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Department Of Defense Press Briefing By Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White In The Pentagon Briefing Room

March 29, 2018
Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White

DANA WHITE:  Hello, everyone.

Q:  Morning.

MS. WHITE:  I haven't seen you guys in a -- a week or so.  I'm hoping that there's actually spring showing up this weekend.  That's my hope.

First, President Trump recently established March 29th as our National Vietnam War Veterans Day.  Today is the first anniversary of that special day.

To commemorate our Vietnam War heroes, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan will host a ceremony this afternoon at the Vietnam Memorial.  On behalf of a grateful nation, we want to thank all who served during the Vietnam War, as well as their families, for their service and for their sacrifices.

On the Pentagon's cloud initiative, we are modernizing the department and reforming the way we do business.  This is a performance-based, single-award contract.  It is a two-year contract with four two-year options.  It is an open competition, and the first of many open competitions.

Our goal is to retire legacy systems, streamline our processes and implement a performance-based culture.  We want competition, and now we have it.

On the budget, last week, President Trump signed a spending bill appropriating $700 billion for defense.  This law, along with the two-year budget agreement, provides the budget certainty we need to implement the National Defense Strategy.  We are heartened by the bipartisan support we've received from Congress.  We will use the money to rebuild and restore our military to ensure we remain the most lethal force in the world.

On Monday, Secretary Mattis issued a memorandum to the department reinforcing that every decision we make must focus on lethality and affordability.  We are humbled and grateful to the American people for entrusting their hard-earned tax dollars to us.  We owe it to them to spend their money wisely.

On transgender, I know you have a lot of questions about this topic, so I want to be up front about what I can address today.  We will continue to comply with four court orders assessing transgender applicants for military service, and retaining current transgender service members.  Because there is ongoing litigation, and to safeguard the integrity of the court process, I am unable to provide any further details at this time.

On the situation in northern Syria, military operations continue in Syria as we work by, with and through our coalition partners to defeat ISIS and -- and ensure conditions are set to prevent its return.

While the coalition has significantly degraded ISIS, important work remains to guarantee the lasting defeat of these violent extremists.  Our commitment to win must outlast the so-called physical caliphate, and the warped ideas that guide the calculated cruelty of ISIS.

This is a group that plots and launches terror attacks globally.  They have no regard for anything decent or valuable in life.  As long as they exist and bring death and destruction around the world, we will continue to degrade, destroy and ultimately defeat ISIS.

We cannot allow our focus to deviate from the most important task of eliminating ISIS from the region.  The ISIS terrorist network is more fragile than it was one year ago, but it is still -- but it still presents a capable and committed threat.

ISIS is taking full advantage of any opportunity to regain momentum.  We must not relent on ISIS or permit these terrorists to recover from their battlefield loses.

We are working with our NATO ally Turkey to reassure them that we understand their security concerns and will appropriately address them as we fight ISIS together.  But we must not become distracted and reduce the pressure on ISIS.

The nature of our mission has not changed:  The coalition remains committed to the lasting defeat of ISIS.

We will accomplish this by training, advising and assisting our partner forces in Iraq and Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces have repeatedly shown they are the most capable force on the ground to defeat ISIS.  We will continue to support the SDF as they continue to fight against ISIS.

We will work together to secure and stabilize liberated territory, as our diplomats work to resolve the Syrian conflict through the Geneva Process.

We must quickly resolve our differences in Syria and consolidate our gains to guarantee ISIS does not regroup.  We support our diplomats who are working tirelessly to ensure we can finish the ISIS fight.

So with that, I will take your questions.

Lita?

Q:  Dana, two things.

One, can you tell us what the topic of the meeting was today with Director Pompeo, Sessions and Senator Graham?  Can you just give us an idea of what that was about and if there were additional people in the meeting, who they were?

And then I have a second question.

MS. WHITE:  The meeting today was a routine meeting of Cabinet members.  The secretary talked about his -- his three priorities, and that's the lethality of the force, it's alliances and partnerships, and the reform that we're bringing.  They are -- he is focused on that -- on those issues, so that was the conversation.

Senator Graham is a key member of the Armed Services Committee, and so it's also a part of keeping our Congress -- members of Congress informed of everything we're doing.

But it was a routine conversation.

Q:  Okay.

And secondly, I completely understand your reluctance to talk about the transgender lawsuits.  I have a question on the actual memo that the Defense Department posted publicly on its website on Friday night.

I think that memo is out there, it's public for everyone to read.  But I think there's some confusion about it.  And I think the department owes the service members and the public at least some clarity on what the actual document says and what its intent was.  Whether or not it -- that has an impact on the lawsuit completely aside, just that actual document itself.  Because that was -- it was written and signed by the secretary of defense, and that appears to be the policy that the White House then endorsed.

So my question is -- I just want to make sure I have this clear -- the policy said that transgender troops who have a history of gender dysphoria are disqualified, except under certain circumstances.  There were exceptions that could be done.

But it also said that transgender troops who require or have undergone transition are disqualified, and there were no similar exceptions.  I want to make sure that I understand correctly that, under the document you posted -- that transgender troops who have actually undergone transition would no longer be allowed to serve, so would be thrown out.  Is that an accurate interpretation of what you posted?

MS. WHITE:  I'm limited in my ability to talk about it.  One, we have to remember that what was posted was a recommendation.  The department remains under four court orders, so we continue to assess transgender individuals, as well as retain transgender service members.

But, beyond that, I have to respect the integrity of the litigation.  I'd have to refer you to the Department of Justice.  They are the lead in this.  The documents are there.  We made them public as soon as the announcements were made, so.

Q:  But don't you think it's the Pentagon's responsibility to at least explain the document itself -- I mean, just to make clear what the document says?

MS. WHITE:  Much of that will be explained through litigation, and, as the Department of Justice is the lead, I have to respect the -- the current process.  But we remain under those four court orders and will continue to comply.

Q:  Right, I'm not arguing with that.  I'm just -- I'm just saying, the document -- is that not a Defense Department document -- right?  That is the Defense Department's policy recommendation,

MS. WHITE:  It is the -- it is the -- it is the secretary's recommendation that was posted, yes.

Q:  Right.  And the White House then endorsed it, saying, "We accept the Defense Department's recommendation."  So that is the Defense Department's policy?

MS. WHITE:  Right.  We are under a court order.

Q:  No, I understand that.  But that was -- that is the department's recommended policy.

MS. WHITE:  What was posted was the recommendation.  We remain -- the Department of Defense remains under those four court orders.  There is current litigation, and until any of that -- any and all of that is resolved, we can't -- I can't comment further.

Q:  Okay.

MS. WHITE:  I understand, but there is a process that's going on.

Q:  Can I follow up on that, actually?

MS. WHITE:  Sure.

Q:  Because, as reporters, we got -- we all got this -- late Friday night, we got the memo, and we're trying to report accurately on it, and there is some confusion about the status of currently serving transgender under the -- transgender individuals -- under this new policy that Secretary Mattis signed.  His name -- he wrote it.  His name is on it.

So again, like Lita, I understand that this is under litigation, but, for our reporting purposes, can some -- can you just explain to us -- currently serving individuals who have undergone reassignment surgery or are in the process of it -- it -- does this policy find that they are eligible to continue to serve, or not?

MS. WHITE:  Again...

Q:  It doesn't have anything to do with the court.  I really understand, and I understand the integrity of the process.  But, if this is something that's been presented to the court, why is it that we have to have the court be the -- and the Department of Justice be the ones who explain the -- your policy?  The -- do you understand the disconnect here, that...

MS. WHITE:  It's a recommendation.  The Department of Justice is leading this.  They will explain, because there is a court -- this is pending litigation.  And, as long as it's pending litigation, there is a very limited amount that we can talk about.  We have -- as the secretary said earlier this week, we have to respect the integrity of the process.

The documents are there.  They are free for you to read.  We put them up as soon as we -- as we could.  There were multiple filings that were done.  And this is pending litigation.

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Tom?

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Tom?

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Tom?

Q:  (Off mic) then why not explain that?

Q:  On the same -- on the same subject, I think the documents say there's some -- fewer than a thousand transgenders in the military across the board.  Can we get a breakdown of those numbers by service, and how many are in combat arms, how many in support?

You must have some sort of a sense of -- at least which service we're talking about here.  Can we get that information?

It has nothing to do with a court case or anything.  It should be readily available, I think.

MS. WHITE:  I will be happy to talk to OGC about it.  But you are dealing with, also, privacy issues, so...

Q:  I'm not asking for names, I'm just asking for what the -- the services they're in.  And are they in combat arms, they in support, so forth?

MS. WHITE:  I'll be happy to take it.

Lalit. 

Q:  Thank you -- (inaudible).

India is planning to buy S-400 air defense system from Russia.  Would CAATSA legislation kick-in to it if India goes ahead with this purchase from -- (inaudible) -- from Russia?

MS. WHITE:  Say the second part?  What are the implications?

Q:  The CAATSA legislation, which is Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, prevents American allies to buy certain defense equipment from Russia.  And if they go ahead to buy it, do sanctions kick-in (inaudible)?

India being an important partner for U.S. and also for Russia.  To India, you know, buys around 60 percent of its equipment from Russia because of its historic relationship with them. Now India is planning to buy S-400 air defense system from Russia.  So my questions is, will this legislation kick-in (inaudible) and U.S. will be imposing sanctions on India?

MS. WHITE:  I can't comment on pending legislation.  But what I can say is that, ultimately, those decisions are sovereign decisions, and so those are decisions that India has to make for itself.

Q:  (Inaudible)?

MS. WHITE:  Hold on one second.

Ryan?

Q:  Thank you, ma'am.

To -- on the border wall, there's a lot of reports that President Trump is looking at having the Department of Defense fund the border wall and re-appropriating funding from the omnibus, potentially.

Is there any effort going on inside this building to look at how that might be done; looking at funding and reauthorization and -- or using National Guard forces?  Is there any kind of effort going on the border wall?

And then I have a small, separate question.

MS. WHITE:  What I can tell you is that the secretary has talked to the president about it, but I don't have any specifics with respect to any -- any -- any more details than they -- they have spoken about it.

Go ahead, Ryan.  Go...

Q:  What… about the money being used?  To be clear on that -- he's talk to him about using Pentagon funds for the wall?  Is that what you asked?

MS. WHITE:  They -- they have talked about the proposal, potentially.

Remember, securing Americans and securing the nation is paramount -- of paramount importance to the secretary.  They have talked about it, but I don't have any more details with respect to any specifics.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  Can you talk -- can you talk about the purpose of the meeting this afternoon between the secretary and Amb. Bolton?

MS. WHITE:  So, this will be the first time that they've met.  But it's a very routine meeting, just to -- to start to get to know each other.  As the secretary said earlier this week, he looks forward to a very productive partnership.

Q:  A follow-up on the wall?

MS. WHITE:  (Inaudible) -- go ahead.

Q:  Thank you.

You know, over the last few years, and especially as Secretary Mattis took office, really emphasized the state of readiness of U.S. forces and how much money is needed to rebuild the forces, rebuild squadrons.  If this wall costs $25 billion, wouldn't that significantly harm this department's ability to buy the ships, to buy the aircraft that it needs to get back to the strength it needs to be?

MS. WHITE:  I think -- I think that's a bridge too far, because we don't have those details.  And, again, it's -- it's been an initial conversation so I don't have any more details.  But if I get more details about a way forward, I will certainly share them.

Q:  (inaudible) -- Secretary Mattis pressed the need to keep a focus on lethality, which has been his primary focus the entire time.

MS. WHITE:  The -- the president and the secretary, there's no daylight between them with respect to ensuring that this military stays most lethal in the world.  That is a -- there is no disagreement with them between -- on that issue.

Idris?

Q:  Just going back to transgender very quickly, in the memo, the secretary says the RAND study has significant shortcomings, and then refers to the panel of experts that provided the recommendations.

Could -- could you tell us who is on the panel of experts?

MS. WHITE:  Again, I don't have that information.  And I -- and I know it's been a request, and we are working on what we can do.

But again, the documents are there -- the supporting documents are there.  They stand for themselves.

I understand there are questions, but, again, I have to respect that -- the fact that this is pending litigation.

Q:  Is the secretary proud of the recommendations they made?

Because generally if you put something out at 9:30 on a Friday, the impression is that it's being put out there because, you know, it's being hidden or something.  And it was not easy to find the memo on -- on the website, either.

I mean, is he proud of the recommendations he's made to the president?

MS. WHITE:  The secretary was asked for his -- his thoughts and he provided his recommendation.

The way that this was done, is it was a coordinated effort with the White House as well as the Department of Justice.  And because there were multiple filings done in different time zones, it -- it drove the timing of the release.

But as soon as it was done, we provided that information to ensure that there was transparency, that you could read it and could see what his -- not just the memo, but also the supporting document behind it.

So that is his recommendation.  And it -- and that -- and that is what it is.

We remain under the four court orders, and therefore we're going to continue to comply and assess transgender individuals as well as retain currently serving transgender service members.

Q:  You're not saying that the -- that the names of the people on the panel have an impact on the lawsuit, are you?

MS. WHITE:  I'm saying that the documents there have been submitted and that is -- that is what we have submitted.

With respect to the names, I would have to defer and talk to Justice as well as OGC.

Yes?

Q:  Can I follow up on that, please?

MS. WHITE:  Sure, Nancy.

Q:  In the memo -- as Lita -- (inaudible) -- pointed out, there's some ambiguity about what exactly it means in there.  Some who -- in the military who -- who might be male who identify as female or vice versa, who say that because of that ambiguity, that they are taking it as a don't-ask, don't-tell sort of approach; that if they identify one way or the other, that because of the ambiguity in the policy, it is best that they do not say what -- what gender they identify with.

Is that an accurate conclusion that one should draw from this memo if you're a currently serving member of the military who may identify in a different sex?

MS. WHITE:  What one can assume is that right now the Department of Defense is retaining transgender service members, because we are under four court orders.  That is what you can assume.

Beyond that, this is a -- this is pending litigation.

Q:  Right, but what I guess I'm asking is in an organization of 2 million personnel, clear personnel policies is critical.  And I -- and I -- I'm just trying to understand it.

If you're a transgender service member, if you're a male who identifies as female or vice versa, going forward, until this is settled legally, that you should not reveal what gender you identify with?

MS. WHITE:  That is up to an individual.  What I can tell you...

Q:  But I'm asking what the personnel policy is for this department.

MS. WHITE:  The personnel policy of this department is that we continue to allow and assess and retain transgender individuals.  That is the current -- that is the state in which we are -- four court orders.

Q:  And if I were to come out and identify as a different gender, would that threaten my ability to serve right now in the U.S. military?

MS. WHITE:  I'm not going to deal with hypotheticals.

Way in the back.

Q:  Okay, going back to the transgender story, what -- I don't understand why, if it's so important the -- the litigation issue, why hasn't your department waited until litigations are over?

Has there has been any kind of pressure from the White House?  Why not wait until everything is clear, until the courts have made a decision whether it's constitutional or not?  And I have a second question on the budget, but...

MS. WHITE:  Well, because, one, there was a memo.  The -- the president requested the secretary provide a recommendation, and that was very transparent.

And so, now, we are in this process, and we're going to see it through.  We've provided the documents.  We've provided the recommendation, and we -- we remain under the court orders.

Q:  Yeah, but what's the sense of providing any recommendation if the final decision is going to depend on the courts anyway?  I mean, if -- if it's unconstitutional, which could happen, your recommendation would make it -- no sense anyway.

Maybe it would have been better to find out how -- which is exactly the problem before telling the White House -- the White House, sorry -- how to deal with it.

MS. WHITE:  This is a process, and -- and, more on the process, I would have to refer you to the Department of Justice.  This is current litigation, and this is where we are.

Lucas.

Q:  My second question on the -- on the budget, which is really the border wall -- you were saying that Secretary Mattis is really focused on defending the Americans.  But my understanding is that American security in U.S. soil -- it's not -- it has nothing to do with the Department of Defense, or it has more to do with the Department of Homeland Security.

So why ask the Department of Defense?  Because the idea that, if -- that people outside this whole business are getting is that Trump -- the president, sorry -- (inaudible) for you to have an increase of your funds, but then -- so he can use it for what he wants, which is not exactly the military.

MS. WHITE:  I think it's important to understand that the president and the secretary talk about a variety of subjects.  This was one of them.  And I don't have any more details for you.

Tom.

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Yeah, Tom.  Tom.

Q:  The conversation that you just referred to, and earlier -- and I realize they have a lot of conversations.  But when did they talk about this concept that you brought up, about the -- the money from the defense budget for the wall?

Was it before the president sort of tweeted about it, and made, publicly, his musings on this thought?  Or was it after the president did that?  And I have a follow-up on another topic.

MS. WHITE:  I don't know about the exact timing.  Again, the president and the secretary talk frequently.  But I -- I can confirm that they have spoken about it.  But I don't have any other details, so...

Q:  To follow on this transgender thing.  What I -- I want to get clear on one thing, please.  When and if there's court action that is -- involves the Justice Department and DOD, will it be a Justice Department individual who will then explain the DOD memo that we're referring to here and what it means?

In other words, if there are questions that (inaudible), as raised by some of my colleagues here, will it be a Justice Department person who is explaining that?

MS. WHITE:  Yes.  So it will be Justice in the lead.

Lucas.

Q:  Dana, does the president's...

MS. WHITE:  Thank you.

Q:  ... pick to be the next VA secretary have to leave the Navy before assuming the job?

MS. WHITE:  So this happened yesterday, and so I don't have any -- any details with respect to that.  But when we have some more details, I'm certain -- I'll certainly share.

But, again, it -- it happened yesterday.

Q:  Does Secretary Mattis have confidence that Rear Adm. Jackson can do the job successfully?

MS. WHITE:  I -- we have confidence in the secretary -- in the president's pick.  I'm not -- I don't know how familiar the secretary is with the doctor.  But he has -- you know, it's the president's pick, and it's for the president to determine who serves in his cabinet.

Q:  Was the secretary surprised by the name?

MS. WHITE:  The secretary is not surprised by much.  So, no, he was not surprised.  And he was fully supportive of having Under Secretary Wilkie serve in the interim.

STAFF:  Ma'am, we have time for a few more questions.

Q:  (Off mic)

MS. WHITE:  How about Korea?  Go ahead.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  (inaudible) -- I like you.

(Laughter.)

Well, on the exercise of the -- with -- withdrawing U.S. Forces-Korea family members and the Americans in South Korea to the United States, if you have anything on that.  Are they going to evacuate U.S. citizens from Korea?

MS. WHITE:  I don't have any information on that.

We stay very vigilant.  As the secretary had said earlier, as these talks go on, we want the people who are involved in those talks to lead them.  But we remain cautiously optimistic about developments.

Tony.

Q:  You started off reading a memo that the secretary put out the other day about stewardship of tax dollars.  What prompted the memo?  Is he concerned that potential overspending may occur on desks and travel and odds and ends that have occurred at HUD and EPA and other places, and he wants to nip that kind of thinking in the bud?

MS. WHITE:  What prompted it is the passage.  You know, it -- it got overwhelming bipartisan support.  And -- and therefore, we're grateful for the increase.  I mean, it's -- it's $700 billion, and it's ($)716(billion in FY 2019 budget request).  So we're grateful for the increase.

And he knows -- and he wants to ensure that this department is focused on meeting our performance, making sure the warfighter has what they need.  He wants us to have budget discipline.  He mentions that.

It is a call to action, that we're all responsible for this money.  This has been entrusted to us, and it's our responsibility to ensure that we maximize every dollar.

Q:  Is he going to take any additional steps, like maybe greater oversight of some key weapons programs and service contracts, where he will put his imprint on a potential contract that may or may not seem overspending?

MS. WHITE:  Well, I will tell you that the secretary and the deputy talk frequently with the service -- service secretaries about how are we going to ensure performance.  We -- he is -- we are instilling a culture of performance.

I think the biggest change you see -- will see is the fact that you do have, now, two unders, one with Ellen Lord -- with Secretary Lord -- dealing with sustainment, and you have Mike Griffin dealing in future -- in research and engineering.  That's a key point, because then we have greater accountability for those capabilities.  So now you have two individuals who that is their sole focus.

So we are infusing accountability.  We are infusing responsibility.  So that was the purpose and the reason, and what prompted his desire to put out that memo.

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  Jeff

Q:  Yeah, I was going to ask about Secretary Wilkie.  His portfolio included the close combat lethality portfolio.  Who takes that on now?

MS. WHITE:  So, Acting Principal Deputy Undersecretary Kurta* will be there in his stead. *[CORRECTION: The department has not yet determined who will serve as Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness while Robert Wilkie is acting as Secretary of Veteran's Affairs. Mr. Tony Kurta is currently serving as a Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.]


All right.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  ... Mr. Wilkie there today?  I mean, did he actually start the job, his...

(CROSSTALK)

MS. WHITE:  He will start on Monday.

Q:  (inaudible)

MS. WHITE:  I haven't gotten to this side.

Corey. 

Q:  The secretary talks a lot about keeping his recommendations to the president private.  Was it the Pentagon's decision or the White House's decision to release that -- the memo of his transgender recommendations?

MS. WHITE:  Well, again, as the -- this is in litigation, it be -- when it was filed, it became public.  So by all means, we want to provide you, and we did as quickly as we could -- when it was released, we provided it online.

Q:  And then on -- do you have any update at all on the Niger investigation?  Have the families been notified at this point of anything?

MS. WHITE:  I don't have any updates.  The secretary is still reviewing it and we will -- we will let you know.  First notifications of the family, then to Congress, and then we will let you all know.

Thank you all very, very much.