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On-the-Record Briefing With the State Department Press Corps

Special Briefing
John J. Sullivan
Deputy Secretary of State
Washington, DC
August 8, 2017

MS NAUERT: Well, welcome, everybody. Thank you so much, and it's a real pleasure to introduce you to our deputy. As you know, he just finished up a town hall meeting with our staff in which he took questions from folks here in the building and then also our people overseas, and some questions were written in as well and they were able to participate in that way. About 450 or so people in the room in which he took questions. So I would just like to introduce you to him as he's been on the job for two months now and has quickly become very beloved in the building.

So we have just a few minutes for some questions, so I'd like to ask you to please keep it tight, share with your neighbors nicely, and then he will have to go to another meeting. This is considered on the record, but if there's something sensitive that he chooses to get into, then I would ask you to respect off the record on that. And let's just embargo this until the end of this meeting, and any follow-up questions we can all certainly help you with that.

Okay. Hand it over to you.


MS NAUERT: Oh, a few things he wants to – we're going to start with a --

QUESTION: Didn't want to start with --

MS NAUERT: -- just sort of an introduction, if you will.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well, as Heather said, I had the opportunity to speak to our employees today, both 450 in the auditorium, the Dean Acheson Auditorium, and others who were dialing in from – tuning in from posts abroad or elsewhere in the United States or in the building. And it was a good opportunity to chat with everyone. I had the opportunity – I was out at FSI a few weeks ago and spoke to, actually, a larger group. It was about 700 employees at FSI. And I had a speech prepared, a short set of remarks that were prepared, and I just put them aside and picked up a microphone and started having a conversation with the employees. So it was a good opportunity for me to do that.

Today, the Secretary – it's the Secretary's turn next. The last time he did this, he did a town hall, he didn't take questions because we had just launched the listening survey and he didn't want to influence or provide his views up front because we're undergoing this redesign, we're undertaking this redesign, and his firm conviction is that this needs to be employee-led, ground-up, not top-down, and he didn't want – he offered his policy views. He sort of gave his – I think he described it, if you were at his press conference last week, his walk around the world. He gave a similar walk around the world the last time.

He asked me to come and do this, this town hall, three months later. He's going to do one in three months, and it will be the same format as I used today. So it's important for us to get feedback from employees because they are absolutely essential to doing our jobs. The Secretary has been – we've all been – extremely busy, as you all know, and we couldn't do our jobs without the great women and men of the State Department Foreign Service and Civil Service.

The Secretary mentioned a few of them in his remarks last week, but there are so many more who are indispensable to us. I mentioned a few people today in my remarks – Tom Shannon, our Under Secretary for Political Affairs, who's become a good friend and is an indispensable colleague.

So they've kept us on the straight and narrow as we deal with all of these important matters that have been – that have come – some that have recently developed and others that are longstanding problems. The Secretary, as you know, is on a trip now to the Southeast Asia. He's in Malaysia, prior stops in Thailand and prior to that in Manila at the ASEAN meeting. I think very, very positive developments over the weekend. The UN Security Council resolution that was passed, a strong resolution which was – which was the result of a lot of work by the Secretary and Ambassador Haley laying the groundwork for that. He's been very engaged on that issue, and I've worked closely with him on it and raised the enduring problem of the DPRK and its nuclear program and its missile program at every opportunity with – virtually every bilateral meeting I have, the topic comes up.

So it's been an important issue for him, a preeminent national security issue that he's been involved with, and we are pleased with the outcome over the weekend and looking forward to vigorous enforcement of the UN Security Council resolution.

But he's had a lot of other issues that he's had to deal with, as you know, with the situation in the Gulf with Qatar and the Quartet, the three GCC countries and Egypt. It's been a matter that he's been very deeply involved with, spent a fair amount of time in the region there not that long ago to try to bring the parties back from the brink and reconcile their differences, get the GCC back together as an effective regional unit.

Ukraine, he's been – he was in Kyiv right before he went to the Gulf, had Ambassador Kurt Volker appointed as a special representative for him, who's now engaged – starting an engagement with the Russians on the situation in Eastern Europe and – eastern Ukraine, excuse me, and Crimea.

So we've been very busy; he's been very busy, supported by our great Foreign Service and Civil Service here at the State Department. So the notion that's been out in the press and in the media of a hollowed-out State Department that is not effective, I think, is counterfactual, and the fact that the Secretary and the department have been able to accomplish what they have is evidence of the fact that we are hitting on all cylinders even though we don't have the full complement of political appointees that we should have.

I don't think anyone would say – no one here would say that we're pleased by the fact that we don't have more of our under secretary and assistant secretary slots filled, but we're working hard to do that. Those slots are not being – those slots are not being frozen or not filled because of the redesign that's underway. We are working hard – I probably spend an hour a day at least either interviewing candidates or trying to get candidates through the process. So I think the last stat I saw was that we have roughly 60 percent of the unders and assistant secretaries slots either confirmed, nominated, or in the process, so getting – undergoing the security clearance review and so forth. And we hope to get all of those slots filled as quickly as we can.

What I spoke about with the employees today was the redesign. I'm happy to talk to you about that, or anything else you want to talk about, for that matter. But the redesign is in midstream. It's really the – we've really hit our stride, and this month is going to be a key one for the working groups that are leading the effort on – there are five working groups that are leading the effort on redesigning the State Department. And I'd be happy to give you a little more detail on that if you would like to hear about that.

But let me just say as – on a personal level, I am – I'm thrilled to be here. This is the best job I've ever had, and I'm honored to have the opportunity to work here. It's my fourth cabinet department and third president I've worked for, but it's by far the best job I've ever had. So I am honored to be here in the Foreign Service. I have – as I've said before, some of you may know, my uncle was a career Foreign Service officer, 32 years in the Foreign Service. Our last – Bill Sullivan was our last U.S. ambassador to Iran. It was his staff that was taken hostage in Tehran on November 4th, 1979. So my cousin works here as a contractor in Consular Affairs at the State Department, so I'm not – was not unfamiliar with the department when I came here and knew what I was – knew what type of institution I was coming to, and I'm thrilled to be here.

So I'll open it up to your questions.

QUESTION: Thanks. I'll let someone else ask the North Korea questions. I know it's coming and I think I probably know the answer, so let's start with the town hall and the redesign.

MS NAUERT: And remember, today – while we can certainly talk about other things, this is not meant to be a deep-dive policy conversation, so --

QUESTION: No, no, fair enough. You have – obviously, you have not missed the cascade of what seems to be never-ending – not just negative, but incredibly critical reports about what's going on in the building in terms of the redesign, directed specifically at the seventh floor, but even more specifically at the Secretary himself – he's the worst ever, people are going to learn what not to do from – and I'm just wondering, the – if you can address some of the – briefly some of the specific complaints about delegations of authority, a rewriting of the mission statement, the Community of Democracies basically getting the finger. It goes on and on and on and on and on, and it really is just, like, snowballing.


QUESTION: Can you --


QUESTION: Can you address some of this, and dispel it if you can or confirm it if it's true?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well, I can confirm that it's not true. I know you're surprised to hear that. But I can give you some specific factual details. I see those articles; I try not to pay attention to them. I am from Boston and a New England Patriots fan, and those of you who know football know Bill Belichick's motto is: Do your job and don't pay attention to the noise out there. But in this town, it's kind of hard to miss when your friends and colleagues start calling you and emailing you about the latest article that appeared.

And there was one – I guess it was yesterday – that mentioned the delegation of authorities. And my wife, of all people, sent me an email that said, "What the heck did you do on July 17th that caused the Secretary to be so upset that he yanked all your authorities away from you? It's like he took all your pencils away from you and sent you to stand in the corner." I had no idea what she was talking about.

But what happened was that since – before he came to the – before I came to the department, the Secretary had asked questions about delegations of authority. And what we've discovered is that over the last seven years or more there have been hundreds of delegations of authority that no one had kept track of and there was no central either registry or system so that a current assistant secretary would know exactly what had been delegated to her or to him. And so the Secretary decided to rationalize that process. And, among other things, he withdrew, for example, the delegation of authority to me as deputy secretary. That delegation had been issued years ago and it delegated authority to the deputy secretary of state and the deputy secretary of state for management and resources, period.

That's what – and so the news story was accurate, that he had withdrawn that authority from me. What the story didn't say was he immediately issued a new delegation of authority that was a delegation of authority just to me, since I'm the only deputy secretary of state. So it was not – the undertaking is not, was not about removing authority from people, whether it was me for making some goof that was unidentified in the article, or others within the department. It was a means of rationalizing our delegations of authority and keeping better track of them.

With respect to the mission statement – the mission statement that I believe was quoted in some of those articles was actually drafted by career employees as a draft as part of our redesign. So the working groups have been tasked and the steering committee had been tasked with, among other things, drafting a mission statement for AID and the department. What was quoted was a draft that is not the – I think at this point, it's been overtaken by events in the drafting, so it is – I don't believe is currently the draft. It's certainly not final. And it emphatically was not the view of the – was not something that was endorsed by the Secretary of State. We are, of course, committed to justice and democracy. He is committed to justice and democracy. I mean, for gosh sakes, the guy's a Boy Scout. I mean, he is as proud an American, as committed to democracy as anyone.

So there are elements of truth in some of these stories, whether it's about the delegation of authority or about the mission statement, but then they're twisted in a way that makes it sound as though the Secretary is out of touch, mismanaging, whatever. I see him, when he's in town, three or four times a day. The guy is committed to the mission of the department. He's engaged with career staff who brief him. He's got Susan Thornton on the trip with him today; Tim Lenderking is in the Gulf on his behalf, along with General Zinni, as we speak. So I think there's really a misperception both of the department and what we're doing and his role in the department. And the two articles or the two issues that you mentioned I think are just an example of that.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Just very quickly, if I could ask you, what do you account for that disconnect, that some employees feel as if you're trying to kind of gut the department and get rid of the department?

But if I might ask on North Korea, just in a general sense – I mean, I'm assuming you're not going to want to talk about this Washington Post story that North Korea can miniaturize a nuclear weapon. But on a larger sense, clearly the urgency on North Korea is growing. You've heard Secretary Tillerson talk about putting out signals about wanting to talk, although kind of others in the administration aren't – are taking a much tougher line. Where do you and the Secretary see this going, in terms of are you really trying to get something together? And do you see – should we be looking for that in the not – not imminently, but --

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: So I don't think the Secretary's view on this has changed very much since he went – his first foreign trip, when he went to Japan, when he went to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing, and said that we're not going to negotiate our way to the negotiating table. When he talks about being – as I know he was quoted most recently – about willing to talk with the North Koreans and we assure them that their peace and prosperity is best served by engaging with us and having a denuclearized North Korean peninsula, it's on the assumption that the North Koreans stop their missile tests and stop their nuke tests and stop the development of a nuclear weapon. So we are not – there's no deviation from those conditions. His view that the North – we're not going to come to the table until the North Koreans have committed to that. So he's not going to, as he said earlier on, negotiate his way to the negotiating table, and that's been his consistent position.

And in developing that position, as I said before, he's been advised by Susan Thornton, our acting assistant secretary, who's done a terrific job – and frankly all of our career staff in EAP – on advising him on these issues. And it's an example of – I think the success that Ambassador Haley had at the UN Security Council over the weekend is an – is the fruit of a lot of effort by the Secretary, Ambassador Haley, supported by the career staff at the department working very hard on these issues over many months. And as I say, I am – I work with him every day and I see his commitment to the mission, his commitment to the institution.

QUESTION: Why is there this misperception, then, that you speak about? It does – I mean, it does feel as if there is this disconnect between you working with the Foreign Service and this perception that's pretty permeated throughout the building that you're trying to gut the department, you're trying to put all politicals in. I'm sure you've –

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well, actually – yeah, actually, I wish we were putting politicals in. It would mean that we had more of our assistants and under secretaries nominated and confirmed. I – once I asked – I won't name him by name, because I don't want to drag him into a news story, but I asked a retired, very senior Foreign Service officer – I had lunch with him not – just before I got – just before I came on board here. I asked him about what he knew about morale at the State Department, and he said morale at the State Department is very low. He said, "It was low when I started in 1960 and it's still low. It's the nature of the State Department."

So that is not to minimize – I think the Secretary would acknowledge that just the onslaught of press and some misreporting in the press about what we're doing and what he's doing has certainly contributed to some anxiety among the employees, and part of my role and what I did today was to reassure them that he and I and the administration is committed to the mission of this department, and as I said at the town hall with the – with our – with career staff just a little while ago, this department is – was the first department – is an indispensable department, as evidenced by the fact it was the first department created by Congress and the president in 1789 as the Department of Foreign Affairs. And if we disestablished the State Department and hollowed out the building, there'd still be a need for the function that this department provides in dealing with foreign governments, helping Americans abroad – something that people don't – a lot of people don't realize until you've been in trouble abroad – I mean really in trouble and needed help and you're an American and you're in another country where you are not a citizen and you may not be welcome – until you've been in that position – and I've had family who've been in that position – until you've been in that position and you have had somebody from Consular Affairs or from the State Department or from the U.S. military arrive, whether they were wearing a flag on a uniform or just in a suit or in jeans and a t-shirt, you knew you were going to be okay because you were an American and you had an American there who was coming to take care of you. And that mission of this department hasn't changed and it won't change.

QUESTION: But sir, how do you square that with a proposed 28 percent cut? And we hear the rhetoric about we need to do more with less and there are efficiencies, but the Pentagon isn't being asked to make those cuts. In fact, they're being given more. So when you talk about kind of the important mission, at the same time there's a hiring freeze. Family members who are moving with their spouses to new posts aren't able to get those same positions that they were able to before. That's causing a lot of issues for diplomats who serve abroad. How do you square all the things that you – the positive things you say the State Department does with this idea that there would be a almost 30 percent cut in the budget?

QUESTION: Can you specifically address the EFMs?


QUESTION: Because I understand there were a couple hundred more approved?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Right. So we've approved – I think it's almost 800 EFMs that have been approved since this – the hiring freeze was imposed. I think there were a couple of different issues that you've raised. One is the budget. So the budget – the budget process started before the Secretary got confirmed. He engaged with OMB – this was before I got here. And the President has established a benchmark for a budget with the understanding that we're going to perform our important mission but do so more efficiently and be a better protector of the taxpayer dollar.

I think the Secretary has testified to the fact that it's never been his experience, and, I would say, it's also never been my experience, that the success of an organization, particularly an organization like this that's dependent on people and their intellectual and – intellectual power and willpower – we don't have air wings, carrier strike groups. We don't put a lot of – we don't have a huge budget for things. We have a budget for people and we're going to organize ourselves better, to use our people better, to – excuse me, to put our people and our employees in a position to do their jobs more effectively and efficiently, and to make their – make their jobs, their professional lives easier.

What we heard when we undertook this listening tour that I know you've all heard about was that the department is – the way the department is organized now and its bureaucratic structures, the way – the way that what – the bureaucracy that we have in place is often frustrating them in their ability to do their jobs, making it inefficient. And so the Secretary has been clear that we're going to perform our jobs more efficiently. The redesign that he's undertaken, he said that he would do this whether our budget was being cut or increased. He thought that the department needed to be redesigned.

Dealing with the budget that we have from OMB, it's even more important that we be redesigned to perform our jobs more – more efficiently, but that --

MS NAUERT: Just time – I'm sorry, sir.


MS NAUERT: I was going to say time for – I thought you were finished --


MS NAUERT: -- one to two more questions.

QUESTION: Could I just have two words on the embassy in Moscow because you have until September 1st, I think, to draw down 755 people – how that's going to --

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: A complex undertaking for us to do, under review as we speak, and as the Secretary said I believe yesterday, he told Foreign Minister Lavrov that we will – we'll have a response back to them by September 1st. But it is a complex logistical matter, moving – moving people out and to reach the limit that's imposed by the Russian Government.

QUESTION: So how optimistic are you that these sanctions – that the new sanctions passed by the Security Council on Saturday are going to be effective? Are you optimistic? Are you not optimistic? Do you think – do you think anything is ultimately going to change?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well, we're certainly going to work with – as the Secretary has said, with the Russian Government, to work with them in areas where we can, where we've had some modest success, for example, in southwest Syria with the – with the zone that's been created, the – in southwest Syria to limit violence there.

There are a number of other places where we may have mutual interests where we could work together, but there are a lot of other places – eastern Ukraine, for example – where our interests don't align, and we have got to hold the Russian Government to account to modify its behavior, as the Secretary has said, both with east – with respect to eastern Ukraine and Crimea for them to adhere to the principles of the Minsk agreement, and to come to a peaceful resolution of that very fraught situation in Ukraine in Geneva.

So I don't know that I would use the word "optimistic" or "not optimistic." We are realists in approaching our relationship with a very important country with whom we have many substantial disagreements, but some areas where we will be – we hope we will be able to work with them and advance our – advance our – United States interests abroad, which are to protect our national security and promote our prosperity.

QUESTION: But do you expect anything to change with regard to North Korea, especially in the light of today's news?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: So with – with these sanctions --

QUESTION: Or do you – I should --


QUESTION: I should say do you expect North Korea's behavior to change as a result of these new sanctions?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: We're working very hard to increase the pressure on North Korea as we have for the last – since this administration came into office. And that pressure has gradually ratcheted up both with the UN sanctions and in – not just the UN sanctions, but also making sure that other countries that need to enforce those sanctions are going to do so, whether it's China or other countries that the – the strong sanctions resolution that was passed is actually enforced. And we will look for that strong implementation to – we hope lead to a better result than we've seen so far in the Korean Peninsula.

QUESTION: In terms of your --

MS NAUERT: Okay --

QUESTION: In terms of morale --

MS NAUERT: Last question.

QUESTION: Yeah. In terms of morale, it seems like some of it is connected to not being able to move laterally and move in different ways within the department. And others – people who are working for bureaus that they're just not sure are going to be shut down or not – like democracy, human rights, labor. Are you – can you say, like, is that one, for instance, going to be shut down or dissolved in any way? And then, just – how do you see yourself and your job as – do you see it as being involved in policy or management of the building?

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Well, second question first, both. I've been of necessity involved in policy, participating in deputies' committee meetings at the NSC and a whole variety of policy issues. But when the Secretary initially interviewed me and hired me, he made it clear that he was expecting me to also focus on redesign and management. The fact that I had been the deputy secretary at the Commerce Department, I had worked at three other – had other cabinet departments, had experience in the interagency. As I've joked with others, when he called to offer me – to propose that I be put forward as the nominee, he said he wanted to get me confirmed and behind a desk. He didn't say, "and on an airplane and flying to conduct shuttle diplomacy." So I think going forward, my principal focus is going to be on management but not exclusively. Just the press of events and the need for someone in my position to be involved will be – will have me involved in policy issues.

As for the – for the redesign, all those issues that you raised are actually being addressed by employees, and by "employees" I mean both Civil Service and Foreign Service – senior people, ambassadors, Foreign Service, Civil Service, people who are stationed in Washington and at posts abroad, who are members of first our steering committee, and then below that steering committee five working groups. Nothing's off the table, everything is going to be evaluated by them, the Secretary has not given – other than a mandate to make a better State Department and USAID more efficient and effective for the 21st century, he's not directed that any outcome result from this redesign.

So whether it was the mission statement that I was talking about earlier, the draft mission statement, to reorganization of the – of bureaus, that's all going to be fed up through this redesign process, employee-led, and with input over time this month – later this month from other interested stakeholders, whether it's senior leaders of bureaus in the department, union – unions – AFSA, for example, OMB, members of Congress. So we're going to be as transparent as possible as we go forward and reach final decisions on these issues, and eventually implement them.

MS NAUERT: Okay. Thanks, everybody. We got to go. Thanks for your time.

QUESTION: Thank you.

DEPUTY SECRETARY SULLIVAN: Thank you, everybody.

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