when I first got here, that it was a little excessive. They’re almost an hour long, and it’s every single day. There’s an awful lot of churn that goes into getting this book ready – I mean, look at the size of this beast. So I asked the question. And the resounding opinion I got back was, “Yeah, they’re important.”

So I decided to let it go for a little while and just see what – how that transpired. And obviously, I didn’t make any changes, because it was – I very quickly learned and appreciated the importance of this interchange. Now, obviously, we talk to you on email and phone calls and we answer your questions in many other ways, but the briefing’s really important, because it’s live, it’s on camera, and it gets transmitted all around the world, and it’s digested almost in real time. And it shows that we are not afraid to be held to account for our policy decisions, even when they’re complicated, even when they’re hard to answer, even when the questions are very, very tough. So I would – if I may be allowed to say this one thing, I would hope that the daily briefings continue and that they’re just as open and fair as the ones we’re having right now. I think that’s really --

QUESTION: Maybe not as long.

MR KIRBY: Maybe not as long, but I’m – but I think it’s really, really important to have – to be on the record. And I’m proud that the State Department and the White House do this every day. And there’s not many governments that do that, that hold themselves to account and open themselves up to this scrutiny. The scrutiny that you provide, the critical analysis that your stories offer to these very complex challenges – that makes the pursuit of the agenda more credible. The idea that you can be more credible by going around the press is false. It’s not borne out by reality. By working with the media – not through, but with – and allowing for your policies, when they’re written about, to have quotes and anecdotes from people who don’t believe in it and who don’t think it’s right – that balance, that nuance, provided in a given piece, I think makes the policy agenda actually more credible and authentic.

QUESTION: Could you hold that book one more time? (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: I think they’re calling me to quit.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR KIRBY: I’ve got time for just a couple more.



QUESTION: We certainly hope your successor will be making the briefing room fun. You know your sense of humor is very well received among Asian media. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Who have difficulty understanding American sense of --

MR KIRBY: Especially when I was not trying to be funny.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) They think you make the briefing room fun. So my question for you: What is the most memorable point – memory that when you travel with Secretary to China and in your dealings with a Chinese official?

MR KIRBY: I think with – when I traveled with Secretary Kerry the last – the second to last time we were in Beijing, we had a lengthy back and forth with Foreign Minister Wang Yi over North Korea and trying to get these new sanctions on board. And the give and take and the sheer honesty of it was refreshing. Everybody thinks that when you sit down with the Chinese it’s formulaic, and there’s probably – there’s a little script to it; there’s no question about it. But when you get down to the brass tacks of an issue as complicated as the DPRK, and watching the Secretary and the foreign minister really have an honest, unscripted discussion – and they didn’t agree on everything when they had initial discussions about sanctions. Obviously, China signed up to those sanctions. But it was really refreshing to see that.


MR KIRBY: That there’s passion on both sides.

Yeah, Janne. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Can I follow that? Some (inaudible) issues, okay.

MR KIRBY: Go ahead.

QUESTION: First of all, you have worked hard as our State Department spokesperson. I give you hard time sometimes – (laughter) – are you okay? But I appreciate --

MR KIRBY: You give me a hard time every day.

QUESTION: I deeply appreciate it, okay. So you are free from your stress for North Korean issues.

Now I ask two questions for you. South Korea and then United States intelligence report said that North Korea is ready to launch two new ICBM. Can you confirm on that?

MR KIRBY: No, I can’t. And you know I wouldn’t discuss intelligence matters, one way or the other.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.) (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: I leave here knowing that I have continued to leave you unsatisfied.

QUESTION: Okay. One more. I’m sorry. One more. North Korea has restarting a plutonium production reactors. Do you have anything on this? So --

MR KIRBY: I mean, look, we’ve seen reports of that too, Janne, and I’m not going to confirm intelligence matters or speak to that one way or the other. I would just, again, reaffirm our call that it’s time for the DPRK to stop these provocative actions and to do the right thing for the region and for its people.

QUESTION: One last one. China is threatening with economically and military retaliations against the South Korea THAAD deployment. How will the United States response on this?

MR KIRBY: Well, I wouldn’t get ahead of responses at this time. That would be premature. Let me just remind that there will be no reason to have the consultations with the Republic of Korea about the THAAD system if the DPRK wasn’t engaged in these provocative actions in pursuing ballistic missile technology and a nuclear weapons program. And I would also remind that THAAD is an air defense system and a defensive system only. But there would be no reason to have these consultations if the North would stop these provocative activities.

I’ll go here, and then – and really, I got to go. One more.

QUESTION: Okay. May I follow the U.S.-China relation? As we know, this is the last press briefing of State Department during Obama Administration. So how do you evaluate the relationship between U.S. and China in the past eight years? If the full mark is ten, what kind of score would you like to give, based on the performance of --

MR KIRBY: Of my performance?

QUESTION: -- U.S. cooperation? Yeah.

MR KIRBY: No, look, the President and Secretary Kerry both said it’s one of the most consequential bilateral relationships in the world today, and I think we leave office realizing that it is. And there have been many areas where we have cooperated very productively with China – on climate change, for instance. And China was at the table for the Iran deal. There are other areas where, obviously, we don’t see eye-to-eye. There are still tensions over activities in cyberspace. And obviously, there are still tensions in the area of the South China Sea.

So it’s a complicated relationship. It covers a broad range of issues, not just regional issues. We continue to welcome the rise of a peaceful, productive China. And we continue to believe that having a meaningful and effective and cordial bilateral relationship with China is important going forward. But we’ll – the next team will have to make a decision for themselves on how they want to manage that relationship.

QUESTION: So that’s a – that sounds like a six. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: As for the “one China” policy, are you going to give any advice to the next administration, as for the “one China” policy?

MR KIRBY: No, I’m not going to give them advice. But I was just – on one China, obviously we continue to believe that that policy is relevant and right. And for our time in office, we have abided by that. We think that it is appropriate for moving that relationship forward, as well as regional security and stability. Okay?


MR KIRBY: I got to go.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Thus ends eight years of Obama Administration foreign policy from the State Department podium. Thank you and good luck.

MR KIRBY: Thanks, Matt. Thank you, everybody.

QUESTION: Thank you.


(The briefing was concluded at 3:05 p.m.)

[i] The invitation was officially extended by Kazakhstan.