Saturday, December 7, 2019


Office of the Press Secretary

Via Telephone

10:04 A.M. EST

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Good morning.  Thank you for joining this background briefing on the release of Xiyue Wang from Iran.  This call is embargoed until its conclusion and is attributable, on background, to a senior administration official.

     Today, we have [senior administration official].  [Senior administration official] will give brief remarks and then we will go into Q&A.  Please make sure to direct any questions on other topics to us after this call.  We'd like to keep today's focus on Mr. Wang.

     With that, I will turn it over to [senior administration official].

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you, this is [senior administration official], speaking to you from [redacted].  I'm out here for the [redacted].  It was a late night, early morning this morning, as we were tracking the events regarding Xiyue Wang and his return to the United States.

     I can tell you that Xiyue is in route and may have landed already in Germany, where he'll undergo some medical evaluations to ensure his health.  But I have been told both by Xiyue, with whom I spoke last night -- or early this morning -- and those who were with him, that he appears to be in good health, and I can tell you he seems to be in very, very good humor and in good spirits.  And so he'll take a brief break in Germany, and then we expect him to return home soon.

     As you know, he was held prisoner in Iran, unjustly and wrongly, for the past three years.  Xiyue was a Princeton University student who had gone to Iran to study, and to study Persian literature.  He's been held there under the pretense of an espionage charge since August 2016.  He was not a spy, he was not involved in espionage, and was wrongfully detained from the start.

     I want to thank our Swiss partners for their assistance in negotiating Mr. Wang's release.  The Swiss, including their Ambassador on the ground, Markus Leitner, and other officials in the Swiss government in Bern, have worked tirelessly to obtain the release of Mr. Wang and of other Americans wrongly held in Switzerland for many, many years -- or wrongfully held in Iran for many, many years.

     In my prior work as a Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, I worked closely with the Swiss and we're grateful for their efforts, both as our protecting power, providing consular services to Americans in Tehran, and for their efforts here.

     The President remains committed to talks with Iran without preconditions, and we'll continue to work very hard to bring home all of our American citizens wrongfully held captive overseas, including the Americans, as they continue to be held wrongfully in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

     So, with that, I'll open up to questions.  And thank you for taking the time to join us this morning.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Hey, thanks for doing this early, in your hometown.  As I understand it, these negotiations started about three weeks ago.  Can you tell us at all about whether the U.S. initiated them, whether Iran initiated them?  And do they represent any kind of instigator for more negotiations with Iran on broader topics, whether other prisoners or larger issues?  Thanks.

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thank you.  So it's -- I appreciate the question.  We've been attempting to have a consular dialogue with Iran for some time.  It goes back even to before the time that I was the [redacted], back into early 2018, late 2017.  So we've been seeking a consular dialogue so that we could raise the issues of -- the issue of the wrongfully held Americans in Iran for some time.

     As far as how this came about, this was -- the Swiss took a leading role in organizing these negotiations.  I think these negotiations on the specific release of Xiayue Wang have been ongoing for the past -- intensely for the past three to four weeks, but have been going on a bit longer than that.  And, you know, we want to thank the Swiss for their efforts on that front.

     I'm hopeful that the release of Mr. Wang is a sign that the Iranians are realizing that their practice of hostage-taking diplomacy really should come to an end if Iran wants to rejoin the international community.  That's one of the malign activities that really needs to end on the part of the Iranians.  And so we're hopeful that this indicates some, and could lead to some, momentum in obtaining the release of other Americans who are wrongfully held in Iran.

     With respect to further talks, the United States had a maximum pressure campaign on Iran after withdrawing from the JCPOA, which was a terribly flawed agreement.  The maximum pressure campaign that President Trump has instituted is having -- is working and is highly effective, where the Iranians are feeling the pressure of the maximum sanctions campaign.

     And the President -- President Trump has made it very clear that he's willing to meet with the Iranians, without preconditions, to talk about important issues between our countries, including the total end of Iran's nuclear program, certainly the return of American hostages, ending the long-range ballistic missile program in Iran, and ending Iran's activities -- malign activities in the region, which is destabilizing countries like Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen.

And it's interesting, not only are there massive protests in Iran, there are massive protests in Iraq and Lebanon from people that are no longer interested in the way that Iran is attempting to run their governments through proxies.

     So, look, we're hopeful that this will -- the release of Mr. Wang is a sign that the Iranians may be willing to come to the table to discuss all these issues.

     Q    Hi, this is Robin Wright from the New Yorker.  Foreign Minister Zarif first brought up the idea of a swap in April, repeatedly in public and in private sessions.  He talked again in September at the U.N. about it, and first mentioned Soleimani.  Do you credit the Iranians with trying to jumpstart this process?

     And, secondly, on Soleimani, he was scheduled to go to -- to have an appearance in court this week.  Can you tell us how the legal end of his status has been resolved?  Was there some kind of behind-the-scenes plea, and then he was given time served and released?  Or was this really a swap and the judicial process has been dropped?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Robin.  First, with respect to Mr. Zarif's comments, as you know, I've been seeking to open a consular dialogue with Foreign Minister Zarif for quite some time.  It was -- we never believed that those public comments of Mr. Zarif were very serious.

Our consistent posture had been that rather than trying to negotiate, for propaganda points, in CFR lectures or interviews with friendly journalists -- and Mr. Zarif seems to have lots of friends in Boston and New York -- that the proper way to deal with these sorts of negotiations was through established diplomatic channels, either in talks directly with the United States or going through our protecting power, the Swiss.

     And when the Iranians became serious and were willing to go through the -- you know, handle these conversations in a formal, diplomatic process, we were able to make some progress.  So I don’t think that -- I wouldn’t give Foreign Minister Zarif's comments to the press, you know, much currency with respect to this.

     But we will say that it's -- we do appreciate the fact that we were able to work through proper diplomatic channels -- in this case, the Swiss -- to effectuate the release of Mr. Wang.  And so we're -- we do appreciate the fact that we were able to have those conversations through the Swiss, with Iran, and then it led to the release of Mr. Wang.

     With respect to Mr. Soleimani, the United States has dropped charges against Massoud Soleimani.  He's an Iranian doctor who was charged with conspiring and attempting to export materials to Iran without a license, in violation of U.S. sanctions.  And he was scheduled to be in court this week.  For anything further on Mr. Soleimani's case, we would refer you to the DOJ for comment.

     Q    Hi there, this is Kelly O'Donnell from NBC.


     Q    Thank you for taking the call.  We've seen, especially in your time helping the President with the release of prisoners or hostages abroad, a desire to bring them to the White House and have that moment in the Oval Office.  Do you anticipate that that will happen at some point when Mr. Wang is well enough, able enough?  And what kind of timing might that include?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks, Kelly.  You know, I don't know how that will happen.  Our biggest concern is for the health and welfare and wellbeing of Mr. Wang and his family.  He's got a wonderful wife, Hua, who has fought tirelessly for his return, and she's really been an inspirational figure and has worked very, very hard on her husband's behalf.  He has a young son that he hasn’t seen in three years.

So I know he's -- so I think, right now, Mr. Wang is focused on making sure that he's in good health and being reunited with his family.  And that's -- that's what Mr. Wang wants and that's what we want for him and what the President wants for him.

     I spoke with Mr. Wang last night.  He was incredibly grateful for the efforts of the United States on his behalf, and thanked the President, asked me to thank the President and thank Secretary Pompeo.  He was also grateful for the really excellent work.  And I want to recognize the involvement in these negotiations, especially over the past several weeks, of Special Representative Brian Hook, Special Representative for Iran, and for Acting Special Presidential Envoy Hugh Dugan.

     Brian and Hugh were able to be there for the -- to pick up Mr. Wang in Switzerland, and they've done an excellent job.  And again, I want to thank Secretary Pompeo, Attorney General Barr, and, of course, the President, for all their tireless efforts on this.

     Now, you know, I think -- I've certainly invited Mr. Wang, when he feels up to it, to come visit me.  I've worked on his case for quite some time, and I've gotten to know his wife, and she's become a friend.  And so we would love to see the Wang family come visit me in the White House.  And my expectation is that, given the President's schedule and the Wang schedule, that the President would like welcome him home to America.

     But again, I don’t have -- we don’t have anything scheduled at this time, and I can't give you any clarity on when that might happen.  But I can tell you the President and his team and the team at State are thrilled that Mr. Wang is home and is free.  We'll be even happier when the rest of the Americans held in Iran are also free.  And we look forward to seeing him.

     Q    Thanks for doing this call.  This is Franco OrdoƱez from NPR.  I just wanted to ask if there were any concerns about dropping -- what kind of message, dropping these charges, sends to Iran.  If DOJ drops charges for political reasons, why shouldn’t Iran believe that the U.S.'s justice system is political?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, that's a good question.  And, you know, the number one thing I want to emphasize -- and this has been true of every wrongful detainee or hostage case in which I've been involved and the President has been involved -- there's been absolutely no payment of cash or lifting of sanctions, or any sort of concessions or ransom in these cases, and certainly not with respect to Mr. Wang.  And that may be one of the reasons why it’s taken some time to, you know, open the -- to at least obtain some of the recoveries from Iran that we’re tracking, especially Mr. Wang.

So, you know, we are very strongly opposed to concessions with respect to obtaining Americans home that have been taken hostage or wrongfully detained for the very reason that you state.  We don’t want to encourage further hostage taking or wrongful detentions.

So with respect to Mr. Soleimani, he was scheduled to appear in court on December 11.  I’ll refer questions about, specifically, if whether he would have been released on that date or had any further time to serve to the Department of Justice.

But what I can tell you is, in light of the status of Mr. Soleimani’s case, this was an extraordinarily good outcome for the United States of America, that we were able to bring Mr. Wang home specifically in a simultaneous resolution of charges against Mr. Soleimani.  But I can tell you that this was an exceedingly good situation for the United States and for Mr. Wang.

Q    Hi, can you guys hear me?


Q    This is Kylie Atwood with CNN.  Thank you very much for taking the time to do this this morning.  We understand that --


Q    I’m great.  Thank you.  We understand everything that you’ve said on the call thus far, but what do you say with regard to the fact that this is being viewed as a prisoner swap?  Is this a prisoner swap?

And second-fold, you know, there are a number of Americans, as you have noted, who are still in Iran.  So what is your message to those families this morning who are seeing this news, which is great, but are devastated by the fact that their family members are still being detained?

     SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, number one, with respect to, you know, the characterization of this as a “prisoner swap,” look, you know, the facts are that the United States did drop charges against Mr. Soleimani.  We’re very pleased, given the status of Mr. Soleimani’s case.  And the DOJ can talk to you further about that.

But we feel very good about our role in resolving the charges against Mr. Soleimani and the reciprocal humanitarian gesture by the Iranians to release Mr. Wang.  It was a -- this was a very good result for the United States.

So folks can characterize it however they’d like, but we feel that given where Mr. Soleimani’s case was headed, the fact that we were able to use Iran’s interests in having him come home to spur the negotiations that led to the return of Mr. Wang, we view that as a very, very good deal for the United States.

     With respect to the other families, let me just step back from -- not just from the Iran families, but we have other hostages that are being held around the world.  And I’ve been -- I’ve been very blessed to be -- to have been involved in the return of a large number of hostages and detainees over the past couple of years.  That’s been made possible because President Trump has made the return of Americans wrongfully held abroad a very top priority of his administration.  And those efforts, whether they, in some cases, resulted in the deaths of soldiers, very difficult diplomacy, whatever tools we used to bring people home -- when the hostages came home, that we're always joyful for that -- the hostage or the hostages that arrived home.  But at the same time, I always felt, and I believe the President has always felt, that the job wasn’t done because there were others that remained held -- other Americans who remained held captive overseas.  And so, as soon as someone came home, we’d roll up our sleeves and start working on the next case.

And, you know, specifically with respect to the Iran families, I know most of the families very well, and those families have become friends.  And I can tell you we’re working -- we have been working and we are working very, very hard to bring every one of the families home, whether it’s the Namazis or others, (inaudible) name for -- jeopardize work we’re doing with our cases.  But we’re working very hard to bring Americans, who are wrongfully held in Iran, home.

And I know there’s going to be some disappointments.  Bob Levinson is somebody else that we’ve worked -- if there hasn’t been one interaction with either third parties, the Swiss, or other nations or with the Iranians, that Bob Levinson has not been the first person that we raised, seeking information regarding Bob -- seeking Bob’s return.

So, you know, we are fully committed to bringing every American home in Iran and those that are detained elsewhere, whether it’s Austin Tice or others in Syria; the Venezuelans, the Citgo six who are in Caracas; Jeff Woodke who’s a humanitarian worker who’s held by terrorists in -- likely in Mali.  We’re committed to bringing them all home.

And specifically with respect to the Iran families, I think they can view this as potentially a harbinger of good news.  We were able to bring Mr. Wang home, and we’re joyful about his return and very happy for this family and his young wife and young son.  And we’re hopeful that this will lead us to further success with Iran.

I can tell you that the team that’s working on these matters, Brian Hook and Hugh Dugan, are very experienced in this realm; that the Secretary -- Secretary Pompeo -- has given them every bit of support that they need; that our Swiss colleagues are highly professional and highly motivated to assist the United States.  And we’re grateful for their efforts.

So we’re hopeful that this will give us some momentum to bring other Americans, who are currently being held in Iran, home.  We haven’t forgotten them.  We know them by name.  We’re working hard for them.  We’re praying for them.  And we expect that their families will be very happy for the Wang family.

In fact, I can tell you that in almost every hostage return, I have received -- and it just goes to show the high character of these families and how they stick together.  And just about every time we’ve had somebody return, where it’s been public, I’ve received e-mails from other hostage families congratulating us on getting that hostage home and saying that it gives them hope for their family members.  And that’s a credit to these wonderful families who are working so hard to bring their loved ones home -- their father, son, brother -- to get them back to the United States to their friends and families.

So I think it’s a -- this should be viewed as a hopeful sign by the other families.  Certainly they’re going to be disappointed that their loved one didn’t come home, but I think that they’re going to -- I think they’ll find some hope in this, and they can rest assured that the team that is working to bring these Americans home is already -- you know, as we celebrate Mr. Wang’s return, that they’re already turning to the remaining cases and rolling up their sleeves to make sure we can try and have some other victories for these families.

I think that was the last question.  Thank you all.  I know it’s an early morning for some of you out here on the coast, so thank you for participating.  I look forward to seeing all of you back in Washington on one of the planes over the next couple of weeks.  And again, thank you for joining us. 

                         END                 10:29 A.M. EST


Office of the Press Secretary

South Lawn

2:52 P.M. EST

     THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, everybody.  That's a very bright sun.  Beautiful day in Washington.

     I will say that we've had tremendous reports coming out of the economy -- it's been incredible -- and numbers like we haven’t seen before.  And we have the strongest economy in the world: 266,000 jobs; you can add another 40 [thousand] to that.  It's about 300,000 jobs.  Very importantly, it's 50- or 55,000 manufacturing jobs.  We're the envy of the world.  Our economy is the envy of the world, and we're going to keep it that way.  So that's very important.

     I spoke with the King of Saudi Arabia.  They are devastated in Saudi Arabia.  We're finding out what took place, whether it's one person or a number of people.  And the King will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones.  He feels very strongly.  He's very, very devastated by what happened and what took place.  Likewise, the Crown Prince.  They are devastated by what took place in Pensacola.  And I think they're going to help out the families very greatly.

     But, right now, they send their condolences.  And, as you know, I've sent my condolences.  It's a very shocking thing.  And we'll find out -- we'll get to the bottom of it very quickly.  This has been done for many decades.  We've been doing this with other countries, foreign countries.  I guess we're going to have to look into the whole procedure.  We'll start that immediately.

     And other than that, anybody have any questions?

     Q    Did Rudy Giuliani tell you why he was going to Europe?  And do you approve?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I just know he came back from someplace, and he's going to make a report, I think to the Attorney General and to Congress.  He says he has a lot of good information.  I have not spoken to him about that information.

     But Rudy, as you know, has been one of the great crime fighters of the last 50 years.  And he did get back from Europe just recently, and I know -- he has not told me what he found, but I think he wants to go before Congress and say -- and also to the Attorney General and the Department of Justice.  I hear he's found plenty, yeah.

     Q    Mr. President, how do you plan on reengaging North Korea in the negotiations?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we'll see about North Korea.  I'd be surprised if North Korea acted hostiley [sic].  I have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un.  I think we both want to keep it that way.  He knows I have an election coming up.  I don’t think he wants to interfere with that.  But we'll have to see.

     He's somebody that I've gotten along with very well for three years, and he's gotten along with me very well.  So we'll see how it goes.  But I really don’t think he wants to interfere with the election.  I think he'd like to see something happen.  The relationship is very good, but, you know, there is certain hostility, there's no question about it.  I don’t know that his relationship with South Korea is very good, but we're going to find out.

     Q    Mr. President, did the U.S. negotiate at all the other Americans held in Iran in this round of negotiations?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Yeah, we're very happy to have our hostage back.  The whole Princeton University community is very thrilled.  And there was a one-on-one hostage swap.  And we are very -- actually, I think it was a great thing for Iran.  I think it was great to show that we can do something.  It might have been a precursor as to what can be done.

     But we have our hostage back.  We've been trying to get him back.  He was taken during the Obama administration.  We got him back during the Trump administration, so we're very happy about that.

     Q    Mr. President, will you testify in the Senate impeachment trial?  Will you testify?

     THE PRESIDENT:  Say it?  What?

     Q    Will you testify in the Senate --

     THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I don’t know.  I know this: That the impeachment thing is a total hoax.  The numbers have totally swung our way.  They don’t want to see impeachment, especially in the swing states; they've swung our way.  I've never seen a swing like this.  Because people realize it's a total hoax.  We had a perfect conversation.  It was only a conversation.  Nothing came out of the conversation except a good relationship with Ukraine.  And the people see that it's just a continuation of this three-year witch hunt.

     And I'm looking forward to seeing the IG report.  I hear they're announcing it on Monday.  And I look forward very much to seeing what happens with the Durham report, maybe even more importantly -- because it's a horrible thing that took place and it should never happen to another President.

     So I'll be going to Florida right now.  We have a very, very big and successful meeting with Republicans, and we're also meeting with Jewish committees -- and separately; we're doing two.  And I believe you're going to be covering at least one of them.  So I'll see you in a little while.  Thank you.

                              END                 2:57 P.M. EST