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Department Press Briefing – August 21, 2019

Morgan Ortagus, Department Spokesperson

1:36 p.m. EDT

MS ORTAGUS: Good afternoon, everybody. Secretary Pompeo will travel to Ottawa, Canada, tomorrow for meetings with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. The United States and Canada are strategic partners, sharing a broad and multifaceted relationship. Secretary Pompeo will be discussing a range of issues that advance our shared goals, including returning to democracy in Venezuela, the need to pass USMCA, and our concerns with China’s arbitrary detention of Canadian citizens Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

On to Georgia. The United States is troubled by reports that Russian-backed de facto authorities have resumed the installation of fencing on Georgian territory near the administrative boundary line of the Russian-occupied Georgian region of South Ossetia. The process of borderization indiscriminately and disproportionately affects civilians living in the area, separating them from their farmlands, family, livelihoods, and critical infrastructure. We call for the immediate halt of construction of new fencing and other barriers. Once again, we call on Russia to suspend its illegal occupation of 20 percent of Georgian territory; to withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions; and to allow unfettered access for the delivery of humanitarian assistance in accordance with its clear obligations under the 2008 ceasefire agreement.

The United States welcomes two more nations to the Maritime Initiative in the Gulf. We thank Bahrain and Australia for their announcements to help protect freedom of navigation. There will be more countries joining us soon.

Secretary Pompeo and Polish foreign minister spoke yesterday at the UN Security Council on peace and security in the Middle East. They announced the Warsaw Process, which consists of seven working groups that will meet at the assistant secretary level to address terrorism, proliferations of weapons, maritime security, energy security, cyber threats, as well as humanitarian and human rights issues. Secretary Pompeo also announced that early next year we will hold another global ministerial on the Middle East as a follow-on to the first Warsaw ministerial. We’ll have more details to announce in the coming months.

At the UN, the Secretary reminded nations that the UN arms embargo on Iran and the UN travel ban on individuals – including General Soleimani – will expire next year in October. The Security Council has a role to play to ensure that the arms embargo on the world’s top sponsor of terrorism does not expire. On the State Department’s Iran online page, we have a countdown clock to the expiration date of the arms embargo and the travel ban.

Today the Department is announcing new Rewards for Justice reward offers. We are seeking information leading to the identification or location of three ISIS leaders: Hajji Abdallah, Hajji Hamid, and Hajji Taysir. This announcement comes at an important time, as the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and our partners on the ground continue to target ISIS remnants. Individuals with credible and accountable information on any of these individuals may be eligible for a reward up to $5 million.

Today marks the somber anniversary of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta that killed over 1,400 Syrians, many of them children. We reiterate our resolve to prevent further use of these deadly weapons and to hold the Assad regime accountable for these heinous crimes. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the use of chemical weapons anywhere by anyone under any circumstances. Furthermore, we urge the Syrian regime and its allies to return to the ceasefire in Idlib immediately. Monday’s reckless airstrike on a Turkish convoy follows similar vicious attacks by the Assad regime and its allies against civilians, humanitarian workers, and infrastructure. This brutal violence must cease.

The United States stands with the Sudanese people as they implement the constitutional declaration to establish a civilian-led transitional government. It is vital that the transitional government represents all Sudanese and protects their human rights. For this reason, we support the substantive and representative inclusion of those Sudanese who have been marginalized in the past – women and youth – in key decision-making roles and processes. We welcome the formation of the Sovereign Council, another step in the establishment of the transitional government, and intend to work constructively with those appointed to government roles. The United States remains a steadfast partner of the Sudanese people in their pursuit of a civilian-led government that will advance peace, security, and prosperity, and respect for human rights.

Okay. I feel – you’re sitting there. I sort of feel like you just have to come up with a question, Christina. I’m so used to it; it’s muscle memory.

QUESTION: I should lean back and be louder. (Laughter.) But can we talk about – can we talk about Venezuela?


QUESTION: Maduro has said that the U.S. has been secretly involved in talks with members of his government for I think it’s months now. Do you want to give us any context as to who has been talking to whom? Is that people from this building, is it Abrams? Like, who’s been reaching out? Are you comfortable saying who’s been —

MS ORTAGUS: So the President has addressed it, and I believe the national security advisor also tweeted on it, so I certainly don’t want to get beyond their statements and get into too many specifics. But I do think that this revelation is, of course, yet another sign that people close to Maduro are worried about his failed leadership and, of course, know that his days are numbered. The days of – not just his days, but the entire former Maduro regime are.

What we continue to work on both publicly and behind the scenes and, of course, with our allies and we just talked about in the opening about how we’ll be discussing this in Canada tomorrow – the Secretary will – is the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. And I think that this probably should come to – as a surprise to no one that the people around Maduro are worried about his future, as they should be. The ambassador, Ambassador Bolton, tweeted about it today and I actually liked the last line of his tweet, so I’ll read it and just direct you to it. He said that, “The only items discussed by those who are reaching out behind Maduro’s back are his departure and free and fair elections.” I don’t think I could put it any better than that. Okay.


QUESTION: Hi. Can I ask you on Greenland and Denmark?


QUESTION: Have anyone in this building and maybe the Secretary reached out to his counterparts in Denmark since the President’s tweet last night, or before that, to announce that there will be a cancellation of the visit to make this go smooth and not make a diplomatic crisis with another ally?

MS ORTAGUS: Sure. So if we have any announcements about any meetings or calls that the Secretary has, and if we’re able to provide those readouts, we will certainly do so. I would remind you, of course, that we do have an ambassador and a thriving embassy on the ground who work closely with their counterparts on a daily basis.

QUESTION: She tweeted about the visit just two hours before the (inaudible).

MS ORTAGUS: She did, yeah. That just I think goes to show the strength of the relationship that our ambassador has with the government and they’ll continue to work together. But I really am not going to have anything to say beyond the President’s remarks at the podium today. I’m sure the White House could offer you any additional color should you think that you need it.

Hey, Rich.

QUESTION: Just real briefly. Hi, Morgan. Do you know if there was any consultation or discussions with the U.S. and Danish government about this issue preparing for this meeting —

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t.

QUESTION: — specifically on the purchase?

MS ORTAGUS: That would be the President’s travel to – the White House. Obviously, it wasn’t the Secretary’s trip, so any preparations for that trip would come from the White House, not from here.

QUESTION: But I mean the issue of proposing a purchase. Was that something —

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t have anything for that.


QUESTION: Just on Greenland as well. Scientists revealed yesterday that August 2nd was the largest melt of ice on Greenland’s ice sheet in human history. Does the Secretary —

MS ORTAGUS: Where was that report from just so I know?

QUESTION: Scientists who are studying —

MS ORTAGUS: In Greenland?

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks.

QUESTION: From the – from a Danish scientific institute. The Secretary has previously talked about the issue of the melting ice caps as opening economic opportunity. Does he continue to believe that? Does he have concerns about this melt?

MS ORTAGUS: So you’re referring to the Secretary’s speech that he gave when we were at the Arctic ministerial. And in that speech he talked – the focus of that speech, I think it would be fair to characterize, was on the security interests that we have in the region and the reality of the economic situation writ large that our allies and their people are dealing with. So I think as it relates to the Secretary’s speech on the Arctic, I think it stands, it speaks for itself.

And we obviously, as we said then and continue to say, remain concerned about some of the involvements of both the Chinese and the Russians in the Arctic, which is one of the reasons why the Secretary attended the Arctic ministerial and has taken a very proactive stance in engaging with our allies in that multilateral framework, which I think is something that he has talked often about, is multilateralism that actually works, that’s effective. And I know that that’s one of the many fora in which he sees continued opportunity to work with our allies.

Go ahead. Hey, Nike.

QUESTION: Does that concern extend to the environmental issues, though?

MS ORTAGUS: No, I think that’s all I have. Thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you. Few items on Asia.


QUESTION: As you mentioned that tomorrow, Secretary’s meeting with senior Canadian officials —


QUESTION: — the detention of two Canadian citizens may come up – be discussed. Could you please provide more context on that, what is the update, and why is it Canada needs the help from the U.S. to secure or facilitate a release? That’s number one, and I have other question.

MS ORTAGUS: Well, it’s their citizens, so that’s obviously primarily why we’re bringing it up. And we have said before and our line remains consistent that we think these detentions are arbitrary and they’re unacceptable, and this situation needs to end. And because this situation is unacceptable, we will continue to work with Canada where we can diplomatically to help secure the release of these unjustly detained individuals in China. And I think it certainly speaks and shows the world exactly how China behaves when they believe they’ve been backed into a corner.

QUESTION: On that note, on Hong Kong, Chinese foreign ministry has confirmed the detention of a consulate employee.

MS ORTAGUS: You’re talking about the British —

QUESTION: The British consulate employee.


QUESTION: And was detained in Shenzhen for 15 days. Do you want to weigh in on that? Do you have any thoughts? Is the U.S. concerned this may be retribution for Hong Kong residents who work for the consulates of Western countries?

MS ORTAGUS: Sure. Yeah, we certainly want to let the British government speak for their employee and citizen – or excuse me, it’s a Chinese citizen – but for their employee, and we – we’ll watch the situation very carefully. But I think for anything further on that particular employee, we will refer you to the government in the U.K. Okay?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan.

MS ORTAGUS: Are you on Asia or something else?

QUESTION: No, different.

MS ORTAGUS: Do you mind if we stick with Asia for a little bit?

QUESTION: Not at all.

MS ORTAGUS: I’ll come right back to you. Yeah.

QUESTION: On Asia, please?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, just one question.

MS ORTAGUS: What’s your name? I don’t think I know you.

QUESTION: Yeah. I’m Chen Liu from China’s Xinhua News Agency.


QUESTION: And my question is just about the U.S. arms sale to Taiwan yesterday —


QUESTION: — the F-16s. Actually, Secretary Pompeo said on Monday in a Fox interview that the U.S. arms sales is inconsistency with the three communiques between the U.S. and China, but actually one of the communiques issued in 1982 says clearly that the U.S. government states it does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, and the arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, in qualitative and quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of the bilateral ties, and it intends gradually to reduce the sale of arms to Taiwan to a final resolution.

So how could Secretary Pompeo’s statement that its inconsistency with the communiques – but it actually just violates the communiques?

MS ORTAGUS: We don’t see it that way. 1982 was the year I was born. I don’t think it was that long ago, so I think that we’re still in keeping with the Taiwan Relations Act that we have here and the three joint communiques.

Hey, thanks.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. On the North Korean —

QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up on —

MS ORTAGUS: No. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. On the North Korea travel ban —


QUESTION: — and the U.S. extended one more years for North Korea travel ban.

MS ORTAGUS: Oh, right.

QUESTION: Do you have any detail on that?

MS ORTAGUS: I think that this is – let me get you a detailed answer on the policy. I think it’s – this is consistent with our policies. As it relates to North Korea, we obviously issue travel warnings for American citizens. I don’t think I have anything beyond that, but we’ll look into it and see if there’s anything new on the policy that you should be aware of.

QUESTION: Okay. What about the Special Representative Steve —

MS ORTAGUS: Biegun? Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — Biegun visiting South Korea, do you have anything on – update? He will going to meeting with the North Koreans’ teams or looking toward the working-level meeting or what?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. So we did release a media note before his travel, and we don’t have any additional meetings or stops to announce for Mr. Biegun, but we’ll certainly notify you if there’s some sort of an update.


QUESTION: A two-part question.


QUESTION: On Monday, Turkey removed the democratically elected Kurdish mayors in three cities and arrested over 400 people. What’s your comment? And would you support something very different, like renewing negotiations between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurds?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. So I think in general, anywhere in the world, it’s always concerning when you see the removal of elected officials and then their replacement by unelected officials. That’s obviously concerning, right? So what we hope is to see that Turkey resolves this matter in a way that is consistent with their commitment to democracy, and we, of course, always encourage a broad approach in Turkey’s engagement with the Kurdish communities.

That’s it? Anything – Said.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Very quickly on the statement issued by Ambassador David Friedman last week on the disallowing of Representative Tlaib and Omar from entering. Now, he cited the law that says anyone that support BDS will be disallowed. And I’m concerned about many Palestinian Americans who may differ in their views than, let’s say, the Israeli government.


QUESTION: Is that – are you concerned that this may set the precedent preventing Palestinian Americans from visiting their families, their villages, and so on? And is that your official view, his statement is your official view?

MS ORTAGUS: So, I mean, I’m not going to comment on the veracity of the law. I think that you would have to talk to the Israeli government if there’s any questions on detailing that. And so as it relates to Ambassador Friedman’s statement, I think that stands. I saw it, the Secretary saw it, there’s – we don’t have any – at issue with his statement.

QUESTION: So you did not issue a statement saying “This is our official position from this point on”? Will you do this? Is that what you’re doing from behind the podium?

MS ORTAGUS: Well, what are you asking? Official position on what?

QUESTION: I’m asking if the State – on supporters of the boycott and divestment and so on, or any differing views from those held by the Israeli government by Palestinian Americans. Because obviously, this was cited not only by Mr. Friedman —

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, but I think what you’re getting into is politics. That’s not what the State Department does. I do encourage you to talk to the —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS ORTAGUS: Let me finish. I think – I do encourage you to talk to the White House. I think that there’s many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that have varying opinions on this, and I think that that’s the appropriate place for these political questions. That’s not something that we do here.

QUESTION: I’m more concerned not with the – with Congress or members of Congress. I’m more concerned with Palestinian Americans, members of my family, others who may have —


QUESTION: — differing viewpoints. Will they be allowed or disallowed? Do you have a position on that?

MS ORTAGUS: That’s a question for the Government of Israel, and so that’s – but that’s not something that we control here.

QUESTION: Morgan —

MS ORTAGUS: Hey, sorry. Told you I would get back to you. Sorry about that.

QUESTION: I appreciate it and I feel compelled to let you know that I remember 1982 with dispiriting accuracy.

MS ORTAGUS: (Laughter.) It’s a good year.

QUESTION: But to – yes, it was – to bring us to more current times, specifically last Friday and the issuance by the department of the annual arms control compliance report to Congress —


QUESTION: — which bureau of the State Department drafted this report?

MS ORTAGUS: So I know that you sent us some detailed questions, so I do want to let you know that we’re getting back to you on all those. The – and I hate to just sort of read from here, but I just got this information before I went to the podium, so I’m going to give it to you. So the State Department – we submitted to Congress the 2019 Report on Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements, of course known as the compliance report. This is – I should note I think that there is a difference here. The August 19th one that you’re referring to, my team has told me it was the unclassified version of the report, and then there was a separate report that was submitted on April 15th. In terms of —

QUESTION: The April 15 one was classified, is that what you’re saying?

MS ORTAGUS: That’s my understanding, yes.


MS ORTAGUS: So the report does not include any new developments that took place after the report was submitted to Congress on April 15th. And I do think, James, that there’s probably a ton of technical questions that I should get the experts to answer for you because I don’t want to screw it up, which we have, but our – when something goes to Congress – you have not been in the bureaucracy, but let me explain there is a painful clearance process that goes on here. So there is drafters, there’s peoples who clear, there’s people who approve. It’s never sort of one entity that’s involved. And whether it’s submitting something to the Secretary, to Congress, or even to all of you – believe it or not, there’s a long clearance process before we get it to all of you – so this report would have gone through that same clearance process that all of our documents go through in the building.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that these reports experienced a more painful clearance process than most?

MS ORTAGUS: I can’t characterize that from here. I can get back to you on that, but I don’t know.

QUESTION: There’s – I’ll just run through the questions and if you don’t feel you can answer them from the podium at this time —


QUESTION: — you’ll just let me know. The report dwelled at length on the Iranian nuclear archive that the Israelis seized last year, and the report states that the Iranians’ efforts to retain this archive in secret locations, quote, “suggests that Iran preserved the information to aid in any future decision to pursue nuclear weapons if a decision were made to do so.”

I’m wondering why Iran’s clandestine retention of this archive was seen by the people who prepared this report as potentially something that would aid a future decision to pursue a nuclear weapon and not, by virtue of its stealth and the nature of the enterprise itself – itself – a flat violation of existing arms control obligations?

MS ORTAGUS: Sure. Let me do this for you. Because there is a – unclassified, and of course, the classified annex, I want to be careful here. And like I said, I just got this information before I went to the podium. I will follow up and have Brian Hook work with you – happy to do an interview. I just want to make sure that I don’t inadvertently talk to you about classified information from the podium. So we’ll – we’ve got the information, we’ll get it to you, and I’ll make sure – I don’t know what Brian’s travel is, but we’ll see if you’re in the building if we can get back to you before the end of the day. Okay.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: Morgan, could – does the Secretary have a stance toward the Office of Management and Budget’s effort to cut 4 billion in foreign aid spending?

MS ORTAGUS: So the package that you’re talking about is supposed to be announced by the White House. We think that that decision will be imminent, and as soon as we have it, we will comply with whatever the President’s directive is.

QUESTION: But does he have – does he – is he in support of it or does he oppose it?

MS ORTAGUS: I think that we support the President’s decisions.

QUESTION: Morgan, could I follow up on Iran?

MS ORTAGUS: No. Go ahead.

You guys, you know what? The – it’s getting near 2:00, and I think the President’s speech is scheduled at 2:00, so I’ll take a few more but I do not want to get in front of the President’s camera time. Yeah.


QUESTION: Can you confirm the report that another Iranian tanker is headed towards Syria carrying crude oil, the Bonita Queen? And can you say whether or not it would be in violation of U.S. sanctions and what the U.S. is prepared to do to stop it from reaching its destination?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, so we are aware of the reports that this ship – what a fantastic name, by the way – is headed towards Syria. We’ve heard that. I mean, look, I think that when you look at this ship, when you look at the Grace 1, the – when you look at anybody who – let’s – instead of focusing on individual ships, let’s back up a little. And when you have these ships that are transporting oil to Syria, what is that doing, essentially? That is – of course, it’s violating sanctions, but it’s also aiding in the terrorism of the Assad regime.

In terms of what we’re going to do, the Secretary spoke about this yesterday. I don’t want to get into hypotheticals or forecast many options that we have, but I do think that the Secretary said it well. He said if that ship heads – again heads to Syria, we’ll take every action we can consistent with those sanctions to prevent that. So I think that we, again, will use this opportunity to convey our strong position to all ports in the Mediterranean that they should be wary of accepting any ship which is carrying Iranian oil and violating U.S. sanctions.

And it’s important for these crewmembers of these vessels to know, as we’ve talked about publicly, that assisting the IRGC from – for transmitting this oil from Iran could make them ineligible for visas. That would make them ineligible for admission into the United States. And of course, this isn’t something – this isn’t an innocent activity. Providing or attempting to conspire to provide material resources, not only to the Iranians but to any foreign terrorist organization, any FTO, is a crime under U.S. law, and there’s punishments that come under this. So I think, again, if we step back and look at the bigger picture out of all of this, we want to remind all ports in the Mediterranean that these are sanctionable activities that they shouldn’t participate in, and we appreciate all countries complying with U.S. sanctions and with U.S. law.

QUESTION: Can I just clarify. When you say —

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, last one.

QUESTION: — if that ship heads again, is he referring to the —

MS ORTAGUS: In the Secretary’s quote? Yeah, when he was asked that yesterday, he was referring to the Grace 1 and that particular thing. But I think the important point that he was make there is – he was asked about actions, and you asked me about that, and he was saying that we’ll take actions that are consistent with sanctions to prevent that. So I think we have a range of options.

Time flies when you’re having fun. I apologize. I will look forward to seeing some of you who are going to Canada with us tomorrow, so thank you for coming. And we’ll be happy to follow up with anything that we haven’t answered, and we’ll see you next week for the rest of you. Thanks.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:00 p.m.)

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