Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – May 11, 2015

12:48 p.m. EDT

MS HARF: Hello. Welcome to the daily press briefing. I have some travel items at the top, and then, Brad, I’m kicking it over to you.

First, as you saw this morning, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel on May 11th to Sochi, Russia, where he will meet with President Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov, and other Russian officials on May 12th to discuss a full range of bilateral and regional issues, including Iran, Syria, and Ukraine. The Secretary will then travel on to Antalya, Turkey to consult with allies and partners gathered for a meeting of the NATO foreign ministers on May 13th. He will then return to Washington to join the President’s dinner with the GCC that evening and at Camp David the next day.

And then Secretary Kerry will travel to Beijing, China from May 16th to 17th. While in Beijing, Secretary Kerry will meet senior leaders of the Chinese Government to advance U.S. priorities ahead of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue this summer and the planned visit to the United States of President Xi Jinping this fall. Secretary Kerry will then visit Seoul, Republic of Korea, from May 17th to 18th. He will meet President Park and the foreign minister to discuss a range of global, regional, and bilateral issues, as well as President Park’s upcoming visit to the United States.

On May 19th, Secretary Kerry will travel to Seattle, Washington to deliver remarks on trade, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A lot of travel coming up.


MS HARF: Yes. With that, Brad.


MS HARF: And we’re leaving very soon for Russia today, so —

QUESTION: I understand. We’ll be quick.

MS HARF: No, it’s okay.

QUESTION: So you said the meeting with Russian President Putin is —

MS HARF: Tomorrow.

QUESTION: — is tomorrow, and that’s confirmed?

MS HARF: Correct.

QUESTION: There was some indication from the Russians that – at least the Kremlin wasn’t confirming at this point whether there would be a meeting, but —

MS HARF: It’s certainly our understanding that it’s confirmed.

QUESTION: It’s confirmed. Okay.

MS HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And then you said you’d talk about Iran, Syria, and Ukraine —

MS HARF: Among other issues.

QUESTION: — among other issues.

MS HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Just on Syria first off, is there any new ideas at a diplomatic approach that are – either you’re presenting or you expect to hear from the Russians?

MS HARF: Well, I don’t know what we expect to hear from the Russians, but I know that, as we’ve talked about before, Secretary Kerry and the team have long been thinking through ways to get back to a diplomatic process here when it comes to a Geneva-like scenario where we get the parties to the table and where we can actually make progress towards a political transition in Syria. So that’s certainly going to be one of the main topics of conversation. I don’t have anything else to preview at this time about what that might look like, but we’ve certainly felt very strongly that we need to get back to that kind of political dialogue at some point, given where we are.

QUESTION: I think the Russian foreign ministry described the meetings as part of an effort to normalize relations again between the U.S. and Russia. Do you see that in these discussions taking place?

MS HARF: I wouldn’t use that term. I think how I would describe it is that we’ve always said where there are areas we can work together, we will, whether it’s the Iran talks, as you know, where we’ve really been in lockstep on this issue; Syria, other issues; but also to discuss ones where we very strongly disagree, like Ukraine.

QUESTION: So you wouldn’t use “normalize” because you feel that the relations are already normalized, or they’re not normalized —

MS HARF: It’s just not a term I would use. That’s sort of a technical diplomatic term – when you talk about normalizing relations with Cuba, for example.


MS HARF: I just wouldn’t use that term. This is part of our ongoing effort to maintain open lines of communication on all of these issues where we agree, where we disagree, and they thought this was a good time to meet.

QUESTION: Would it be like an effort to defuse the tensions?

MS HARF: That’s not how I would describe it. Again, this is part of our ongoing effort – the Secretary does speak to Foreign Minister Lavrov over the phone from time to time, including recently – but this is part of our ongoing effort to have these lines of communication to talk about all of these issues where we agree, where we’re working together, but also where we disagree, like on Ukraine.

QUESTION: Is this the first high-level meeting between – let’s say, with President Putin in the last couple years?

MS HARF: With – I can check on that. The Secretary has met with Foreign Minister Lavrov, as you know.

QUESTION: I understand, but with Putin, this is the first —

MS HARF: Let me check on that.

QUESTION: Right. You said that he speaks regularly with the Russian foreign minister —

MS HARF: He does.

QUESTION: — and we know, but he’s meeting the president this time.

MS HARF: Correct, which is different.

QUESTION: What would you – one, why go to Russia and meet with him? What do you hope to hear from him? And two, what’s different that facilitates this trip from the last several months? I mean, the Ukraine crisis has ebbed and flowed, but it’s still raging, essentially.

MS HARF: Well, I’m not sure I have much analysis to do on what’s different. This just was a time that made sense. I think it’s important to hear and to speak to President Putin about all of these issues directly. Obviously, he talks to Foreign Minister Lavrov quite a bit, but these are all very serious issues, and given that we’re going there, we thought it made sense to meet with President Putin.

QUESTION: Was – is the meeting being done at the request of the Russians or the Americans?

MS HARF: We always make these decisions jointly about where we will meet and when.

QUESTION: Okay. Can I change topics?

MS HARF: Sure.

QUESTION: Could I just ask you about Indonesia? Indonesia is turning back hundreds of Muslim Burmese. Do you have any comment on that?

MS HARF: I hadn’t seen that. I’m happy to check.


QUESTION: And you just announced that the Secretary’s going to Beijing. The —


QUESTION: And that’s 16th and —

MS HARF: I think the 16th and 17th. Let me check. Yes, the 16th and 17th.

QUESTION: And the Indian prime minister is going to be there also.

MS HARF: At the same time?

QUESTION: I don’t know. On Thursday, I think he’s going to be going onward.

MS HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: Is there any possibility of Secretary stopping in India on the way back?

MS HARF: I have not heard that any stop – additional stops will be made. The Secretary was just in India, as you know, not too long ago.


QUESTION: Speaking of China —

MS HARF: We’re stopping in Seattle on the way back, actually. Yes.

QUESTION: All right. Okay.

QUESTION: Speaking of China, Marie, the president of Djibouti just announced that the Chinese are welcome to build a military base in Djibouti. Do you have any information on that or any reaction?

MS HARF: I hadn’t seen that, but during our meetings in Djibouti, certainly we had very good and positive conversations about our military presence there. The Secretary spoke publicly about this, as did the Djiboutians, so this is a partnership we care deeply about, and certainly, they’ve been very close partners in the fight against counterterrorism that we use that base for.

QUESTION: If this is proven to be true, would that alarm you or disappoint you? Would you pressure the Djibouti Government to take back its welcome?

MS HARF: Given I haven’t heard the reports, I’m probably not going to delve into analysis on that.


QUESTION: With regard to the trip tomorrow – or today and tomorrow, you said it made sense given where we are now to have this meeting now with President Putin. What are the conditions about where we are right now that prompted a meeting with the president of Russia?

MS HARF: Yeah, trying to tease out what the colloquial means there more specifically. Well, as I said, this is – given the fact that we’re going to Sochi, we thought it makes sense – made sense to meet with the president. I think given where we are in Syria and the fact that we believe that we need to get back to some sort of political transition dialogue, that we believe we need to get back to a diplomatic process, that we haven’t seen a lot of movement there in the past months, I think this is one of the reasons. Also, given we’re close to the Iran deadline on the nuclear negotiations and the Russians have been in lockstep with us on that issue, but also given what’s going on in Ukraine – the continued violations of Minsk, the continued aggression by the Russian separatist forces – these are all topics that we thought it made sense to discuss now.

QUESTION: Could I ask about the summit?

MS HARF: Sure.

QUESTION: Okay. Now there’s a lot of talk around town, I’m sure that you are aware, that there has been a snub of the United States —

MS HARF: I know.

QUESTION: — that nobody’s attending —

MS HARF: I’ve seen some of that talk.

QUESTION: — and all this. And do you have any comment on that?

MS HARF: Well, I think that nothing could be further from the truth that there was some “snub,” to use the cable news talking point. The Secretary had really good meetings with King Salman and other senior Saudi leaders in Riyadh, and also had very good meetings with the GCC foreign ministers in Paris, where we walked through in detail the Iran negotiations. These were very positive discussions, both about the Iran talks and where we are, but also about the Camp David summit and leading into this, which is really designed to enhance our security cooperation, as you know.

And to that end, we never expected every head of state would attend, never had that expectation. For example, Mohammed bin Zayed is the one that tends to represent the UAE. He’s been in the Oval Office multiple times. He tends to be the one that represents them. King Salman made this decision given what’s going on in Yemen. He’s sending the crown prince and the deputy crown prince who are fully empowered. They run intel, they run defense, they run a lot of the areas that we’re actually going to be talking about in detail at Camp David. So we believe that the right mix of people will be there. We’re looking forward to the summit. And again, it comes on the heels of very positive discussions we had both in Riyadh and in Paris.

QUESTION: Certain bloggers from the area are suggesting that King Salman might be quite ill, actually. Can you confirm or deny that?

MS HARF: Well, I think I’ll let the Saudis speak to that. As I noted, we just had a very productive meeting with the king in Saudi Arabia, and they’ve spoken to his decision-making on why he won’t be attending.

QUESTION: Okay. And aside from the – say, the missile shield that the United States is apparently suggesting, the suggestion to combine the Gulf state armies together, what else is the United States prepared to do?

MS HARF: Well, I don’t think I’m going to preview the summit before it happens, but in general, we’re talking about increased, enhanced, deepened security cooperation. We’re talking about that both in the context of the Iran negotiations and what Iran is doing in the region, but also more broadly. So this is really building on years of cooperation we’ve had in talking about the way forward here, and I think we’ll probably have more to say as we get into the summit.

QUESTION: And my last question on this: Now I know that at least the Kuwait – I mean, Kuwait and Bahrain have some sort of special – some sort of defense pact with the United States, and apparently Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to elevate that. That’s what the ambassador said the other day. What kind of relations do you see? What kind of military relations could come out of this?

MS HARF: Well, we have very strong military-to-military relationships with all of these countries, whether it’s arms sales, whether it’s training, whether – each country’s a little different, right. But coming out of this, I think we’ll be talking more specifically about what even more we are going to be doing. Again, I just don’t have much to preview for you.

QUESTION: On the —


QUESTION: Oh, sorry.

QUESTION: On this, you said that you didn’t expect that every Gulf leader will be in town, but the White —

MS HARF: We didn’t, no.

QUESTION: Yeah, but the White House was expecting King Salman to be here, and they put on the schedule for next Wednesday a meeting with – between the President and King Salman.

MS HARF: Right. Well, we learned of the king’s possible change of plans from the Saudis on Friday night, I think after that schedule had already gone out. This was confirmed by the Saudis on Saturday. Given what’s going on in Yemen – the imminent start of a ceasefire, hopefully, if the Houthis agree to it there – the king made this decision, as the Saudis have spoken to. And again, they’re sending their crown prince, their deputy crown prince. They’re in charge of intelligence, defense. Mohammed bin Nayef has had Oval Office meetings, certainly, with the President. So we think that we’ll have a good mix of people at the summit to get done what we need to get done.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Can I just go back to the meeting with the Russians?

MS HARF: You can.

QUESTION: The Russian foreign ministry put out a statement and it includes their interpretation, again, of this meeting. It notes that the White House has – I think it says the White House has groundlessly blamed Russia for the Ukraine crisis when, in fact, the United States largely provoked it. Given that you said this was – it makes sense to meet Russia at this time —


QUESTION: — I mean, are these the type of comments that augur well for a meeting when —

MS HARF: Well, just because we disagree strongly on something doesn’t mean we shouldn’t meet and talk about it. So obviously, Ukraine will be a huge topic of conversation here. And we’ve seen statements like this from the Russians repeatedly. We’ve made clear what has happened here and that the Russians are the ones who are responsible for de-escalating and pulling back. We only took actions in response to their actions.

QUESTION: But given that we’re – after 18 months, you’re saying we’ve seen this repeatedly. Nothing seems to have changed. They’ve taken over a part of another country and they’re saying it was your fault. Why are you meeting now? I don’t understand why —

MS HARF: Because —

QUESTION: — what makes sense. You keep saying it makes sense —

MS HARF: Right.

QUESTION: — but to me, this – nothing has changed. Why —

MS HARF: Because you can’t deal with diplomatic issues if you don’t do diplomacy, Brad.

QUESTION: Then why didn’t you meet him last year?

MS HARF: Well, we have met with —

QUESTION: Why didn’t you meet him six months ago or three months ago?

MS HARF: We have met – we’ve met with the Russians —

QUESTION: Nine months ago?

MS HARF: Secretary Kerry has met with the Russians multiple times.

QUESTION: Not with the president of Russia.

MS HARF: Not with the president. Given that we are going to Russia for this meeting, we thought that it made sense to meet with President Putin. Again, it’s not just about Ukraine; it’s about Syria, it’s about Iran, it’s about a number of issues. And just because you strongly disagree with what a country is doing —

QUESTION: Right, but how does —

MS HARF: — doesn’t mean you shouldn’t meet with them. In fact, it actually means you should to try and make progress.

QUESTION: Exactly, so why – which begs the question why haven’t you been setting up this type of meeting months or even a year ago —

MS HARF: Well, we’ve been meeting with —

QUESTION: — if it was so important.

MS HARF: — Foreign Minister Lavrov repeatedly, as you know, and they’ve spoken on the phone repeatedly. And again, I don’t have much more – there’s not sort of any more mystery to the timing. This is just what made sense in our schedule, on our travel schedule, what made sense in terms of where we are on a number of policies. There’s not much more to it than that.


QUESTION: Marie, do —


QUESTION: Go ahead.

MS HARF: Go ahead.

QUESTION: No, I just wanted to ask you —

MS HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: You said they will discuss Syria and other issues. Will they discuss the Middle East peace process?

MS HARF: I don’t know. We’ll see.

QUESTION: Because Abbas was just meeting with President Putin. So would that be —

MS HARF: I don’t have much more to preview for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if they did, but I just can’t predict.

QUESTION: Do you see sort of a more energized role for Russia in this process, perhaps, to sort of —

MS HARF: I’m not sure I would —

QUESTION: — inject some life into the Quartet that is really moribund, so to speak.

MS HARF: I’m not sure I have much to say on that right now.


QUESTION: Did you get to hear any hints from the Russians that now they are willing to be cooperating on Syria?

MS HARF: Well, the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov have talked about Syria for many, many months now, and I think we have worked together in terms of setting up the first two Geneva conferences. We worked together on that. We worked together on the chemical weapons agreement, as you know. And I think that there is a sense – and hopefully we’ll see that borne out in the discussions – that we need to try and make progress to get back to some sort of diplomatic solution here. I wouldn’t expect any concrete sort of announcements or anything to be made out of this meeting. This is just the first step in a process here to sit down with the Russians, to talk about how we might eventually all get back to the table. It’s really the first step to that.

QUESTION: Can I go for a second —

MS HARF: Sure.

QUESTION: — on the Indonesian thing? You said that you don’t know about —

MS HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: — Indonesia turning back refugees. Okay. So you have no comment?

MS HARF: Yeah, I’m sorry.

Yes. Yes.

QUESTION: A couple ethics questions. I know ethics are very important to the State Department. The first one is a policy question. Do you know if a State Department employee or spouse gives a speech and is offered an honorarium in exchange for that, do they have to report it if they decide to direct that honorarium to charity?

MS HARF: I am happy to check with our lawyers.


MS HARF: How would I have that at the tip of my fingers?

QUESTION: You might. You never know what’s in that booklet there.

MS HARF: It is a large book, but not that large.

QUESTION: It could be anything. And a couple related, specific questions regarding some records the State Department released last week about the Clintons’ ethics review process here. Those records suggest that when President Clinton wanted to give paid speeches to – that were paid for by government agencies or entities from China or Turkey, he was turned down, and when paid for by government agencies or entities from Canada, the UAE, and Thailand, that that was authorized. Can you explain any distinction there?

MS HARF: I’m not familiar with the documents you’re referring to. I’m sorry, I’m happy to check. I do know that we reviewed every request submitted by the foundation, which primarily did consist of speeches and consultancies of former President Clinton. I’m not exactly sure which documents you’re referring to. I’m happy to look.


MS HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: And you may not be able to answer this if you don’t know about the documents —

MS HARF: I’m going to go 0 for 3 today.

QUESTION: — but the last one is – so part of this ethics advice process was to give the Secretary advice on how to deal with potential conflicts of interest created by or potentially created by her husband’s business dealings or speech practices. Do you know if the State Department ever advised that one way to cure such a conflict would be to have the money given to the Clinton Foundation rather than have the Clintons or – accept them?

MS HARF: I have no idea. I’m – I mean, again, these were internal processes many years before I certainly got here and we certainly got here. I’m happy to check and see if there’s anything to share, okay?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS HARF: Yeah. Yes, in the back.

QUESTION: A Turkish cargo ship had been attacked off the coast of Libya’s port Tobruk. One official had been killed as well. Do you – any comment on it?

MS HARF: Yes. We are concerned by these reports. We’re seeking additional information. We send our condolences to the family of the Turkish crew member who was killed, hope for the quick recovery of those who were injured in the attacks. As we’ve said when it comes to Libya, we remain committed to supporting the UN process and the special representative of the Security Council – or, excuse me, of the secretary-general – his efforts to establish a national unity government. So in general, that’s what we’re focused on, but we’re trying to get more details about this.


QUESTION: On North Korea —

MS HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: — if that’s okay. So North Korea announced that on May 9th, it launched an SLBM, and I wondered if you had a comment about that.

MS HARF: Yes. We’ve seen the reports. As you know, we tend to comment on intelligence-related matters, but again call on North Korea to refrain from actions that further raise tensions in the region and to focus instead on taking concrete steps to fulfilling its international commitments and obligations. And I don’t have much more to share than that.

Yes, right behind you.

QUESTION: Colombia?

MS HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: President Santos announced that Colombia was stopping the U.S.-backed aerial spraying of coca crops. Do you have a reaction to that decision?

MS HARF: Yes. The – this decision – the decision whether to I think use a certain type of spray to eradicate coca is Colombia’s to make. As we’ve always said, we’ll respect whatever conclusion Colombia reaches. We’ve developed a number of approaches as part of a comprehensive effort to confront narcotrafficking, and if aerial eradication isn’t possible for some reason, we’ll continue our efforts to use other tools by working with our Colombian allies on this.


QUESTION: I had a question about Secretary Kerry’s trip to Beijing.


QUESTION: Do you know if he’ll be discussing historical issues at all, or relations with Japan at all?

MS HARF: I don’t have much more of a preview for you than I read out at the top. We’ll get you more as we get closer.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS HARF: Okay.

QUESTION: Well, basically the same question, about the topics in —

MS HARF: Oh, will we be discussing North Korea? I can guarantee you that we will be discussing North Korea, yes. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: And same in Seoul?

MS HARF: In Seoul? Yes. Yes, I can guarantee you that will be on the agenda both places.

QUESTION: Maritime issues as well, the same?

MS HARF: I can almost guarantee that as well. I’m just setting up all the meetings for the Secretary today. Yes, but those are issues we talk about with the Chinese quite – and the South Koreans quite regularly.

QUESTION: Cyber security?

MS HARF: I would guess we will, but again, we just announced the trip, so we’ll get you more as we get closer.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: After Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit where he announced visa on arrival – which is not actually on arrival; it’s something with an E visa – I had asked and from this podium I was told that the U.S. is also working to provide some kind of expedited visa or relief like – something like global entry and then some visas for businesspeople. Do you have any updates, or you can take the question?

MS HARF: I’m happy to check with our team, yes.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

MS HARF: Go ahead.

QUESTION: At the GCC summit, they said they’d be talking about security cooperation. Is there an expectation at all that there’ll be some sort of, like, weapons deal that would come out of it?

MS HARF: Well, we have ongoing weapons deals with many of these countries. I don’t have anything else to preview for you in terms of what may come out of it.

QUESTION: And this year, of course, there’s speculation that King Salman is skipping because he’s not getting the weapons that he wants.

MS HARF: Well, I addressed that at the top, I think. I don’t know if you were here or not when I said nothing could be further from the truth. We just had a series of very good meetings with the king and other Saudi leaders in Riyadh, very positive about our policies. Obviously, they have questions, as we know they do, but the tone and tenor was very much of working together on this and having shared interest and answering those questions, and I think had very positive meetings on Paris after Riyadh. So I would roundly discount those reports.

QUESTION: Do I have time for a couple more questions?

MS HARF: Go for it.

QUESTION: Okay, very quickly. Today Federica Mogherini spoke before the Security Council and she laid out a plan to save the refugees —

MS HARF: Yes, she did.

QUESTION: — and to save all the lives and so on. Are you part of that?

MS HARF: Am I – are we what? Sorry?

QUESTION: Are you taking part of that? Are you aiding them?

MS HARF: Well, we’re certainly – we saw the comments. We’re certainly aware of the EU interest in UN action on this, particularly I think in UNSCR probably. She briefed the Security Council this morning, as you said. We’re reviewing options for addressing this issue at the United Nations, so we don’t have much more on that. But more broadly speaking, we believe that any response should impose consequences on criminal smugglers and their assets; it should avoid putting migrants in further danger. These are sort of principles that guide how we respond to these issues, and we’ll keep working with the EU on what the next steps will be.

QUESTION: But seeing how the United States maintains a robust naval presence in the area, would it use its – these facilities or these abilities and – to sort of aid —

MS HARF: That’s not something I’ve heard, but let me check with our team and see if there’s more.

QUESTION: You have – you do have a large presence in the —

MS HARF: We do. But I think —

QUESTION: — in the Mediterranean.

MS HARF: I think those – that presence is for certain missions, and I’m happy to check with our folks.

QUESTION: If I understand correctly, you’re going with the Secretary to Moscow —


QUESTION: — to Russia and to Turkey?

MS HARF: Yes. And then to —

QUESTION: No. In Turkey —

MS HARF: — Beijing.

QUESTION: — will that question come up or not?

MS HARF: What question?

QUESTION: The tweet about you.

MS HARF: Will the – will that come up? I would – I’m surprised anyone even there still would even care about it. I doubt it, honestly. We’re going to meet with our NATO allies. I don’t think that the mayor of Ankara is part of that discussion. It’s really at a different level.

QUESTION: The headline of the meeting in Turkey is the NATO partners?

MS HARF: This is a NATO ministerial. Obviously, there’s a lot going on that NATO is heavily involved in. We’ll have just come from Russia, and NATO obviously is very focused on the situation in Ukraine but many other issues as well. So this is a check-in with our other ministerial colleagues at NATO – obviously, something that’s very important to us.

Anything else?

QUESTION: Thank you.

MS HARF: Quick briefing, guys. Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:11 p.m.)