Department Press Briefing – October 10, 2017


3:04 p.m. EDT

MS NAUERT:  Okay.  Got a lot of the other world to cover now.  I want to mention one thing to you coming out of Liberia today:  There was a historic election taking place in Liberia.  President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf herself noted that – this as she steps down from the presidency.  She said, “For the first time in three generations Liberians will be transferring presidential authority democratically and peacefully from one elected leader to another.”  As a longstanding friend of the United States, the United States wants to congratulate Liberians for exercising their democratic right to vote.  We are proud to stand with them today in support of their efforts to continue building their country, its democracy, and its future.

QUESTION:  The situation between you and the Turks does not seem to be particularly happy at the moment.  It appears to be – instead of de-escalating, as you probably wanted it to —

MS NAUERT:  Right.

QUESTION:  — it has escalated instead.  What’s the latest and – on that?  And is there any sign that tensions can calm down?

MS NAUERT:  Well, we certainly hope so.  We were very disappointed by the Turkish Government’s arrest of two of our locally employed staff.  As many of you know, the State Department relies significantly on locally employed staff all around the world.  We would not be able to do our jobs at the State Department without all these folks who are citizens of other countries, who assist the State Department in their activities.  Turkey had arrested this year two of our locally employed staff in different locations, and then had called in a third staff member just over the weekend of the United States.  So we can confirm over the weekend that a third embassy staff member was summoned by Turkish authorities.  That staff member, though, has not been formally arrested.

These actions were deeply – are deeply disturbing to us.  Ambassador John Bass, who’s our U.S. ambassador to Turkey, addressed this extensively over the weekend.  We remain very concerned with the situation over there, and just to – for some folks who perhaps haven’t followed this as closely, I want to read you a little bit of what Ambassador Bass had to say about that over the weekend.

He said, “Last week, for the second time this year, a Turkish staff member of our diplomatic mission was arrested by Turkish authorities.  Despite our best efforts to learn the reasons for this arrest, we have been unable to determine why it occurred or what, if any, evidence exist against the employee.  The employee works in an office devoted to strengthening law enforcement cooperation with Turkish authorities and ensuring the security of Americans and Turkish citizens.”  He went on to say, “Let me be clear: strengthening law enforcement cooperation between the United States and Turkey was the employee’s job.  The arrest has raised questions about whether the goal of some officials is to disrupt the longstanding cooperation between Turkey and the United States.”

And that remains our – one of our chief questions for the Turkish Government:  What’s going on here?  What are they trying to accomplish by this behavior toward our locally employed staff?  Our locally employed staff in this case in Turkey worked on law enforcement cooperation issues.  We know that the Turkish Government has basically rounded up about 200,000 people accusing them of not only fomenting a coup, but also supporting the Gulen movement.  Our locally employed staff, part of their jobs at least here, these three individuals, was working with law enforcement.  And in – as a part of their job, that would require them to be on the phone with law enforcement officials and other investigators.  And when the Government of Turkey starts to question our locally employed staff’s ability to do that, we have some very serious questions about it.

QUESTION:  Well, so you guys in your statement said that you had questions about the commitment of Turkey to protect your diplomatic facilities and employees.  They turned around and said —

MS NAUERT:  And by the way, I’d mention we have not seen any evidence that indicates that our staff members were involved of what the government is accusing them of doing.  I just want to make that clear.

QUESTION:  Right.  I understood.  But they turned around, they took that statement, interchanged the U.S. —

QUESTION:  — or Turkey for the U.S. and said the exact same thing about you guys here, and they questioned the commitment of the U.S. to protect their facility.

MS NAUERT:  Mm-hmm.  Yeah.

QUESTION:  Do you think that there’s any merit to that allegation?

MS NAUERT:  I don’t think so.  I think their facilities are probably quite safe, as are their people here.

QUESTION:  First off, you saw that President Erdogan said that he doesn’t recognize – the Government of Turkey is not going to recognize Ambassador Bass because he did not take this – he took this decision unilaterally and not in – in concert with the rest of the U.S. Government.  Can you say that the State Department knew about what he was doing, and this was not like a unilateral decision that was not part of U.S. policy?

MS NAUERT:  Our ambassadors tend to not do things unilaterally.  We have a very close coordination and cooperation with our ambassadors, and particular Ambassador Bass.  He and I have exchanged phone calls, meetings with one another, on numerous occasions.  He’s always been incredibly responsive.  He is one of the best ambassadors that we have out there, proud to have him serving in Turkey and looking forward to having him in his next post.  This was coordinated with the State Department, it was coordinated with the White House and coordinated with the NSC.


QUESTION:  When they are accusing your – some of your Foreign Service Nationals of being associated with the Gulen movement, do you see this as part and parcel of any effort to kind of make the U.S. tacitly supporting the Gulen movement?  Because I know that they have been – they’re trying to get him extradited to the United States.  Do you think there i’s a bigger issue involved than these – than certain individuals and more of a U.S. —

MS NAUERT:  I’m not —

QUESTION:  — trying to taint the U.S. with it?

MS NAUERT:  I’m not sure exactly what the Turkish Government’s motives were.  Let me just be clear we were disappointed in their actions.  Being able to have close security cooperation, especially with a NATO partner, is incredibly important.  And when they start arresting, detaining our people, our people who are responsible for law enforcement coordination, that is a huge – that is a major concern of ours, and so that is why we took these steps.

QUESTION:  Just in July, the Secretary, when he was in Istanbul, said, “I think our relationship [with] Turkey, which has been under some stress for some time, I hope we are beginning to put [it back] on the mend.”  Does he stand by that statement, or is he concerned that the relationship is taking a turn for the worse now?

MS NAUERT:  Well, I think the Secretary would like to see our relationship improve with Turkey, as we would with other countries.  If you look at Russia, that’s another country where we would like to improve the relationship.  But right now, that is being called into question with the actions that the Turkish Government took.

QUESTION:  So that – he would not characterize the relationship the way he did in July?

MS NAUERT:  I don’t know the answer to that, if he would characterize it exactly the same way, because situation – the situation has changed somewhat with the arrest of two of our locally employed staff, plus summoning – summonsing – summoning one of our other individuals is a huge concern of ours.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Obviously, there’s been some tension between the Turkish Government and the ambassador.  Has anyone from this building been on the phone to the Turkish authorities?  Has the Secretary spoken to Erdogan or Mr. Cavusoglu since this immediate – it’s in the past few days?

MS NAUERT:  Yeah.  I know we’ve had some conversations with the Government of Turkey.  The Secretary, I do not believe, has spoken to his counterpart over there.

QUESTION:  He hasn’t?  The Turks said that they talked on Saturday.  No?

MS NAUERT:  I don’t believe – I don’t believe we have a readout of anything.

QUESTION:  Heather, would you say that in the few months that the administration has been in power that this is a low point in U.S.-Turkish relations?

MS NAUERT:  I don’t think it’s my job to be able to characterize it that way.  This is obviously a huge concern of ours, though.  We’ve had – we’ve had some difficulties with members of the Turkish Government this year, as you all well know.  We’ve talked about that an awful lot.  But I’m just not going to characterize it that way.

QUESTION:  Also, The New York Times reported that there were a dozen American citizens who were swept up in these recent arrests in relation to the failed coup attempt from last year.  Can you confirm that?

MS NAUERT:  I don’t have any reports on that.  I’m sorry.

QUESTION:  Part of the retaliation was basically to stop issuing visa to American citizens.  Can you confirm that?  And what does it mean technically?  Because you can arrive at the airport and you can get a visa in the airport.  Does that mean the Turkish authorities can stop an American citizen from entering, or if you have to go to the embassy, you think?

MS NAUERT:  I think some of that – my understanding is that this was all implemented yesterday, so some of this we are still figuring out.  We have temporarily suspended visas for new visa applicants for Turkish nationals wanting to come to the United States.  If somebody has a valid visa, they are certainly welcome to come over here under the terms of that visa.  We’re temporarily suspending it as we take a look at all of this, but —

QUESTION:  He said that he will boycott – well, the Turkish official will boycott meetings with him and he will not recognize him as an envoy.

MS NAUERT:  I see.  Okay.  Well, I’m not going to respond to that, but I can say that Ambassador Bass has our full backing not only here at the White – at the State Department, but also at the White House as well.

QUESTION:  Hi.  So what does the U.S. expect Turkey to do to resume the visa services in Turkey?  Are you expecting those two nationals – Turkish nationals, like, local employees at the UN – U.S. missions to be released?  What is the expectation?

MS NAUERT:  Well, I think —

QUESTION:  What is the complete expectation?

MS NAUERT:  I think a good start would be to allow them access to their attorneys.  To our knowledge, they have not had access to legal counsel as of this point.  We have not seen any evidence that backs up what the Turkish Government accuses them of, so that would be a good start.

QUESTION:  The Turkish officials tells me that the Secretary Tillerson didn’t tell them that they were going to suspend the visa services in Turkey in advance, and also Turkish President Erdogan today said that they had hardship to reach American officials, top officials in Washington.  I know that it was Columbus Day yesterday, but it’s kind of awkward, I guess, for everyone that Turkish officials complain about the fact that they can’t communicate with the American officials.

MS NAUERT:  Well, I know there have certainly been calls that have gone back and forth not only between Washington and Turkey, but also our folks on the ground in Turkey.  So that I can tell you and I can assure that some of those calls and conversations have certainly taken place.

QUESTION:  Over the weekend, the Israeli Government announced its plans to build 4,000 settlement housing units and amazingly enough, the State Department remains silent on this brand-new settlement.  What did – what is your comment on —

MS NAUERT:  He has been clear, both privately and publicly, that unrestrained settlement activity does not advance the prospect for peace.  He has also said this, that they – the administration recognizes that past demands for settlement freezes have not necessarily worked.  They have not helped advance the prospects for peace in the past.  The Israeli Government has told us that it is adopting a policy regarding settlement activities that takes the President’s concerns into account.

QUESTION:  So do you expect the Palestinians to reach out and maybe re-enter negotiations even if the settlement activities are ongoing at this pace?

MS NAUERT:  I think we certainly hope – and as Mr. Greenblatt and Mr. Kushner have done a lot of traveling supported by the State Department over to the region, we certainly hope that both parties will sit down and have conversations about this.  We’ve been clear on our position of settlements.  The Secretary and the President had very productive conversations with both Mr. Abbas and Netanyahu up at the United Nations in New York not long ago, and they were feeling optimistic.  And they were saying that they thought that now, more than any time in recent years, that they have felt that they would have a good chance of getting some sort of a peace settlement.  So we’re hopeful.  We’re optimistic.  We’re not giving up.

QUESTION:  Do you consider 4,000 housing units to be unrestrained settlement activity?

MS NAUERT:  I’m not going to characterize the number.  I’ve seen different reports out there, and I’m not sure exactly what would be – what would be correct in that.

QUESTION:  When the President met with Prime Minister Netanyahu he did talk about a freeze on settlements.  So when did you switch to we don’t think demands for a freeze are helpful?  Because he did ask for him to pause it, I think were his words.

MS NAUERT:  The President has said that past freeze arrangements have basically not worked.  So that is why they continue to go back and talk about unrestrained settlement activity does not help advance peace.

QUESTION:  So you don’t think Israel should freeze settlements?

MS NAUERT:  Look, this is not my position.  This is just – I’ m stating what our State Department position is on this and the kinds of conversations that the State Department and also Mr. Kushner and Greenblatt have had with the Israeli Government.

QUESTION:  Yeah, just very quickly.  So the British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson put out a strong statement today in support of the nuclear deal with Iran and is urging the – encouraging the U.S. to consider the security implications of the deal and keeping the deal.  How’s – what are – what is the response and can you give us a readout from the call he had with Mr. Tillerson?

MS NAUERT:  Yeah.  So the call did take place.  I can certainly confirm that that did occur.  I don’t have a readout of that call, and I’m certainly not going to get ahead of the President and his announcement.  The President has said that he’s made a decision and we’ll expect an announcement sometime in short order.

QUESTION:  Hey, thanks.  Do you have any sort of readout or description of the meeting that the Secretary had earlier today with President Trump and Secretary Mattis?

MS NAUERT:  So the Secretary was at the White House today for a series of three meetings.  He attended a meeting in the Situation Room with the President and the national security team.  One of the topics they discussed was North Korea.  The Secretary then had lunch with the President and also Secretary Mattis.  They also talked about Turkey and Iran as well.  Sarah Sanders had addressed this a little bit earlier, and she talked about how the President and the Secretary are working hand in hand to move the agenda forward.  In speaking with some of our folks who were over there with the President – pardon me, the Secretary and the President, that – the meetings were described as positive.

QUESTION:  Did he get any – did he get any assurances on his job security in these meetings?

MS NAUERT:  Look, I think the President had talked about this earlier today in which the President said that he has complete confidence in Secretary Tillerson.  He was asked that question by reporters.  The President said yes.  The President has a strong relationship with Secretary Tillerson.  I think that was made clear last week after their conversations.

QUESTION:  Specifically on that point, this issue of a potential rift was addressed last week by yourself and by Secretary Tillerson in his press availability.  Was he disappointed that it was kind of revived by the President’s interview in Forbes, where he made his joke about their relative IQ levels?

MS NAUERT:  I think the President’s allowed to joke.  He’s allowed to have a sense of humor, as we all are.

QUESTION:  Is that all it was – is that all it was seen at – it wasn’t seen as kind of a dig or —

MS NAUERT:  No.  I mean, look, the President is entitled to make jokes.  It’s a heavy world; it’s a tough world.  And the Secretary is more than fine with that. .

QUESTION:  But the President wasn’t joking on Saturday night when he said that he wishes Secretary Tillerson would be tougher.  What did the Secretary make of those remarks?

MS NAUERT:  I think I’ve sat in plenty of meetings with the Secretary, and I’ve seen him be very tough on situations.  So —

QUESTION:  Does the Secretary agree with his ally and friend, Bob Corker, that the President’s tweets on foreign policy have undermined and hurt the United States credibility?

MS NAUERT:  Senator Corker is certainly allowed to have his own opinions.  We can certainly look at some of the work that this administration has done and we can see – we’ve seen success.  We’ve seen success on the issue of North Korea, as we’ve been moving toward our peaceful pressure campaign.  We continue to forge ahead on that.  We are seeing success elsewhere around the globe, success against ISIS.  So Senator Corker is allowed to have his own opinions, and I’m just going to leave it at that.

QUESTION:  Secretary Tillerson said last week that they are working on some options for the President in case – as an alternative to staying in the Iran deal.  Is it safe to assume, five days before the certification, that the Secretary has submitted his alternatives to the President?

MS NAUERT:  Well, I know that there are a few plans that have been discussed and a few different options and arrangements, as any president would have his national security team weigh in with some different arrangements about how certain things could be constructed and how certain things would work. .

QUESTION:  One thing, does the Secretary feel the need to prove, with some kind of metric, how smart he is?  Does he feel like he’s in competition with the President or other members of the cabinet as to who’s smarter?

MS NAUERT:  No, Matt.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Former President Jimmy Carter offered to go to North Korea to speak with Kim Jong-un.  Is the State Department planning to help facilitate such a meeting?  And if or if not, will you grant him a waiver to go to North Korea?

MS NAUERT:  Yeah.  One would certainly need a wavier to go to North Korea.  That is for sure.  Former President Jimmy Carter has been there on numerous occasions, not behalf – not on behalf of the U.S. Government, but he has held talks and he is not – if he were to go over there, it’s not with the sendoff of the U.S. Government.

QUESTION:  — you’re not — they’re not going – he’s not going on behalf of the U.S. Government.

MS NAUERT:  Correct.  He’s not going on behalf of the U.S. Government, if he were to be going.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  I’m late today.  If the United States will open to military options against North Korea or do you think military options are not possible?

But diplomacy is the preferred approach.  Secretary Tillerson has talked about that repeatedly.  Secretary Mattis has as well.  So has the White House.  That’s our first line.  We’re continuing with that.  We’ve had numerous conversations in recent days with some of our friends and allies around the world, where they have said to us even that they feel that our pressure campaign is starting to have an effect.  And so we’re pleased with that.

MS NAUERT:  Okay.  As the Secretary of Defense, we have military options.  But diplomacy is the first approach.  That is what we want.  Okay?  No one wants to go to war with another country.  We want diplomacy.  We want North Korea to give up its illegal nuclear ballistic missile weapons and testing and all of that.  We want a peaceful Korean Peninsula, and the world agrees with us on this.  It’s not just the United States; it’s many countries around the world who are all working together on this one.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Twelve senators sent letters to Secretary Tillerson asking for North Korea to be reappointed as a terrorist country.  Will the United States reappoint it, North Korea as a terrorist —

MS NAUERT:  I’m not aware of that letter.

QUESTION:  Heather, you talk about the preferred option being diplomacy, but the President has talked about only one thing will work.  Is that diplomacy?  Or what was he referring to of his —

MS NAUERT:  The President has talked about diplomacy and he has talked about how the Secretary has been pushing ahead with that, and Secretary Mattis is as well.  So no one prefers the military response, but that is there to back us up if our allies would need it or if we would need it.

QUESTION:  So does that mean it’s diplomacy, which he seems to be disparaging in his comments?

MS NAUERT:  I think what the President was talking about is some of the past actions have not worked, where we have just talked and talked and talked and talked, and North Korea hasn’t lived up to some of the things that it was supposed to.  We would give things to North Korea in exchange for good behavior and that good behavior, in fact, never really materialized.  So I think I don’t want to interpret the President’s comments.  I could refer you to the White House for more on that.