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Department Press Briefing – June 17, 2019

Morgan Ortagus, Department Spokesperson

1:40 p.m. EDT

MS ORTAGUS: Good afternoon.


QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS ORTAGUS: Okay, a few things to start off for all of you. Okay.

Over the last few days, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green has been traveling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Somalia. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the administrator met with health care workers at an Ebola treatment unit, community and local leaders, and response groups working to stop the spread of the disease. In Rwanda, the administrator visited Kigali on June 16th. The – Administrator Green visited the Kigali Genocide Memorial, paying respect to those who perished more than 25 years ago. He also met with President Kagame to discuss Rwanda’s journey to self-reliance and to promote continued collaboration.

Lastly, in Somalia today, Administrator Green visited Mogadishu, where he announced the reopening of a USAID mission to Somalia to expand the agency’s partnership with the country. The re-establishment of USAID mission in Somalia after closing 28 years ago demonstrates USAID’s commitment to helping the Somali people on their journey to self-reliance. The administrator also announced 185 million in humanitarian assistance for the people of Somalia to address life-threatening food and security.

Next, I have a quick update for you on U.S. foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. As you know, in March, the President concluded these countries have not effectively prevented illegal migrants from coming to the United States. At the Secretary’s instruction, we continue to implement the President’s direction regarding foreign assistance for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. We completed a review, and previously awarded grants and contracts will continue with current funding. State Department assistance in support of priorities of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security priorities to help the Northern Triangle governments take actions that will protect the U.S. border and counter transnational organized crime will also continue.

We will not provide new funds for programs in those countries until we are satisfied the Northern Triangle governments are taking concrete actions to reduce the number of illegal migrants coming to the U.S. border. Working with Congress, we will reprogram those funds to other priorities as appropriate. This is consistent with the President’s direction and with the recognition that it is critical that there be sufficient political will in these countries to address the problem at its source. As Secretary Pompeo has said, these nations have the responsibility to take care of the immigration problems in their home country.

Okay, and one more. Tomorrow, Tuesday, June 18th, 2019, Secretary Pompeo will visit United States Central Command and the United States Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. There, he will meet with General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of Central Command, and General Richard Clarke, commander of Special Operations Command, to discuss regional security concerns and ongoing operations.

And I will be headed out with the Secretary, so I apologize, but this briefing will be a little bit shorter than normal since the airplane doesn’t wait on me.


QUESTION: Wait, I thought you (inaudible) tomorrow.

MS ORTAGUS: The meetings are tomorrow.

QUESTION: But he’s leaving today?


QUESTION: All right. Just before I go into Iran, can I just ask you, on the Northern Triangle aid, can you – do you have dollar amounts for what the total was that was initially suspended and how – and the amount that is going to continue now? And if you don’t, could you get them for us?

MS ORTAGUS: We will get you the exact ones. Some rough estimates – and I’ll make sure to get you the exact dollar figures – is that, excuse me, we will continue to meet our contractual obligations for FY17, and that funding that’s already been programmed is around 400 million. Again, we’ll get you the – the 200 million continues to be paused or in an escrow from ’17.

QUESTION: And sorry, the 400 million is both the stuff that had been previously awarded and the – there was some stuff that you said will continue?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. So there was about – I believe it was 707 was the number of programs in a very thorough and comprehensive review that we did, and of course, we said the – our assistance and support of priority programs from DOJ and Homeland Security will continue. And so we’ll get you the exact figures, but those are rough estimates of where we are with FY17.

QUESTION: Sorry, 707 was what?

MS ORTAGUS: Okay. So 707 is the number of programs —


MS ORTAGUS: — and activities – no, writ large.


MS ORTAGUS: Writ large, right.

QUESTION: Four hundred million of which will continue?

MS ORTAGUS: In the very extensive review, exactly.

QUESTION: All right.

MS ORTAGUS: And that’s an approximate number, obviously.

QUESTION: Fair enough, but it sounds like more than half is going to continue to go, right? Anyway —




QUESTION: Okay. On Iran, I want to ask a variation of the question I asked you last week —


QUESTION: — which was when your ambassador to the IAEA noted that Iran was potentially or possibly in violation of the JCPOA on advanced centrifuges and she called for the IAEA, in particular the European parties to the deal, to urge Iran to stay in compliance. Now today, we have a situation where the Iranians say they’re going to bust through the limits on their low-enriched uranium stockpile, and maybe even start enriching up to 20 percent. Do you see – does this administration see any value in Iran staying within the limits outlined by the JCPOA?

MS ORTAGUS: So I would say that we are unfortunately not surprised by the Iranian announcement. As we’ve talked quite a bit from this podium, this is a pattern of 40 years of behavior. It’s consistent with how the Iranian regime behaves. They did this when we were in the JCPOA, right? They continued to build their missile program, we relieved sanctions, they took American sailors hostage. We have seen no moderating behavior by this regime, and in fact what we’re seeing here of course over the past week is – constantly threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, a number of activities – not just the two commercial shipping vessels that we discussed this week, but four other commercial ships.

So I think what we’re seeing here is really a challenge not only in the JCPOA, but really a challenge to the international norms on how a country behaves, a challenge to the international norms on freedom of navigation and freedom of the seas. And so we would say to the international community that we should not yield to nuclear extortion by the Iranian regime.

QUESTION: Okay. I just want to focus on the nuclear deal, the JCPOA —

MS ORTAGUS: Sure, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: — and nothing else.


QUESTION: Just that. Not taking hostages, not malign activity, not things that are not covered in the JCPOA. Does the administration believe there is value in Iran staying – continuing to comply with the JCPOA, which the President called the worst deal ever negotiated?

MS ORTAGUS: Listen, we continue to call on the Iranian regime not to obtain a nuclear weapon, to abide by their commitments to the international community. And I think it’s unfortunate that they’ve made this announcement today. As I said earlier, it doesn’t surprise anybody. I think this is why the President has often said that the JCPOA needs to be replaced with a new and better deal. Iran, as evident by their announcement today but also their pattern of behavior over the past few years, is keen on expanding – or seems to be keen on expanding their nuclear program, and it now wants to exceed these nuclear limits in advance of these so-called sunset clauses.

QUESTION: But that suggests that you believe that there is —


QUESTION: — values in these limits, no? Does it not? I mean, if you look at —

MS ORTAGUS: We call on the Iranians not to obtain a nuclear weapon and to abide by the commitments that they’ve made to the international community.



QUESTION: Morgan, is the Secretary disappointed with the response from the international community so far? You’ve said you would like to say to the international community they should not yield to nuclear extortion. So has the administration been disappointed by the response, for one thing, for the attacks on – last week, and more broadly on viewing the threat and the way to respond to Iran?

MS ORTAGUS: No, not at all. I mean, in fact, I think that we have seen the international community and our allies step up to condemn this behavior. I mean, this clearly – what we’re seeing in the Strait of Hormuz defies the pattern – the tenets that we all hold dear as it relates to freedom of navigation, freedom of the seas. The Secretary has been working of course incredibly closely within the government with secretary – Acting Secretary Shanahan on multiple times, working on ensuring that we are – excuse me – able to defend our people and our interests. We’re of course working on the diplomatic solution while Secretary Shanahan and the team at DOD is focused on our military options to keep our people, our interests, and our allies safe.

Over the weekend, as almost every weekend with the Secretary – he’s probably the hardworking – most hardworking person I’ve ever worked for – the Secretary had a number of calls with the NATO secretary-general, with a Chinese politburo member, with a Singaporean foreign minister, a Kuwaiti foreign minister, UK foreign minister, Emirati foreign minister, Republic of Korea foreign minister, Qatari foreign minister. We obviously don’t have readouts from every single call that he has, but we have worked incredibly hard with our allies on this assessment as it relates to Iran’s actions last week in the Gulf of Oman.

QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up to that.

MS ORTAGUS: I’m going to mispronounce the names, so I’ll get it to you, so —

QUESTION: What, the title?

QUESTION: The position, yeah, I didn’t hear it.

MS ORTAGUS: It’s a politburo member.


QUESTION: Does the Secretary believe that the U.S. strategy, as he laid out when he set forth these 12 demands – I mean, given the tensions only seem to be escalating, does he believe that the U.S. strategy toward Iran is currently working?

MS ORTAGUS: Our maximum pressure campaign continues, and it will continue to be what we pursue. We think it’s incredibly unfortunate, of course, the Iranian announcement today. But when we – again, when we look and see what’s happened in the region, again, this is – as we always say, I know, 40 years of behavior – but especially over the past few years, when you look at this assessment that the Secretary gave here from this podium, I want to reiterate something that he said, because I think it’s sort of gotten lost in the media coverage. He said our assessment is based on the intelligence, the weapons used, levels of expertise needed to execute the operation, recent similar Iranian attacks on shipping, and of course the fact that no proxy group in the area has the resources and proficiency to act with this high degree of sophistication. So we will continue to work with our allies and work with our international partners who would like to help us deter this Iranian behavior, who would like to help us get them back to the negotiating table, who would like to help us get them to behave like a normal nation. That’s the whole goal here. Our demands are not high. Our demands are that they stop terrorizing the region.

QUESTION: Thank you. Just to follow on Matt’s question, so while there is no new deal between the U.S. and Iran, you ask Iran to abide by the JCPOA even though you left – the U.S. left this deal. When you say you ought to abide to their international commitments, you mean to abide to the JCPOA, which the U.S. left?

MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. We have made it very clear since this President came into office and since the Secretary came here that we will not tolerate a – Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. Full stop. So any actions that they take to get a nuclear weapon will be countered by a maximum pressure campaign by the United States Government that continues to this day. There should be no relieving of sanctions for their malign and unacceptable behavior.

Rich. Finally, Rich, you showed up.

QUESTION: I know. I finally got the directions. The Secretary last week when he was discussing this, he used the phrase that Iran was “lashing out.” In the calculation when the administration decided a year ago to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, did it anticipate or expect that there would be a greater level of this lashing out as a result of the U.S. withdrawal?

MS ORTAGUS: Well, I think that the United States and the Secretary and this administration in general were well aware of the pattern of behavior from the Iranian regime. Anybody who’s studied them more than a hot minute, who have looked at them for the past 40 years, knows how they will behave. I would love for someone to give me an example of some sort of moderating behavior that the Iranian regime pursued post-JCPOA. I have no evidence of that. I have evidence of them taking U.S. sailors as hostages. I have evidence of the IRGC having millions if not billions of dollars to fund terrorism around the world, to fund Houthis, who we saw hit yet another airport in Saudi Arabia where American civilians go through. All of you just saw that report. There’s been no moderation. They continue to terrorize.


MS ORTAGUS: Sure, Said.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you. Very quickly. I know I asked you last week about Ambassador Friedman and you stated —

QUESTION: Can we stay on the subject, please?

MS ORTAGUS: No. No, I called on Said and he can finish. And I’m going to have to go in a few minutes.

QUESTION: If you want to stay on topic, that’s —

MS ORTAGUS: You can finish, Said.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you, Morgan. Very quickly. Yesterday, or not – last week you said that what Mr. Friedman said was not U.S. policy. U.S. policy towards annexation is very clear.

MS ORTAGUS: I said that our policy on the West Bank hasn’t changed. Yes.

QUESTION: On the West Bank and Gaza annexation is very clear. But yesterday, the chief negotiator or the envoy, chief envoy, Mr. Jason Greenblatt, said exactly the same thing. I mean, apparently they did not listen to your statement last week or the position, or did not take into consideration the position of this building historically. So do you have any response to him? He said exactly the same thing. He said that he basically supports what Mr. Friedman said.

MS ORTAGUS: I didn’t – I read Jason’s comments and I didn’t take it the way that you just characterized. But I will reiterate that there is no plan for an annexation by Israel of the West Bank that they have presented to us, and nor is it under discussion. So I’m not going to comment on hypotheticals. If and when their government —

QUESTION: Independent —

MS ORTAGUS: — presents anything to us, we’ll be happy to have a comment.

QUESTION: (Off-mike).


QUESTION: I have two questions, one on Iran and one on Egypt.


QUESTION: Iran said today that it had exposed a large cyber espionage network run by the U.S. – by the CIA. Do you have anything on this?

MS ORTAGUS: I don’t. (Inaudible) from that.

QUESTION: And on the death of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, do you have anything?

MS ORTAGUS: No. We saw – we saw that the death was reported. So —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)


QUESTION: Just to go back to Iran briefly. Have you been speaking to Congress about the oil tanker attacks, and in particular, using that as an argument to get lawmakers to back down on their attempts to block the arms sales to Saudi Arabia? Because they were still quite determined to try after the briefing last week.

MS ORTAGUS: I – that’s an interesting correlation that you just made. I mean, the Secretary, of course, said very publicly, whenever he made this decision to continue the arms sale, which I would reiterate that those arms sales are to many countries in the Middle East, not just Saudi Arabia. We’re talking about Jordan. We’re talking about the United Arab Emirates and some smaller arms sales in there as well. But one of the justifications was, of course, because of the imminent threats from Iran.

Since I have to go in a few minutes, I believe somebody wanted to ask on North Korea, and I’m going to give them the chance.


MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan.

MS ORTAGUS: And then I’ll get Matt for the last one, and then we’ll have to go.

QUESTION: Yes, on North Korea.

MS ORTAGUS: I will be back, I promise. Well, hopefully. I shouldn’t say that.

QUESTION: According the Voice of America yesterday, Kim Jong-un said in a secret document the final goal of the North Korea’s nuclear negotiation with United States is the – to strengthen North Koreans’ nuclear power. Therefore, North Korea, Kim Jong-un, is not willing to denuclearization of North Korea. What is your comment?

MS ORTAGUS: We see a lot of media reports like this all the time – whether it’s North Korea or other parts of the world. And we certainly don’t comment and speculate on every report. But since you asked me, President Trump and the Secretary believe that Chairman Kim will fulfill his commitment to denuclearize, and that remains our policy.


MS ORTAGUS: Final question, Matt.

QUESTION: I just —

QUESTION: One follow-up on that?

MS ORTAGUS: Nope. Final question, Matt.

QUESTION: I just wanted to know if you – well, I believe that you would have seen the protests in Hong Kong over the weekend —

MS ORTAGUS: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: — that continued despite the fact that the government put the extradition bill – or at least postponed it for a little bit.


QUESTION: And I’m just wondering what you make of the situation there and if you believe that the Chinese are acting in an appropriate way here.

MS ORTAGUS: It certainly was moving, I think, as a citizen in a democracy, to watch these peaceful protests happen in Hong Kong. And we’re seeing the people there in Hong Kong, of course, demonstrating for their basic rights, for the right to freedom of speech, for freedom of assembly, all of these things which are enshrined into Basic Law.

And so, of course, as we observe these, we continue to call on the Hong Kong Government to address the concerns of their public, to consult with local and international stakeholders who may be affected by this proposed amendment, even though I know it, of course, has been postponed.

The Secretary spoke about this a little yesterday on some of the Sunday shows that he was on and said that we’re watching the people of Hong Kong speak about the things that we value. And I think that we have been pretty straightforward and transparent from this podium on our support for these peaceful protestors.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS ORTAGUS: I will see you on Wednesday. Thank you very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:59 p.m.)

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