Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
QUESTION: Joining me now, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Mr. Secretary, thanks for this.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: My pleasure.
QUESTION: Well, first of all, I want to get you on the pressing issue of the day. It seems that North Korea, this situation, is getting pretty grave.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Bret, you know when the President was inaugurated and we took office, we entered office confronted with a very serious threat from North Korea. We knew that coming in, and the President gave that immediate attention. One of the first topics that he asked the National Security Council to address was the threat of North Korea. We’ve put in place a very deliberate strategy which we are just in the early stages of executing, and it is one that does involve bringing significant pressure to bear on the regime in Pyongyang. It also involves calling on China to play a role in how we deal with this threat.
So again, you’re right; tensions are running a bit high right now. We expected they would. And our approach to addressing this issue, we know there’s going to be risk involved. Those risks are very measured. We shared those with the President. He’s been very deliberate about the actions that he’s asked us to take, and we’ll see how this all plays out.
QUESTION: So far, the policy seems a lot like the policy that has been in place for the past eight years, which is imposing sanctions, or trying to, on a heavily sanctioned country already, and asking China to do more or pressuring it to do more. How is this different, or is it at all different, from what the Obama administration was trying to do?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Bret, I think it’s different in terms of both the intensity and the expectations we have for global participation. We obviously had direct talks with the Chinese during President Xi’s visit to Mar-a-Lago. I first spoke to the Chinese on my first trip to Beijing to make clear to them that we were unwilling to negotiate our way to the negotiating table. And I think that’s the mistakes of the past – that the regime in North Korea has to position itself in a different place in order for us to be willing to engage in talks.
We are asking a lot of the Chinese. I think in the past, the assumption has been the Chinese would only take limited action. We’re going to test that assumption. We’re going to test their willingness to help us address this serious threat that it’s not only one to the region and to us, but is becoming a threat to China themselves. And so we’re asking that they evaluate the situation.
But I think what’s different is we have expanded the network of calling on others to fully implement the sanctions under the UN Security Council resolutions, which have never been fully implemented. So we’re holding people accountable to implementing these sanctions, and we are broadening our call to other nations to put pressure on Pyongyang, because Pyongyang’s missiles can now go in any direction. And this is a threat that is now moving out of the region and it’s becoming global.
QUESTION: The head of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, was up on Capitol Hill today and here’s what he said: “It seems that we are faced with a threat and a leader who is intent on achieving his goal of a nuclear capability against the United States.” [And Senator McCain said]: “And it’s clear that his goal is a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it to the United States of America. Is there any doubt in your mind?” [Admiral Harris said]: “There is no doubt in my mind, Mr. Chairman.”
Considering that, what can we offer North Korea that somehow gets them off of their nuclear goals?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, the regime in the past has indicated the reason they pursue nuclear weapons is they feel that is the only way to ensure their survival as a regime. We want to change that view of theirs. We want to change that calculus of theirs. And we have said to them that your pathway to survival and security is to eliminate your nuclear weapons, and we and other countries will be prepared to help you on a pathway of economic development and become a stable, secure part of a stable, prosperous Northeast Asia.
Now, that is how we de-risk North Korea to China as well, as I think it’s well understood China has concerns about destabilizing the regime in North Korea due to possible impacts of a failed regime. We have been very clear we do not seek regime change in North Korea, we’re not seeking a collapse of the regime, we are not seeking to find some excuse for an accelerated reunification of the peninsula. What we are seeking is the same thing China has said they seek: a full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
QUESTION: You’re heading up to the UN Security Council tomorrow.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Yes, I’ll be there tomorrow to address the UN Security Council.
QUESTION: And what are you looking for them to do?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We’ll be reinforcing these same messages of the need for everyone to fulfill their obligations under the sanctions accords and fully implement the sanctions, and we’re going to be discussing what next steps may be necessary to increase the pressure on the regime in Pyongyang to have them reconsider their current posture.
QUESTION: Is China doing enough? Last week in a press conference, the President said it’s doing several unusual things, had transpired in regard to China’s assistance in this effort. What were those things? What is China doing?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, without getting into too many details in terms of confidentiality, Bret, what I would say is that there is significant communication going on weekly between ourselves and our counterparts in China. We know that China is in communications with the regime in Pyongyang. They confirmed to us that they had requested the regime conduct no further nuclear test; and in fact, we were told by the Chinese that they informed the regime that if they did conduct a further nuclear test, China would be taking sanctions actions on their own. So I think the Chinese seem to be willing to work with us. We hope they are. We believe that they are an important element to us causing the regime to take a different view towards future talks.
QUESTION: A couple more things on this: Today, your spokesperson, Mark Toner, said that you wanted to see progress in the short term, but pressed on that, “What is short term, what is progress,” there was no answer. So I guess the question is: How long is the U.S. willing to wait?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, we’ve got to see a real change on the part of the posture of the regime in North Korea. Now, how do we see that? Well, we’ll wait as long as it takes, as long as the threat is manageable.
Now, what we’ve seen thus far is two significant dates have gone by in the 105th birthday of the founder as well as their significant Armed Forces Day on the 25th. On neither of those days were what we consider to be serious tests carried out. There was no ICBM test. There have been no further nuclear test. And we have asked and said to them first and foremost these provocative tests must end. Beyond that, then we’ll be talking to them about other indications we will be looking for from them that they truly are ready to engage on a completely different basis for future talks.
QUESTION: Isn’t that a version of strategic patience?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: We will know it when we see it.
QUESTION: Do you fear that Kim Jong-un is unstable, not able to make reasonable decisions on this front?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: All indications, Bret, by intelligence agencies – and there have been a number of independent psychologists who’ve done analysis as best they can – all indications are that he is not crazy. He may be ruthless. He may be a murderer. He may be someone who in many respects we would say by our standards is irrational. But he is not insane. And indications are in the past, and when certain events have happened, he has taken rational – he’s made rational choices. Now, we don’t have a long history with this young leader, only about five years, so we recognize we are dealing with a relative level of unknown and uncertainty. That is part of the risk that the President has been willing to take in this approach.
QUESTION: You had the senators over to the White House for that briefing. There were a few Democrats, like Tammy Duckworth, who said she thought it was a dog-and-pony show. But most of them – Democrats and Republicans – valued that. Democrat Chris Coons said this: “This is not the time for us to slash investment in diplomacy and development around the world. The initial budgetary proposals from the Trump administration suggest a nearly 30 percent cut to the State Department. This is exactly the moment where we need to be leading with diplomacy.”
So does he have a point? Are you worried about cuts?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I’m worried about cuts longer term. We have undertaken a budget exercise to accommodate as best we can the President’s objective to reduce the cost of what we do over here at the State Department. And we’ll be engaged with appropriators on the Hill to talk about how we will manage through that.
Clearly, Bret, aid programs are an important part of our diplomatic efforts around the world, and we want to protect those. But importantly, we want to deliver them effectively. We want to ensure the American taxpayer is getting good value for the dollars that they have trusted us with to devote towards these programs.
QUESTION: So it’s not a done deal yet, as far as what that number is?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: As you know, we’ll go through a budgeting process with the appropriators on the Hill, and what I hope is that they’ll listen carefully to our approach and that they will also allow us significant flexibility so that we can direct these monies to the areas that we believe have the greatest need.
QUESTION: The administration’s State Department is well behind predecessors in nominating key positions. When the department lacks these political appointees, career employees then fill those roles. Are you concerned the State Department is not executing the President’s foreign policy fully or more completely because there just aren’t the people and they’re filled with career employees?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, Bret, I think to this point I’m quite satisfied with the performance of the State Department. It has been challenging. We’ve asked a lot of fewer people to help us get these policies underway, whether it be North Korea, whether it be reviewing our Iran policy, whether it be reacting to situations in Syria, Russia, other hotspots around the world. Yes, I look forward to welcoming our appointees here to the State Department. I think, clearly, we will be more effective and will help enhance our efforts.
But I want to quickly add I have been extremely pleased with the career professionals that have stepped into these roles. They know they’re in an acting role, and they’ve stepped up and they’ve really provided me and those who are working with me what we need to advise the President and be effective in these policies.
QUESTION: So you don’t detect any hostility towards President Trump’s foreign policy from the State Department bureaucracy?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Bret, these are career folks, and I would say – it’s what I said to all of them the day I arrived – I understand some of you, this didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to; I’m calling on your professionalism, which I trust every one of you to exhibit. And I would tell you by and large, Bret, with very, very few exceptions, people have really stepped up and done what we need them to do.
QUESTION: Administration officials tell us that White House officials pushed the State Department to rewrite the JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, certification letter to include pretty aggressive language on Iran’s destabilizing behavior. How much – was that the White House coming in saying you have to do something different? How much input did you have in that initial decision?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I was directly engaged in it. And I think what was important to me is I understand the White House’s perspective was we cannot think about Iran in terms of the JCPOA alone, and I agree with that. And I think one of the flaws behind the entire JCPOA process is it seemed to have been carried out to the exclusion of all the other aspects of Iran’s behavior as a state sponsor of terrorism, their disruptive behavior throughout the region. Iran is a serious threat to the U.S. today and to stability in the region. And I think there the concern was that issuing a 90-day statutory requirement indicating compliance on the JCPOA was going to signal that somehow everything was okay with Iran and us, and it is not okay between Iran and us.
QUESTION: And there are other factors, Iran playing a role in Yemen —
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Serious, serious factors that we are going to have to address, and I think that – and that is what we were trying to reflect. And it was merely a question do you put that in a letter to Congress or do I come out and make a strong statement the next day, and we opted for the latter.
QUESTION: I know you have a busy day. I just have a couple more things. Your relationship with Defense Secretary Mattis and your communication – how much do you all talk?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, I had dinner with him last night. I had breakfast with him this morning. When we are not traveling, the Secretary and I speak essentially every day. I would – I don’t want to go so far as to say we’re joined at the hip, but neither one of us makes a move without calling the other. And I will tell you, it’s really one of the most rewarding relationships I have at this time in the cabinet.
QUESTION: Have you all made a decision on the Paris climate agreement?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: It’s still under consideration. There was a meeting this afternoon to discuss all the aspects of that. And Secretary – or Director Cohn is leading the effort around coming to a conclusion on that.
QUESTION: Last thing: 100 days in. Now, you ran a big company, a very big one, and they had some – you had some complex things to deal with around the world on oil and with Exxon. Put this job in perspective?
SECRETARY TILLERSON: I think it’s just – Bret, it’s the enormity of what I know I’m responsible for. It’s one thing – and I felt a deep responsibility to my shareholders and to the employees when I was at the Exxon-Mobil Corporation. I enjoyed 41-and-a-half terrific years there. But when you’re representing 300 million-plus Americans, and you realize you’re dealing with things that are going to put lives on the line, and you’re dealing with decisions that are likely to cost lives, the burden is significantly heavier and the issues are much more complex. So this is significantly more difficult, more complex, and the consequences are greater – and I fully appreciate the difference between the two.
QUESTION: And we appreciate your service. Mr. Secretary, thanks for the time here at the State Department.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Thank you, Bret. It’s great to see you.