James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
3:30 P.M. EDT
AIDE: I’m here to introduce a senior administration official, well known to you all, I’m sure. This is off the record and off camera, and he will remain a senior administration official. I know that’s disappointing, but that’s the way it is.
Q On background?
AIDE: Background, sorry.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All right, good to see you. So what I’m here to talk about is really the actions of the national security team here and the events and initiatives and efforts to advance and protect U.S. interests in the area of national security over the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.
I do believe this has been a period of time in which the national security team has worked extremely well together to provide options for the President to deal with some of our most vexing, difficult issues, problems, and also in an effort to take advantage of opportunities to advance and protect U.S. interests.
As you know, there have been a number of events in the world that demanded a U.S. response. Those include the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, and a pattern of murderous activity on the part of that regime, with many of those actions involving weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapons.
And then, also, we’ve been engaged in efforts to establish and maintain strong relationships with key allies and partners, and to forge some new relationships that will allow us to identify areas of cooperation. I think that that characterizes the summit with President Xi of China. And, of course, as you’ve all been reporting on, we have the problem set of North Korea and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program that poses a grave threat to our partners and everyone in the region, but also represents a potential threat to the U.S. homeland.
There’s no shortage of things, of course, to talk about in terms of the ongoing campaign against ISIS — a campaign that has been centered, really, in Iraq and in Syria, but, as you know, reaches far beyond that into other regions and into Afghanistan, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, for example, and then into North Africa, the Maghreb, and so forth.
So I could try to summarize these, but I think what I’d really like to do is hear what’s on your minds, what questions you have, what you’d like me to discuss.
Q I was wondering if putting North Korea back on the state sponsor of terrorism list, one of the major priorities that this administration is pushing for, especially with the meeting of senators now, and what are some other options that you put on the table?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That is one of the things we’re considering. We’re looking at a broad range of options, obviously, across all elements of national power and multinational power in connection with North Korea. And so what the President has done is he’s made a decision for us to pursue a certain course, and that course obviously has a number of options associated with it, depending on how the situation develops in the future.
So I think that what you’ve seen is really an integrated effort to prioritize diplomatic and informational aspects of national power, but also what you’ll see soon is using the economic dimension of national power, as well as the military preparations that are underway.
Q Do you have a timeline?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we have timelines in mind for what we would like to see changed, but it’s mainly event-driven. It depends on the actions of North Korea. It depends on the actions of others whose help we’re looking for in resolving this problem and moving toward the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
I’ll go to the far back, the gentleman with the mustache there.
Q Thank you, all. You recently visited India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We haven’t heard from you what your meetings were, especially with the Indians. When is the Afghanistan review coming out?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’re in the midst of a policy review, so I don’t really want to foreclose on any of the discussions we’re going to have with the national security team and with the President. What we’ve been able to do, though, is take a fresh look at a problem that we’ve been engaged with for 15 years, and identify, really, how that — and understand better how that conflict has evolved in Afghanistan and evolved in Pakistan, as well.
And what we’re determined to do is to take a regional perspective, a regional look at the problem, and to make sure that we’re integrating again all of our efforts. And what we found is that often what’s been consistent, I think, in recent years is that we’ve often done just enough in Afghanistan to avoid failure, but maybe not done enough. And when I say “enough,” I don’t mean scale of effort as much of integration of our efforts to succeed.
And I think the other critical thing that we’ve looked at is that our approach to regional aspects of the problem has to change, because we’ve taken a consistent approach, for example, to the regional dimensions of the problem, and haven’t really seen improvements in assistance from others and efforts to address the problem in Afghanistan more effectively.
So what we’ve done is really looked at opportunities to better connect what we’re doing militarily in Afghanistan, which, as you know, involves a very significant counterterrorism effort that was highlighted by recent operations against ISIS Khorasan in the far eastern part of the country, in Nangarhar Province. Very effective operations that have resulted in the destruction of a large percentage of that enemy force, and an enemy that is an ISIS enemy, but we’ve identified, really, overlap with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan groups, as well as Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups there. So it’s a counterterrorism effort, certainly.
But the other aspect, the military effort, is to advise and assist the Afghan security forces. And you saw the very serious attacks against those forces this past week, which highlights the need for us to work with the Afghan government, to strengthen those security forces, which you know have been fighting and making tremendous sacrifices to defend their nation and their people against the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, as well as these transnational terrorist organizations that were seeking the safe haven and support base in Afghanistan.
But, oftentimes, what hasn’t happened is a connection — very strong connection between that military effort and political efforts and diplomatic efforts, and so forth. And so that’s what we’re endeavoring to do with this review, is to create options that produce a better integrated effort and a more effective effort.
Q Can you tell us a little bit about what the briefing with the senators is all about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we wanted to highlight obviously — and of course the Senate asked for a hearing, essentially, and the President offered to host it here at the White House — to communicate the seriousness of the threat from North Korea and to allow the senators to ask questions of the national security team and understand better the nature of the threat, but also what our response to that threat has been and how we’re proceeding to protect the American people and our partners in the region from this very grave threat represented by what we know is a brutal regime, what we know is an unpredictable regime, what we know is a capable regime in terms of conventional military capabilities, and a regime that holds at risk a large portion of the population of South Korea.
But, now, really a new level of threat from North Korea associated with the unacceptable and erratic and unlawful behavior of the Kim regime — Kim Jong-un’s regime — are represented by the murder of his brother using a nerve agent in a public place, in an airport, but also the increasing capability for destruction that that regime possesses in the form of a nuclear program and the ballistic missile program. So it’s about the seriousness, and it’s about a discussion of a strategy and approach that’s developed a broad range of options to remove this threat not only to the American people, but to our allies and partners in the region.
Q Sorry, I just had a follow-up on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I’ll just go to Kim.
Q I would like to ask, are they getting a list of options, but also, what do you assess is the risk of a miscalculation by North Korea. If there is a U.S. preemptive strike of some sort, do you assume that they will launch some sort of an attack on South Korea or Japan?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what we’ve done is taken a very systematic look at this, and obviously everything begins with our intelligence community and their assessments.
But then even as we take certain actions as we put into place elements of these integrated — of this integrated strategy, we ask the intelligence community to help us anticipate reactions to our actions. And then if there’s risk associated with that, we build into the strategy efforts to mitigate risk.
Obviously nothing is risk-free, and certainly this situation is not risk-free. But the team has done everything that we can to try to anticipate reactions and then mitigate any risk associated with those.
Q What is the state of play with North Korea? Are they — do they seem to be on the brink of another nuclear test? Or are they about to test another ballistic missile?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what we have seen in recent weeks are indications that they were preparing these kind of activities. We’ve seen a pattern of activities, right, over recent years. And what we saw instead was a conventional firepower demonstrated associated with army day on the 25th. But we’re remaining vigilant to identify any indicators of another nuclear test or of a ballistic missile test or certainly an intercontinental ballistic missile test; and are prepared to respond to any of those provocations.
Let’s go in the far back with the — the plaid shirt.
Q Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, it was the man behind you, but I’ll take the plaid tie, followed by the plaid shirt. How about that?
Q Thank you. Did I hear you correctly at the top saying that the North Korean strategy is evolving, where there will be — soon there will be an economic dimension, as well as military preparations? That’s obviously going to get a lot of attention. Can you flesh that out a little bit for us? What kinds of preparations are we talking about? Are they going to be visible to the North Koreans?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, so, of course, some of the economic actions take time to develop. And what we’re endeavoring to do is to work with partners in the region and others to isolate the North Korean ballistic missile program and the nuclear program from any sort of external support.
If you just look at the images, right, of the big parade there recently and look at the complexity of that equipment, those components, even the tires, right, are not made in North Korea. So it’s clear that all of us have a lot more to do to isolate the regime from its access to the kind of materials and technologies and components it needs to advance those two very dangerous programs.
Q The military preparations that you mentioned, sir? The military preparations.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, those — I don’t think we’re going to describe those in any detail.
Q Thank you. We’ve seen a broader view of the President’s foreign policy. Last night Chief of Staff Reince Priebus offered us a first draft of what he would define the Trump doctrine as. I was hoping you might be able to put a finer point on what you believe now — here in the 100 days — what is the Trump doctrine?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what I would say a couple of observations you could make — whether it’s actually a component of the Trump doctrine or not, that’s up to the President. And we’re working on that. Dr. Nadia Schadlow is here. She’s working on the national security strategy, working with the President’s team and the President to get his guidance and to formulate that national security strategy — the congressionally mandated national security strategy.
But I think what you’ve seen is that the President obviously weighs the risk of any action that he’s anticipating. But what he’s also done in these first few weeks is weigh the risk of inaction. And whereas, considering the risk only of action could have the tendency to paralyze a leader, I think what he’s done is he’s recognized that there is a cost associated with inaction. And I think the obvious example of this is the response to the mass murder of civilians with chemical weapons in Syria.
And so the actions that he’s taken, though, I would say — and this is another element of how we’ve seen the President lead, is that he doesn’t just look at a discreet event and react to that event. He tries to use that event and the U.S. response to it to make progress toward objectives that are related to the security and prosperity of the American people.
The other thing I would say an element of the Trump doctrine is, it’s not doctrinaire at all. (Laughter.) It’s very pragmatic. It’s based on the President’s consultation with his advisers and his national security team, for whom he has a great deal of trust. So I think that there’s some sort of top-level observations you can make about what is the Trump doctrine. But there will be more about that in the coming months.
Gentleman right here.
Q Thank you very much. Moving back to ISIS, again, early on, during the campaign, the President said over and over again that one of his hopes was to get along with Russia and to work with Russia to defeat ISIS. Obviously, the situation is not the same as it was during the campaign between the two countries. But what if any efforts can we expect to reach out to the Russian government and try to work together on this one issue where our interests most definitely align?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think Secretary Tillerson has been really clear about this that while we are going to confront what we regard as Russian inappropriate and regretful and support for the Assad regime, for example, that we’ll continue to look for ways to cooperate with Russia.
While we will not back off from our support for our European allies and for partners in Southern and Central Europe that have been subjected to a sophisticated campaign of subversion and disinformation, or we’re not going to back away from our NATO allies and their efforts to stand up to a very sophisticated Russian approach to try to undermine the alliance, what we are looking for are areas and opportunities and places to cooperate with Russia.
And there are areas where our interests overlap. You mentioned one of those, which is the defeat of ISIS and the denial of ISIS control of territory and populations in Syria, for example.
But we have to also recognize that it’s Russia’s support for the Assad regime, along with their Iranian allies, that helps perpetuate the cycle of sectarian violence there, and the chaotic environment that perpetuates human suffering and obstructs really a sustainable end to the civil war there.
So the simple answer to your question is while we will compete with Russia where we think that our interests are at odds with them, we are looking for areas that we can cooperate.
Q And those areas, what kind of outreach has there been?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, you saw Secretary Tillerson’s visit to Russia, and then there will be follow up from that. And he’s the best person to ask about that. He certainly has the lead.
Q Can I just follow in the conversation about the DPRK? Obviously there has been a lot of discussion by President Trump about his relationship with President Xi. Can you talk about what you realistically believe that Beijing can accomplish given the fact that even over the weekend, we’ve seen a war of words between Pyongyang and Beijing. They’re not exactly seeing eye-to-eye all the time these days. What is a realistic expectation? And are you encouraging them to have a carrot as well as a stick with respect to economic incentives, not just denials?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what the President said is, we’ll see, right? And he has certainly established a very close, personal relationship with President Xi, and there are areas, as you know, where our interests overlap. And I think what’s different about how China is viewing the problem in North Korea today is that China is viewing that problem as a threat not only to U.S. interests and security, or South Korea and/or Japanese interests and security, but also a threat to Chinese interests and security. And so I think that is a big shift in and of itself.
The second thing is the willingness to support — or at least not block the United Nations’ and international community’s sanction of Syria for the use of weapons of mass destruction. I think that indicated another area that we can work together.
You have seen some early indications of China doing a better job enforcing existing U.N. sanctions on North Korea, as well as I think you see in the Chinese press and in other areas really a clear effort to communicate to North Korea that its behavior, its provocative behavior, the nuclear test, missile tests, the existence of these programs can’t be tolerated.
And so I think you’ve seen two things — and acknowledgement of the threat to China, but I think you’ve also seen a willingness for China to take this problem on in new ways. And I think we ought to suspend judgment until we see how this develops in the coming days, months, so forth.
All right, thanks. I will just say one last thing just in conclusion, and I’ll just say that I think it is — you’ve seen that the team has really come together well around these complex issues. And if you think about the pace of events and the degree of concurrent activity that we have going on, you can I think recognize that we are achieving a degree of strategic competence here by being able to view events and what’s happening day-to-day in context with what we’re trying to achieve overall.
And one of the things that the President has asked us to do is to get the White House out of tactical details day-to-day. He trusts his national security team to implement. And so what you have now is a focus on the part of the National Security Council on identifying what are the biggest problems and dangers and threats to our national security, but also what are the biggest opportunities?
And now what we’re doing is organizing our efforts around framing some of these problems and opportunities, viewing them through the lens of U.S. vital interests, and primarily obviously the security of the American people, and then establishing clear objectives, and then working together at a very senior level to identify how we can integrate efforts across the elements of national power, diplomatically, informationally, militarily, economically, law enforcement, intelligence and so forth to advance towards those objectives.
And, of course, none of these problems and opportunities are going to be easy to either capitalize on or to solve, but the team I think has the right focus, has come together. And I think we have really the ability now to not just respond to events, but to understand how events fit in to what we’d like to achieve at a larger level of generality.
So, thank you.
3:41 P.M. EDT