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Travel Pool Report #3
Annie Karni • POLITICO
May 22, 2017: 12:26 PM


We were wheels up at 10:13 a.m.

We were wheels down at Ben Gurion Airport at 12:21 p.m., after flying direct from Riyadh.

Staff movements: Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Wilbur Ross have all dropped off the trip, as previously planned.

Just after 11:37 a.m., press secretary Sean Spicer brought Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to the back of the plane for an on-camera briefing.

Here is a complete transcript of the Tillerson Q&A, transcribed by me and Carol Lee. The questions are paraphrases, not direct quotes.

"This is really a series of trips. Each stop, the President has a specific purpose in mind…. We had a very successful first stop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, historic speech by the President, but I would also point you to the King's speech — I think something that's been overlooked is the King's speech also was quite historic.

I've taken time to look at it carefully, I suggest you do. Onto the second stop, Tel Aviv, home of Judaism, obviously, second of the great religions the President is going to also ask to join with all of us in this fight against terrorism, and his fight against these forces of evil, then onto an audience with the Pope to discuss religious freedom…the President as you've heard, in his readouts with President Abbas, i think feels like there's a moment in time here. We have the opportunity to advance the peace discussions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. A great deal of interest in the Arab world in this region, the process. I think the President has indicated he's willing to put his own personal efforts into this. if the Israelis and the Palestinian leadership are ready to be serious about engaging as well.

So that is going to be an important element of the visit. The President's going to talk with [inaudible] Netanyahu about the process going forward. He's going to be talking to President Abbas about what he feels is necessary for the Palestinians to be successful.

Q: Energy minister of Israel said Saudi arms deals are troubling. How do you respond? Were Israelis briefed?

A: "There has been nothing entered into with the arms sales agreements with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries that do not fully allow us to fulfill our commitments to Israel and the longstanding security arrangements we have with Israel. I'm sure we can answer those questions and address the concerns they have."

Q: Does the president plan to apologize for sharing Israeli intel with the Russians?

A: "I don't know that there's anything to apologize for."

Q: What about their concerns?

A: "To the extent the Israelis have any questions, or clarification, I'm sure we're happy to provide that."

Q: Peace process — why now? why Trump? why confidence?

A: "It's really the environment, the circumstances of the entire region. It's really what the President is trying to highlight in this trip — i don't think there's been a time in history for quite some time where all of the nations, the Arab nations, Israel, the United States, we're all facing this common threat: the rise of ISIS, the rise of terrorist organizations, the export of extreme views, extremism, is a threat to all of us. That is unifying, there's a unifying element in and of itself, and I think it does allow countries that have had deep differences to look at the situation and realize that in many respects our threats are common to all of us. Providing a certain perspective that's not been there in the past, a perspective that is between us. That there's something larger going on that's affecting all of us. We need to try and come together to address that. I think that creates a different dynamic."

Q: Does the President still believe that Islam hates us, as he said on the campaign?

A: "I think the President's views, like we hope the American people's views, are going to continue to evolve, and I think an important part of this trip, one of the takeaways, my observations — again i hope it's something that translates back, not just to the American people but to the Muslim world as well, we need to put a lot more effort into understanding one another, better. understanding each other's cultures, understanding each other's beliefs, and I think talking more openly about those, i think there's a great deal that's misunderstood about the Muslim world, by americans and the western world —

Q: That's what's changed his views? Talking to them?

A: "The president is increasing his own perspectives. nothing helps you learn and understand people better than coming to their homes, where they live and seeing them face to face, seeing their families, and seeing their communities, finding out we all share the same wants and desires for ourselves and our people, and our families: peace, prosperity, we want our children to grow up without fear. that's such a strongly held view around the world, certainly among the Muslim world certainly among the non-Muslim world."

Q: Trump perspectives on trip so far?

A: "Obviously over the last several weeks as we prepared…we talked a lot about what we hoped to accomplish, what was the president's vision of what he wanted to accomplish. he wanted to put these three stops very purposefully together; go to the home of the muslim faith, home of the two holiest sites of the muslim faith, then go directly to the home of judaism, then we go to an audience with the pope for the largest Christian community. i think it's not just symbolic. but also it is a massive …it is his belief there are millions of americans who practice these three faiths…he's not just speaking to this part of the world, he's speaking to americans of faith.

"If we can unite ourselves around these three great faiths to confront this face of evil that has confounded the world quite frankly, we still struggle with how to deal with this extremism and how it's exported around the world but it's our belief, it's the president's firm belief, these three great faiths if they unite around this force of evil will defeat this force of evil. But we all have to own our part of it and take action in that regard."

Q: Are you going to pressure the prime minister on settlements?

"You know, settlements are part of the overall peace discussion. It's just there are a number of elements that have presented challenges to the peace process in the past, settlements is clearly one of those."

Q: Do you agree with Nikki Haley that the Western Wall is part of Israel?

"The wall is part of Jerusalem."

Q: The president told your Russian counterpart that his firing of James Comey eased pressure on him in terms of Russia. Do you agree with that, and does the president's firing of James Comey make it easier for you as secretary of state easier in terms of trying to cut deals with Russia.

"It's had no effect on my dealings with Russia. What I think the president was saying the Russian guest that day, the Foreign Minister Lavrov, is look I have these issues at home domestically I'm not going to let those issues get in the way of the important work that we have to do to address many differences that exist between the US and Russia. We have serious, serious issues that we have to address, starting with can we even engage with one another in a positive way? Because as the president has said the relationship's at a historic low. We have a low level of trust with one another. This is not a good situation for the two most powerful nuclear nations in the world to have. I think the president was simply saying to them, 'I'm not going to let the domestic issues here at home prevent us from moving forward to see if we can address these issues. It's too important to the national security of the country to put that on hold because of these issues."

Q: Do you feel that the removal of James Comey makes that easier for you?

"It's had no impact on my ability to conduct foreign affairs from the State Department with my counterparts."

Q: We're flying from Riyadh to Tel Aviv. We're flying over Jordanian airspace, but nevertheless do you see this as a symbolic development. And do you believe personally that you would like to see the Israelis and Saudis and other countries in the neighborhood be able to share air space?

"Well we're flying directly to Tel Aviv. That's where we're going to land. I think on the broader contours we're hopeful that relations can continue to improve between the Arab nations and Israel. There's a lot to overcome historically in those relationships. But all of that is going to be important to bringing peace and stability to the region. So we're very supportive of any way that the Arab nations and Israel can find to take whatever the smallest steps forward might be to begin to build another level of trust between all of those countries as well."

Q: Is this your first trip to Israel?

"It is, yeah. This is the first time I've been there. So I'm very excited to be going."

Q: Why not try to arrange a three-way meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas?

"Well I think that's for a future discussion. This is a fairly short trip because, as you know, there's so many stops that we have stacked up back to back, and I think we wanted to make sure we manage our ambitions. It's an important visit. Again, I don't want to – I don't think we want to lose sight of the context that the president is taking this visit into Israel as well. But I think there will certainly be opportunities for that in the future."

Q: Do you like briefing reporters on a plane and would you consider doing this with your own press corps?

"Well, I know I'm getting some flack about my press corps on the State Department plane because I've chosen the smaller plane, but that's just what I like. It costs a lot less for me to fly that 737. We have two press corps seats on the plane, and I do meet with whoever's along. I invite them back to my little office and we chat with the two people that are with me."

Q: When you with the Saudi foreign minister when you addressed us a couple days ago, you criticized Iran for their human rights record and their restrictions on freedoms but you said nothing about Saudi Arabia's human rights record or their restrictions on freedoms. Why is that?

"I think that's why I really would ask you to go back and look at the king's speech yesterday as well. It was quite historic in a number of respects as well. We continue to discuss with the Saudis the importance of continuing to expand the rights of women in their society. They are addressing those at a pace that I think they feel they can manage. We are never going to back off of our pressure on them. Not just for women but other rights of individuals in the country as well. I think the Saudis have a very clear view of where they need to go, and it's embodied in the Vision 2030 statement. If you read the Vision 2030 documents as well, there's a recognition that they have more to do and further to go with their reforms. I think what we wanted to concentrate on in this visit was this message of how do we unite these three great religions to confront this face of evil that the world is dealing with in a very difficult way. We are trying to understand how do we fundamentally deal with this type of terrorism. And we talked about defeating ISIS and daesh. We can beat them on the battlefield but we haven't beat them unless we beat them in the airwaves and the cyberspace and the way they continue to attract new followers to their extremist views. And I think that was the important part of this trip. We have to defeat these forces of evil. Only then can you create the conditions to really allow human rights to flourish."

Q: Did human rights come up at all in the president's meetings with the king, the crown prince or the deputy crown prince?

"We were focused on this fight against terrorism primarily."

Q: So human rights did not come up?

"It was not the central part of our conversations."

Q: Can you tell us any more about the president's meeting yesterday with the president of Afghanistan?

"I was not able to sit in on that meeting. I had another meeting going on at the same time. So I couldn't provide you anything."

Q: The president used Islamist rather Islamic in his speech last night. Was there any significance in changing that word? One administration official said he was exhausted.

"I don't think it was even noticed by most people. You know in the context of the broader speech and the powerful message the president was delivering, I never heard about it until one of y'all mentioned it."

Q: And in terms of his stamina, is he exhausted?

"He's doing better than I am. And he's got a few years on me."

Q: Thank you sir.

"Thank y'all"



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