Media Availability by Secretary Mattis En Route to Andrews AFB

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  Well, good afternoon.  And -- so we're on our way back, and I hope you had a good trip.  And we'll get this out of the way now, because we'll have increasingly less time as we get closer to Washington, I'm sure, as you feel that gravitational pull into the District of Columbia. (Laughter.)


But just a few words here.  Obviously, I've been focused since I saw you last on Latin America, and specifically on Colombia.  And I, you know, as we come out of there, just a reminder that sometimes I don't -- I don't always leave a theater saying, boy, what a fortunate theater that is.  And yet there are a lot of reasons to look at this as a fortunate hemisphere here, but that just means we work more on it.  We don't get complacent.  We go to work.

And with our Colombian partners, they are one of our most capable, and certainly most reliable partners, both in Latin America, and even in the world in many ways.  And we are working with them.  Colombia, for its part, has built capable, very capable, police and military forces that set the regional standard for operational effectiveness and for respect for human rights.

And again, you think back 16 years and you remember the capital city we were just in was surrounded by drug cartel armies, and look at it today, where they are working far out on their borders to maintain control of the borders to stop the drug cultivation that's going on. But it shows that things can get better.  More on that in a moment.

We stand with them as they continue to strengthen their democracy.  We saw that in the election, the series of elections, with the runoff and all, that just occurred.

And I think that they are helping their neighbors now.  They were telling me that they were helping certain of their neighbors with upgrading their capabilities, their police capabilities along their borders in other nations.  And who would have thought that 16 years ago? That they would be the ones out there with others, helping others, when at the time a lot of people just didn't see any way forward due to the power of the drug trafficking cartels.

Another example of how they have come of age, our navies will be shoulder-to-shoulder.  Colombia is hosting UNITAS this September.  Those who are not aware of it.  It's the longest running annual multinational maritime exercise, and it is one where the hemisphere's navies work together, and that is now going to be hosted by UNITAS in September, next month.

Of course we do have the robust counter-narcotics missions.  That's one where we're working together to strengthen the effort, and we -- and to support President Duque's re-energized campaign, and we deepen further our already strong military-to-military relationships.

Prior to this morning's meeting with Colombia's minister of defense, and his ministry and armed forces leadership, I had breakfast with President Duque, who I thought graciously made time to meet so early in his tenure, to meet with him and his cabinet officials.

I think the breakfast, David, was about an hour and 20 minutes, if I remember right.  Scheduled for an hour, went an hour and 20 minutes.

You sit down and take a knee there, David, before you get launched into the overhead.  (Laughter.)

This ceiling has been hit before by people's pointed little heads. (Laughter.)  It hurts.

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Just stay low for now.  If it gets worse, we'll have to take a pause and get you into seatbelts, back in your seats.

We do charge your editors extra when we have this much fun (Laughter.)

Just let them know that, you know, normal, (inaudible).

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(Laughter.)

President Duque, as you know, won in what was considered by some European newspapers one of the most peaceful and certainly credible elections.  I don't recall where I read that.  Those aren't my words.  But in probably, I don't know, 15, 20 years.  So that really says something about the spread of democratic principles in the hemisphere.

This is also becoming more the norm, except for three countries of course, Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela.  I'll remind you in his later years when asked by an American journalist about the Cuba model, Fidel Castro said, the Cuba model does not even work for Cuba.  So why Maduro would adopt the Cuba model is something I leave to your investigative journalism.

But 16 years ago, we began our combined efforts on what we called at that time "Plan Colombia," and it's reaped a lot of rewards, but we should remember it's come thanks to the sacrifices of a lot Colombian troops killed and wounded, hundreds, thousands all together.  And certainly the people of Colombia, I think some of you may remember if you focused on this region, the very large demonstrations against the FARC, when the people came out in the streets and said that's enough.

We are working with them as well, something came up in both of my meetings this morning on -- was on what we're working on in terms of the Venezuelan refugees and the destabilizing impact they have.  Probably a million or more that are in Colombia now, and you know about the thousands, tens of thousands, elsewhere, and it's just -- it's an enormous cost.

The Department of State in our country has provided over $56 million in aid for the refugees.  In that regard, as you know, we are looking to bring a hospital ship down here.  And I got more input today, which was very helpful.  It was not broad input.  It was very specific.  It was very helpful.  So we have to go back to the drawing board on a few things and define what we're doing; we'll have some words – but I thought I'd have words for you today, but it's going to take us a little longer; I need to get some people back to Washington, working on the details.  I don't want to talk about something before we have it, the plan refined.

It is an absolutely a humanitarian mission.  We're not sending soldiers; we're sending doctors.  And it's an effort to deal with the human cost of Maduro, and his increasingly isolated regime.

But let me just say, I come away from this visit -- it's almost like it's going to sound a little bit like a broken record here -- are you old enough to remember what a record is, or are you too young?  (Laughter.)

But it's going to sounds like -- you know, I keep saying the same thing, but coming out of Colombia and coming out of this trip in general, I think our hemisphere's democratic values are taking a firmer hold in our political cultures, and we see this, this measurable progress being made.  And even right now, in the face of economic headwinds, we see continued democratic embrace by the people of Latin America.  And so it's not just an idle vision to think that from Canada to all the way down to the tip of South America, we can -- we can be seen, probably one of the strongest surges in democratic values in a world that last year took a real hit, I think, in terms of democracy, in some areas of the world.

So my visit here, from our perspective, that I -- you know, thoughts about the area, but from my perspective, it’s a reaffirmation of America's support, reflects our country's close engagement with our neighborhood friends.

So why don't we take a couple of questions here, and we can go off the record if you want.  But I think I'm about “on-and-off-the-recorded” out here, so let's take questions.

Q:  Yes, I have a couple of quick questions.  You mentioned the hospital ship.  Is this the Comfort?  And...

SEC. MATTIS:  I think it's the Comfort.  We have two.  I imagine it'd be the Comfort.

Q:  The question really is, did the Colombians agree in principle that this would happen and it’s just a matter of details or is it something else?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, thank you.  They not only agreed in principle; they gave details how we might best craft the cruise through the region.  And along with the input I got in Brasilia, in Buenos Aires and in Santiago, this all helps me to put together a plan but the details today were additive.

And yes, they're embracing it.  They were enthusiastic.

Q:  OK.  The other question I had real quickly was, I talked to you yesterday about the military parade in D.C. and the president wanted.  You said there was no estimate at the time for you.  By the end of the day, the whole thing had been put off for a year, and the president said that is was too -- the cost was too high.  I'm kind of mystified about what happened yesterday.

SEC. MATTIS:  My portfolio is the Department of Defense.  There could have been other cost considerations.  I don't know this.  Again, I've been busy since last night on this. I haven’t had a chance to read the Early Bird today, Bob, I confess, the first time I went this late in the day without it, knowing I might have to be ready for an ambush, you know? 

But, no, I’ve not been dealing with the issue.  But I stand on what I said yesterday.

Q:  Mr. Secretary?

Q:  So who decided to cancel?  Was that the presidential decision or you?

STAFF:  The president tweeted he canceled.

SEC. MATTIS:  The president tweeted?

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  So there you got it. I hadn’t seen the tweets either. (Laughter.)

Q:  Mr. Secretary...

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, go ahead.

Q:  Another thing we asked you about McRaven's op-ed yesterday.  In addition to that, today we've seen about 12 security, former security officials, former intelligence officials, Gates being one of them, coming out against the stripping of security clearances for political purposes.

My question would be, is stripping a security clearance necessary for national security?  And do you think...

SEC. MATTIS:  All I can tell you is, I have taken security clearances away from people in my previous time in uniform, and a security clearance is something that is granted on an as-needed basis.  And you'll have to ask the White House about this.  I have no background on this situation, and it's outside my responsibilities.

Q:  Are you concerned about Obama -- former Obama administration officials being a threat to national security?

SEC. MATTIS: I -- again, I do not have the background to comment on what's going on.  I've -- I'm the secretary of defense.  That gives me quite enough work, and I stay busy.

Q:  Sir, a few more questions about this topic.

SEC. MATTIS:  (off mic)

Q:  (off mic)

SEC. MATTIS:  It's strictly for what?

Q:  (Inaudible) Venezuelans requiring medical help (inaudible).  Is that the (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Refugees are refugees.  I don't know if you've ever been around them.  I've been around them in Europe.  I've been around them in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Mideast.  It is difficult for those of us who live knowing we can flip a switch and turn on the lights at home, we can reach into the refrigerator and have chilled milk when we get up in the morning, to understand they have nothing, and they have poured over the borders.  We know that the Colombia health care system, you can't add a million people into one part of the country, even as they start to filter through, and not upset the apple cart; it's impossible.

So we're going in, defining the problem that was one of the things we were doing today -- where best could the ship be employed, and that's what we're doing.  I mean, this is a very clear -- a very clear problem, and this is a very specific effort to try to help our neighbors, who are doing their best, I think, to help these refugees.

Can you imagine over a million refugees, right now, in one of our most populous states, California, and what that would do to that one state?  Well, just put that on steroids down here, and you see why this is a time when one of our fellow democracies is in trouble; we have to come in and help each other.

Q:  And which side of the canal will it be?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry?

Q:  Which side of the canal will it be (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  We're -- we're still sorting that out, but we're going to go where the need is greatest and the countries in the region say they need help.

Q: Would this coincide with UNITAS?

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm sorry?

Q:  And it would coincide with UNITAS?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, it has nothing to do with UNITAS.

Q:  (inaudible) 

SEC. MATTIS:  It's not connected to UNITAS in any way.  It's what we would call an independent deploying ship. It's not inside a fleet or a squadron of ships.

Q:  I meant the timing.

SEC. MATTIS:  Pardon?

Q:  I meant the timing.

SEC. MATTIS:  The timing.

Q: Yeah, could they go in on their cruise to help these people at the same time as their UNITAS exercise?

SEC. MATTIS:  I suppose it could happen.  I doubt if they'll be collocated, but yes.

Q:  (Inaudible) in any sense, that perhaps (inaudible)?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, good question.  Yes, we specifically will not send a ship into Venezuelan waters.

Q: But he will say that, you’re sending near our country.

SEC. MATTIS: You’ll have to draw your own conclusion on that; he could say anything. When you look at the kind of policies that he has enacted – political repression, economic. You’re right. He could say anything. But that doesn’t dignify it with truth.

Q:  Switching back to Afghanistan...

Q:  Now that you are finishing this whole trip, could you point out which are the main achievements that you think that you have?

SEC. MATTIS:  Main achievements?

Q:  Yes.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes, again, when we got on the plane right at the beginning, you'll remember, I said I'm coming down here first to listen, and you see it in action, where yesterday I thought I was pretty close to making a plan for a ship.  Heard some things, listening, going to – from that I learned how I can do a better job to help them.
Remember, listen, learn, help and then leave, OK. So we're in the -- we were in the listening, learning, and now we're going to be more focused in the helping effort, and you'll see how we support each other down here.

One thing about democracies, they generally have no reservations about letting another democracy lead when it's something where they're the country that has the most background, or they’re the country geographically best located.

So on some of the things we were down here doing, for example, UNITAS, Colombia will be leading UNITAS coming up.

I think what you're seeing here as far as achievements is mostly the normal consultations that occur between friends to keep this alliance.  You may think, well, you know, just that happens naturally because we share so many values.  It doesn't happen naturally.  You really have to work at keeping countries, you know, working together in tandem.  So that's what we're doing, and it's been very successful in that.

I forget which country I was in, I had like 17 different points I needed to raise.  And at the end I only had to raise one. They had raised -- they -- I asked them to speak first because I was there as a guest to listen, and they raised 16 of my 17 points, so I raised one point.

Q:  You (inaudible) -- you listen or debate with these countries about China?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.

Q:  What kind of debate you have about China?

SEC. MATTIS:  There are concerns about what is China's design on the hemisphere.  Is it scientific research?  With space-tracking stations?  Or is there something more going on?  Is it commercial, or is it espionage? And I heard it from a number of people including from people who aren’t even from the four countries that I visited.  So it was very interesting.

I think all of us want to have a productive relationship with a transparent China.  It's a great nation, and it deserves that.  But, what is happening in the South China Sea or in Djibouti, resonates around the world in the Information Age.  Everyone knows this.  You can’t hide these things.

So we'll keep working with our friends here, and try to keep in our hemisphere any influence that comes into it will be benign.

Q:  Sir, a question?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, Carla.

Q:  Erik Prince was talking about how Trump is tired...

SEC. MATTIS:  Who is this?

Q:  Erik Prince is -- was the head of Blackwater.  He's wanted to privatize the war.  He said that President Trump is getting tired of the Pentagon, and is looking at privatizing the war in Afghanistan.  I'd like to get your comments on that.  Have you been getting that feeling from President Trump?

SEC. MATTIS:  I -- I think you'll have to, you know, pass that over to the White House.  I have never had that feeling from the president, and I'm not familiar with the details, what Erik said, or where he said it, or the context, you know, no problem, I take your word for it.  But yes, I'll just leave it at that.

OK, so let's go off the record, young ...

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[Eds. Note:  This transcript has been updated with corrections to the text based upon further review of the audio.]