U.S. Department of State
Department Press Briefing
Tuesday, March 5, 2019
2:55 p.m. EST
Briefer: Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino
2:55 p.m. EST
MR PALLADINO: Hi, everybody. I’ve got water.
A couple things to start with today. So tomorrow, Kirsten Madison – she’s our assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs – she’s going to be addressing the U.S. state attorneys general, who are meeting in Washington this week. Assistant Secretary Madison will be discussing the State Department’s role in combating transnational crime, and this includes the flow of deadly illicit opioids from overseas into the United States.
Now, two of the key ways that the State Department keeps Americans safe are using diplomacy and foreign assistance to combat international crime, and that includes opioid trafficking, transnational gang activity, and corruption. So our Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs partners with the National Association of Attorneys General to train prosecutors and other foreign legal practitioners in countries that are critical to U.S. national security. Such trainings help partner nations become more effective at fighting the transnational crime that threatens their citizens as well as Americans.
Secondly, I am very pleased to announce that on Thursday at 10:00 A.M., March 7th, Secretary of State Pompeo will host the International Women of Courage Awards. The ceremony will feature special remarks by the First Lady of the United States. This year marks the 13th anniversary of the International Women of Courage Awards and it will honor 10 women from around the world who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights and gender equality, and often at great personal risk. This year our awardees are, from Bangladesh, Razia Sultana; from Burma, Naw K’nyaw Paw; from Djibouti, Moumina Houssein Darar; from Egypt, Magda Gobran-Gorgi; from Jordan, Colonel Khalida Khalaf Hanna al-Twal; from Ireland, Sister Orla Treacy; from Montenegro, Olivera Lakic; from Peru, Flor de Maria Vega Zapata; from Sri Lanka, Marini de Livera; and from Tanzania, Anna Aloys Henga.
The awards demonstrate the United States commitment to gender equality, social inclusion, and advancing the global status of women and girls from all backgrounds across sectors as part of our foreign policy. The United States firmly believes the global prosperity, security, and stability is not achievable without the full economic, social, and political participation of women and girls.
QUESTION: That’s everywhere?
MR PALLADINO: Everywhere.
QUESTION: Including certain countries in the Middle East?
MR PALLADINO: That includes the entire globe.
And we have a personnel announcement. We are delighted to welcome back Ambassador Philip Reeker to Washington later this month. On March 18th, he will become the principal deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary of the Department of State’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Now, Ambassador Reeker is a career Foreign Service officer who’s currently the civilian deputy commander at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart. He’s previously served as the consul general in Milan; as the deputy assistant secretary for the Balkans, Central Europe, as well as Holocaust issues; as the United States ambassador to what is now North Macedonia; and – the only blight on his entire professional career – he was previously the department’s deputy spokesperson. (Laughter.)
And finally, the United States applauds the people of Venezuela for their actions to create a peaceful, democratic transition, and congratulates Interim President Juan Guaido on his successful diplomatic efforts in the region and safe return to Venezuela. However, we have noticed in news coverage that some outlets are incorrectly referring to Juan Guaido as the opposition leader or the self-proclaimed president. Neither is correct.
A few basic facts: The National Assembly remains the only legitimate and democratically elected institution in Venezuela. Juan Guaido was elected president of the National Assembly on January 5th, 2019, and on January 10th, Maduro usurped the presidency.
Therefore, the president of the National Assembly and relying on Venezuela’s constitution – as president of the National Assembly, and relying on Venezuela’s constitution, Juan Guaido became interim president of Venezuela on January 23rd. Millions of Americans and more than 50 countries recognize Juan Guaido as interim president of Venezuela. He has appointed and credentialed ambassadors to international organizations and the United States and numerous other democratic nations and other democratic nations.
So to refer to Juan Guaido as anything but interim president falls into the narrative of a dictator who has usurped the position of the presidency and led Venezuela into the humanitarian, political, and economic crisis that exists today. The international community must unite behind Interim President Juan Guaido and the Venezuelan National Assembly and support the peaceful restoration of democracy in Venezuela.
MR PALLADINO: Yeah. Avowed terrorists returning to the United States would – could present issues. So that’s why Secretary Pompeo has been quite clear in this regard and that we’re going to continue to take all lawful measures to ensure that she does not enter the United States. That said, there is a legal case ongoing right now, and that’s a separate issue. And we’re pleased with the district court’s decision yesterday, and we’re going to continue to vigorously defend this case.
QUESTION: And the stance that the government has taken on this particular case, could that encourage other countries to disavow ISIS fighters or others who came from those countries if there are similar issues or questions? I mean, the U.S. is essentially rendering this woman stateless. She was born here; she grew up here. You could argue that she belongs to the U.S. or she came – she came from the U.S. So isn’t – if the – if your stance has been to encourage other countries to take back their people from ISIS territory, isn’t this encouraging them to do the opposite?
MR PALLADINO: That remains our policy. This particular case is something completely different, and we don’t bear a responsibility here. We have been clear that this is not a United States citizen, nor is it anyone entitled to U.S. citizenship. Beyond that, I don’t want to talk any further about this case because legal proceedings are ongoing.
QUESTION: Yeah, I have two questions. Secretary Pompeo has announced yesterday that he will be traveling to the Middle East next week to Kuwait, Lebanon, and Israel. What’s the purpose of this visit?
MR PALLADINO: We haven’t – I don’t have the details today to announce, Michel, but I know for Kuwait, if you remember, on our most recent Middle East trip we had to curtail that trip by a day, so this is very much a continuation of that previous trip. There is a strategic dialogue that we’ll be pursuing, but I don’t want to get much ahead on the rest of the itinerary. That’s something that we’ll be announcing soon. Okay?
MR PALLADINO: All services that were previously provided continue to be provided. There’s been no change in the underlying functions. There’s continuity in both the diplomatic activity, what is provided by consular services, and that hasn’t changed.
MR PALLADINO: Yeah. We’ve spoken about that before here, Laurie, and the position hasn’t changed. We’ve long made it clear we would like to work collaboratively on air and missile defense with Turkey, and we have offered opportunities for Turkey to consider Patriot among other systems over the years. We’ve also made it clear to Turkey that we have very serious concerns with its stated plans to proceed with the acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile defense system.
We’ve clearly warned Turkey that its potential acquisition of the S-400 will result in a reassessment of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program and risk other potential future arm transfers to Turkey, as well as lead to potential sanctions under Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA, upon any government entities, private industry, or individuals that are involved in such a transaction.
QUESTION: Again, if I could ask you about the latest on Syria, you’re leaving – we understand there’ll be 400 U.S. troops that will remain in Syria after the departure with additional forces from coalition members; is that correct?
MR PALLADINO: The White House has indicated those numbers, and I’ll defer to the White House and Department of Defense on specifics. But what I will say is that a residual force of the United States military is going to remain in northeast Syria as part of a multinational force in order to prevent ISIS resurgence and to support stability and security in northeast Syria.
QUESTION: That means that there will be more troops from the international coalition that will join the U.S. forces?
MR PALLADINO: We are – the drawdown is going to continue. As previously announced, it’s going to be done in a deliberate and coordinated manner. And as we tradition – transition, we’re going to continue to be working with our allies and partners to clear liberated areas, conduct targeted counterterrorism operations, and support stabilization efforts.
As far as – our priorities remain the same and the – and talks are ongoing with our allies about the future.
QUESTION: A question on Saudi Arabia. Given the case that was publicized this week of an American woman who, due to circumstances surrounding a divorce, is unable to leave Saudi Arabia, I wondered if the State Department has any concerns about the guardianship laws generally in Saudi Arabia and the effect it has on women there.
MR PALLADINO: Just speaking generally about any time an American travels overseas, they’re, of course, subject to the laws of the country in which they travel, and we routinely encourage American citizens to make sure – to read what we publish and to understand the laws of the countries to which they’re visiting.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, as you point out, married women, including non-Saudis, require their husbands’ permission to depart the country, while unmarried women and children require the permission of their father or male guardian. So that’s something that we work through.
QUESTION: Two Virginia lawmakers have written to Secretary Pompeo asking him to raise the case of Aziza Al-Youssef, who’s been in jail for almost a year. Says she was tortured, she’s a woman activist there. I wondered if the Secretary has raised that case and also the case of the American man who says he was tortured in Saudi custody, a U.S. citizen.
MR PALLADINO: And who was the Saudi man that you’re referring to?
QUESTION: It’s a Saudi American man who – that – who was in the Ritz-Carlton. The New York Times profiled him this weekend.
MR PALLADINO: Okay, right. So it’s – Walid Fitaihi is his – is the gentleman’s name, right?
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
MR PALLADINO: Confirm that he’s detained in Saudi Arabia, confirm that we’re providing him consular services, and that we have raised his case with the Government of Saudi Arabia. We visited him today, we visited him on the 20th, and we have had consular access previously. We’ve raised and we continue to raise his case on a consistent basis with the Saudi Government.
QUESTION: Okay. Senators had a closed-door briefing yesterday with a senior State Department official and Lindsey Graham said it was a waste of time, Mitt Romney said he learned nothing new. If senators learned nothing new, what was the point of the briefing? And the other question really quickly on Israel: Israel’s prime minister is facing indictments. I know you said you don’t get involved in domestic issues, but how does that – and does it affect the administration’s peace plan?
MR PALLADINO: I’m not going to comment on the second question. Israel is an ally. We deal with the Government of Israel and that’s the way – we pursue our own interests as the United States of America. We take countries as we find them.
Regarding your first question, that was a closed-door session and I’m not going to attempt to read out what was briefed, and I’m certainly not going to react to members, our elected representatives. Not going to do that from the State Department. We continue to regularly engage the United States Congress on these issues and to provide information. Our position has not changed. We continue to gather facts. We’ll follow them where they lead and to hold those responsible responsible.
QUESTION: Including the crown prince?
MR PALLADINO: We have repeatedly said that we will follow the facts where they lead and hold those who are responsible responsible, and with that, I’m going to stop.