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  • Briefing by U.S. State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, May 22, 2019

    Briefing by U.S. State Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus, May 22, 2019 | site |



    Washington, DC - - (May 22, 2019) - - Today, the U.S. Department of State's Office of the Spokesperson provided the following transcript of a special briefing Department Spokesperson Morgan Ortagus presented:

    MS ORTAGUS: Thanks, everybody, for having me. I appreciate it. Hopefully, the first of many. I just got something for you on Africa Day that I’m going to read and then we’ll jump into the questions, if you’re ready.

    Okay. This Saturday marks Africa Day, the annual commemoration of the founding of the Organization of African Unity, now the African Union. In the 56 years since the AU was formed, the continent has made significant democratic and economic strides. We reaffirm our unwavering commitment to the AU’s vision for a free and prosperous continent, and the United States will continue to promote stronger trade and commercial ties with Africa. We are proud of our partnership with the governments and people of Africa, and we’ll continue to work with them to advance our common interests and goals. There you go.
    Mr. Lee, I’m sure you have something for me.

    QUESTION: Okay. That was – yeah, but let’s talk about Africa Day. Welcome.

    MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.

    QUESTION: I do hope that it will be the first of many.

    MS ORTAGUS: Me too.

    QUESTION: I’m going to start with something that has come up within the last hour or so, and I’m pretty sure we can dispense with this pretty quickly, and that is there’s concern from Democrats on the Hill, particularly Senator Murphy, that you guys are going to use an emergency authorization provision of the Arms Control Act to circumvent congressional approval of some arms sales to Saudi Arabia —

    MS ORTAGUS: Yes.

    QUESTION: — and that it could happen this week. What do you say about that?

    MS ORTAGUS: The only thing is we do not confirm – we do not comment to confirm or deny potential arms sales or transfers until Congress is formally notified.

    QUESTION: So you can’t say if anything is in the works, if his concern is justified?

    MS ORTAGUS: That’s it, sir.

    QUESTION: Okay. Is there an emergency exemption?

    MS ORTAGUS: We do not comment to confirm or deny arms sales.

    QUESTION: Does the law contain a provision that allows you to bypass congressional – the answer is yes, it does.

    MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. I’ll look that up.

    QUESTION: That’s all for me.

    MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: I actually wanted to ask what you can tell us about sort of what your plans are for briefing, returning to briefings.

    MS ORTAGUS: Oh, okay, sure.

    QUESTION: And if you’re going to do this, off-camera but on-the-record gaggles, for a few days, or if you could tell us what you have in mind –

    MS ORTAGUS: Sure.

    QUESTION: — and how often you think they may happen.

    MS ORTAGUS: I think that we’ll do this or maybe even perhaps off camera from the podium tomorrow. I was planning on taking Friday off. That may or may not happen given world events. But then I think next week – so I’m in town Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday next week before I leave with the Secretary. I think all of you have the FFPO on that; some of you are coming. And so I’d like to try to make those on-camera podium remarks or briefing next week. And I would say the goal is as often as possible. I don’t know that it will be five days a week, but I’ve said this I think from the very beginning that my hope was to make these as routine as possible. So I’m hoping at least three days a week.

    And then, of course, travel will be a little bit different. So those of you who will be on the – some of you have traveled with us already and the Secretary has gaggled quite a bit. I’ll try to make a more regular habit of that now that I’m formally doing gaggles and briefings. So I hope to be as accessible to all of you as possible. I think I’ve – I have tried to be over email and phone since – in the six weeks, or I don’t even know if it’s been six weeks yet – but in the six weeks that I’ve been here I’ve attempted to do that and of course want more communication with all of you.

    QUESTION: Do you think there’s something unique about the State Department that makes the briefings more necessary than, say, other buildings?

    MS ORTAGUS: I don’t know if it makes it more necessary. I would say I have been watching – this makes me sound like a nerd. I’ve been watching State Department press briefings probably my whole career. I mean, literally, I remember watching these in college, and so this is – I think I’ve told all of you – this is something that, for me, is the honor of a lifetime to be representing the diplomats around the world here in the building. Some of you know I’ve worked in a couple of embassies, and while I’m a political appointee obviously in this job, most of my career has been as a career servant in some form or the other.

    So I take speaking for the Secretary and speaking for everyone in this building and everyone in our embassies around the world very seriously. And I appreciate what all of you do. I think that this is a very serious and substantive press corps. We’re dealing with real issues around the world every day, issues with – of serious consequence. So I hope that I have treated all of you with respect; I hope that you will treat me the same way. And we all, I think, have a good working relationship and I hope that continues.

    QUESTION: You watched the briefings when you were in college? (Laughter.)

    MS ORTAGUS: I actually – I will admit I had a picture of – maybe it was my first job. I kind of remember I printed out this big picture of Condoleezza Rice and her bio and I used to, like, stare at it in college. I’m – yeah, level 10 dork.

    QUESTION: Was Matt Lee in those briefings?

    MS ORTAGUS: He was in the briefings when I was in college actually.

    QUESTION: Great. (Laughter.)

    MS ORTAGUS: I watched an old one this morning when I was getting dressed and you were in there. It was definitely college days. You’re the OG, Matt, the OG.

    QUESTION: Oh God.

    QUESTION: I have an Afghanistan question.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yes, ma’am.

    QUESTION: Zal Khalilzad was up on the Hill today briefing members of Congress, and I just wondered if you can give us a sense of what kind of progress he’s made with his talks with the Taliban and when he intends – when he hopes to get the Afghan Government involved in this peace process.

    MS ORTAGUS: So I will defer largely to what – to the statements that he made. Were they on the record?

    QUESTION: No.

    MS ORTAGUS: Oh, they weren’t on the record, okay. So let me get back to you on that. I mean, I would say writ large on the peace process, I think that the ambassador has done an amazing job at bringing the parties to the table that many in the U.S. Government probably thought would never be able to get to the table. He’s making slow and steady progress on these talks. I know he completed another round recently. And while he has an incredibly tough job, I think that he is doing something that is important to the President, to the Secretary, and to the American people: to try to get a peaceful solution in Afghanistan.

    So I’ll be happy to. I know a few of you have asked me about getting to speak with him when he’s in town, so I’ll be happy to take that as a follow-up for anyone who’s asked me. I think Nick did.

    QUESTION:
    Does the – does the Secretary have kind of a timeline for this, or is this open-ended? I mean, is there —

    MS ORTAGUS: Well, clearly, we have until, what, January 20th for – in this administration until the President is sworn in or not. So, I mean, if it relates to a timeline, that’s an obvious timeline for us. I think I actually have – some of you heard my interview with Guy Benson on the radio show on Fox. I have on my wall in my office, and I change it every day, we’re at 608 days until the end of this administration. That’s something I think about every single day because that’s the amount of time that I have for my dream job and to help make an impact, and I think the ambassador and I know the Secretary, that we’re all thinking about this. This is our moment in time to make a difference, and that’s what we’re working towards.

    Yes, sir.

    QUESTION: Good morning.

    MS ORTAGUS: I’m sorry, I don’t know everybody’s names, so —

    QUESTION: David Brunnstrom from Reuters.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay. And you’ll be going on the trip, right?

    QUESTION: That’s right.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay, great.

    QUESTION: I’ve got one on Turkey. Can you bring us up to date on where things are heading, but can – especially on the S-400 issue? There’s a delegation in town. It’s fairly sort of mid-level, I suppose. But will there be any interaction with that delegation?

    MS ORTAGUS: I don’t know the answer to that, and – but if there’s interaction with the delegation, I’m happy to – happy to check into that to see who’s maybe meeting with them. Did you have another question in there?

    QUESTION: Just on the S-400 issue, I believe there’s – I mean, what happens next on that? There doesn’t seem to be any movement on the Turkish side.

    MS ORTAGUS: Sure.

    QUESTION: And then what happens if there isn’t any movement?

    MS ORTAGUS: So, listen, I think that our position on the S-400 has been pretty consistent. The Secretary’s spoken to it, and we have said that the S-400 defense system, the acquisition of that would have serious consequences for the United States and NATO’s defense relationship with Turkey. We’re clearly willing to engage with them and have continued to engage about our – regarding our concerns on this acquisition, but there will be very real and very negative consequences if that happens, and I think that the Secretary has been very forward-leaning on that. So nothing new from what the Secretary has said and continues to say.

    Yeah.

    QUESTION: Lalit Jha from PTI, Press Trust of India.

    MS ORTAGUS: PT what?

    QUESTION: PTI, Press Trust of India.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay.

    QUESTION: It’s an Indian wire service.

    MS ORTAGUS: Thank you.

    QUESTION: I have a question on the Indian elections.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Almost all of the results will be declared tomorrow. So what is your expectations of the new government on India-U.S. relationship?

    MS ORTAGUS: So I would say from the U.S. perspective we’re very confident in the fairness and the integrity of the Indian elections, and we will obviously work with the – whoever is the victor and whatever the outcome is there. We have a very strong relationship, obviously, a lot of cooperation with the Indian Government on a full range of issues, and the Secretary has said numerous times that we have a true strategic partner in India – largest extra – I thought this was fascinating. Someone pointed this out to me today that their election, India’s election, is the largest exercise in democracy in human history. And I think with everything going on in the world, that’s a thing that we can pause and think about and certainly commend the Indian people for that brave act.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. Hey, Shaun.

    QUESTION: Thanks. Can I follow up on your statement yesterday on Syria?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yes.

    QUESTION: You mentioned suspicions of chemical weapons being used. I wanted to see how confident you were on that. Is that just something that’s being investigated at this point? What’s the process now? Is there going to be – is there somebody in the United States Government that’s actually looking into that?

    MS ORTAGUS: So I think Jim talked about that a little bit on the Hill this morning, and we’re not confirming that, but we are – as Jim said, we’re watching that closely. Certainly the regime has shown that they’re willing to use them in the past, and I believe the White House has already spoken – has referred – talked about this as well. But we will quickly and appropriately respond to any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The use of chemical weapons shows no human decency, violates human rights, and we will hold anybody accountable, especially this regime, for the indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children which results from the use of chemical weapons.

    So I don’t know that I have anything further than that other than to speak to my statement yesterday, and of course, Jim’s statements on the Hill today. We’re watching this closely.

    QUESTION: You said the White House is today saying something, or has said something? I missed it.

    MS ORTAGUS: I don’t know if they – I don’t know if they officially said it. I know that I’ve spoken to them about it. If they haven’t gone on record, I would tell you that in my conversations with the White House today about this, they of course saw my statement and let me know that they were fully in line that – in letting the world know that we’re watching the Assad regime and that we will respond quickly and appropriately.

    QUESTION: Well, what was it specifically that triggered that statement? Was it this report from the Syrian medical group, or was it some of your own information?

    MS ORTAGUS: I think that it’s speaking writ large, like if you look back holistically at any of these things, there’s normally never one report; it’s typically a combination of things that we’re looking at and investigating. So other than that, I don’t think I’m going to have many specifics.

    QUESTION: Morgan, do you know what – have – do you know if anybody from State has spoken to the Russian Government since this alleged attack?

    MS ORTAGUS: Mm-hmm. Since – I don’t know if anyone has since the attack. I will tell you, well, Conor was with me on the last trip, and of course I was in the meetings with the Secretary and Lavrov in which many, many issues around the world were brought up, and of course Syria was one of them. So I do know that the Secretary and Lavrov spoke about that in Sochi. I do not know in the past 24 hours who has spoken, but we can certainly follow up on that.

    Yeah. Hey, Conor.

    QUESTION: Just to follow —

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Just briefly, is – I mean, is there anybody actually actively looking into it right now on the part of the U.S. Government? Do you have a timeline for when this is going to be determined?

    MS ORTAGUS: I don’t think we ever have a timeline for investigations when it’s happening. I think that we have – we’ve been very loud about our – about watching what happens as it relates to the Assad regime and their use of chemical weapons. We think that sort of thing is intolerable. So I don’t think we have any – certainly any timetables to announce, but the Assad regime should know that we are watching this incredibly closely and we won’t stand for it.

    Conor.

    QUESTION: A follow-up on this as well. The last time the administration has taken military action has been in response to the use of sarin gas.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Not chlorine.

    MS ORTAGUS: Right.

    QUESTION: When you promise swift and appropriate response, does that mean for the use of chlorine or is this if there’s a wider use of sarin or something else?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, I’m not a weapons or munitions expert, but my understanding is that chlorine is considered a chemical weapon when it is, of course, weaponized and used against people. So we would – I would never from the State Department podium preview any sort of military action. But I think the statements that I’ve given you today about – that we’re closely watching this, we’ll be working to investigate it, and we’ll hold the regime accountable if it’s found that they are using chemical weapons.

    QUESTION: On the —

    QUESTION: Just a follow-up —

    MS ORTAGUS: In the back.

    QUESTION: Hi.

    MS ORTAGUS: Hi.

    QUESTION: I’m Guy Taylor from Washington Times. How are you?

    MS ORTAGUS: Oh. Hi, Guy.

    QUESTION: Hey, how are you?

    MS ORTAGUS: You’ll be on the trip too, right?

    QUESTION: I think so. Yeah.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay. It’s going to be a party.

    QUESTION: I want to ask an Iran question. Yesterday —

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: — 62 organizations – mainly NGOs – wrote to every member of Congress, calling on lawmakers to urgently pursue legislation that would basically require the administration to get congressional approval to do any military action against Iran. Do you have a response to that? Is that something that is a good idea, that legislation, or do you feel like the – that Congress has been sufficiently briefed now after yesterday’s briefings on Iran?

    MS ORTAGUS:
    I haven’t seen the note that the – that you’re referencing from the NGOs. Feel free to email it to me. I’ll be happy to look at it.

    I was with the Secretary yesterday in both those House and Senate briefings and I think that they were – and it wasn’t just the Secretary, of course. We had General Dunford and Acting Secretary Shanahan, and I’m forgetting the name of the other briefer. We can get him to you. But I think that they were very thorough. They went quite long, longer than we expected, so I think that you’ve seen a number of members of Congress make statements on what they thought about that briefing. But my perception is that they were briefed on the current threats and where we stand at the moment.

    QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up on that?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: The Secretary yesterday – I think it was yesterday when he said that it was possible that Iran was responsible for these tanker attacks.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Do you have any sort of further evidence on who may have been responsible, or is there any – anything new that led to him to say that? Is the U.S. getting a greater sense that Iran may have been behind that?

    MS ORTAGUS: We continue to work with the Saudis, with the Emiratis, and with other partners to investigate. I don’t have an outcome of those investigations to announce. I would assume that those countries that were affected will probably be the ones that would be announcing the outcome of those investigations. But they’ve asked for assistance, and we are cooperating.

    QUESTION: Can you bring us up to date on the diplomacy around Iran? I mean, has the Secretary made any more calls on the subject? What’s the state of play?

    QUESTION: And is Oman acting as a possible middle party in this?

    MS ORTAGUS: What’s your name? Sorry.

    QUESTION: Oh, Edward Wong from The New York Times.

    MS ORTAGUS: Oh, Ed. Hey, sorry.

    QUESTION: Hi. Nice to meet you.

    MS ORTAGUS: I know – well, I knew everyone’s names, not necessarily faces. Okay. So your question is: What’s the update on the diplomacy effort?

    QUESTION: Yeah, just on the – has there been any – I mean, other than the Hill with foreign governments.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay.

    QUESTION: And is Oman acting as a middle party in this since they traditionally have served that role?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah. I mean, I – as it relates to diplomatic efforts, I don’t know that we would have an update. I mean, I think that we have – the Secretary said yesterday and so did Acting Secretary Shanahan – I actually think that their public statements are what I would refer to – in which they said the – what we’ve engaged in over the past few weeks is really looking at protecting our people, first and foremost. Also, deterring any sort of additional threats by the Iranian regime to us or to our allies and our interests. And I think that the immediate discussions right now as it relates to protecting our people and to deterring the Iranians from taking any further escalating behavior.

    QUESTION: Right, but I – that’s more of – I’m asking a much simpler question.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay.

    QUESTION: So in the – or since the – this began, the heightened tensions and the national security advisor’s statement on the third —

    MS ORTAGUS: Well, I don’t think the heightened tensions began with the national security —

    QUESTION: Well, no, but since then —

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, okay.

    QUESTION: But since then, the Secretary has changed his travel plans twice, flown to Baghdad, flown —

    MS ORTAGUS:
    He did. You were on the trip when he did that.

    QUESTION: — flown to Brussels to talk to the Europeans about this. He’s been on the phone with the sultan of Oman, he’s been on the phone with – he talked about it with Lavrov and Putin, he talked to the Japanese about it. I mean, these are all just public readouts that you guys have —

    MS ORTAGUS: Sure.

    QUESTION: — that have all – including yesterday he spoke to the Norwegian foreign minister. I’m sure there’s others that I’m not – I’m just asking if there have been any more of those since the last call I guess that we know about was the Norwegian.

    MS ORTAGUS: I’d have to check on that. I don’t think so. I mean, I know that he spent a significant amount of time on the Hill yesterday, which is important, obviously. They’re a co-equal branch of government. And I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with anyone as hard-working as the Secretary. I know that he’s talking to our allies constantly, traveling the world constantly. He takes the safety and security of the people who work for him very seriously. He takes the safety and security of the American citizens very seriously. So if there’s any further calls, I’ll certainly let you know. We’ll have readouts. Not aware of any, but he takes the —

    QUESTION: Morgan, after the briefings yesterday some of the members of Congress, both in the House and the Senate, said that they were somewhat skeptical that it was the Iranians who were provoking this. They may have been taking steps designed to thwart the United States, but some of its – it was not clear who was starting this. It could have gone either way. Is there one piece of evidence, is there one thing out there that makes you think that it was the Iranians who were acting in a way that was not responsive to American actions and that made you believe that the threat was imminent?

    MS ORTAGUS: Well, first of all, I’d point out for every legislator that was skeptical, you have an equal number of legislators that went out and were very concerned about the threats and that were very supportive of the – actions that the administration is taking to deter Iran. There’s never one piece of information, as the Secretary has said I think to many of you, or at least on the record there’s 40 years of information that you can point to.

    And so – I mean, I think many of you know this, there’s never sort of actions that are taken based on one piece of intelligence, right? Like, I know this from my junior days as an intelligence analyst, that’s never how the U.S. Government makes decisions. This is clearly incredibly highly classified information that has been kept at the very highest levels of government but has now been briefed to the Congress. It’s clearly incredibly sensitive and very serious. This isn’t about politics, this isn’t about posturing, this is about keeping the American people safe, keeping our diplomats safe.

    QUESTION: Morgan?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: On Iran —

    MS ORTAGUS: Wait, just let her really quick, thanks.

    QUESTION: This is related, thanks. A couple members of Congress yesterday hoped that – or expressed hope that you could reveal a little bit, without revealing sources and methods, to sort of demonstrate to the American people the severity of the threat. Is there any plan to do that?

    MS ORTAGUS: To declassify intelligence for the American people?

    QUESTION: Not necessarily to declassify intelligence, but to elaborate a little bit more so that perhaps that skepticism dissipates, or that —

    MS ORTAGUS: I think – I mean, you guys are asking me questions, which I understand, but they’re questions from how a certain group of people see the world. I mean, again, I would refer back to many members of Congress who have been in the Intelligence Community or have served overseas who have very vastly different readouts from the briefing yesterday. So I certainly understand that there may be a few people, of course, that were skeptical and voiced that. I would just refer you back to every member in Congress who wasn’t skeptical, who was quite grateful, and say, obviously, in democracy in America sometimes people disagree about policy and the actions that we take. But I certainly didn’t read an overwhelming amount of skepticism.

    QUESTION: I don’t know that this was necessarily all from members who are skeptical of the administration’s motives or the validity of the intelligence, but I think the goal that some members expressed was just to demonstrate to the American people —

    MS ORTAGUS: To communicate to the —

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay, well that is why I’m here, to communicate to the American people through all of you. So thank you for this opportunity to do so. Go ahead.

    QUESTION: Excuse me. Hi, Morgan.

    MS ORTAGUS: Hi.

    QUESTION: This is Nike Ching with Voice of America. Pleasure meeting you. So kind of a follow-up with Matt’s question about – Secretary Pompeo spoke to Japanese foreign minister and the Chinese foreign minister Monday and Saturday. What is the U.S. asking those two countries to do regarding Iran specifically?

    MS ORTAGUS: I would need to take a look at the readout of those calls. Off the top of my head, I – I’m – Iran may have been discussed, but I would need to go look at the readout and speak to him to fully answer that question.

    QUESTION: If I may —

    QUESTION: Morgan?

    QUESTION: If I may —

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, go ahead.

    QUESTION: The – Michel Ghandour with Alhurra Television.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yes.

    QUESTION: My question was asked by colleague too, on Oman, if Oman is playing any mediating role between the U.S. and Iran, especially that Oman foreign minister went to Iran after the Secretary’s call with Sultan Qaboos. And the Iraqi prime minister said that he would be sending an Iraqi delegation to Washington to talk about the tension between the U.S. and Iran. Are you expecting any delegation?

    MS ORTAGUS: I have not seen anything official from the Government of Iraq expecting a delegation, so I can get back to you on that. And I don’t think we have any new announcements on – oh, you said on Oman?

    QUESTION: Yeah.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, we don’t have anything new on Oman other than clearly they’re part of the GCC and an ally of ours, and a country that we work with quite closely on a range of issues.

    QUESTION: Two questions, one Iran and one on Syria. On Iran: Is there any sense that – do you have any evidence or any observations of whether China is abiding by the end to the oil imports? We know that China – both China and Turkey had said that they don’t believe that the U.S. can impose unilateral sanctions, and so there’s a lot of analysts who think China will continue to import oil whether it’s in the open or sort of in – sort of more covert ways. I was just wondering whether you have any intelligence on that.

    And then the second one is on Syria. I just want to broaden the discussion beyond just chemical weapon attacks, and there’s been this offensive going on in Idlib for a couple weeks now where there’s air bombing by Assad and by the Russians, which you mentioned in your statement yesterday.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: But does the U.S. plan on doing anything about that? Like, the Trump – last fall it was a big deal, and Trump expressed concern that civilians will be killed, and now a couple of —

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay, do me a favor. If you ask me one at a time, it’s probably easier for me to get —

    QUESTION: Okay. All right, so those were the two.

    MS ORTAGUS: So let’s go back to China.

    QUESTION: Right.

    MS ORTAGUS: So what exactly do you want on China?

    QUESTION: Are they importing oil? Is there any sense that they’re importing – continuing to import oil from Iran or that they will continue to import oil?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, got it. So listen, the SREs have expired. This is a part of our maximum pressure campaign. We – I think we have been – the Secretary spoke to all of you I believe from the podium about this, about getting to zero, which is something that – since we withdrew from the JCPOA, there is no hiding this, right. Like, the moment that we announced from the – withdrew from the JCPOA, it was something that we said very publicly that we would be getting to zero. We have done that, and we expect all countries to comply with our sanctions. And obviously any country in the world, any sanction in the world that the U.S. has, if a country does not comply with them, there are ramifications for not complying with sanctions. And that goes for any country.

    QUESTION: Right.

    QUESTION: But his —

    MS ORTAGUS: And sorry, the second question about Syria?

    QUESTION: Wait, wait. But his question is specific to do you —

    QUESTION: Is China complying or not?

    QUESTION: Is China continuing to import or have they stopped? Do you know?

    MS ORTAGUS: I’ll have to get back to you.

    QUESTION: Okay. And the second one’s the ongoing offensive in Idlib and that area, which has been going for a few weeks.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: Does the administration plan on taking action in regard to that?

    MS ORTAGUS: Well, I think the – what you probably heard from Ambassador Jeffrey today on the Hill, and certainly what you’ve heard from this administration, is the importance of a political process and a political solution in Syria. We’re going to continue to call for the halt of violence, for a de-escalation agreement, and we are – I mean, this is what Ambassador Jeffrey is working on every day, right, actively engaging with our partners and allies for three mutually enforcing strategic objectives. We’ve got the defeat of ISIS, which of course the President’s talked about quite prolifically; the removal of Iranian-led forces from Syria; and of course, the resolution of the Syrian crisis through UNSCR 2254. And that’s something that we talk to the Russians about as well.

    QUESTION: North Korea?

    MS ORTAGUS: Go ahead.

    QUESTION: On Iran?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: One of the other things that Congress expressed was concern about if there was military force used against Iran, whether or not the administration would seek a new AUMF. And I wondered if there was any evidence that al-Qaida was associated with any of the recent threats that you’ve been speaking to regarding Iran, or if they had any direction in those threats.

    MS ORTAGUS:
    No. The Secretary and the administration have not announced any connection with – as it relates to these specific events they’ve been talking about over the past two weeks with al-Qaida. I think that we all know quite well that they are given safe haven in Iran, and we know that there are deep connections. But this is not necessarily connected, and I think the Secretary’s been clear about that.

    Hi.

    QUESTION: Hi, Morgan. It’s Ben with NHK.

    MS ORTAGUS: Ben, right. Hey.

    QUESTION: Could I ask you about North Korea?

    MS ORTAGUS: Why not?

    QUESTION: The South Korean Government said that they were going to provide some food aid to North Korea in the hopes that it’ll restart negotiations. Is the United States taking any kind of active action to restart negotiations, or is the State Department just waiting on North Korea right now?

    MS ORTAGUS: So I want to make sure I heard you correctly. I probably don’t have the best hearing from all of my years in the marching band. It goes along with the nerd thing we were talking about. So your question —

    QUESTION: What instrument?

    MS ORTAGUS: Huh?

    QUESTION: Please don’t say tuba. (Laughter.)

    QUESTION: Trombone?

    MS ORTAGUS: It’s worse than that. I was the drum major.

    QUESTION: Oh.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, queen of the dorks, and the saxophone. That was my instrument. So, saying that, you’re going to have to speak up. I’m sorry.

    QUESTION: Yeah, sorry. What’s the State Department doing —

    MS ORTAGUS: I’m going to get in trouble from Greenan for making jokes.

    QUESTION: What’s the State Department doing to try and restart negotiations with North Korea? Is the State Department just waiting to hear back from them or are you guys —

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: — doing anything to reach out?

    MS ORTAGUS: So what the President said recently is that – is – I believe it was a tweet, I’ll have to double-check, but what the President said is that he was disappointed in some of the recent developments, but that the President has remained very clear, and so has the Secretary, that the United States is open to negotiations. The Secretary has said that Kim Jong-un has told him at least six times that he would denuclearize. He has said that to the President as well.

    And so these talks, these discussions, are ongoing. I don’t think that I will ever probably in the next year and a half, hopefully, that you see me, get into the specifics on that, but this is clearly one of the most important national security issues of our time, and that’s – I really don’t have anything more than that.

    QUESTION: Just a quick follow-up: Is the U.S. mission at the UN and the North Korean mission at the UN having any kind of conversations?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, that’s not something that I would telegraph from the podium. I would just say that talks and negotiations are ongoing. The President has made it quite clear, and so has the Secretary, that they see a vision of a very bright future for the North Koreans if they would like to continue along the path that they have committed to.

    QUESTION: Just the same – a little more granular detail —

    MS ORTAGUS: Could we – I’m sorry, guys. Look, there’s some people that haven’t asked a question yet.

    QUESTION: Oh, okay.

    MS ORTAGUS: Do we mind for the people who haven’t asked yet – who hasn’t asked one yet?

    QUESTION: Can I ask a Venezuela?

    MS ORTAGUS: Yes.

    QUESTION: Jennifer Hansler with CNN.

    MS ORTAGUS: Hey.

    QUESTION: What is the latest with Venezuela? It seems things have come to a standstill on the ground and now we have envoys from both Guaido and Maduro’s camps meeting in Norway for talks. What does State make of these talks? Would you accept something that came out of those talks where Maduro stays in power?

    MS ORTAGUS: So, I mean, the fundamental elements as it relates to Venezuela have not changed. Our position remains that we clearly recognize Juan Guaido as the rightful leader of Venezuela. This is – of course, we’ve made this decision about recognizing him based on the constitution of Venezuela, based off of the action from the countries in the region, from the Venezuelan people, from the Lima Group, from the Organization of American States. And we would say any transition that Maduro tries to oversee, we would see as a phony process, right? The problems of Venezuela – Maduro has proven that he cannot solve these problems, and so the sooner he leaves, the better.

    MR PALLADINO: Would you like to take maybe one more and wrap up?

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Anybody who hasn’t gone – did you not go yet? Okay.

    QUESTION: Francesco Fontemaggi for AFP.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, hi.

    QUESTION: Back to Iran, if I may.

    MS ORTAGUS: Are you going on the trip too?

    QUESTION: Yes, I am I think.

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay, good. Thank you.

    QUESTION: Back to Iran, if I may.

    MS ORTAGUS: Sure.

    QUESTION: The Secretary also said yesterday that there are plenty of ways to have a communication channel with Iran.

    MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.

    QUESTION: My question is: Has the U.S. used any of those channels in the recent days to reach out to them to – at least to avoid miscalculations? And if yes, are you confident that this could work out and that —

    MS ORTAGUS: Right.

    QUESTION: — this is a – the de-escalation period after escalation?

    MS ORTAGUS: So I’m not going to telegraph the Secretary’s conversations, obviously, on this. I think it’s important to note – and the Secretary has said this emphatically, the Acting Defense Secretary has said this, the President has said this – we are not seeking a war with Iran, right. This is all about deterrence. It’s not about going to war. Our main focus right now – and Shanahan said this yesterday – our biggest focus at this point is to prevent Iranian miscalculation, and we do not want the situation to escalate. And I actually don’t think I could say it any better than Secretary – Acting Secretary Shanahan said it.

    MR PALLADINO: All right, great.

    MS ORTAGUS: Thank you for having me.

    QUESTION: Morgan, can I ask one tiny follow-up? Can I ask one tiny one?

    MS ORTAGUS: Okay, Christina.

    QUESTION: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

    MS ORTAGUS: You’re making me feel bad.

    QUESTION: Can you – just – but on that nature —

    MS ORTAGUS: Yes.

    QUESTION: — can you characterize – because everything yesterday was about deterrence and preventing Iranian miscalculation.

    MS ORTAGUS: Mm-hmm.

    QUESTION: Can you give us any kind of guidance about the current nature of the threat? Do you feel like U.S. action repositioning assets has deterred it, has it lessened it, is it the same, is it going forward, are we worried it’s going to pick up again? Like, can you just – because it’s so vague, it’s hard to quantify it, and can you give us some sort of —

    MS ORTAGUS: Mm-hmm. Sure. Well, I mean, again, we would hope that the actions that we’ve taken over the last two weeks – well, longer than the last two weeks, but if we’re just looking specifically at what’s gone on the past couple of weeks, two and a half weeks at this point, certainly the goal is deterrence, and that’s the reason why we have taken the position that we have. I mean, listen, the —

    QUESTION: Do you have any evidence that it has deterred it, that it’s worked?

    MS ORTAGUS: I think it’s difficult to answer that. I would just say, as it relates to deterrence and as it relates to the conversations and the actions of the Iranian regime writ large – and I’m going to keep going back to this every time, I know you guys have heard the Secretary say this – he laid out, I think it was at least a year ago or nine months ago at least, in between nine months and a year ago, 12 steps for which the Iranian regime can be welcomed into the national – international community, 12 steps for how they can relieve sanctions.

    If they want sanctions gone, there are steps that we have laid out very clearly and communicated to them publicly by which they can become a normal member of society, they can have the sanctions gone. We welcome any efforts by the Iranian regime to take a serious look at those 12 steps and enter into dialogue with us around that, and that’s going to be our steadfast position.
    And with that, I will see all of you tomorrow.

    QUESTION: Thanks a lot.

    MS ORTAGUS: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MS ORTAGUS: Thanks for having me.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan.

    QUESTION: Anytime.









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