James S. Brady Briefing Room
10:29 A.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good morning. I’d like to welcome everybody who’s here and everybody who’s dialed into our morning NSC backgrounder on the upcoming Egypt and Jordan visits.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’re going to address two topics that are coming up. One, next week, we’ve got President Sisi coming in on the third of April, and we’ve got King Abdullah coming in for a White House visit on 5 April.
To begin with, I will make a few comments about the President Sisi visit.
The President is excited to welcome Egyptian President al-Sisi to the White House on 3 April. And he wants to use President Sisi’s visit to reboot the bilateral relationship and build on the strong connection the two Presidents established when they first met in New York last September.
Egypt is one of the traditional pillars of stability in the Middle East and has been a reliable U.S. partner for decades. President Trump’s initial interactions with President al-Sisi, including their phone call on January 23rd, have already improved the tone of the relationship, and we hope next week’s visit continues this positive momentum.
President Trump aims to reaffirm the deep and abiding U.S. commitment to Egypt’s security, stability and prosperity. President Sisi has taken a number of bold steps on very sensitive issues since becoming President in 2014. He’s called for reform and moderation of Islamic discourse, initiated courageous and historic economic reforms, and sought to reestablish Egypt’s regional leadership role.
He has also led Egypt’s campaign to defeat a long-running terrorist threat in the Sinai. The United States wants to support President al-Sisi’s efforts in all of these areas. Our relationship has historically been driven by security, and that will remain a key component of the engagement with Egypt. The U.S. and Egyptian militaries have built close relationships, and many military officers from Egypt have trained at U.S. military installations.
President Trump also supports al-Sisi’s ambition to develop a comprehensive counterterrorism approach that involves military, political, economic, as well as social efforts. But President Trump also wants to increase the focus on economic and commercial cooperation in our bilateral relationship. Building a more stable and productive economy is a critical step to ensuring long-term stability in Egypt. And President Sisi, we would like to note, has begun a necessary economic reform plan that will strengthen the Egyptian economy if it is fully executed.
There’s no question the transition in their economy will be difficult, but in the long run, Egypt will be stronger if it follows through on its homegrown reform plan. Our relationship with Egypt is complex and covers a number of very challenging issues, and we’re fully aware that next week’s meeting is only the start of a long process of improving this historical relationship.
We are optimistic that we are heading in the right direction, and President Trump is very much looking forward to the visit.
Now, just a few comments on the visit of King Abdullah. The President is pleased to welcome King Abdullah on April 5th. The two leaders will gather for a meeting in the Oval Office and then proceed to a working lunch. Jordan is a key partner for the United States in the region, and we anticipate the two leaders will discuss a range of shared priorities, including efforts to defeat ISIS, how to end the conflict in Syria, and advancing progress between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The President met with King Abdullah briefly on the sidelines of the National Prayer Breakfast in February, and at that time the two agreed on this follow-on meeting. It was important to the President that he welcome King Abdullah to the White House early in his administration as a sign of the strong friendship and partnership. Of utmost importance, this is an opportunity for the President to convey his continued support for our steadfast partnership with Jordan on a range of key regional issues.
And as the President has said, we’ll work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish ISIS. Jordan is a critical partner in that effort and it plays an outsized role in this effort as well as in the region.
And with that, that concludes our opening comments.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And again, I’d like to thank everyone for being here. And I’d just like to remind everyone that we have these two gentlemen who are national security policy experts. This backgrounder’s purpose is to provide answers to you on issues relating to these two topics — the upcoming visits and the relationships with these two countries.
So please, respectfully, pitch your questions that way. Also, at your request, you can expect that when we’re done here we have a one-page written backgrounder that will be submitted on both countries to you guys. So please stick around after this to receive that.
Q Is the President expected to provide major financial assistance to the Egyptians? And will he bring up the issue of a human rights crackdown?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ve had a longstanding relationship with substantial foreign military assistance and economic support. That support has continued, and we anticipate it will continue until the future.
We’re in the budget process right now, and those discussions are ongoing as to how it will be broken out. But we are going to maintain a strong and sufficient level of support to Egypt and Jordan.
Q And the human rights crackdown? Will the President bring that up with al-Sisi?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Human rights are always an issue of concern to the United States, and they’re first and foremost in our discussions. Our approach is to handle these types of sensitive issues in a private, more discreet way. And we believe it’s the most effective way to advance those issues to a favorable outcome.
Q Do you anticipate a conversation with King Abdullah about the refugees that the Jordanians have taken in and any sort of help that the Americans would provide in terms of financial support or aid to those refugees since we have slowed down our refugee program to the U.S.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The United States and the international community are fully engaged in providing support to Jordan for those refugees that are within Jordan and those camps, as well as providing assistance to refugees that are on the Syrian side of the border, which is a difficult situation. And we’re working with Jordan to make sure that their interests are taken into account, as well as making sure — in collaboration with the international community that the needs of those refugees on the other side of the border are fully addressed.
Q Quick follow-up. Do you anticipate a conversation about Syrian safe zones around the border region right there? Obviously the Jordanians may be involved in the making of the safe zones.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: The issue of what we would call interim de-escalation areas, rather than safe zones, is one that is a consistent part of our dialogue with Jordan as well as others that are involved in — whether it’s the Geneva talks that are focused on resolving the Syrian conflict, or in a bilateral way in trying to develop options to provide security, safety, and humanitarian access for displaced people, whether they’re internally displaced in the country or fostering an environment where external refugees can return to their home country.
Q Two questions regarding President al-Sisi’s visit. Will the President be discussing with President al-Sisi any issues concerning the Egypt-Russia relationship and Russia’s attempts to rekindle that relationship as Egypt has moved closer to the U.S.? And related to that, is the decision or choice to downplay or take privately the human rights issues out of any desire to not want to alienate President Sisi and then drive him closer to Russia?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: So on the Russia question, I would say the United States is going to talk with Egypt about any number of regional and international issues. Russia is obviously a country that is interested and involved in Egypt. The nature of those discussions, I don’t want to get ahead of that or say what it will be, but there will be a number of regional and international topics that are discussed.
Q And the human rights issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: So I wouldn’t look at it as — I wouldn’t read too much into it, the public or private nature of it. These are issues that are important. Human rights has been an area we’ve talked about with Egypt for a number of years, and we will figure out the best way to discuss that, to handle that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: We’ve always done that in a number of ways.
Q Two questions. Has there been by the administration any decision — I know there has been some consideration of designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, if there’s talk of it — where has that conversation ended? I imagine that will come up with at least Sisi, if not both leaders. And on the issue of Egypt, Aya Hijazi, the American who continues to be detained there, will her case be specifically brought up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: So the President is interested in hearing President al-Sisi’s views on the Muslim Brotherhood issue. Obviously that is one that has received a lot of attention. We, along with a number of countries, have some concerns about various activities that the Muslim Brotherhood has conducted in the region. But that’s going to be a discussion that will unfold between us and Egypt.
Q No decision by the administration yet?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: I don’t want to get ahead of any process bilaterally or internally on that issue. But it is something that we will likely be discussing with Egypt.
Q And so is it safe to say then that that conversation continues within the administration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: I think it’s safe to say that that, along with a number of issues about how we engage with Egypt, continues in the administration.
Q And on Hijazi?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: On Hijazi, so, of course, we’re very aware of her case. The most senior levels of the administration understand her situation. The protection of U.S. citizens in Egypt and around the world is one of the highest priorities for the President and for the administration. We are going to address this with Egypt in a way that we think maximizes the chances her case will be resolved in a satisfactory manner.
Q So not directly with Sisi?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: We will figure out the best way the raise this with the Egyptian government to maximize the chances her case is resolved positively.
Q Any reaction — I know it’s a background briefing — to this decision to allow new settlements in the Occupied West Bank? And is this something that the President — how will the President bring this up particularly with King Abdullah next week?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: I think the discussion about the settlements is not one that we want to address at this time. My office is deeply involved in that effort and working with both the Israelis and the Palestinians on that issue. But we do not anticipate that becoming a focal point for any discussions over the next week.
Q But you did say that the Israeli-Palestinian topic would be generally a matter of discussion. So, if not settlements, what’s the discussion?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATON OFFICIAL: We are not going to, in this forum, get into the specifics of the points that we’re going to be bringing up. But we are going to be discussing the general outlines of our approach with the Middle East peace process and provide information as to the context of what we’ve been doing over the last few weeks to advance the process.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I know there’s going to be a lot of interest in the topic that has just been brought up. I would urge you to — that there is a forum coming up here shortly, in a few hours here, where that will be — you can address that more directly.
Q There’s reports in the Egyptian media that President Sisi will bring with him a list of Egyptians that he would like the Trump administration to extradite to Egypt. Is that something the President would be open to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it’s hard to comment on something just based on reports in the Egyptian press. If that is conveyed, we can talk with the Egyptians about it. But we’re not aware of any request coming, so I wouldn’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.
Q And he’s also interested in changing some of the rules on the cash flow of the aid to reverse what President Obama had done.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Cash-flow financing.
Q Right. Is that something that Trump is open to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So again, security cooperation is going to be something we talk about. There are a number of ways that we can try and improve and enhance security cooperation. U.S. foreign military financing had traditionally been $1.3 billion a year. That’s a very large amount, and that has contributed to Egypt’s military preparedness.
The nature — the way we deliver that assistance is something that has always been a topic of discussion and will remain that. We’ll discuss with Egypt whether cash-flow financing is something they need or not, but it is also something that would be a process of our internal budget discussions that are ongoing. So we can’t really get ahead of the budget planning now.
Q There have been some discussions over the last couple of days about whether the U.S. government position on Assad in Syria is that he has to leave power. What is the current position of this White House? And how do you expect that to be discussed during these meetings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are not going to address that issue at this forum. That issue will be addressed, I’m sure, later in the day or in the very near future. We’ve worked on that communication, and it will be coming out, as I said, in the near future.
Q So does the Secretary of State’s comment still stand?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’m not going to address any of those issues.
Q You said earlier that you anticipate the United States will continue to provide substantial foreign and military assistance to Egypt. The State Department has said that Egypt is one of the countries that would be impacted by the President’s cuts to foreign aid in his budget. Can you just clarify that? Is that something that they are likely to talk about in their meeting? Is that something that the White House is looking at? And if so, how much would be slashed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The administration wants to fully support the needs and requirements, and sustain the relationship in a very effective way. The discussions about the details of the budget process and how that’s going to be allocated with the input from the Department of State is still an ongoing process.
Q Had the Prime Minister expressed any concern about that ahead of this visit, or any hope to address that in their meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You mean President al-Sisi?
Q I’m sorry, President.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So the Egyptians have consistently made clear that the security assistance is important and it has been for us. I anticipate that will be a topic of discussion with the Egyptians. What details we get into exactly, I can’t get ahead of that. But I’m sure the Egyptians will want to sustain a strong security assistance relationship.
Q Several weeks ago, the Pentagon submitted a plan for defeating ISIS to President Trump. Can you say how far along he is in reviewing that plan? And do the contents of that, do you expect those to come up in the meetings with either of these two leaders?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We’ll have discussions with both leaders about our approach to defeating ISIS. It will surely be of interest to President Sisi and, of course, King Abdullah. The details about any progress in the plan we would defer to another time.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I understand that you will have an event here in about four minutes, so we’re going to wrap up to facilitate you making to it. But please, if you would just stay around, we’ll get those backgrounders to you.
I’d like to thank everyone who participated in the room and on the phone, and just remind any latecomers that this is a backgrounder, attribution to senior White House officials, and that the information here is embargoed until 11:30 a.m.
Thank very much for being here.
10:48 A.M. EDT