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Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – November 30, 2016

1:48 p.m. EST

MR TONER: Man. We don’t even attract Reuters and AFP anymore. That’s pretty sad times.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR TONER: But welcome to everyone who did show up in the briefing today. And I do want to note, before we get into your questions, that AP correspondent Matt Lee and his wife Amanda are the proud parents of Vaille Olivia Meister Lee, who was born early this morning at seven pounds, four ounces. So that’s a bit of good news that we can offer this morning. I think they’re all resting comfortably after the event, and indeed, we welcome this good news. And I can say it was broken by – the story was broken by AP, by Brad. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I’ll pass it on. I’m sure he’s secretly watching.

MR TONER: (Laughter.) I’m sure. I hope to god he’s not. Anyway, Brad, over to you.

QUESTION: Can you just update us on anything you are doing or not doing regarding Syria? We know you had the talks in Geneva. Have they made any progress? And has there been any further communications with the Russians? Will there be a meeting in Rome, perhaps, among the Secretary and the foreign minister?

MR TONER: Sure. I don’t have anything to announce yet regarding Rome – I’ll start there – but I can’t rule it out. I don’t have any phone calls or other conversations to read out since I think Kirby mentioned earlier this week. As I think many of you know, there was some action today up at the UN. There was a UN Security Council emergency meeting on Aleppo and our Ambassador Sam Power spoke as – during that meeting. It was an emergency meeting by the, as I said, UN Security Council given the rapidly deteriorating, very dire situation in and around Aleppo. But again, these are a chance for us to highlight what’s happening on the ground in Aleppo and call for an end to the violence.

With regard to other meetings or events on the ground, I don’t have much to update on beyond that, except that we do continue to meet in our multilateral setting in Geneva.

QUESTION: Just big picture —

MR TONER: Please.

QUESTION: — how optimistic are you of any of these efforts doing anything to stop the violence in Aleppo right now?

MR TONER: Well, look – I mean, Brad, we’re still pursuing this effort, and we wouldn’t be doing so if we didn’t believe there was at least a chance. We’ve been clear all along, and been very consistent in our message to both the regime and to Russia, that there can be no military solution to what’s happening in Syria regardless of how much progress they appear to have made with regard to Aleppo. And again, it goes back to the fact that all the parties who are a part of the ISSG, the International Syria Support Group, agreed that there was no military solution to what’s happening in Aleppo. And that includes Russia. So we continue to call for an end to the violence, we continue to call for humanitarian assistance to reach the beleaguered citizens of Aleppo, and we’re going to continue to pursue the reinstatement of a credible ceasefire or cessation of hostilities in Aleppo in our discussions in Geneva. Those are ongoing, but as yet they haven’t reached – they haven’t made the progress we’d like to see them make.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: This came up a while ago, about a U.S. – I don’t know if you have anything new – about a U.S. citizen from Maryland that was arrested in The Gambia. Can you check and see if you have anything? There are some reports that —

MR TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: — she was arrested along —

MR TONER: I’m aware of the case, yeah.

QUESTION: — she was arrested along with Ousainou Darboe. Her name is Fanta Jawara.

MR TONER: Fanta Darboe Jawara, yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. And there —

MR TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: There are some reports that if the president kind of wins re-election, that he’s going to assassinate these opposition leaders who they arrested, and his fellow inmates, of which she is one of them. So I was just wondering if you have an update on the case. Have you heard about this? Are there concerns?

MR TONER: I don’t. I haven’t seen those reports. We’ll certainly look into them. As you probably know, Fanta Jawara was found guilty of multiple charges, including unlawful assembly and inciting violence. I think that was in July – July of this past year. And the judge sentenced her to three years in prison.

QUESTION: Well, she maintains that the only thing she did was, like, that she was alongside this opposition guy who was arrested.

MR TONER: No, obviously, as I said, I’m aware of the case. I’m not aware of these recent reports or allegations. We can look into them, see if we have anything additional to add.

QUESTION: Do you – have you maintained that this was a – that rule of law was applied in this case, or do you think that this case was – that she was not necessarily guilty of —


QUESTION: — what she was charged with?

MR TONER: Well, look, we’ve raised our concerns about the case and about the need to follow rule of law or due process to the Gambian Government.

QUESTION: Well, what are your concerns —


QUESTION: What are your concerns about the case? That due law – due process and the rule of law was not applied?

MR TONER: Well, no, we – look, I mean, in any case like this, when there’s an American citizen arrested overseas, obviously one of the things, first and foremost, is access to that individual. We were able to have access to her. I think we met with her 10 times now. This is probably old – probably been additional times since then, but 10 times since her arrest. We were able to provide her with consular assistance. We were able to attend her court hearings. And I think on November 21st, a consular officer met with her at her most recent hearing.

We’re monitoring the case. We are concerned about due process, as we are in any case abroad. We’ve made those concerns clear to the Gambian Government. Now, with respect to these new allegations, we can certainly look into them.

QUESTION: Okay, I understand. But when you say you’re concerned about due process, are you just – are you just wanting to ensure that due process is followed and the rule of law is followed, or are you suggesting that it was not applied in this case and you have concerns about the conviction?

MR TONER: We want to – the former. We want to make sure that due process is followed in any case.

QUESTION: So you don’t have any concerns about the conviction?

MR TONER: Not that I’m aware of. If that’s different, then I’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Can you check?

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: New subject.

MR TONER: Sure, Goyal. Go ahead.

QUESTION: South Asia – two questions, Mark. Thank you, sir.


QUESTION: There was a wakeup call and a surgical strike by Prime Minister Modi against black market money or black money in India, and that was called for the terrorists and black-marketers and people who didn’t pay taxes and also hiding or doing business under the table. And he was praised by the IMF, saying that any country doing business – huge business – under the table cannot progress, and we are with India as far as this. And I’ve been saying for 25 years against corruption by the politicians in India and also black market money. So any U.S. —

MR TONER: You were a voice in the wilderness then. Yeah.

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Thank you, sir. Any U.S. impact as far as this blocking 500 rupees and 1,000 rupees? And because there is —


QUESTION: — chaos in India, but mostly – 92 percent – Indians are supporting Prime Minister Modi.

MR TONER: Well, you’re right, and you’re right that this recent action followed on a series of steps that the Modi government took over the past two years to reduce black market money, and I think it also included a four-month amnesty for tax evaders in India, which resulted in I think the disclosure or declaration of billions of dollars in hidden assets. This was an action – I’m talking about the discontinuance of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes – designed to target illicit cash proceeds from corruption and tax dodging.

And with respect to your question about the impact on American citizens, we got this question I think the day that this was announced. And indeed, as it was an inconvenience for many Indians, it was an inconvenience for Americans who were also there, and we actually put out a statement through our U.S. embassy to American citizens in India about the changes. Again, this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on this – illegal actions or illicit actions. American citizens who are working and living in India I think have the proper information now to exchange those notes or to get new notes, and it’s a little bit of an adjustment, just as it was an inconvenience, I’m sure, for many Indians, but I think a necessary one to address the corruption.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. embassy providing any help to American citizens there if they are stuck with – in these long lines and all that?

MR TONER: You’re talking about any help for the Indians or for the Americans?

QUESTION: Americans there.

MR TONER: No, I mean, look, in any case such as this, the embassy’s role would be to simply inform American citizens residing or visiting in India of these changes and, again, how they can replace their notes and just the process into how to do that.

QUESTION: And one question on Pakistan: As far as terrorism is concerned or counterterrorism with the U.S. and Pakistan is concerned, there had been many cases where people who got training in Pakistan and also financed by Saudis, some – including this Ohio and California and all that, and now there is a – is Pakistan getting – and there was also a report on Twitter – is Pakistan getting any message that most of the people go there and get trainings and they hit U.S. interests here and also abroad, and also at the same time, finally now Pakistan has a new army chief, Mr. Qamar Bajwa.

MR TONER: Bajwa, yes.

QUESTION: Any change under his leadership because Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and many in the country were seeking —

MR TONER: Well – sure.

QUESTION: — not to have anybody anti-India general in the future.

MR TONER: Okay. So starting with your second question first, he did just – he was just appointed at the end of November, so let’s give this gentleman a chance to get up to speed, but we certainly congratulate him on the appointment and welcome his – the transition to a new chief of army staff.

With respect to your first question, I’ll have to just say that I think you’re referring to several cases, one of which is still an ongoing investigation, so I’m not going to address some of the assumptions in your question with regard to the motivation behind these actions or where these people may have received any sort of training. I think those are allegations that we’re just not able – law enforcement’s not able to confirm at this juncture.

With respect to our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan, that’s ongoing. We work with them quite closely. They’re aware of some of our concerns, which include a safe haven for some terrorist groups that are active in the region. But again, as Kirby and I both made clear many times from this podium, Pakistan’s also paid the price of terrorism. It’s in their interests, obviously, to crack down on any terrorist group that may be finding safe haven within its borders.

Please, then I’ll get to you, Justin. Sorry.

QUESTION: I’m sorry if you talked about this already —

MR TONER: That’s okay.

QUESTION: — but is there any new updates on the transition team that’s been here at State? Are they having meetings with officials in the building? What’s the latest on what’s going on?

MR TONER: No, I haven’t – let me – I mean, I don’t think I have much beyond what we’ve said, which is that they’re here, obviously. They arrived in the State Department. I would have to refer you to that transition team for more specifics about their planning and their actions. Everybody in the State Department obviously stands ready to brief them.

QUESTION: No, I understand that you stand ready —


QUESTION: — but have you briefed them?

MR TONER: Again, I’m not – I don’t have a list in front of me. I can certainly try to do that. I think Kirby’s —

QUESTION: Yeah, if you could give a little bit more of a —

MR TONER: — looked at that as well.

QUESTION: — kind of update of —


QUESTION: — where things are in terms of —


QUESTION: I understand that they have arrived and they’re probably reading memos and stuff, but have they under – started undergoing briefings with —

MR TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — officials in the building, which you said —

MR TONER: Again, I don’t want —

QUESTION: — was expected.

MR TONER: Yeah. No, no, I don’t want to give a – sorry, but – and I don’t want to give a – necessarily a play-by-play. My understanding is they’re in the building, they’re reading, I’m not sure – and getting up to speed, as you can expect. I’m not sure that they’ve actually started having these kinds of individual or briefings with the various bureaus or with senior leadership. I can see if I can confirm that.

QUESTION: Yeah. If you could, please.



QUESTION: So if they’re in the building and they’re not getting – what are they doing all day?

MR TONER: Again, that’s for them to speak to.

QUESTION: So then you don’t – they haven’t had any meetings?

MR TONER: I just – I don’t have anything to confirm right now in front of me, sorry. I don’t know if they’ve started —

QUESTION: So it’s possible they’ve had a lot of meetings; you just can’t say if they’ve had any meetings?

MR TONER: I’m not aware they’ve had a lot of meetings. Again, I also don’t want to speak on their behalf —


MR TONER: — and I also don’t want to give a play-by-play. But Justin, you had a question? Now, you’ve already – I’ve lost you? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, they won’t come here and brief us, then, will they, if you can’t speak on their behalf?

MR TONER: Normally, they would not do that.

QUESTION: They would not, okay.

MR TONER: But we can —

QUESTION: But we’re asking you to speak on your behalf. Are you briefing them? That’s not on their behalf, that’s on your – you’re the briefer.

MR TONER: So they’re here. They’re settling in. I’m not aware of any briefing —

QUESTION: That’s speaking on their behalf.

MR TONER: No, I’m not aware of any – that we’ve briefed them to any extent so far. If that’s changed or that’s different, I’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Mark, my other question was just back to the OSU —

MR TONER: Please, yeah.

QUESTION: — shooting and wondering if now that we’re hearing – and understanding that the investigation’s not complete – but hearing that there are strong indications this person was radicalized and inspired by al-Qaida or ISIS, does this type of incident trigger any, like, revisiting the vetting process and how that works with refugees, or does it just – is that system in place and working perfectly well in your mind?

MR TONER: Sure. So to talk about your broader question and not necessarily this case, because obviously I don’t want to insert myself into this case and that is still, as I noted earlier, under active investigation, I guess my short answer is of course, we’re always assessing and improving the vetting system.

But at the same time, let’s be clear that it’s still the most stringent vetting system for any person arriving from abroad into the United States – whether they be traveler or intending immigrant – and we stand by the integrity of that system. So we’re always, of course, looking to improve it, and that includes across the interagency how we look at the information, how we get the information on some of these individuals who may come from areas where there’s not a full set of bio data on them, and how we, again, cross-check that through the various interagency, through the various different interested parties, and ensure that these individuals coming into the United States are safe.


MR TONER: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: What’s on the agenda in the bilateral meeting between the Secretary and the Egyptian foreign minister beside the signing of the —

MR TONER: Oh, don’t take away my signing comments. (Laughter.) That was my big thing. I was going to do a topper on that if I can find it – that’s the whole thing. So like it or not, I’m going to give you the information on the cultural property agreement. Actually, it is a significant thing and worth noting.

So Secretary Kerry and Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry will sign the U.S.-Egyptian cultural property agreement today – later today. And the agreement will promote collaboration on fighting illicit trafficking in Egyptian artifacts. And it underscores the United States commitment to our relationship with Egypt as well as our global commitment to cultural heritage protection and preservation. And under the agreement, the United States will impose import restrictions on archeological material representing Egypt’s cultural heritage dating from 5200 B.C. through 1517 A.D. And Brad, you’re not allowed to ask me why those dates, because I don’t have an answer for you. But these restrictions are intended to reduce incentive for pillage and trafficking and are frankly one of the many ways that the United States is fighting the global market for – or in illegal antiquities.

They will, of course, hold a bilateral meeting after the signing ceremony. Look, no surprise what they’ll discuss. They’ll likely discuss regional issues. We obviously have strong interest in Egypt’s views on regional issues – whether it’s Daesh, whether it’s Libya, whether it’s Syria. We’ll also, of course, want to talk to them about the domestic situation in Egypt and the pursuit of the Egyptian people for a stable, democratic, and prosperous country.

It goes without saying that we want to see Egypt succeed and become a successful, prosperous, and stable country. It’s important for the region. It’s important for the United States.

QUESTION: Did you confirm that Egypt sent any troops to Syria?

MR TONER: Did we confirm that – I’m sorry, did —

QUESTION: There were reports that Egypt may have sent troops, army to Syria.

MR TONER: No, I’ve not been able to – I don’t have any confirmation of those reports.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) 1517 – I assume that cultural products that are less than 500 years old are not antiquities, since that’s exactly 500 years.

MR TONER: I don’t know. It’s somewhere around the Ottoman Empire. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with it, but —

QUESTION: I don’t think it was connected to Luther’s 95 Theses —

MR TONER: (Laughter.) That’s right.

QUESTION: — which were the same year.

MR TONER: I can assure you I asked the same question when I read it before. I’m not sure. That sounds as – plausible.

Please, Michael.

QUESTION: Yeah. Now that you said – you talk about Ottoman Empire —

MR TONER: Yeah, there we go.

QUESTION: — Mark, as you know, Mr. Erdogan is – lately his tone is very aggressive and nationalistic. Now he’s saying that he wants a piece of Greece, of Iraq, and some other countries. He spoke of the borders of his heart. How do the America Government sees this nationalistic rhetoric by the president of Turkey?

MR TONER: Even though it’s – well, look, I’m not going to attempt to —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR TONER: No, I understand. These are – this is the president of Turkey speaking, but I’m not going to attempt to explain or parse out his comments. I’d refer you to the Turkish Government for an explanation of their president’s comments. What I will say is that as a matter of principle, the United States strongly supports the sovereignty of both Turkey and Greece. I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: I have some questions on Cyprus if you —

MR TONER: Of course.

QUESTION: As you know, the talks on Cyprus in Switzerland collapsed and the president of Turkey is responsible for this unfortunate development. What is your position on this, and what you are doing to revive the talks?

MR TONER: Well, I don’t know – your first question – you referred to it as collapsed. I don’t know if we’d characterize the situation quite that way. I mean, UN Special Adviser Eide spoke yesterday about the recess in Mont Pelerin. He called it a setback, but he also said he doesn’t see any unbridgeable issues. So of course we’re aware that these UN-backed talks did go into recess last week. I think the leaders returned to Cyprus to reflect on next steps and the way forward. We on our part continue to support the UN-led and facilitated process under UN Special Adviser Espen Eide.

More generally, we’ve been encouraged by the progress that Cypriot leaders have made this year, and our focus remains on supporting efforts by the parties to reach a comprehensive settlement to reunify Cyprus as a bizonal, bicommunal federation. We can get there. We believe that, as I said, there has been progress made. We understand that there’s – the talks are recessed now. I’m not necessarily going to commit or project about possible next steps. That’s really for the parties to decide. We certainly would encourage these talks to go through under the auspices of the UN.


QUESTION: There are reports today that Secretary Kerry is going in Nicosia on December 8th and 9th. Also there are reports that another official from the State Department is in Cyprus. Can you confirm any of this?

MR TONER: With regard to possible travel by the Secretary of State, I can’t confirm that. I don’t have anything to announce in that regard. I don’t know who – what other official you’re referring to.

QUESTION: I heard that another official is there.


QUESTION: Mr. Cohen, maybe.

MR TONER: I can check on that. I just don’t know.

QUESTION: Can you check on this?


QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Please. Hey. Go ahead.

QUESTION: This morning, the UN Security Council passed additional sanctions on the DPRK.


QUESTION: I know Ambassador Power addressed this a little bit earlier, but do you have any reaction or comments from this podium?

MR TONER: Well, thank you. She did, and did so, obviously, very articulately and forcefully. You’re talking about the passage of 2321. It was unanimously adopted by the Security Council. It shows that the Security Council is very united in imposing stronger sanctions on North Korea’s international trade, financial transactions, and weapons-related programs. This is in response to North Korea’s pattern that we’ve seen in the past – more than past months, but certainly increasing over the past months – its behavior that jeopardizes the security of the region and certainly the security of the Korean peninsula. I’d just say significantly, these sanctions go beyond UN Security Council Resolution 2270, which was already stronger than past sanctions regimes, by targeting North Korea’s hard currency revenues. I can get into the specifics, but this resolution imposes hard, binding cap that will cut North Korea’s coal exports by more than 60 percent. And also these sanctions will ban export by North Korea of monuments and non-ferrous metals, rather: copper, nickel, silver and zinc. And this is significant because both of these exports have provided tens of millions of dollars to the regime annually.

What else? Just finally I would just say that obviously none of these sanctions are directed and nor do we seek to punish the people of North Korea who indeed are long-suffering under the current regime. To the contrary, these sanctions are very much targeted at the ruling elite who are responsible for many of these illicit programs. And finally, this is just another attempt to convey to North Korea, to the regime our seriousness and our concern – talking about the international community here, not just the United States – that its reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons is in violation of multiple Security Council resolutions and it jeopardizes its international status.

QUESTION: And then also do you – could you outline any additional unilateral sanctions that the U.S. may be considering, and in particular whether the U.S. is considering any actions to target DPRK nationals that are working overseas?

MR TONER: I don’t have anything to announce in that regard. I do know that as part of – again, not – these are not U.S. sanctions, but as part of this sanctions – that one aspect of them was to – for lack of a better word since I can’t find the wording in front of me – but to minimize their diplomatic status overseas – or activity, I guess, is how I would phrase that. But I can’t speak to any unilateral steps that we may or may not take in the coming days and weeks.

QUESTION: Did the Chinese agree these sanctions? China, did they —

MR TONER: Did China agree? Well, I’d refer you to China to speak on their behalf, but my understanding is yes, they did agree.

QUESTION: I have another one.

MR TONER: Of course, go ahead.

QUESTION: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent a nine pages letter to Trump demanding end to hostile nuclear threat. Do you have anything —

MR TONER: Demanding?

QUESTION: Demanding nuclear – hostile nuclear threat.

MR TONER: I’m not aware of the letter. I’d have to refer you to the President-elect Trump and his team to confirm receipt of that letter. I’m certainly not going to speak on his behalf or on his team’s behalf until January 20th. President Obama is the acting President, obviously. But I would say that concern, generally speaking, over North Korea’s behavior is not specific even to the United States or one administration in the U.S., but rather it’s a strong international condemnation.

Is that it? Thanks, guys.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:16 p.m.)