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Press Gaggle with Secretary Mattis

Jan. 4, 2018
Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  So, how are you all doing?  Happy New Year, such as it is.  

Q:  Sir, can I take you back to last Friday when you came down to see us?


Q:  And I think you were asked whether any of the exercises with North Korea - with South Korea were going to be postponed?  And you said no.  And now today -

SEC. MATTIS:  No, no.  I said, no, not at this time.  Obviously, the host nation has talked constantly about it and certainly if they – and this is all on the record – and certainly if the host nation brings up that for reasons of traffic, for reasons of de-conflicting an exercise - as you know, exercises are not done just on military bases in the defense of ROK.  So, we worked with them on it, no problem. It’ll start sometime following - not the Olympics but the Paralympics, which actually goes a little longer.

Q:  So, it will be after the Paralympics, which end on March 18?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, I won't say what date - after the Olympics. And you know it’ll probably it would just end right there.  You can also take a day or two - athletes go home and take down tents - whatever you do for Olympics.

Q:  Is it some part of a quid pro quo as part of the talks between South and North Korea?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  Those talks clearly are the result of the amount of international pressure and they are a way, I think, for North Korea to start talking while keeping it contained to a benign issue.

Q:  Can I just follow up on Pakistan?  There's going to be an announcement of cutting off aid to Pakistan – military aid to Pakistan.  We just had another service member come home from Afghanistan - your reaction to that?  And also, will this do anything to stop those cross-border militants?  Do you believe that that was the reason this soldier was killed on New Year's Day?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  We have constant operations going on there where we're advising and assisting the Afghan forces.  And in this regard those operations go on around-the-clock.  

While we were sitting here this last holiday season - Christmas, for example, I wandered around the national capital region and all the operations centers are stood up.  Ships were at sea, submarines at sea, the troops in Afghanistan were advising and assisting in the fighting and tragically we lost someone.  It's a good reminder: it's 24/7 in defense of this country.  

And for those who wondered why I was not overseas at the time, two phone calls finding out that the president was in Mar-a-Lago, the vice president was in Indiana, the Secretary of State was in Texas, the Chairman was on a trip overseas - you might have figured out why one person was somewhere on the East Coast of the United States.  

I don't want to make fun of anybody but that's the sort of thing that drives us to where we are at, what we are doing.  It is not that policy changes in that regard - the implementation of policy is constantly adapting to circumstances.  But the policy goes on, defense of the United States goes on and, yes, combat operations go on and tragically we sometimes lose someone.

Q:  Are you in favor of cutting off the Pakistan aid?

SEC. MATTIS:  I prefer not to address that right now because it's obviously still being formulated as policy.  But I'll give my advice on it to the president.  I also agree on some confidentiality there.  Barbara?

Q:  You said that talks between North and South were clearly a result of international pressure.  Can you help us understand what leads you to that conclusion?  Are you seeing specifics on the impact of sanctions?  What pressure is, do you think, Kim is really feeling?  Is this a real olive branch or is this just a one-off from him?  So, what leads you to your conclusion on that?

SEC. MATTIS:  In terms of is it one-off from him or a real olive branch, I don't know.  It shows again that the democracies and the nations that are trying to keep this from going to war and stopping the provocations of nuclear weapon development, of ballistic missile launches and that sort of thing are united and trying to keep this thing in a solution - a diplomatic solution vein.

But when you look at the last year of the rhetoric that has come out of Pyongyang, when you look at what has happened over the efforts to try to get him to stop shooting off missiles over the top of another nation - that sort of thing - nothing seems to have worked until you see the United Nations Security Council now three times in a row voting unanimously.  And that, remind you, PRC, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States - a dozen other countries - have all voted unanimously three times.

You have noticed that South Korea has now impounded two ships that were caught violating the United Nations sanctions.  It is difficult for me to disassociate that he's now wanting to negotiate on any issue with months and months of unanimous United Nations Security Council effort.

Q:  Sorry, just a quick question on delaying the exercise on the Olympics.


Q:  Is that strictly a practical matter or is that a political gesture?

SEC. MATTIS:  I would say for us it's a practical matter, and we would call it de-conflicting.  Again, you don't move hundreds of trucks on roads.  I mean this was the biggest event in ROK year in terms of international tourism and all that goes on – 

Q:  The Olympics, you mean.

SEC. MATTIS:  The Olympics.  And so, to de-conflict this when they brought it up to us, we have at times changed the timelines on these for any number of reasons.  So, to us this is the normal give and take that we have.  Remember, we're doing this at the host country's invitation to this exercise.

Q:  Secretary, what about the issue of - you said you were trying to lower tensions and look for some sort of negotiation with North Korea.  Does that mean that you will reduce pressure on other areas besides this drill?


Q:  Or is the drill the extent of it?

SEC. MATTIS:  The de-confliction of the drill is a de-confliction of the drill with the ongoing - the logistics - all the pressure on their system, whether it be police who have to be in places to direct traffic - they're usually in position to direct military traffic and keep that safe, you know.  So, it's just the normal de-confliction there.  I wouldn't read too much into it because we don't know if it's a genuine olive branch or not.  Obviously, we have to be open to anything that would implement a diplomatic solution.

Q:  Sir, could you imagine turning up or turning down the scale of those exercises when they do occur depending on the situation?  What's the ability of the military to turn - to kind of scale-back, if needed?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, that would be a political decision between our nations and the military exercises have been turned up and down for any number of reasons - whether it be de-confliction with some other event going on, whatever.  So, I would prefer not to speculate on that, but obviously we don't do anything over there that's not integrated with the ROK host country, Republic of Korea.

Q:  Okay.  And also on Pakistan, should this come to pass how concerning is the threat of them shutting down the Torkham gate or any of the other entry points into Afghanistan logistically for the U.S. military?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yes.  We have had no indication of anything like that.

Q:  Just staying on - going back to North Korea, the tweet from President Trump this week about him bragging about the size of his nuclear button, was that concerning to you or what was your reaction to that?

SEC. MATTIS:  My job as the Secretary of Defense is to make certain that we have forces ready to defend this country.

Q:  But with all due respect Mr. Secretary -

SEC. MATTIS:  That always preludes something that is perhaps less than due respect from you, Barbara. Go ahead, please.

Q:  That tweet was all about the defense of this country. I mean, it was.  That's what the president was addressing.

SEC. MATTIS:  Now then you'll have to take it up with the president.

Q:  What is your view on it?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, you'll have to take it up with the president.

Q:  So then I'll have a different question for you.  You have had Steve Bannon in this building very visible for meetings.  You have had him included in what you do here, and I would be interested in knowing as you look back now, what was Steve Bannon's involvement with the issues that you're involved with?  

He was here for this meeting with the Saudi's, most notably the crown prince.  Was he directly involved in Pentagon issues, in military issues?  Was he a key person that you interacted with during his time in the administration?

SEC. MATTIS:  My responsibility is to the president.  He was at two meetings that I recall, here.  I don't recall him - I'm almost certain he never said a word in either one of those meetings.  I don't think he was one of the discussants in either one of those meetings.  I know I'm right about one of them, and I'm 99% certain that I'm right about the other one.  

I don't recall him ever being engaged with a discussion either with - and you're right about the Saudi - when the Saudi's met with us or the other one.  I forget what it was, but I remember he was here with the president.

I've got to go now.  I really have to go.  I’m not kidding. I'll be back this week.

Q:  A quick last question.  Are you seeing any preps being made for an ICBM launch in North Korea?

SEC. MATTIS:  Because that would reveal our sources and methods I don't want to comment on that.  I think there's some word that's been put out - I don't know if it's by the NSS or someone that we're keeping an eye on it, obviously.  And I think in Seoul they put out some word on it, but I want to talk about it because it would show what we know and when we know it.

Q:  And, sir could I just ask you about your take on the demonstrations in Iran.  What do you think that they mean?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, we all remember what happened to the Greens when they came out and the merciless way they were treated by the regime there.  

Again, we do not have an issue with the Iranian people.  We, the American people, do not have an issue with the Iranian people.  We've got a big issue with the Iranian authoritarian regime, and it appears that there's an awful lot of Iranian people who have an issue with it as well.  Because even after squashing the Green revolution years ago, they obviously didn't remove the irritants and the dissatisfaction.  I really have to get rolling.  Thank you.