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Department Press Briefing – June 10, 2019

Morgan Ortagus, Department Spokesperson

3:40 p.m. EDT

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, you’re stuck with me for the rest of the briefing. Good morning, or afternoon. I’ve got several things to start this off today for all of you, so just be patient with me, please, as we get through them.

Okay, first. On Friday the U.S. Treasury designated Iran’s largest petrochemical holding group, Persian Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, and its network of 39 subsidiary petrochemical companies and sales agents for supporting the IRGC, a designated foreign terrorist organization and WMD proliferator. We intend to target any company in the petrochemicals sector or elsewhere that provides financial support to it. The maximum pressure campaign continues and will continue.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is in Tehran. Japan’s Prime Minister Abe will be there this week as well. There is no daylight between us and our allies on the objective of denying Iran the ability to ever acquire a nuclear weapon. We also agree about the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program, its terrorist activities, and human rights abuses. Iran has threatened to violate some of the JCPOA’s key restrictions, and today Zarif threatened the U.S. that it cannot expect to stay safe because our – because of our maximum pressure campaign. Making threats, using nuclear blackmail, and terrorizing other nations is typical behavior for the revolutionary regime in Tehran.

Tomorrow they will probably threaten once again to close the Strait of Hormuz. We aren’t impressed. Iran faces a simple choice. It can either behave like a normal nation or watch its economy crumble. Iran’s recent threat to cease performing key nuclear commitments under the JCPOA is a big step in the wrong direction and it understores the – underscores the continuing challenge Iran poses to international peace and security. The international community must remain united on this issue and hold the Iranian regime accountable for its threats to expand its nuclear program. We will hold the Islamic Republic of Iran accountable for any actions against our people and our interests, regardless of whether they come from Iran or from its proxies.

The only solution is a newer better – a new and better deal that addresses the full scope of Iran’s threats. Those threats form the basis of the 12 demands. As President Trump and the Secretary have said, we stand ready to talk. Iran’s leaders know how to reach us.

Next, the United States expresses its grave concern about the Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to its fugitive offenders ordinance, which, if passed, would permit Chinese authorities to request the extradition of individuals to mainland China. The peaceful demonstration by hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers yesterday clearly shows the public’s opposition to the proposed amendments. The United States shares the concern of many in Hong Kong that the lack of procedural protections in the proposed amendments could undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and negatively impact the territory’s longstanding protections of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and democratic values, as enshrined in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. We are also concerned that the amendments could damage Hong Kong’s business environment and subject our citizens residing in or visiting Hong Kong to China’s capricious judicial system.

Last month the Secretary met with a delegation of pro-democracy leaders from Hong Kong to discuss their broad reservations about the extradition proposal. We believe that any amendments to the fugitive offenders ordinance should be pursued with great care and in full consultation with a broad range of local and international stakeholders who may be affected by the amendments. The continued erosion of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework puts at risk Hong Kong’s long-established special status in international affairs.

Moving over to Georgia, Secretary Pompeo will meet with the Georgian prime minister, who is visiting Washington this week. Ahead of this meeting, I would like to highlight that the
United States does not recognize the legitimacy of the so-called parliamentary elections in Georgia’s South Ossetia region on June 9th, and it will not acknowledge their outcome. Our position in South Ossetia remains clear. These regions are integral parts of Georgia. Accordingly, we reiterate our strong support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. The Secretary looks forward to discussing a range of bilateral issues with the prime minister tomorrow.

Finally – I have one more announcement for you – I am pleased to announce that Secretary Pompeo will travel to the Indo-Pacific region on June 24th through the 30th to broaden and deepen our partnership with key countries to advance our shared goal of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The Secretary’s first stop will be in New Delhi, India. Prime Minister Modi’s recent election victory provides an excellent opportunity for him to implement his vision for a strong and prosperous India that plays a leading role on the global stage. The Secretary will preview elements of a cooperative agenda during his remarks at the U.S.-India Business Council India Ideas Summit at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on June 12th.

The Secretary’s next stop will be in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where Secretary Pompeo will express America’s solidarity with the people of Sri Lanka as they stand united against the despicable Easter Sunday terrorist attacks. He will also discuss promising opportunities for U.S.-Sri Lanka cooperation based on shared commitments to a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

The Secretary will travel to Osaka, Japan to participate in the G20 Leaders’ Summit from June 28th to 29th, the first such gathering hosted by Japan. On the margins of the summit, Secretary Pompeo will join President Trump in meeting with Prime Minister Abe to coordinate on the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea, and to discuss ways to strengthen trilateral cooperation with the Republic of Korea on our unified approach toward the DPRK and other shared challenges.

Following the G20, Secretary Pompeo will accompany President Donald J. Trump to the Republic of Korea to meet with President Moon Jae-in. The two leaders will discuss – will also discuss ways to strengthen the United States-Republic of Korea alliance. President Trump and President Moon will continue their close coordination on efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

And with that, Matt.

QUESTION: Thank you. On Iran, there – we haven’t had a chance to ask you about this whole situation with the Global Engagement Center and the IranDisinfo —


QUESTION: — contract, so I’d like just to – what is the status of that funding right now? Is it still suspended? What steps are you taking to – well, it was suspended. Why?


QUESTION: How were they operating outside the scope? I mean, they were clearly going after, quote/unquote, “disinformation” but not from the Iranian government, which was their charge. How specifically did they go outside their mandate, and where have there been steps taken to make sure that they stay within their remit?

MS ORTAGUS: Yes. So the funding does remain suspended for this entity, and there’s a review process that’s ongoing right now. The review process continues, and that is going to, of course, ensure that the implementer’s activity is consistent within the scope of work. And of course, it needs to be consistent within the Department of State’s guidance on conducting these sort of activities within the GEC.

I think we use GEC as shorthand, but many people know that the Global Engagement Center is committed to its mission, which is to counter foreign state and nonstate propaganda and disinformation that comes from a variety of places, but that includes the Iranian regime’s propaganda disinformation. So I’m not going to get into the specific details up here, but the review is ongoing, and the implementer remains suspended at the moment.

QUESTION: Well, is it possible that this implementer will not – so that the money won’t be reinstated? Is that a possible option?

MS ORTAGUS: I think all options are possible while we’re undergoing the review.

QUESTION: And then just lastly on this. It appears since the first reports came out and the suspension was announced, it has come out that this organization that was getting U.S. taxpayer money was – some of the people that it was attacking worked for U.S. taxpayer-funded organizations. Is that in any way appropriate?

MS ORTAGUS: Again, the GEC found that their implementer went beyond the scope of their contract, and that’s why their contract has been suspended. They’re under a review, and the GEC’s leadership has, of course, spent time and had a meeting with them to outline initially what they did that went beyond the scope.

QUESTION: Right. But what —

MS ORTAGUS: I think that’s all I have, Matt, on that. Thanks.

QUESTION: Well, what are they going to do, not specifically on this —

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, that’s all I have on it, Matt.

QUESTION: — what are they going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future with this or any other project?

MS ORTAGUS: Whether it’s the GEC or any other institution within the Department of State, we work judiciously to review what our implementers and contractors do around the world, and we have a variety of mechanisms, including the IG, which does its own internal reviews for every contract that the State Department produces, and we’ll follow the same guidelines with the GEC.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: I have two questions on Iran.


QUESTION: The IAEA chief has said that Iran is now producing more enriched uranium than before. Are you aware of that? And —

MS ORTAGUS: Did you say that he said more?


MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, okay. Go ahead. Sorry, just want to make sure we’re on the same page.

QUESTION: Yeah, this is my first question. And my second is: Lebanese national and
U.S permanent resident Nizar Zakka has been released from prison and he will be going back to Lebanon tomorrow. How do you view this this development?

MS ORTAGUS: So on your second question, we’re aware of those public reports, but we don’t have anything to comment on from the podium today. As it relates to your first question on Iran, I mean, obviously we see these reports as showing that Iran is going in the wrong direction, and it underscores the continuing challenge Iran poses to international peace and security. This is something that I’ve been a part – many of you know I was traveling for the last week with the Secretary – part of many conversations with our European allies on this topic, and we think it’s important for the international community to remain united to hold the Iranian regime accountable. And I know that we left those meetings very encouraged that our European allies will do so.

Said, how are you?

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. I want to move on another topic.

QUESTION: Can we stay on – also on Iran, please?

QUESTION: Follow-up on Iran?

QUESTION: Can we stay on Iran?

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Lesley.

QUESTION: So has the U.S. been – given that Mr. Zakka is a U.S. – has a green card, has the U.S. been involved in any of these discussions? And is there a possibility that this involves some kind of a swap with an Iranian businessman that is being held here, according to reports?

MS ORTAGUS: If – we certainly hope that these reports are accurate that he has been released, and if they are accurate, we will certainly come back to you with more information. But for now, that’s the only comment that we have.

Are you – on Iran?

QUESTION: On Iran, yes.


QUESTION: What’s your view of Germany —

MS ORTAGUS: I’ll get back to you, Said. I promise.

QUESTION: What’s your view of Germany’s proposal for a European payment system for trade with Iran that he raised when he was in Tehran?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. I mean, I think the Secretary spoke about this, and he has said, of course, any payment systems in which there are goods or services or whatever the commodity might be that is not sanctioned by the U.S. government is fine, but we would not support any payment mechanism from any country in the world that would allow businesses or entities or countries to engage in transactions with Iran that are sanctioned entities. And we are very grateful to the number of European businesses and banks who have taken these sanctions incredibly seriously and are complying with them.


QUESTION: If I could – I just – ask about —

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead – Said’s turn. Go ahead.

QUESTION: I want to move to the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Over the weekend, Morgan, the —


QUESTION: — ambassador to Israel, Mr. David Friedman, gave an interview or told The New York Times that Israel has a right to annex parts of the West Bank. Is that now U.S. policy? And if it’s not, are you going to, let’s say, call Mr. Friedman for any kind of disciplinary action?

MS ORTAGUS: There is no plan for any sort of disciplinary action at all.

QUESTION: Is the —

MS ORTAGUS: The administration’s position on the settlements have not changed, our policy on the West Bank has not changed, and I don’t think there’s anything new to report there.

QUESTION: So when he gives these interviews and says that – something like this, how is that interpreted at this building? Is that – is he in step or – with the Secretary of State? How – did he clear it with the Secretary of State? How does he go about it? You’re saying that there is no disciplinary action, but obviously, this is not U.S. policy, is it?

MS ORTAGUS: Well, I’d have to look again at the context of his interview, but I’d say that the ambassador, the Secretary, and everyone who is involved in the Middle East peace plan are – in this entire administration is working towards a comprehensive and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. We certainly see a brighter future for the Palestinian people than what they have encountered, and that’s why we continue to work on this plan and work behind the scenes. I think it’s important to note, from the authority of this podium, that our policy on the West Bank has not changed.

QUESTION: And the Secretary —


QUESTION: (Inaudible) that’s not true.

QUESTION: Can we follow up —


MS ORTAGUS: Mexico? Sure.

QUESTION: Just to follow up —

QUESTION: Can we follow —

QUESTION: — on some of the Secretary’s remarks, the President also tweeted that Mexico had agreed to buy large quantities of agricultural products from the U.S., and the Mexican foreign minister said that there was no such agreement to buy those products. So obviously, that language was not in the joint statement that was announced Friday night. So is there some agricultural component to this agreement that hasn’t yet been released?

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t think that I’m going to go beyond what the Secretary just said to you a few minutes ago and what the President talked about. I mean, clearly, as our two countries to work – work more closely together and clearly, as we hope to see the passage of the USMCA in Congress, that will open up more opportunities for agriculture and a host of other commodities and services. So we’ll leave it at that.


QUESTION: (Inaudible) Mexico?


QUESTION: The Secretary —

MS ORTAGUS: It’s Beatrice, right?



QUESTION: Thank you. The Secretary mentioned that the U.S. is now going to work with Central American countries to prevent their citizens from leaving. So could you please give us some detail about this? Have the negotiations started? What would be on the table?

MS ORTAGUS: Again, I think that the Secretary just gave all of you 10 or 20 minutes here on this, and I’m going to let his words speak for that. I think I would just reiterate that we – listen, I spent a lot of time with – on Friday as – probably as all of you did, Christine and others who were standing outside waiting, spent a lot of time talking to our negotiators. And it wasn’t just on Friday, by the way. I think, as you know, it began on Wednesday with a meeting at the White House with the Vice President and Secretary Pompeo and others, and then of course there were more meetings on Thursday, and then the marathon meetings on Friday. And as I spoke to our negotiators throughout that entire time, it was a tough and hard negotiation, but we got to the place in the end which of course we believe represents a new commitment from Mexico – the largest ever deployment, I believe the Secretary just said, of forces to its southern border. Mexico’s going to start taking operational control of its southern border for the first time, and I know that I’m very – I can speak, I think, on behalf of the department that we’re very proud of our team, who spent hours, literally hours, on Friday negotiating this. We will of course, as the Secretary just said, have to have ongoing and continuing talks and negotiations with our Mexican counterparts.


QUESTION: Hi, thank you, Morgan. On North Korea and —


QUESTION: Can we stay on Mexico?

QUESTION: When North Korea and Kim Jong-un —

MS ORTAGUS: We’ll come back.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS ORTAGUS: It’s okay. We’ll come back.

QUESTION: — has – North Korea and Kim Jong-un has recently replaced the negotiation team with the United States, and also reportedly say that several previous negotiating teams were sent to prison camp. Do you have any information on this, or how did you —

MS ORTAGUS: We don’t have any information on that. We have read those reports, and the President and the Secretary have said all along that of course while our economic sanctions remain, we remain open to talking and to negotiations with the North Koreans, and I don’t think our position has changed there.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on North Korea?


QUESTION: This week’s the one-year anniversary since the Singapore summit, so could you just characterize how the State Department sees specifically denuclearization progress since the Singapore summit? And it seems like talks are kind of in a stall right now, so what are the plans moving forward to restart negotiations?

MS ORTAGUS: Well, it’s been – it will be coming up towards the one-year, as you said. We think that this is and many people who come before us would say that this is one of the toughest national security challenges for any administration, probably one of the toughest that we will certainly – all of us – will face in our lifetime. And we of course – there has been steps that have been taken along the way. We’ve been able to get our North Korean counterparts to the table, where they have committed to the President and to the Secretary of State that they will denuclearize. And, of course, we have Steve Biegun working on this diligently.

And the path – if you look throughout history at any successful negotiation or any outcome, it’s never linear, right? There’s always ups and downs, and we remain confident that Kim Jong-un and his government will see a path for a brighter future for the North Korean people. And one year later, that’s what we are still aspiring to and still hoping for while noting, of course, that economic sanctions do remain.


QUESTION: Hi. This is June Knight with WATB.

MS ORTAGUS: I love your accent. I feel like I’m at home.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m from Nashville, from Nashville.

MS ORTAGUS: Good for you.

QUESTION: The LGBTQ flag on the embassies.


QUESTION: Can you explain the position of the State Department on that, on both inside the embassies and on the outside?

MS ORTAGUS: Sure. I think Pride Month that we’re in right now is celebrated around the world by many State Department employees, by many embassies. The Secretary has the position that – as it relates to the flagpole – that only the American flag should be flown there, but he of course, as he said in his congressional testimony, respects the dignity of every individual. And I think all of you can do a simple, easy Google or Twitter search and see the pictures of members – embassies and members, ambassadors, people of the Foreign Service celebrating Pride throughout the world.

QUESTION: The second question —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Is it – is it correct —

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead, Nick.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up on that.


QUESTION: Can you explain why the Secretary decided not to issue a statement marking Pride Month, and also the – last month the International Day Against Transphobia and Homophobia? Those were statements that were typically released annually on those days, but we didn’t see those statements this year. That’s provoked some concern that the Secretary didn’t lend as much importance to these issues.

MS ORTAGUS: Sure. I think that as I said and the Secretary said in his testimony, he respects the dignity of every individual and of every human life, and he remains committed to this effort around the world. I think it was just a couple weeks ago – I’ll have to look at the specific date – we had Magnitsky sanctions – and I’ll get the specific name for you – on an individual who of course was persecuting people of the LGBT community. The Secretary will of course next month host the Religious Freedom Forum that he has – that he also had last year, and he works around the world in these meetings to talk about religious freedom, religious liberty, and that’s something that I know is very dear to him.

QUESTION: So Morgan, can you – Morgan, can you explain the displays that we have seen of the LGBTQ flag, the colors, the pennants, banners? Those are not in violation of any kind of edict or order, are they?


QUESTION: So what of this idea that there is some kind of revolt among diplomats in the embassies? Is there anything that these are in violation of? I mean, I’m not —

MS ORTAGUS: There’s no violation that I am – no.

QUESTION: So people – so as long as it’s not on the flagpole that flies the American flag, the Secretary or no – and nobody else in this building has any issue with it? Is that correct?

MS ORTAGUS: That’s correct, sir.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: On Mexico?

MS ORTAGUS: No, we’re going to – yeah, let’s go back to Mexico. I think we’re done.

QUESTION: Okay, just to clarify, what exactly was different than what the agreements that were nearly reached in December on this? The Secretary didn’t mention any points that were actually different.

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t think that’s fair. I mean, I think that he mentioned a number of points. The President has tweeted about it as well. We certainly laid out in the joint declaration which was released Friday night the ways in which that the U.S. and Mexican government would be working together. As I just said, I think at the top, this would be the largest ever deployment of Mexican security forces to its southern border. Mexico is, of course, committed to taking operational control of its southern border. Mexico is committed —

QUESTION: I think we can read all this. But how does that differ from December?

MS ORTAGUS: This is what I’m telling you. You can interrupt, but the answer will be the same.

Mexico has also committed to expansion of the migrant protection protocols. And then, of course, in the joint declaration we said that additional measures will be looked at within the next 90 days. Friday night, the marathon night, was not the – certainly the first or the last discussion that the Secretary and his counterparts will have.

Today is day one, or maybe you could count Saturday as day one. Success will be a dramatic reduction in the flows on our shared border. And we won’t get into specific numbers, but we expect to see dramatic reductions in the coming weeks and months. And I would say that the Mexican government was incredibly confident in the actions that they were taking that it would – that we would see dramatic reductions in that —

QUESTION: But you can’t say how this is different from —

MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you so much. This is Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV Pakistan.


QUESTION: Like I just wanted to ask about their ongoing recon process in Afghanistan, the peace process.


QUESTION: So a couple of months ago we were told by Mr. Palladino that there was some kind of meaningful progress on that.

MS ORTAGUS: He told you?

QUESTION: He told the briefing.

MS ORTAGUS: Oh. I don’t know if you should’ve listened to him. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: He told the briefing, actually (inaudible). So about – I mean, after that meaningful progress we have seen Taliban brutalities, not only the ones of soldiers but with the innocent people. So what went wrong after that? I mean, after that meaningful progress?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. Listen, I don’t think that anything went wrong. This is – General Miller once said – this is one of my favorite quotes of his. He said, “You have to be ready to talk and to fight at the same time.” And that’s certainly what we’re seeing in Afghanistan.

We have four pillars that Ambassador Khalilzad is working on in Afghanistan: troop withdrawal, counterterrorism assurances and cooperation, inter-Afghan dialogue, reduction in violence. I think some of you know that the ambassador – that Khalilzad is in Kabul right now. He met with Ghani yesterday. And he and President Ghani spoke at length about preparation for inter-Afghan negotiations, and he knows that’s now essential.

I will be briefing the – not tomorrow but on Wednesday hopefully, and we’ll certainly, I think, have more to tell you about as it relates to Zal’s meeting.

QUESTION: But is United States —


MS ORTAGUS: And so – yeah, I know. You guys, so we’ve been here for almost 40 minutes, and I have actually two of the most important people in my life here today, which are my little nephews, Alec and Maddox Weinberger. So we’re going to end the briefing, and thank you so much. I will see you – if not tomorrow, I’ll see you on Wednesday. Thank you very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 4:04 p.m.)

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