Media Availability with Secretary Mattis at the Pentagon
Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS: All right. First, I just -- I have not seen you since the time when we got our budget.
And I would just point out that, when we did the National Defense Strategy -- you'll remember there's three major lines of effort and this sort of thing -- and we turned out the Nuclear Posture Review pretty much in tandem with it -- there was a little bit of a gap as we put one through the approval process with the White House, then followed by the other -- and there were questions that -- would we -- would we get the dollars -- the money for it.
And I thought that we would, and now you see that we did. We have the best budget predictability we've had in a dozen years, with the two years of congressional intent. It was passed with bipartisan support, showing the defense of this country is a nonpartisan issue.
Republican and Democrat congressmen and senators, congresswomen, senators voted for it by a large number. It was not a close-run vote at all, which gives you an idea of the Congress's view, aligned now with the executive branch's view of the threats to this country and the circumstance of our military readiness, current and future.
So we are aligning that money on current readiness, but also future readiness. What will you see? You'll see more money going into the research and engineering about future protections for the country, future readiness, so the secretary of defense next after my successor inherits something that is also shown the kind of advance work, if you go back to the days of GPS, of stealth -- those kind of things -- those kind of approaches will be funded for our times.
At the same time, we do intend to get the planes back in the air, full -- fully staffed squadrons back in the air, ships back to sea and the new gear built. In some cases, we're going to have to build even legacy gear. In some cases, we don't have enough Air Force fighters, aircraft or a Navy fighter, a Marine fighter in the squadron -- we can't fix them.
So you'll also see money spent on current readiness, that sort of thing and, at the same time, the usual readiness things that you've seen a lot of testimony about from the service chiefs, going back many years, by the way. This didn't start this year. This is many years in the making.
It'll take years to -- you know, when you say, "I want an F-18 Super Hornet," they start building it. It won't come to us for many, many months. But that's the reality, when you're starting to bend metal and do more than click a mouse.
Also, if I could talk -- as we -- as we look at the National Defense Strategy, the need to have it embraced more broadly -- so you'll see us going out and talking more to various audiences, whether it be universities or business groups -- that sort of thing -- in order to get input back.
It's not the Pentagon's National Defense Strategy. It's America's National Defense Strategy. That means it's contingent on us to go out and talk with other people and make certain we've got our ears open to their thoughts and criticisms; areas that we can initiate, advance it; that sort of thing. It's not just our Defense Innovation Board, which is very, very good. But we want to open the discussion more broadly.
Another issue right now: the Russian -- apparent, pretty obvious Russian use of a weapon of mass destruction, a chemical agent, for the first time in Europe since World War II.
You can see the number of nations that worked together and came out together. Do we have word out of Brussels yet?
STAFF: (off mic)
SEC. MATTIS: Okay. There may be more --
Q: Secretary general concluded a press conference a short time ago.
SEC. MATTIS: Who did?
Q: The secretary general --
SEC. MATTIS: -- was it -- what -- with can?
STAFF: They withdrew accreditation -- I want to say seven, but it may have been -- I think it was seven.
Q: Yes. Seven -- seven Russian diplomats were -- accreditations were canceled by NATO.
SEC. MATTIS: Okay.
SEC. MATTIS: So they not only removed some, then; they also removed, then, the positions, it sounds like. Well, I -- you better check that to make sure. But that means that, once gone, they can't send someone new in to fill the position.
So, that would be done -- as you know, NATO is a consensus organization. That would be a statement by 29 nations, for those who doubt the unity of NATO. I anticipated that was the way it was going. I had just had a meeting, so I hadn't heard. Thank you.
I bring this up because we, as you know, as -- at the NATO alliance tried to create a partnership -- so, there's a Russia-NATO partnership council. There is a mechanism to keep us working together. And I think a number of us with my color hair can remember Russian marines in North Carolina working with U.S. Marines as we prepared for possible deployments together on U.N. peacekeeping missions -- humanitarian relief.
That, regrettably, by Russia's choice, is now a thing of the past. It's not currently in the works because Russia's chosen to be a strategic competitor, even to the point of reckless activity. And that's the only thing that it can be called to the innocent people in Salisbury who were exposed to, possibly -- to the potential of being murdered by this stuff.
And I bring it up because it's -- Russia has the potential to be a partner with Europe. Its fortunes are married to Europe, if it sees its way forward. And I think that, right now, we have to recognize that they've chosen to see a -- seek a different relationship with the NATO nations.
So it is what it is. And the expulsion of numerous Russian diplomats around the region, from -- and regions all the way to Australia, Europe, North America -- you can see that the nations that have been, perhaps, slow to leave behind the opportunity for a partnership with Russia are now acting on the actions that Mr. Putin has taken.
So that's enough on Russia, I think, initially.
In Syria -- we continue the operations in Syria. You remember I could not answer for you the questions you had about why did the Russian mercenary element move against our forces at Deir ez-Zor. We -- I still cannot answer that question.
We believe that the Russian officers who tried to deconflict it and told us they weren't their forces -- we think they were frankly being honest with us. I don't know -- to this day, I have no evidence that they were being dishonest and that they knew, in fact, these forces were theirs. The -- them taking our forces under fire -- obviously, they paid a very heavy price for that.
There were other Russian elements like this moving across the deconfliction line, which is the river, as you know, into an area that we'd agreed with the Russians they could operate in, as they had allowed us to operate basically to the west of the river, up at Tabqa and around Raqqa. We'd agreed for them being slightly east of the river at Deir ez-Zor.
These were forces moving into more advanced positions, too close. Deconfliction discussions with -- between our chairman and the -- and his Russian counterpart, General Gerasimov -- and those elements fell back. So we have also drawn off slightly in order to maintain a deconfliction between the elements there.
So it looks like, this time, it was resolved through the deconfliction communication line. It did not, you know, go -- go into harm's way, as it did there a month ago.
Q: This is a few days ago, or yesterday, or something?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes. Within the last week. Yes, exactly. Thanks. I should have been clearer on that. This is a -- a recent development, but we think that the potential for a clash there has, thanks to the Russian direction to this -- this group -- has been reduced.
Obviously, you can't remove anything in that very complex zone, but it looks -- it looks like it went in a -- in a stable direction for right now.
In the Afrin area, the Turkish forces are consolidating. There have been reports of looting in the town by some of the elements that came in to Afrin -- in Afrin city itself, and a lot of people made refuge there. There has been no move against Manbij, and we continue our dialogue with the Turkish authorities about how do we sort this out.
Q: (Laughter.) (Off mic)
SEC. MATTIS: No, no. No. Good thing, you're not the dean of this Pentagon Press Corps for being sloppy.
But bottom line is, right now, we -- we have open dialogue with the Turkish government right now. We're working it and we're working it forward. We're not stuck on anything right now. And, so far, as you've noticed, there's been no move on Manbij.
There is -- there is a threat against the PKK elements up in the Sinjar area. Now, this is across the border, up in way north -- north Iraq. And, in that case, the PKK, as you know, is a designated terrorist organization by the United States. They have killed innocent Turks.
And we are intending to see them pull out of the Sinjar area -- would be our -- our intention here. But that -- then, that's ongoing right now. I don't have any more details about those tactical events on the ground there than I just gave you.
Let me think. DPRK -- the -- there's a very methodical process, putting together with our allies, Japan and ROK, Republic of Korea, what the talking points will look like there, the discussion points about what we are going to negotiate over.
That normal consultation has been going on here. There are other nations also involved. Obviously, many are looking in -- at this. So that's ongoing. That seems to be going okay.
Q: Hello, David.
SEC. MATTIS: The -- but it -- it's all on track, as it has been all along. It is diplomatically led, so you're going to have to ask your colleagues at State or the national security staff over at the White House for more details. I will not talk about it.
Obviously, I get to review what's going on. I'm involved in the discussions. But I like the people who are responsible for it to talk about it, not other people. And I'm not going to be part of the -- of the engagement there. So I'll leave that to State Department.
Q: And there was -- Kim Jong-un went to Beijing.
SEC. MATTIS: No. I don't -- haven't looked at it yet -- but I don't know.
Q: Given that Tillerson is out, who is leading, on the diplomatic side, the talks?
SEC. MATTIS: Pardon?
Q: Given that Tillerson is out, who is leading the diplomatic --
SEC. MATTIS: The State Department -- State Department. And then there's the secretary -- the acting secretary, right now, deputy secretary and -- (inaudible) -- the people who actually do the crafting and that sort of thing about the guidance, and that's all going -- these are the people who roll up their sleeves and do the work now. They haven't change at all. It's very steady.
There has been, obviously, change in the national security structure right now, but it's had no effect here at the Pentagon. So you can see no significant change.
As we go forward, you saw the decision taken, for example, on the Russian diplomats and the shutting down of the Seattle consulate. You -- (inaudible) -- we have very strong institutions in this country, and they continue to do the work. Let me think.
SEC. MATTIS: And there were some packages, I know, that got mailed around and all. All the packages that we're aware of, anyway, have been -- they're now under the control of the legal authorities. There was no one injured. And, again, on that one, I'd just defer you the Department of Justice, the people who are actually carrying out the operation.
What we did when the packages were identified -- it's a great thing you know where they were -- National Defense University, Belvoir -- around all of our places.
Basically, there's a set procedure. They went through the procedure. We've had nobody injured, and all of those packages and all the evidence is accessible or in the hands -- of the FBI right now. So that's underway.
Q: So you referred to the changes in the national security --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: John Bolton coming in, replacing McMaster, for example.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: Just curious if you could talk about Bolton a little bit. Do you have any past history with him? You had a relationship with him? Have you talked to him?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I have -- I have not met Mr. Bolton before. He is going to come over here soon -- I mean, this week. I'm just -- I don't know -- it's not today, I know that.
But it's going to be soon, and we're going to sit down together, and -- look forward to working with him. No -- no reservations, no concerns at all. Last time I checked, he's an American and I can work with an American -- (inaudible). Okay? So this -- I'm not the least bit concerned with that sort of thing.
Q: Secretary, can I --
SEC. MATTIS: Excuse me. We'll get you next.
Q: Mr. Secretary, two questions. One --
Q: -- thank you very much. One -- two questions, one on Manbij, one on Afrin.
Turks -- Turks' intentions are clear. They say that they will get to Manbij. They want -- removal of YPG from Manbij. And what does the suggestion of the United States -- what does the United States offer or tell the Turks?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: And the other one, on Sinjar -- in case of a Turkish operation in Sinjar, will the United States support Turks?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I never talk about future operations.
So Turkey is a NATO ally. We've stood together. There have been strong disagreements on some issues that are having to do with Syria. It has never impeded the candor or the frequency in our meetings. And we will continue to work it forward.
Like I said, you know, we're discussing these things now, and I prefer to walk -- talk face to face or, you know, one on one and not through the press about it, because it's a very sensitive issue for the Turks because they've had innocent people die at the hands of PKK terrorists.
So what we're doing down there to take out ISIS terrorists, we've got to make certain we put the very complex battleground together in a way that takes into account all the, at times, conflicting currents that are underway.
But the discussions are going on and I remain optimistic that we will figure a way through this. We've been through tough times before.
Q: Just a follow-up on that one, Mr. Secretary. Just a follow-up.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: Can you -- can you talk about Turkey's actions in northern Syria have made your ISIS fight much more complex?
SEC. MATTIS: The Turkish actions in northern Syria -- let me be specific here -- Afrin area have distracted the SDF from the fight going against the remnants of ISIS. And you know where they're at. We call it the Middle Euphrates River Valley. To be more precise, you go over to Deir ez-Zor and go down the river valley, the Euphrates, toward Al-Qa'im on the -- on the Iraq border.
That is the area, and an area slightly north of the river itself, both in the river valley and slightly north, which is why I'm defining it here -- is where the remnants of ISIS still exist.
The -- we have no -- we are no longer in an offensive effort on the ground against them as this has drawn off the attention. That's been the effect. Or -- go ahead.
Q: Secretary --
SEC. MATTIS: We finally got to you.
Q: -- it's all good.
You mentioned that much-needed money --
SEC. MATTIS: Who do you work for?
Q: Defense One.
SEC. MATTIS: Okay. Go ahead.
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, no, now -- I was trying to -- I was trying to place him. You know?
Q: All good.
You talked about that much-needed readiness money that you got --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: -- from Congress last week. I was wondering what your reaction was when the president, in the -- last Friday morning, said he might veto the bill.
SEC. MATTIS: I don't have much of a reaction. I try to stay with what actually happens -- is what -- is the only thing I can tell you. The president rightly looks into every assumption, challenges every assumption, challenges everything that's going on. He's elected to do that. He's not elected to be a potted plant.
And so, in our -- in our usual way, where we've put together a government that requires executive branch and a bicameral legislature and, on some issues, judiciary to all work together, this is the normal heave and ho of a democracy in action, okay? So, yes, it didn't bother me in the slightest.
Q: Mr. Secretary --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, go ahead.
Q: -- last week, you met Crown Prince Mohammed from Saudi Arabia, and, in the readout that we got, we were told that you did not bring up the issue of civilian causalities.
SEC. MATTIS: That's incorrect.
Q: That's incorrect? Okay.
SEC. MATTIS: Even in the opening presser, I talked about the humanitarian aspect and the desire to bring -- to end the war. And so, no, that's simply incorrect.
Q: From the readout, that's what we got. But do you think -- what more can they do -- the Saudis -- to minimize civilian causalities? And what did you tell the Crown Prince?
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah. What the -- when you look at such things are air refueling -- when you're a pilot in the air and you've got bombs on your wing and you got somebody calling on you to drop and you're watching you fuel gauge go down, you say, "No, you don't. We're going to refuel you. There's no need for a rash or hasty decision there."
When we're doing the planning, we have shown them how you have what we call no-strike zones. These are places where, because there are schools or hospitals -- but it's not as easy as just saying, "Okay, there's a school or hospital; now, draw a circle around it on a map." Now it's got to go up into the airplane. Now the people who are calling for strikes have got to be aware. Sometimes you add to them; you found a new place where you didn't have it on the map before.
So this is a very dynamic sort of battlefield management.
We have officers there that make certain that that is brought up and the process for bringing it right into the pilots and the decision-making has been proven by pilots saying "Not gonna drop. I don't think I can miss the no-strike area adjacent to that target."
So you see this sort of maturation. Some of you have gotten very used to the U.S. military's ability to do this sort of thing, and we're not perfect about it. But other countries, this is -- this is the trigonometry level of warfare. And it -- so we're helping on that, as well.
We're also helping -- and you saw the barrage fired yesterday -- on how they put their ballistic missile defenses in place to protect people.
And I realize that, you know, one person was hit by the debris, killed by the debris, a couple wounded. But by and large, the -- you can also see the interception to those. They don't intercept them if they hit the open desert; they don't waste a missile on an intercept on it.
But the Iranian support to the Houthis that gives them this capability is clearly being countered thanks in part to the American systems that they bought and, more importantly right now, to the advisers we brought in to assist them in defense of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. MATTIS: Real quick. I'll answer fast.
To go back to Russia, you spoke about what Russia did, but you didn't qualify what they do.
SEC. MATTIS: Attempted murder of a man and his daughter, how's that for starters?
Q: But is it -- no, but is it war -- is the kind of war they are waging against -- against --
SEC. MATTIS: I think it -- it -- they're doing things that they believe are deniable.
They take insignia off soldiers' uniforms and they go into Crimea. They say they have nothing to do with what's going on with the separatists in eastern Ukraine; I'm not sure how they can say that with a straight face. They point out that it can't be proven who had tried to kill the person in Salisbury.
They're doing things they believe are deniable. And so they're trying to break the unity of the Western alliance, NATO and -- and that sort of thing.
It's been pretty clear that they've been inside other people's elections, and that -- go ahead, Barbara.
Q: So I want to follow up on that.
Do you think -- what's your assessment? Everything you just mentioned about what Russia's doing, do you believe Putin is aware? Do you believe he knows? Do you believe he ordered it? What's his role in all of this?
SEC. MATTIS: I won't -- Barbara, in that case I won't speculate.
Certainly he's responsible as the head of state. But I -- you know, that -- yeah, I -- I think we all can draw our own conclusions.
Q: But -- but what you just described is what Gerasimov -- calls -- asymmetrical war. So it's something that they already -- it -- it's a theory they have and they study.
SEC. MATTIS: Yeah, and I leave you to draw that conclusion. I'm -- I prefer just to state the facts.
Q: You've said -- you said Putin is -- as head of state, is responsible. As head of state.
SEC. MATTIS: (inaudible)
Q: I think I -- right. So, how -- what is your thinking about, then, he pushes, pushes, pushes and there's diplomatic, but what do you do? How do you get to his thinking? How do you get inside his personal decision-making and make him change it --
SEC. MATTIS: I think we have to show where all of these democracies stand together. Notice what is emblematic of each of the countries that's evicting Russian diplomats right now. I notice the one common thread. Some have a queen, some have a president -- they're all democracies. And I think that's the statement about how you get to them.
SEC. MATTIS: Go ahead. I’ve just got to run around -- (inaudible).
Q: Sure, sure. Sir, you mentioned the situation in Deir ez-Zor and how the Russians managed to get these forces to deescalate and kind of pull back --
SEC. MATTIS: They pulled back, yes.
Q: -- through these conversations. Doesn't that show that these forces are kind of under the control of Russia, if they're able to get them to move like that?
SEC. MATTIS: I believe they are.
(UNKNOWN): Sir --
Q: Sir -- yes. Thank you, sir. Leigh Giangreco, Capitol Forum. I wanted to ask about the DOD JEDI contract. Would the Pentagon --
SEC. MATTIS: The JEDI contract?
Q: The giant multibillion-dollar cloud contract for the DOD.
SEC. MATTIS: Okay.
Q: You Had the industry day about two weeks ago. Would the Pentagon consider changing the single award, given both industry recommendation and interest from --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I don't want to go into that contracting bit because, very quickly, I can’t get into jury-rigging a system that's designed not to be jury-rigged.
Q: Can --
SEC. MATTIS: -- can't address that.
Q: Can you address -- I've been hearing from the Hill that there's just a lack of transparency about this contract.
SEC. MATTIS: There's no lack of transparency.
Q: So it hasn't been hard getting the Pentagon to come to the Hill to talk about this contract?
SEC. MATTIS: Not at all.
Q: I just had one --
SEC. MATTIS: He's been up there numerous times.
Q: -- in February, when you came to speak to us, you wanted to bring up DACA, and we talked about it for a bit.
SEC. MATTIS: Bring up what?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes.
Q: Since then, we've been contacted by a lot of active duty and veterans who have spouses who are facing deportation fears, including active-duty sailors over here, someone who's about to deploy on the Essex.
The main question they ask us is, are their spouses also protected, and their dependents also protected? And have you talked to the secretary of DHS?
SEC. MATTIS: I'll have to get that to you.
SEC. MATTIS: I said before, and it still stands where I said that, absent any kind of criminal conviction, any active duty, active reservist, delayed entry -- (inaudible) -- person is not -- so that's what I said --
SEC. MATTIS: -- and for that – I have to check on that.
Q: On this -- yes.
SEC. MATTIS: Now, we'll get back -- (inaudible).
(UNKNOWN): You didn't have a question for him, then?
Q: I -- yes. (Laughter.)
Q: So, on the -- on the expulsions, I mean, it's fair to assume that you had a voice in the decision.
SEC. MATTIS: I was involved, yes.
Q: Yes. And -- and can -- and how do you feel that, you know, the -- the next steps --
SEC. MATTIS: You know I don't have any feelings. I don't have any -- (Laughter.)
Q: What do you think the next steps should be? I mean, a lot of people are saying, "Why aren't there sanctions on the oligarchs?"
SEC. MATTIS: I never -- I never reveal what we're going to do or not going to do. I -- I keep that for the President.
Q: Well, Secretary Mnuchin said that there would be sanctions on the oligarchs, and I think a lot of people are wondering --
SEC. MATTIS: Well, that's -- that's --
Q: -- whether that's going to happen.
SEC. MATTIS: -- then talk to Secretary Mnuchin.
SEC. MATTIS: Weren't you just over here? What are you doing? (Laughter.)
SEC. MATTIS: I turn my back on her, and she shows up over here.
Q: Have you been given legal advice that would suggest that your policy on transgender will survive any legal challenge? Do you believe it's --
SEC. MATTIS: I really don't want to get into that one issue right now because it's in litigation and -- I respect that they have their own process. And this is what we -- we do in America.
Q: So is the current policy, then, just -- everything is just staying the same? Because --
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, I'm not going to discuss transgender. I've already said that two times now. I'm not going to discuss it. Anything I say could -- could jeopardize the -- the purity of what they do. And I won't do that.
Q: But I just -- (inaudible) -- since you wrote the memo on -- on transgender, are you confident in the policy?
Q: Okay, on the --
SEC. MATTIS: Okay, I've got to --
Q: -- on the appropriations bill, you've been given a -- a fairly large amount of money to spend in a fairly short amount of time. How are you going to make sure that that money gets wisely spent?
SEC. MATTIS: Can you get her a copy of my letter?
SEC. MATTIS: For -- I -- it's a very valid question. Furthermore, thanks to congressional leadership, both House and Senate, both Republican and Democrat, they're going to give us a little more flexibility on the timelines to obligate money so we don't feel this being rushed.
Right now, there's a -- I think it’s from -- last 1 August or something, you have to have a certain percentage obligated. They're going to let us push that off a little bit to buy more time in the fiscal year.
But this is -- we just met on it this morning, as a matter of fact -- the service secretaries and all the -- what do you call -- the large -- the --
SEC. MATTIS: -- all the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries -- about how we maintain managerial integrity over this spend plan. It's got our full attention right now -- and how do we display the data so that, in fact, we see that we're doing it methodically.
If you've got any good ideas, send me a memo, okay? (Laughter.) I've got to -- I really have to go. I've got --
STAFF: Thank you very much.
Q: -- us a readout when you do have your meeting with Mr. Bolton? If possible, can you give us a readout on that?
SEC. MATTIS: Yes, but, I mean, you know what I'm going to do is start working as a partnership, as we do so well in the national security -- you all have often reported that I talk to the secretary of state sometimes two, three times a day; that the national security adviser and I were constantly meeting.
So, I mean, it -- that's the way it's going to be. I'll tell you right up front, it's going to be a partnership. It's going to -- we're going to go forward.
Q: Well, a lot of people think --
Q: -- a lot of people think your worldviews are very different than -- than John Bolton's, based on comments --
SEC. MATTIS: Well, I hope that there's some different worldviews. That's the normal thing you want, unless you want groupthink. You know?
SEC. MATTIS: Don't worry about that. We'll be fine.
Q: Are you sorry to see H.R. McMaster go?
Q: One more -- one more?
The Saudis, for the first time -- a missile struck their capital as part of this offensive they're having. And how does that change the demeanor and tenor of the military, once your capital is attacked?
SEC. MATTIS: Well, now, their capital has been attacked before. Matter fact, they knocked one -- after the -- it actually did hit the capital but -- comparison to the American Air Force, and they obviously were under fire -- in the capital. I think it's very serious. I think Iran should reconsider sending missiles down there.
Q: Thank you, sir.
SEC. MATTIS: -- yes.
Q: Thank you.
Q: Did you pick Seattle, Mr. Secretary, as -- to close the Russian consulate? Was that your choice? (Laughter.)
Q: Thank you.