Media Availability with Secretary Mattis

Feb. 8, 2018
Secretary Of Defense James N. Mattis

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SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JAMES N. MATTIS:  I wanted to just come by and see you all.  As you know, I prefer -- this is on the record, just so I know say it.  We worked hard as you know over the last -- really the year, and then it came very high tempo over the last couple of weeks.

And by yesterday, I came off about noon from my fourth hearing on the Hill in over the last 36 hours.  Raspy and everything, I had to go by the White House on another issue and they said presidentially led effort, of course, on this budget deal.

And so kaboom, I was over there in front of the cameras after denying you that opportunity.  But bottom line, I wanted to come down and see you.  I'm going to be out of town tomorrow, I normally come down Friday so I can give you kind of a shot of what happened that week.

But I'm going to be out of town tomorrow going to see our -- our Army guys getting ready to deploy over to Afghanistan.  I owe it to them to go and pay my respects and just check on everything, see how they see the training, their preparation, normal stuff.

I want to talk about couple of things, one I want to talk about Syria.  Because we had what I would characterize as a perplexing situation.  Basically outside of Deir ez-Zor, and you know that it's right on the river, which has been used for basically many months, if not years as a deconfliction line.

Between our own and -- and Russia supported operations.  That deconfliction line, as you know, has maintained currency all the way through, no matter what you heard in the -- in the news or out of other places.  That has always -- the Russians have always answered, we have always answered.

It has never broken down as a deconfliction line.  Coming about, it's probably a little more than ten miles over the river, and we do coordinate even ground operations on each side.  You saw us on the -- basically the west side of the river at Tabqa, for example, as we were able to isolate Raqqa.

That would've been on their side of the deconfliction line, and they were deconflicting operations, some of them around Deir ez-Zor on our side of the river.  For some reason, pro-regime forces -- and again I cannot give you any explanation for why they would do this, moved against SDF positions, Syrian Democratic Force positions, with U.S. soft there.

Why were they there?  Because it was a headquarters, OK?  They began shelling it with artillery.  Immediately the deconfliction line was in use, they were moving with tanks obviously in the same direction as they were firing.

At the end of our efforts to defend ourselves, their artillery was knocked out, two of the tanks were knocked out, they had casualties.  The Russians at that time were telling us they did not have forces there.

And -- and so far, you know the casualties we don't think that there are any Russians, but I'm not confirming that, I'm just telling that's where we stand right now based on what's been going back and forth.  Why do I say it's perplexing?

I have no idea why they would attack there, the forces were known to be there, obviously the Russians knew.  We have always known that there are elements in this very complex battle space that the Russians did not have, I would call it, control of.

And they are also in the mix in terms of trying to maintain relations with certain people.  So that's what happened.  It was self-defense, we are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war.  We are there to fight Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, that's what those troops were doing in that position:.
Coordinating strikes against ISIS.

And why they chose to initiate this attack -- you'll have to ask them, I just -- we don't know.

Q:  Mr. Secretary on that point, if I could just ask you.  Senator McCain said today that he thinks this is evidence that you are in fact getting involved in a broader conflict.

SEC. MATTIS:  No, this is self-defense.  If we were getting involved in a broader conflict, then it would have had an initiative on our part.  The fact is, we did not o the other side of the deconfliction line.

Let me talk for a minute about a parade, why am I going to bring up a parade? (Laughter.)

SEC. MATTIS:  I go over and I'm at the White House yesterday discussing the budget, which to me is a very important deal right now.  And it's not my budget, it's our budget for defending this country, OK?  And it may be an imperfect budget deal with compromise and that sort of thing.

But right now it is a very, very important budget deal that the President has orchestrated here at this point.  And that at -- on the Congress -- on the Hill, the Congress has worked together in order to get it to the point it's at right now.

While I was talking about that budget deal, I took questions and they start asking me about a parade.  Let me tell you about the parade.  The President is looking at a parade, OK?  I owe him some options.  No, I have not got those options done.

I will turn it over to the military guys who know how to do parades and we'll put together options and we will work out everything from size to participation to cost.  And when I get clear options, we will send those over to the White House.

And I'll go over and talk with them.  No, I will probably not tell you ahead of time anything more than that since I keep my communication with the president confidential.  I owe him confidentiality so that he makes the decision.

But right now, where we're at, the President has asked for options and we are developing those options and I can't give you any more details than that.  Just like yesterday, I couldn't give any more details.  Let me think, there's some other -- oh DACA, I want to talk for just a minute on DACA.

Right now, when working with the Secretary of Homeland Security, I spoke with her today.  We have been through this in great detail before as well, so it's really just a confirming call about anyone who's in the delay enlistment program.

In other words, they're already signed up and they're waiting to go into boot camp, anyone on active duty, anyone in the active Reserves and anyone with an honorable discharge is, right now, except for two possible exceptions, they will not be subject to any kind of deportation.

The only two exceptions would be if for some reason they committed a serious felony, and I realize even a low-level felony apparently is not -- doesn't put you into that category.It's got to be a serious one.  Completely separate from the military service obviously, that could jeopardize them, OK?

They're just like any other citizen in terms of they're responsible for anything that they -- any misbehavior proven in a court of law.  The other would be if a federal judge has signed I think it's called a final order of deportation or something.

That would be a judicial action that obviously we -- we obey.  In -- in a court system, we don't have veto authority over a court.  Those, I'm not even aware of a case like that.  But right now, in terms of the DACA situation, in other words our guys on active duty and that sort of thing.

It's clarified, are not -- or in the active delayed (inaudible) are not in any kind of jeopardy.  So DACA, parade -- (Laughter.) -- which I consider a much lesser issue than DACA, I might add for -- for our lads and lasses who might be in that category, and of course on the Syria situation which was very serious.  So let me just take some questions here.

Q:  Were you able to identify who were those pro-regime forces?

SEC. MATTIS:  Why do I say not yet?  We may -- we're trying to.  We know they were pro-regime forces, but I can't tell you are they an element that's under a certain part of the regime -- you know what I'm talking about, Iranian, Assad, Russian, mercenaries.  I can't tell you.

Q:  There were no Russian contractors among them?

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't think -- I think the Russians would've told us.  If they -- as long as they knew, you know, then they probably would've told us.  Right now I don't want to say what they were or were not, because I don't have that kind of information.

I'm going to go then here, and then I'm going to go here, and then I'm going to go here, OK?  So back here, who had the question? (Laughter.)

Q:  Mr. Secretary, DOD put out a new harassment policy.  And in the past ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  A new harassment policy?

Q:  Yes, sorry. (Laughter.)

Q:  Other way around.  

SEC. MATTIS:  I -- I confess I've not read it, what is it -- is this on sexual harassment?

Q:  It's -- it's a whole broad area, it can be anything from offensive jokes to sexual harassment.

SEC. MATTIS:  I know what you mean now, OK, yeah.

Q:  OK, so my question is in the past, you have used colorful language to inspire and fire up the forces who serve you.  Some of that language could be considered offensive to somebody.  How do you deal with this new gray zone of you know, what may be offensive to someone is not offensive to someone.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well you have to adapt to your times.  I think the most important thing is that whatever you're -- I mean there's a rough good humor amongst soldiers, we all know that.  But I have never seen rough good humor continence or in any way frame something that's disgusting, repellent or something like that.

I don't want to lose all sense of humor in the military, but I have never seen an ounce of belief in the military that you can denigrate someone else.  I'd even go so far as to tell you that in -- on college campuses, people who served in the military were amazed what they'd hear there compared to what they'd hear in the U.S. military.

So I'm not holding us up as separate or apart or better than anyone, I would just tell you that right now I think in many ways the military is a model of respect for one another, regardless -- I don't care if it's religion, gender, ethnicity, it's the military is a merit-based outfit.

And I think we're a model for a lot of it.  Let me go over here.  Should've known you'd be asking something, Lolita, you never miss a chance, do you?

Q:  Well I don't want you to forget we're here.

SEC. MATTIS:  No, you're unforgettable Lolita, I won't go into why. (Laughter.)  You see, I got her speechless.

Q:  On DACA. (Laughter.)

Q:  I want to make sure I'm clear.  Did you get this sort of straightened out in your mind today or has this always been the case?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, this has always been the case.  We would always stand by one of our people and I have never found Department of Homeland Security unwilling to take any call from anyone on my staff, if we in fact, found somebody who had been treated unjustly.

The challenge goes back many years is what I'm told, where we've had some people who have been in or something and something's happened.  But what I wanted to do first of all is make certain we don't have any more problems from it.

And in that regard, I maintain close collaboration with the Secretary and she's been very helpful and her staff on our staff level, too, we talked about it.

Q:  What was -- what was confusing though is that it seemed like until now people did not know or were not -- couldn't tell us that indeed these ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  I don't think so.  I've been -- I've been in troop visits where there are people there who were caught under the DACA concern if they had it.  And -- and I've had them confirmed straight to me, you know, that they don't.  I'll come right back around now.

Q:  Just to follow up on Syria, sir, can you tell us how many forces were there on the other side that were ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  About 300.

Q:  What's their disposition now ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  They retreated -- they retreated from that position.  I believe that they're right now west of the river.

Q:  And what's the situation around Manbij?

SEC. MATTIS:  Around Manbij?

Q:  You have -- threat in our presence there, what -- how do you assess that as a potential flashpoint.

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, the situation is not changed in Manbij in terms of Turkish pressure on Manbij or -- or -- it's -- it's obviously there's a lot of concern there because of what they heard out of Ankara.  But right now, our goal is to keep the pressure on the counter-ISIS campaign -- pressure on ISIS, keep the campaign going.

And that is why we're concerned with this distraction.  Turkey has legitimate concerns up in that corner of their borderlands.  They have legitimate concerns and we're working with them, but at the same time we want to stay on ISIS right now.

Yes, I'm going to keep swinging around, go ahead there
Q:  You mentioned that it's a complex battle space that you're dealing with in the area where the attack was, are you worried ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  No no, it's -- it's in -- it's in (inaudible), it's in southern Syria, it's the entire area.  At Deir ez-Zor, it's complex in the sense -- I don't know why they would've come across a deconfliction line that's well established and open fire with artillery on a position.

Obviously they knew where to fire.

Q:  Are you concerned at all that Russia doesn't have influence over these pro-Syrian parties that attacked the SDF?

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh Lord no, there were parts of -- some of these parties that Russia didn't have influence over, that's no surprise.

Q:  But they were using -- but they were using Russian tanks, right?  Those are the tanks we took out, T-55s and T-72s.

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, you got to remember the Syrian Army has been equipped by the Russians for decades.  So if there's any pro-regime force, it's probably a Russian built tank.  They may have been Syrian tanks for the last 20 years for all I know, you know?  Yeah, go ahead.

Q:  On a different parade, what was your reaction to the North Korean parade this morning and did you see anything that concerned you?

SEC. MATTIS:  Well, what -- their parades concern me a lot less than their missiles and nuclear program.  So no, nothing -- nothing in particular.

Q:  Just a follow up.  One of your Generals yesterday, Mr. Secretary, said that the main effort had shifted from Iraq and Syria over to Afghanistan with their war.  Is the strike last night proof that that's not the case?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, no, not at all.  When you have a main effort it doesn't mean you have a sole effort, the -- kind of like I mentioned where the counter-ISIS campaign goes on.  Matter of fact, I'll fly into Rome where the International Defeat ISIS meeting is being held.

This time I'll fly into Rome on Sunday and we'll hold the meeting there and there's, you know, dozens of nations that will be there.  No, I mean, we're not talking about the sole ... 

Q:  And Secretary, on the budget.  United States is not in danger of being outspent by Russia and China in terms of great power competition, yet the budget says it's going to commit America to great power competition.

What about the budget is going to bring America back into great power competition in ways that it wasn't already with China and Russia?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, we're not -- the budget's not bringing America to great power competition.  Russia has chosen by its actions whether it be in the Ukraine, it's -- it's verbal attacks on NATO, it's mucking around in democracies, elections.

It has chosen to be a strategic competitor, our budget doesn't do that.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, while you've said that this is not the -- the Syria strike was not the beginning of a war with Syria, currently the Syrian government has called this a war crime.  Has Syria conveyed to the United States or the coalition that they consider this an act of war?

SEC. MATTIS:  No.  Yeah?

Q:  On DACA, can you go back a minute?  You said ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Go back to?

Q:  On DACA?


Q:  You said that you know these people in the military or with precise (contracts ?) you know would -- your word was always they would be protected barring a judge's final deportation order.  So ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Or a felony.

Q:  Or a felony, right.


Q:  So the program's going to expire.  Somewhat hypothetical if there's a legitimate solution, but regardless the President has indicated he's willing to see DACA come to an end.  So is it -- can you explain a little bit more?

Is it really that they are always protected?  Because they are subject to deportation ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  They're protected.  I think that it is not coming to an end, either.  You can sign up right now, as I understand.  Now I'm not an expert on DACA, I'm an expert on military.  I'd just -- I'll just tell you that someone who is on active duty in the -- on active reserve or inactive reserve, whatever the Reserve status is.

They are not subject to deportation unless they committed a felony or a federal judge has ordered them out for some reason, in which case we have to obey the court order.

Q:  Sure.  They're -- they're -- so that would take precedence, a final deportation.

SEC. MATTIS:  A court order, yes, but I don't know why -- I'm not aware of anybody in the military who's under one of those.  Never heard of it.

Q:  But veterans fall under a different category?

SEC. MATTIS:  If they have an honorable discharge, they are still protected.

Q:  They're still protected.  May I ask you one other thing on Russia?  On the deconfliction line, so you saw these people coming across, certainly the Russians ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  We saw them on the -- the east side of the river.  But they were not acting aggressively -- they were moving, but they did not show any aggression towards us until they opened fire.  Then we responded.

Q:  Sure.  But you saw this -- you saw this coming.  And it wasn't an instance of ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Well there's units moving all over there.  I mean this is -- we -- unless there was a demonstration of hostile intent, we monitor movements but we don't take action like this.

Q:  So why -- can you help explain why the Pentagon's feeling is that the deconfliction line was a success in this case?  Is it solely because the Russians ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  A success in this case?  That the ... 

STAFF:  I had said that earlier, that we were able to use the deconfliction line and it ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, the phone line?  I'm sorry.  Because it allows us and Russia to deconflict between two great powers and make certain that we don't run afoul of each other in those close space.  The fact that somebody chose to attack us and the Russians are saying it's not us.

We're firing on them to stop the artillery fire.  That to me is not a failure of the deconfliction line.  I mean you can't ask Russia to deconflict something they don't control, that couldn't happen.

Q:  Thank you.  For Afghanistan, are we shifting more towards an air war now?  I know we've got advisors on the ground, but ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  No -- no, it's -- it -- right now the air campaign is going on, it probably looks like that and it's a fair question because during these -- I don't want to say it's not a fighting season, but in parts of the country of course you can't go over the pass and you can't get over the snow in the high country.

So there's more air being used now.  If you look at the number of operations going on, it's probably more air operations but that's partly because they can't fight on the ground right now, OK?

Q:  Got it.  And then you didn't mention location when you were talking about the parade earlier.  You said the size, participants ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh I'm sorry.  Well as I understand, he wants a parade in Washington DC, but that's a good question.  I'll see what we put together for options.  Is your -- is your hometown looking for it or something? (Laughter.)

Q:  ... asked you to do something like this, you're a student of history.  I mean don't -- do you have any misgivings about this?  Doesn't this seem like the thing Russia and China ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  I'm not paid for my feelings, I save those for my girlfriend.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, knowing how I do as I do how you like to comment on your private discussions that are in published reports, I know it's one of your favorite things.  The Washington Post this morning had yet another account of what a great job you were doing as Defense Secretary.

He included this nugget about -- that implied that you sort of intentionally withheld options for dealing with Iran so as not to flame the situation.  Is that accurate?

SEC. MATTIS:  No, of course not.  That's not how I do business.  We're still -- we're still engaged in the budget fight, OK?  So there's some people ... 

Q:  You said yesterday the money would be spent wisely.  You're getting an $85 billion bump up for '19.

SEC. MATTIS:  We'll spend it wisely.

Q:  Well which steps are you going to take in order to ... 

SEC. MATTIS:  In order to have the first-time in Department of Defense history older than at least most of you here, as we are.  We have never had a full audit.  We are engaged now in getting a full audit.  I am very comfortable that we're going to find problems in how we're spending money.

And so I will correct on every one of those, first full audit in our history.  And I've got someone here who knows how to do audits, and he's got a lady who knows how to do audits, and they are driving this forward and we're going to find every problem and we're going to keep finding them.

And we're going to spend the money wisely.  We'll take -- I'm going to take one more.  

Q:  So Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yet again called on U.S. to withdraw its troops from Manbij, and actually accused the U.S. of working against the interests of Turkey, Iran and potentially Russia.

Do you have any new plans for the U.S. troops in Manbij?  And what's your response to this accusation?

SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, number one, Turkey is a NATO ally, and it is the only NATO ally with an active insurgency inside its borders.  The PKK or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a main terrorist group. We work with Turkey on the security there.  You have legitimate security concerns, not just with PKK but along that whole ribbon of border where Syria is -- is what Assad has made it.

Which is a cauldron of fighting right now.  So we'll continue at the highest levels and all the way down through -- down through military levels.  We will continue to work with our NATO ally.  I will see their Minister of Defense in Brussels about mid-week next week.

And we'll continue to work this forward.  I really have to go back up there and make this call.  What's that?

Q:  ... and the T-72s, do you think?

SEC. MATTIS:  Oh, I -- I -- no one knows.  You know, I mean it's not that hard to drive a tank, I can do it. (Laughter.) I could teach one of you in five minutes.  

Q:  Maybe not me.

SEC. MATTIS:  No, I'd teach you, it's no problem. (Laughter.)  See I'm -- I'm gender neutral, you get that, you see that?  All right, we'll see you guys. (Laughter.)