Remarks at a Press Availability
by Rex W. Tillerson, Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
August 1, 2017
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, good afternoon, all. And if you’re inquiring about the young assistant with me, I decided maybe if I start naming people to office when they’re eight or nine years old they’ll be of age by the time we can get them through the process. (Laughter.)
But first let me acknowledge and thank Spokeswoman Heather Nauert for the job she’s been doing. I know it’s a – this is a tough transition to make for anyone, and particularly a unique transition to make for her. But Heather’s doing a superb job, from what I can tell. I don’t get to watch her much, but I get feedback from the folks back home who do watch. And Heather, I appreciate everything you’re doing. Thank you so much.
I also want to add my congratulations to Agent Jeremy Miles for his recognition that he’ll receive. It’s a great recognition for the department and for our Diplomatic Security folks as well.
So as Heather indicated, it’s been – sometime over the weekend I think I hit six months since I was confirmed, and I thought it’d be useful to come down here and just talk a little bit about what has happened in the last six months. So I’m going to take a little bit of a walk around the world but also make a few other comments on some things that you might be interested in, and then try to leave some time for questions from you.
Clearly, I think President Trump’s agenda is articulated really in the platform he ran on, “Make America Great Again.” And that’s not just a slogan. I think it’s important that people understand as we deal with the President and in helping him formulate and articulate foreign policy, it is those words, Make America Great Again, that we test our policies against, and how are we representing America’s interest first and foremost. And I think you’ve seen that articulated in many different ways by many different people, but it is what guides our formulation of policy here at the State Department.
I think the President has been clear though that when we say America first it doesn’t mean America alone, and we do value our friends and allies; we value our partners. And we recognize and acknowledge our adversaries and our enemies, and we tend to think about our relationships in those types of terms. But as we have said, America first is not America alone.
We also are wanting to define with our allies and partners what our expectations are, and I think it’s been long overdue that we have that kind of a conversation with others around the world. We have long, longstanding relationships that all of you know well are embedded in shared sacrifice, but more importantly they’re embedded in shared values.
But having said that, a lot of things have happened over the last 50 years, and certainly a lot has happened since the end of the Cold War. And I don’t know that anyone’s ever actually taken a step back and said these relationships that have served us well for so long, are they still going to serve us in the 21st century?
And so a lot of what President Trump is doing is he is challenging without disposing – and I think it’s important that people understand he’s not throwing these things away; he is challenging them for this century. How should we define these relationships to serve the American people’s interest, obviously, first and foremost? But in doing so, I think we’re confident it serves the global interest and the interest of our allies and partners as well.
So I say that to you to kind of position then this little walk I want to take around the world and ask you to kind of think about it that way.
As we came into office, we walked into a number of situations of conflict and threats around the world, and our assessment of the situation required us to make some pretty significant pivots in a different direction than our predecessors were taking. And we think these pivots are necessary to achieve security for the American people, create the conditions for prosperity for the American people. And in doing so, we create better conditions for security and prosperity the world over, and that serves everyone’s interest well.
One of the first threats we were confronted with upon entering office is North Korea, and it was the first policy area that we felt an urgency to deal with. And I think, as many of you have watched over the last several months, that threat has materialized in the ways that we expected it would. And that’s why early on we identified it as a very urgent matter, and the North Koreans have certainly proven the urgency of that to us.
We initiated a sustained and continued intensified campaign on what I like to call peaceful pressure, because the options available to us, I think as all of you well understand, are limited, and particularly if we think we are operating under a short period of time. So we felt the appropriate thing to do first was to seek peaceful pressure on the regime in North Korea to have them develop a willingness to sit and talk with us and others but with an understanding that a condition of those talks is there is no future where North Korea holds nuclear weapons or the ability to deliver those nuclear weapons to anyone in the region much less to the homeland.
In doing so, we’ve sought to partner with China. China does account for 90 percent of economic activity with North Korea. The Chinese have been very clear with us that we share the same objective, a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. They do not see it in their interest for North Korea to have nuclear weapons, just as we do not see it in anyone’s interest. China has ways that they can put pressure on and influence the North Korean regime because of this significant economic relationship that no one else has.
We’ve been very clear with the Chinese we certainly don’t blame the Chinese for the situation in North Korea. Only the North Koreans are to blame for this situation. But we do believe China has a special and unique relationship because of this significant economic activity to influence the North Korean regime in ways that no one else can.
And that’s why we continue to call upon them to use that influence with North Korea to create the conditions where we can have a productive dialogue. We don’t think having a dialogue where the North Koreans come to the table assuming they’re going to maintain their nuclear weapons is productive. So that’s really what the objective that we are about is.
We have reaffirmed our position towards North Korea, that what we are doing, we do not seek a regime change; we do not seek the collapse of the regime; we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula; we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th parallel. And we’re trying to convey to the North Koreans we are not your enemy, we are not your threat, but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point, they will begin to understand that and that we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea, but that will then promote economic prosperity throughout Northeast Asia.
This is going to be a continued effort to put ever greater pressure on the North Korean regime because our other options, obviously, are not particularly attractive.
Now, in saying that, I want to – I want to acknowledge a couple of people, and I’m going to give some credit to people as I go through this. These first six months, we’ve been carrying out this activity, as you know, with largely people in acting assistant secretary positions, using our ambassadors, the strength of the organization, and I’m quite proud of what we’ve accomplished. In dealing with North Korea, Acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton and Ambassador Joseph Yun have been stellar in helping us develop these policies and carry them out. Susan Thornton also has been key to our relationship with China, and I think it’s important that everyone understand that North Korea does not define the relationship with China.
Our relationship with China, obviously, is much broader. And if you go back to the summit in Mar-a-Lago between President Trump and President Xi, much of that summit was a discussion about what should the relationship between the U.S. and China be. It has been defined, since the opening of China with the historic Nixon visit, the adoption of the “one China” policy, the three documents and agreements, and that has given us a long period of no conflict between China and the U.S., creating conditions for enormous economic growth and prosperity in China, which the U.S. and the rest of the world has seen benefits from as well. That has defined the last 40 to 50 years of our relationship.
The question now is that we – we believe we’re at a bit of a pivot point in that relationship because of how China has progressed now to become the second largest economy in the world, and they will continue to grow in their importance to the global economy. What should define this relationship for the next 50 years? And those are the discussions that we have with the Chinese in the broadest contours: How should we define this relationship and how do we ensure that economic prosperity to the benefit of both countries and the world can continue, and that where we have differences – because we will have differences, we do have differences – that we will deal with those differences in a way that does not lead to open conflict. And that has been the success of the past policy. It’s one that we must continue, but we recognize conditions have changed and to simply rely upon the past may not serve either one of us well.
So these are very in-depth conversations and discussions we have with the Chinese, and we test this relationship through things like the situation in North Korea. Can we work together to address this global threat where we have a common objective? And where we have differences – in the South China Sea, and we have some trading differences that need to be addressed – can we work through those differences in a way without it leading to open conflict and find the solutions that are necessary to serve us both?
Out of Mar-a-Lago came, I think, some very important commitments to one another. We established four very high-level dialogues. We had many, many dialogues with the Chinese in the past – over 20 dialogues – but these were at a level that we felt were insufficient to deal with this question of our relationship, so the Chinese agreed to designate very high-level individuals so we have four dialogues. The Diplomatic and Security Dialogue is led by myself and Secretary Mattis with our counterparts in China. We have had two meetings of the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue. The Economic and Trade Dialogue has met twice. That’s led by Secretary Mnuchin and Secretary Ross. We have two other dialogues that are yet to meet: law enforcement and cyber security; and then social or people-to-people.
And so these are really to help us explore the tough issues that exist for the two largest economies in the world and two significant military powers, as to how do we want to deal with these issues, and they’ve served – I think they’ve served us well to this point, and they’ve been quite helpful in us advancing this understanding of one another’s interests, so we will continue those. And again, I want to thank Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton for her help in advancing these.
So I want to turn to Russia next and the relationship, as you know, on Russia continues to be under considerable stress. As I indicated in my first trip to Moscow, and meetings at the Kremlin with President Putin following those meetings, the relationship was at a historic low since the end of the Cold War and it could get worse. And the question, I think, of the events of the last week or so is: Is it getting worse or can we maintain some level of stability in that relationship, and continue to find ways to address areas of mutual interest and ways in which we can deal with our differences without those becoming open conflicts as well?
We have explored in the early days one area of mutual interest, which is terrorism. Now, we’ve chosen the theater in Syria as a place in which we test our ability to work together. We share the common view of ISIS as a threat to both of our countries, and so we are committed to the defeat of ISIS, Daesh, other terrorist organizations, and then we are committed to the stability of Syria following the battle to defeat ISIS. Clearly, Russia has aligned itself early on in the conflict with the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad, which we find to be unacceptable. So we’re working with Russia through how do we achieve the end state, which is a unified Syria – not divided – but a Syria that is – has the opportunity for the Syrian people to put in place a new constitution, have free and fair elections, and select a new leadership. And it continues to be our view that the Assad regime has no role in the future governing of Syria. The sequencing of all of that we’re open to, as long as that is the – that’s what is achieved at the end.
The second condition we have is that Iran’s military influence, the direct presence of Iranian military forces inside of Syria, they must leave and go home, whether those are Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle. Those are our two end state conditions, and those are shared by many of our coalition partners the world over.
So we’re working with the Russians. We’ve achieved one small measure of success by establishing working in concert with Jordon to create a de-escalation zone, a zone of ceasefire, in the southwest part of Syria, which thus far is holding. I think the achievement out of this is civilians are not getting killed, and that was our objective, is to stop the massive bombing attacks and artillery attacks that have led to so many civilian deaths. It is our hope that this first zone of de-confliction will hold with the Russians’ assistance and the Russian – the Russians delivering on their commitments, and that we can find ways to replicate this in other areas in particular in the north – northern part of Syria as we continue to liberate areas from ISIS.
In the Ukraine, we have been very consistent in our messages to Russia that the Minsk accords must be achieved, they must be implemented, otherwise nothing can be done about the sanction situation in Ukraine. As you’re aware, we’ve appointed a special representative to Ukraine, former Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker. Kurt’s a very experienced ambassador, diplomat to the area. He knows the area well, he knows Russia well, he certainly knows our partners well, and he’s very clear-eyed about his mission to see if we cannot engage to move the process in Ukraine forward. It has been stalled, as you know, for quite some time. This announcement has been welcomed both by the Russians and it’s been welcomed by the Normandy group that has been engaged with Russia in an effort to move these discussions forward. So we are hopeful we can make some progress in beginning to move the situation in Ukraine to a place of engagement and movement towards achieving a true ceasefire, because the outbreak in violence this year has been just heartbreaking to watch in east Ukraine.
We’re going to continue to uphold our commitment to the trans-Atlantic relationship, and the President’s been quite clear on our commitment to NATO. He’s been quite clear on his expectations of others in NATO, and I think all of that, again, very appropriately so. We have affirmed the commitment to Article 5. Unquestionably, that should not be an issue in anyone’s minds any longer.
In working with Russia and the difficult issues there, I want to acknowledge Brian Hook, who as my Director of Policy Planning has worked with his team to give us a number of options. Importantly, two important ambassadors in the region: John Tefft, who is our ambassador to Moscow dealing with a very tough situation right now; but also our ambassador in the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. She’s doing an outstanding job working with President Poroshenko to continue to help the government in Ukraine strengthen its own governing standards, continue to make progress on the anticorruption campaign, and strengthen their own justice system, which we think is important to their stability going forward.
So I want to turn to the Middle East and, again, the destruction of radical Islamist terrorism in the form of ISIS or Daesh but also in the form of al-Qaida and the many other names that all of you know. The coalition’s integrated civilian and military efforts, I think, have achieved remarkable success since President Trump came into office. He made some very significant shifts in military authorities to put battlefield command decisions closer to the fight, and I think the results are quite evident. More than 70 percent of Iraqi territory that was once held by ISIS has been liberated and recovered. ISIS has been unable to retake any territory that it has been – that has been liberated, and almost 2 million Iraqis have returned home. And this is really the measure of success, I think, is when conditions are such that people feel like they can return to their homes.
The liberation of Mosul has really broken an ISIS stronghold, as you all know, in Iraq. It would not have been possible without the strong cooperation of the Iraqi Government. And these battles have been fought by the Iraqi military and their soldiers with our advisors helping them. The State Department’s role in this has been to follow very quickly as areas are liberated with humanitarian assistance and with efforts at stabilization. So that means securing areas so people feel safe to go home, securing them with local law enforcement – faces they recognize are wearing the police uniforms in their communities, bringing back into the community the previous local leaders who fled when ISIS came in, restoring fundamental needs to the community – power, water, sewage.
That’s where we stop. We get the essentials in place. We’re not there to rebuild their communities. That’s for them to do and that’s for the international community to marshal the resources to allow them to do that. We liberate the areas, we secure the areas, we restore essential needs so people can begin to move back in, and we consider our task – at that point, our mission’s largely been achieved.
Similarly, over in Syria, we’re assisting with the liberation of Raqqa, which is moving at a faster pace than we originally anticipated. However, all of us, I think, are clear-eyed and understand that even there, that battle will hit a core resistance, and it’ll be a very tough fight to ultimately liberate all of Raqqa.
But again, we’re taking the same approach. We’ve pre-staged humanitarian assistance. We’ve pre-staged equipment so that as areas are liberated people can immediately begin to move back in and retake their community and rebuild their lives. So we will replicate the success we’ve had in Mosul and Raqqa, as we’ve done in other communities as well.
We’ve accomplished a lot of this through this grand coalition to defeat ISIS that was convened. It now consists of 68 countries and five international agencies. We convened that coalition here in March to lay out this plan of how we wanted to attack the liberation areas as those areas are freed up. We were able to raise more than $2 billion of commitments from the coalition. That money has shown up as we need it. We are not resource-limited in these efforts that I described to you. So we basically have raised three dollars for every one that we’ve put in of the U.S.’s money. We’re going to continue those efforts. And we had another round of talks here in the last month around Raqqa and are beginning to collect pledges and revenues to replicate that in Raqqa.
I think our next steps on the global war to defeat ISIS are to recognize ISIS is a global issue. We already see elements of ISIS in the Philippines, as you’re aware, gaining a foothold. Some of these fighters have gone to the Philippines from Syria and Iraq. We are in conversations with the Philippine Government, with Indonesia, with Malaysia, with Singapore, with Australia, as partners to recognize this threat, try to get ahead of this threat, and help them with training – training their own law enforcement capabilities, sharing of intelligence, and provide them wherewithal to anticipate what may be coming their direction.
This is a battle that’s going to go on for a long time, and this is the battlefield on the ground. The second battlefield is in the cyberspace, social media space, and the disruption of the messaging that allows ISIS and Daesh to attract new recruits to their cause. So this is also a fight that will go on for months and years ahead.
In Syria, I think if we think about Syria post the defeat of ISIS, what we are hoping to avoid is an outbreak of the civil war, because we really, as you know, have two conflicts underway in Syria: the war against ISIS, the civil war that created the conditions for ISIS to emerge. Again, we’re working closely with Russia and other parties to see if we can agree a path forward on how to stabilize Syria in the post-ISIS world, create zones of stabilization and lines of de-confliction that will hold, and then create conditions for the political process to play out in Geneva. We still support the Geneva process as a means of engaging the parties on the future of Syria’s governance. A lot of work ahead of us, and we don’t have the conditions yet in place to achieve that, but we are going to work with others – the neighbors in the region as well as those stakeholders in Syria – to see if we cannot create those conditions that will lead to talks in Geneva and elsewhere to put in place a longer-term solution for Syria.
And again, in the – I think in this region of the world I want to recognize Ambassador John Bass in Turkey. Turkey has a big role to play in this. As you know, our relationship with Turkey is a bit under stress as well, and Ambassador Bass has been most helpful and remarkable in how he’s led our efforts there in Ankara. I also want to acknowledge Brett McGurk, special envoy to the war against ISIS, and his assistant, number two, Terry Wolff. They are the people on the ground in Syria near the fight, checking to see if this aid is showing up the way it’s supposed to and are we meeting our commitments to restore some of the basic needs of the communities.
I want to turn a little bit to Iran now, and consistent with our efforts to stop Islamic extremism in all its form is the proactive approach we’re taking to preventing Iran from developing, first, new weapons – as you know, nuclear weapons. We want to prevent them from fomenting terrorism and building influence outside of their borders. The conversation on Iran does not begin and end with the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement, and I think if there’s one thing I hope I can help people understand it’s that agreement dealt with a very small slice of Iran’s threats, and that was their nuclear program. And one of the unfortunate outcomes of the intensive effort to put that agreement in place is that agreement was put in place almost to the detriment and ignoring all of other Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region, whether it be their ongoing ballistic missile programs, their export of terrorism, their export of instability in Yemen, their export of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria. And so while this agreement was being developed, it was kind of like we put blinders on and just ignored all those other things. We come onto the scene and we said, “That agreement doesn’t speak to a lot of the problems we have with Iran,” so I don’t want people to think that’s what defines either the relationship or the policy with Iran is the JCPOA.
Iran continues these efforts. They are persistent in their efforts to exert their influence across the Middle East, and it is our intent working with our allies in the region to push back on Iran’s expansionist efforts to destabilize areas, particularly Yemen, Iraq, Syria, but we also see them in the theaters of Afghanistan.
The President, I think, has been pretty clear on his dissatisfaction with the JCPOA as a tool or instrument, but we continue to have conversations about the utility of that agreement, whether it has utility, whether it doesn’t have utility. But in particular, we’re working with the other parties to that agreement, our European allies in particular, to ensure that we are fully enforcing all aspects of that agreement, holding Iran accountable for its commitments, and challenging whether Iran is, in fact, living up to its commitments and the spirit of that agreement. We’re going to continue that – to take that approach as we evaluate and come up to the next milestone on the continuation of that agreement or continuation of waivers to the sanctions.
In the Gulf broadly, you’ll recall the President had a very historic trip to Riyadh. We believe it was historic because of the convening of every Muslim Arab nation in the world at the summit, where the President I think made a very historic speech to those leaders indicating to them that they have to take responsibility for what’s happened in the Muslim world around violent extremism. The United States is ready; we’re prepared and we want to help them, but we cannot solve it for them. They must solve it themselves.
And we continue on – follow on to that summit working to actually implement those commitments in two important areas: creating a center to counter violent extremism with the help of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and secondly is the establishment of a center to dismantle terror-financing networks around the world. Both of those continue to move forward with this – with a quick pace.
As you also know, following that summit, though, there was a dispute broke out between three of the Gulf nations – four of the Gulf nations and Egypt. Qatar and what we call “the Quartet” have differences which have led to actions against Qatar. We are quite concerned about this dispute, because we think it is destabilizing to the Gulf itself and undermines unity in the GCC, the Gulf Cooperative Council, which we believe is an important organization to maintain stability in the region.
We have been engaged working with the emir of Qatar, who has taken on the effort to mediate this dispute, as you know, from the day it broke out. You’re well aware I made a trip to the region, spent three pretty intensive days with the parties, and I think those were useful. We’re going to continue those efforts. I have maintained telephone contact with all of the parties on a – on an almost every other day basis, talking to them about the current situation.
We know there is a great deal of reconciliation that has to occur. At this point today, the parties are not even speaking to one another. So our objective is to not only have them start talking to one another but to sit down at the table and begin a discussion of dialogue.
An important part of that trip, you’ll recall, when I was in the region was to sign a memorandum of understanding between the United States and Qatar to address terrorism, counterterrorism, terror financing, and the identification of known or suspected terrorists. We are implementing that agreement. Qatar is fulfilling its commitments to us under that agreement, and I think that will be important to building confidence within the region as well.
I am going to be dispatching Assistant Secretary Tim Linderking back to the area. Tim’s been with me from the beginning of this issue, traveled with me to the region. He is going to be traveling over there. And I’ve also asked retired General Anthony Zinni to go with Tim so that we can maintain a constant pressure on the ground, because I think that’s what it’s going to take. There’s only so much you can do with telephone persuasion. But we are committed to see this disagreement resolved, restore Gulf unity, because we think it’s important to the long-term effort to defeat terrorism in the region.
So let me turn quickly to the Western Hemisphere. And again, I think in the Western Hemisphere, as you know, President Trump promised he was going to secure our borders, particularly the southern border against transnational criminal organizations, against the export of crime, against threats that can cross our border. In February, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kelly and I went to Mexico City, you’ll recall, and we had a very frank and – discussion with our Mexican counterparts on how we were going to work together along the border.
And I think that’s produced some pretty remarkable results in terms of migration across the border. As all of you know, those numbers are down somewhere between 70 and 80 percent. This has created enormous assistance to the Mexican Government because they have a southern border as well. And to the extent our crossings are down, their crossings are down also. So we’ve had, I think, a significant progress in that area.
In that meeting, though, we set up a framework to attack trans-criminal organizations – the cartels and others that conduct illicit activity. We hosted an event here in Washington in May where we now have set up a series of working groups to attack these trans-criminal organizations as a business model from the supply chain all the way to the consumption chain.
Obviously, America owns the consumption chain. We are the customer whether we like it or not; we own that piece of the supply chain. We’ve worked with HHS Secretary Price and others to begin the process of a new intensive program around drug reduction – drug use reduction through education programs, treatment centers, and others. And I know you’ll hear Secretary Price will be talking more about that.
We also have continued our efforts to stabilize the region. In June, Vice President Pence joined then-Secretary Kelly and myself in Miami for a joint conference that was co-sponsored by our Mexican counterparts and the U.S., which was to a conference on security and prosperity in Latin America, really directed at strengthening El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, both their law enforcement capabilities, their justice capabilities, anti-corruption, and drug eradication.
We had a number of private sector attendees – the Inter-America Bank was there, World Bank representatives – all directed toward coordinating an effort to assist these countries in strengthening their own conditions on the ground to address their challenges that cause many of their people to want to leave.
And finally, in the Western Hemisphere, Venezuela, which you know is very current on our mind, our approach to Venezuela has been to try to work through coalition partners, through the OAS as well as others who share our view of Venezuela’s future. Clearly, what we want to see is for Venezuela to return to its constitution, return to its scheduled elections, and allow the people of Venezuela to have the voice in their government they deserve.
We are very, very troubled by what we’re seeing unfold following the constituent assembly vote, which went about as we expected, but the re-arrest of opposition leaders last night is very alarming. This could lead to an outbreak of further violence in the country. The situation, from a humanitarian standpoint, is already becoming dire. We are evaluating all our policy options as to what can we do to create a change of conditions where either Maduro decides he doesn’t have a future and wants to leave of his own accord or we can return the government processes back to their constitution. But we are quite concerned about we’re seeing down there. It is a policy discussion that’s currently under development through the interagency process this week.
In that regard, in the Western Hemisphere, I do want to thank Paco Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary; Ambassador Bill Brownfield; Under Secretary Tom Shannon; and in policy planning Kim Breier, who have been really working on this almost nonstop in terms of both the Mexico, Latin America, but also this crisis in Venezuela. And I appreciate their efforts as well.
Now I want to – all of those areas around the world, I want to pause and make one comment to you. I have a lot of open slots. I don’t have but one under secretary position filled, and that’s Ambassador Tom Shannon. But we’ve been dealing with a lot; we’ve accomplished a lot, and we continue to progress a lot because there are remarkable, talented, professional Foreign Service officers in this building. And every one of them has stepped up and not a one of them has said, “I don’t want to do that.” They’ve stepped forward. They’re putting in enormous hours to help us with these challenges. And I want to thank all of them for their efforts and recognize that.
Real quick, last word on the redesign. I know it’s a topic of interest to people. The redesign of the State Department is an employee-led effort. Unlike some of the other departments in response to the EO, I have elected not to impose a top-down answer on the organization. I’m using approaches that I have used in my past that have been successful. And we are creating an employee-led effort to redesign the State Department.
We had a listening survey; we got over 35,000 responses in that listening survey, which is pretty remarkable in and of itself. And we interviewed over 100 people in extensive interviews. What they are telling us is going to guide the answers. And some of you, I think, have looked at some of that and you – and it – one way people can look at that is they can take it as a lot of criticism and complaining and moaning. And when I look at that information and what they’re saying to me, I hear them saying, “Help. Help. Please help us fix this.” They are frustrated. They know that there are ways they could be working better. They want someone to help them achieve that. So we’re going to let them tell us what they need. And my commitment to them is if it takes a legislative change, it takes an appropriation change – I can’t promise you I’ll get it, but I’ll darn sure go to bat for you and see what we can do to make your lives more productive, more efficient, and more rewarding.
And I know that these people in this department are dedicated like no other Americans to their mission. This is the most patriotic group of people I have ever had the pleasure of working with. I’m proud of every one of them, and I look forward to helping them put in place the organization that’s going to serve their needs.
So in that regard, I have some other people, real quick, I want to acknowledge: Bill Inglee; Ambassador Bill Todd, who’s Acting M and also director general; Lisa Kenna is my executive secretary; Deputy Chief of Staff Christine Ciccone; my traveling squad that makes these horrendous trips with me and I know how many hours I’m up working and I know that they start before I do and they don’t go to bed until long after I do, but Munir Madyun, Tad Brown, Meredith Williams is the assistant to the chief of staff. And I want to thank my chief of staff Margaret Peterlin. I could not do any of this without her. And I appreciate all of them very much and I want to give them that public recognition. So with that, I’ll stop now and I’ll let Heather Nauert direct traffic.
MS NAUERT: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Thank you. We’ll start out with Matt Lee. We don’t have a ton of time here, so —
QUESTION: Sure. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for making the time to come down here. We hope to see you more often, perhaps, if that’s possible. I have a lot of questions but I’ll stick on one, and that is to drill down into the Russia situation which you mentioned earlier.
Is – you – I presume that you still expect the President to sign the new legislation and sign it shortly, as Vice President Pence said earlier today. Do you still believe that that, the passage, the overwhelming votes in Congress to pass that, was a sign that the American people want Russia to take steps to improve the relationship? And if you do, that – President Putin seemed to have slapped the country back in the face with the expulsion of the 755. Can you – how do – where do you go from here? Is the Shannon-Ryabkov channel still viable? And can the U.S. function diplomatically in Russia with that limited number of people there?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, my view is that the vote does represent the American people because it was made by their representatives in the Congress. And I think – I think the American people want the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have a better relationship. I don’t think the American people want us to have a bad relationship with a huge nuclear power. But I think they are frustrated, and I think a lot of this reflects the frustration that we’ve not seen the kind of improvement in the relationship with Russia that all of us would like to see.
In our early conversations with the Russians right after we took office, we were very clear with them that we want to work with you, but you are going to have to take some steps to address some of these concerns yourself. And I’ll – to just use the President’s words in the meeting he had with Foreign Minister Lavrov in the Oval Office, as Foreign Minister Lavrov was meeting, President Trump said to Foreign Minister Lavrov, “We need some good news with Russia. We need some good news.” And I told President Putin when I saw him in the Kremlin in March, and I’ve told Foreign Minister Lavrov repeatedly, the situation is bad, but believe me, it can get worse – and it just did.
Now, in terms of their response to that action, I think it’s important to recognize that any leader of any country has their whole population watching them as well, and President Putin has his population of Russia watching him. And so I think the fact that they felt the need to take symmetrical action – and that’s the way they view it – is that they were delayed in taking this action, and I think President Putin has said that. He didn’t react when the two dachas were taken away in December. He didn’t react when 35 diplomats were sent home. He waited. And now this action came on top of that, and I think from his perspective and how he looks in the eyes of his own people, he felt he had to do something. Does it make our life more difficult? Of course, it makes our life more difficult.
I will be meeting face to face with Foreign Minister Lavrov this weekend on the – on the margins of the meetings in Manila. We – he and I have already spoken. I would say our conversation following the actions has been professional. There’s no – there’s been no belligerence. I think Foreign Minister Lavrov and I understand our roles. We understand our responsibilities. And I think he’s as committed as I am to trying to find ways that we can bring this relationship back closer towards one another.
Now, the action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place and the way they did, neither the President nor I are very happy about that. We were clear that we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to our efforts. But that’s the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way. I think the President accepts that, and all indications are he will sign that, that bill. And then we’ll just work with it, and that’s kind of my view is we’ll work with it. We got it. We can’t let it take us off track of trying to restore the relationship.
MS NAUERT: Andrea.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much. Thank you for being here. We’ve talked about North Korea. You’ve talked about North Korea today, the threat. And if you could respond to the fact that as you try to deal with this, and you talk about a dialogue and you talk about the Chinese relationship goes beyond this, the President on Twitter has been very critical of China in the last 48 hours. How complicated is it for you to do your job with sometimes the President, the Commander-in-Chief, contradicting U.S. foreign policy on Twitter? How helpful would it be – and will it be – with John Kelly now as Chief of Staff? And would you like to see a more orderly system coming out of the White House in terms of communications? Does that also extend to —
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think —
QUESTION: — the use of social media?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think the selection of John Kelly as the Chief of Staff was a brilliant selection. I did not know General Kelly before taking up my responsibilities here, but he was the first secretary that I worked with the most closely with because of the situation in Mexico, and we felt the need for he and I to get involved immediately. He has been a wonderful partner, interagency partner, he is someone who I have a great deal of trust and confidence in, and I think it is – he is going to serve the President well. And obviously, the President I think is looking for things to be different or he would not have selected someone like John Kelly to be chief of staff.
I think, with respect to how we conduct foreign policy in the – in light of the fact that the President communicates the way he does, as I explained to the people in this building, look, it’s just like anything else. It’s part of the environment in which we work. We’ll adapt to it. We’ll adapt to it. There’s a lot of unexpected things that happen to us in the world of diplomacy and we know how to adapt to that, we know to work with it, and so I don’t view it as an obstacle, a hindrance, or as an assistance. Whatever the President chooses to express, he expresses, and then that’s information to everybody, us included.
MS NAUERT: Carol with The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. As I’m sure you’re well aware, after a very brief honeymoon you’ve come under a great deal of personal criticism from critics who say you’ve been presiding over a hollowing out of the department, low morale, and a department that seems sidelined. Could you respond directly to some of the criticism and tell us if any of it has – you have taken it to heart and changed in any way because of that criticism?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I hope what – the little stroll I just took you around the world indicates the building is hardly hollowed out. All of that activity I was describing to you, and as I said, has been undertaken using the expertise of the people in this building. Any time you have a dramatic change in the administration, like we had six months ago, there are going to be individuals who struggle with that. And I spoke to this on the day – first day I entered the building and gave my remarks on the steps of the State Department, that I recognized that and that I hope people could put those feelings aside and commit themselves to the mission.
And my observation has been that the vast majority of people in the building have done that. Has everyone done it? No. Some people are still struggling to get over that and that’s – those are the voices that generally are heard. I have a very active engagement with people in the building. I meet up to three times a week with the under secretaries, the assistant secretaries; I do lunches with Foreign Service officers once a month; I do town halls, so I’m listening to people and getting a sense of how they are feeling about things. And the people that I’m coming into contact with are excited about the redesign, they’re excited about hopefully getting some assistance on some areas that have troubled them for a long time, and I think they’re beginning to understand that the mission of the State Department is to lead America’s foreign policy, create conditions for a better, more secure U.S., more prosperous U.S., and we do that at home, we do it abroad. That mission doesn’t change. The policy that we are leading is dictated by the President of the United States, who was selected by the American people. So we are working on behalf of the American people who selected this President to carry out his foreign policies, and then all of the professionalism and the skill that people have in this building to do that, they dedicate themselves to doing that. And my experience is that people – that’s where people are. The ones I work with, they are very dedicated to that.
Have I encountered some people on the way that didn’t want to do that, couldn’t do that? Yes. And we have given them permission to go do something else. And I say that not in a pejorative way, but we have had individuals who did not want to serve in a certain role, and I said fine. Find something else for them to do. I don’t want to force anybody into a position they’re not committed to. So we have these conversations with people. Yes, I think it’s – it is to be expected that we will go through some morale issues early on. I hope as the redesign goes forward and people become more engaged in that, that there is going to be an uptick in that. I’m mindful of it, I pay attention to it. I cannot change what we’re doing from a policy standpoint, if that’s what’s behind people’s unhappiness.
MS NAUERT: Rich Edson, Fox News.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. As you go through this Iran review in the administration and there are different points of view, are you of the point of view that perhaps the JCPOA and waiving sanctions or a failure – or not waiving those sanctions could create an issue, given that the assets have already been unfrozen, coordinating with European allies potentially being a problem to try to get them to impose sanctions? And is there an avenue where the administration might seek stricter enforcement of that agreement?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I think the unfortunate aspect of the agreement is that a lot of the – a lot of the benefits to Iran for signing the agreement were up front. I mean, they kind of got the immediate payoff with the release of a lot of cash to them. They got the immediate lifting of the sanctions before they ever had to deliver on anything. And I think that’s the frustrating part of this agreement is there are limited levers available to us if we’re unhappy with what they’re doing, other than to say we’re not going to waive sanctions going forward.
It is important in my view that we coordinate as much as we can with our European allies and with Russia and China, who are signatories as well, because the greatest pressure we can put to bear on Iran to change behavior is a collective pressure. We are in discussions with in particular, our European allies about their view of how Iran is doing under the agreement. They have generally acknowledged that in the past, this – the administration and the U.S. in the past did not lean into Iran very hard, they didn’t demand very much of them under the agreement, and in fact, they want to do the same, so we are getting good agreement from them on leaning into Iran.
Again, how the agreement serves our purpose going forward, it’s kind of every 90 days we get to ask ourselves that question, and that’s just something that the U.S. Congress put in place. So it is important in our view that we keep the allies with us.
MS NAUERT: All right. Nicolas, since it’s your last day, I think you get to have the last question.
QUESTION: Thank you, a follow-up. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for this opportunity and thank you to the Department of State for these five terrific years. I think it’s very important for international readership to be able to explain the complexity of the U.S. foreign policy.
Just to follow up on Iran’s question, are you personally in favor of mentioning the U.S. commitment to the JCPOA? And what would you respond, what would you say to element of the – of this administration, and especially the White House, who would be tempted to pull the U.S. out of the agreement?
And maybe just a more personal question: Three weeks ago when you came back from the Gulf, you had a very telling and frank conversation with our colleagues. Could you describe your relationship with the President, and do you enjoy the job you are – you have been doing for six months? Thank you.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: With respect to the JCPOA, I view – it’s an agreement. It’s an agreement that should serve Americans – America’s interests first and foremost, and if it doesn’t serve that interest, then why would we maintain it? Now, we have to hold the other side accountable, and I think if you read the full context of the JCPOA, it is about nuclear programs, but there’s another part of that agreement that talks about the fact that with this agreement, Iran will become a good neighbor – now, I’m paraphrasing a lot of language – they’ll become a good neighbor, that Iran is called upon to no longer develop its ballistic missiles.
There’s a lot of things that people expected would happen in agreeing to this arrangement on the nuclear program, including all the benefits that Iran would get up front. From our perspective – and that’s why I say the JCPOA represents a small slice of the Iranian relationship and our view of it – and I think the general view, and I would say it’s not just ours, but the view of many others is Iran has not been a good neighbor in the region, it has not stopped its ballistic missile program, and so the spirit of the agreement has been violated.
Now, how do we want to translate that into what does that mean if we say the spirit of the agreement’s been violated? Do we want to tear it up and walk away? Do we want to make the point to Iran that we expect you to get back in line with the spirit of the agreement and we’re going to stay here and hold you accountable to it? There are a lot of – I think there are a lot of alternative means with which we use the agreement to advance our policies and the relationship with Iran. And that’s what the conversation generally is around with the President as well, is what are all those options.
Now, with respect to my relationship with the President, it’s good. The President has repeatedly expressed his confidence in me. We have a good relationship. I talk to him just about every day. I see him several times a week. He calls me late at night on the weekends when something comes into his head and he wants to talk. He may call me at any moment at any time, but it is a very open relationship, and it’s one in which I feel quite comfortable telling him my views. And he and I have differences of views on things like JCPOA and how we should use it. We have differences of – but I think if we’re not having those differences, I’m not sure I’m serving him. And so that’s – I would tell you the relationship between the President and myself is good. That’s how I view it anyway.
MS NAUERT: All right. Everyone, thank you so much. The Secretary has some meetings.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Thank you.
MS NAUERT: Thank you. Good to see you again.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Come back more often? (Laughter.)
MS NAUERT: Thanks, everybody. We’ll see you on Thursday.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you.