James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:48 P.M. EDT
MS. SANDERS: Good afternoon. We’ll jump right in. I’ve got a couple of brief announcements.
Today at 5:45 p.m., the White House will hold a background briefing for reporters regarding the administration’s Iran strategy. Then at 12:45 tomorrow, the President will deliver remarks announcing the strategy to the country.
Further details on both of those events will be forthcoming. Until then, I know you guys have lots of questions, and although I really enjoy answering them every single day, especially your more serious policy-focused questions that we tend to ask in here, I thought it would be nice since we’re at the White House and we have the option of calling in the Marines, that today we might call in one of our favorites, General Kelly.
So with that, I’m going to turn it over to the Chief of Staff and let him make some opening comments and answer your questions today. And after he concludes, of course, our team will be around later this afternoon to answer any further questions.
GENERAL KELLY: Well, good afternoon. Great to be here. A couple of comments, I guess, and then open it up for Q&A.
I would have to tell you that coming into the job as the Chief of Staff, I had decided to not do too much with the press until I get my feet on the ground and figured out what base I was on on in any given day.
Prior to this, when I was at DHS and certainly as a Marine general officer, I interacted with the press a great deal. But coming into this job, I really needed to get to know the lay of the land.
I have done, I think, three off-the-records, the first one of which was, of course, violated. But thank you for all of you that didn’t violate the trust from those off-the-record periods.
I would just offer to you that although I read it all the time pretty consistently, I’m not quitting today. (Laughter.) I don’t believe — and I just talked to the President — I don’t think I’m being fired today. (Laughter.) And I’m not so frustrated in this job that I’m thinking of leaving.
I will tell you, this is the hardest job I’ve ever had. This is, in my view, the most important job I ever had. I would offer, though, it is not the best job I ever had. The best job I ever had, as I’ve said many times, is when I was an enlisted Marine sergeant infantryman. That was the best job I ever had.
So unless things change, I’m not quitting, I’m not getting fired, and I don’t think I’ll fire anyone tomorrow. (Laughter.)
So with that, John.
Q General Kelly, if I could, you said you’re not so frustrated that you’re thinking of leaving. But are you frustrated?
GENERAL KELLY: No, I’m not frustrated. This is really, really hard work running the United States of America. I don’t run it, but I’m working for someone who is dedicated to serving the country in the way that he’s talked about for a number of years. There are incredible challenges — you know, economic challenges, healthcare challenges, all of that; obviously international challenges that have to be dealt with.
I don’t mean any criticism to Mr. Trump’s predecessors, but there is an awful lot of things that were, in my view, kicked down the road that have come home to roost, pretty much right now, that have to be dealt with.
This is hard, hard work, John. And my only frustration, with all due respect to everyone in the room, is when I come to work in the morning and read about things I allegedly said, or things that Mr. Trump allegedly said, or people who are going to be fired, or whatever you all think. And it’s just not true.
That’s my frustration. And I mean no disrespect to you all.
I don’t know all the names, so, you.
Q Thank you, General Kelly. I appreciate that, and thank you for coming out here today. We hope to see you more often.
Let’s go to one of the hard things that is facing you right now, the situation in Puerto Rico. And since you’re here to speak for the President, let’s talk about his tweet this morning. Does President Trump believe that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens —
GENERAL KELLY: Yes.
Q — who deserve the same access to federal aid as people who live in Texas and Florida?
GENERAL KELLY: Yes.
Q What is his tweet about then?
GENERAL KELLY: Which tweet?
Q The tweet where he says that we can’t be in Puerto Rico forever.
GENERAL KELLY: I think he said the U.S. military and FEMA can’t be there forever. Right?
Q He did. Yes. First responders, FEMA, and the military.
GENERAL KELLY: First responders. The minute you go anywhere as a first responder — and this would apply, certainly, to the military — you are trying very hard, working very hard to work yourself out of a job.
There will be a period in which — we hope sooner rather than later — to where the U.S. military and FEMA, generally speaking, can withdraw because then the government and the people of Puerto Rico are recovering sufficiently to start the process of rebuilding.
I just got off the phone — I’ve talked to him many times — with the governor of Puerto Rico. Great relationship. The President deals with him periodically. We saw him when we were down there last week.
So this country, our country will stand with those American citizens in Puerto Rico until the job is done. But the tweet about FEMA and DOD — read: military — is exactly accurate. They’re not going to be there forever, and the whole point is to start to work yourself out of a job and then transition to the rebuilding process.
Q I’m Doug (inaudible) with Christian News and Christian Newspaper Association. And in light of the President in support of pulling out of UNESCO, what would the President’s response, you know, to UNRWA funding — which is a U.N. agency that has been in the schools specifically inciting kids to violence against the Jews and our tax dollars going into that. Do you have statement about, in light of UNESCO pulling out, about UNRWA?
GENERAL KELLY: No. I’m not as familiar probably as I should be with it. I would just offer that the responsible way to look at any program — and certainly when I went to DHS and I did this in Iraq and other places I’ve been — when we’re spending U.S. taxpayer money, we should look at every program and decide whether it is being successful. If it’s not being successful, then change it so it can be successful, or sometimes you just say it’s not going to work.
Q The follow-up to that would be, the Prime Minister just came out today — there was a release, the government press office in Israel — the Prime Minister welcomed the withdrawal from UNESCO. And I had met with the Prime Minister of Israel in May about UNRWA, and he’s very concerned. He made a statement in the Jerusalem Post not too long ago denouncing UNRWA, so I thought it would be —
GENERAL KELLY: I would have to get more familiar. Sorry.
Q General Kelly, Margaret Brennan from CBS. Thank you very much for coming out and doing this. You focused a lot on process and establishing processes here at the White House. I’m wondering if you can explain —
GENERAL KELLY: Is this the “iron hand” that I brought to the staff?
Q No, but did you?
GENERAL KELLY: No.
Q Is that how you see it? You don’t see that you have an iron hand?
GENERAL KELLY: No. Just put some organization to it. Put a smile on my face. (Laughter.) Although you guys with the cameras always catch me when I’m thinking hard and it looks like I’m frustrated and mad.
Q What is your frustrated face? (Laughter.) But back to the question. Can you explain what the process was with this Pakistan raid? What the President’s involvement was? How you sort of —
GENERAL KELLY: The Pakistan raid?
Q The Pakistan raid to release these Americans who — Caitlan Coleman and her family —
GENERAL KELLY: Okay, yeah.
Q The level of the President’s involvement and awareness —
GENERAL KELLY: Well, I think we have roughly 20. In fact, about — with four of them, the three children, of course, being U.S. citizens, and the mother, we’ve now reduced — and I’m not making a joke here — but we’ve now reduced the number of hostages by almost a third. But that’s not to take away from all of the unfortunate people that are still being held hostage.
You know, I’ll use the term “partners” in Pakistan. We’ve been watching for the family. What can I say? Not making up a lie here, I’m just staying within the classification.
Let me just say the Pakistanis, they’re great partners in this regard that they are. And I don’t think — I think there’s been a change. Hopefully, there will be a change in the cooperative relationship between the United States and Pakistan.
But the good news is, the Pakistani officials got custody of the American citizens — four American citizens, three children, one adult female, and then of course the husband is a Canadian citizen. Took them into custody, held them for us — not for us — held them.
We had arrangements to transport them back to the United States or to Canada any way they wanted to go. Medical treatment along the way. A lot of this, of course, would be psychological treatment. They’ve been essentially living in a hole for five years. I mean, that’s the kind of people we’re dealing with over there.
Luckily, and thank God that the Pakistani officials have — took them into custody, so to speak, from the forces of evil in that part of the world, and they’re being cared for now as we speak.
Q As a flag-rank officer, a gentleman with knowledge of world affairs, certainly you know the quote from Prime Minister Macmillan — events, events, events. What are the events that keep you, let’s say, concerned, awake at night, in terms of global affairs?
GENERAL KELLY: Well, you know, they’re the big ones, naturally. You got a nuclear threat from North Korea; a possible nuclear threat, in time, by the Iranians.
You know, but probably the biggest concern — it’s not an immediate concern: If this continues in North Korea, if eventually other countries — I’ll let it go at that — become nuclear powers — obviously, we already have some out there — there’s a real — it would be a real impetus for a lot of countries to develop or buy nuclear weapons.
You know, I would tell you this, in spite of what someone reported the other day about the President — and I don’t think he’d mind my sharing this, what he said to me many, many times and to the group oftentimes — I hear him most say, about nuclear weapons, that wouldn’t it be great if we could get rid of them all as opposed to we need 10 times more.
So even more than when he references the maintenance of nuclear weapons and modernization, that doesn’t mean increase in numbers. I hear him say more — talk more about, wouldn’t it be great — how could we get rid of nuclear weapons?
So not a lot keeps you up at night. I mean, the good news is, out there we have a great State Department doing the diplomacy thing night and day.
As Jim Mattis and I have many, many times said when we were in uniform: If we don’t fund the State Department properly, buy us more bullets. So out there in the world, you got the State Department doing what it does every day and all the rest of the great Americans that are working those kind of issues. And you got the U.S. military, the greatest military on the planet. We don’t like to think in terms of things turning to military, but that’s always an option.
The great thing about our military is it’s a real deterrent factor around the world, whether it’s nuclear deterrent or conventional deterrent.
Q Just to get back to a thing that happened a couple of days ago, the President tweeted, “The problem with agreeing to a policy on immigration is that the Democrats don’t want secure borders, they don’t care about safety for U.S.A.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization?
GENERAL KELLY: How I would put it is that there is an element without — first of all, let me step back and say I believe that honest men and women can disagree on anything politically or otherwise. The one thing I draw a little bit of a line to is on the security of the nation.
There are certainly people in our country that have the opinion that open borders or near-open borders are fine; people should be able to come and go. There are others, myself included — you can bet the President — but I think the majority of Americans feel as though security on the borders is important. Now, how you achieve that is a different story.
I believe — I have a great relationship with the Mexicans. We have great relationships with the Mexicans on the border. They’re in the counter-drug fight with the United States. In fact, in my view, suffer more from the drug — our drug demand — which we don’t seem to address. We’re trying to now, under the Trump administration. But places like Mexico, Central America suffer more from our drug demand, and do more in many ways to stop that drug flow than we do in our own country.
I was recently down in Mexico, before I took this job, and flew into Sinaloa, and saw a Mexican military risking their lives, pulling out tens of thousands of poppy plants that are eventually turned into heroin and eventually consumed by Americans.
But we need to secure our borders and that includes the maritime — our ports. We have unbelievably dedicated men and women — CBP, DHS — that are doing that every day. We need to reinforce what they’re doing down on the border. We definitely need more wall or physical barrier. We have about 600 miles of that border now secured by some type of physical barrier.
By the way, the Secure Fence Act in 2006, you ought to check it out, who voted for that. Certainly, Senator Obama did, I believe, Senator Hillary Clinton, Senators Chuck Schumer — all voted for it. And we have a worse situation on our southern border. And not condemning Mexico here, again — they’re great partners — but we have a worse situation on our borders 10 years later, yet this is unbelievable resistance to securing our border. And again, some of that is physical barrier, a lot of — all of that, for sure, is people, technology, things like that.
So we have to secure our borders. And this includes, as I say, our ports — New York, Boston, Houston — don’t have nearly the issues on the northern border with Canada. Great partnerships there. But the problem with our southern border is the drug flow and the illegal immigration flow rides on a network that right now comes up through into the Western Hemisphere from abroad, up through Mexico — Central America and Mexico, and into the United States. Got to do something about it.
Q You talk about frustrations. Peel back the curtain for us since you’re in a first-row vantage point with the President. What are his frustrations right now? And secondly, a big decision that’s going to be upcoming is the Fed Chair position possibly here in the next few weeks or upcoming months. Where does that stand? How actively is the administration engaging now at this moment?
GENERAL KELLY: One of his frustrations is you.
Q Me personally?
GENERAL KELLY: All of you. Not all of you, but many of you. As I said when I first started talking — again, I’m a reasonable guy, but when I read in the morning — I read the — well, I won’t tell you what I read — but when I watch TV in the morning, it is astounding to me how much is misreported. I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are operating off of contacts, leaks, whatever you call them. But I would just offer to you the advice: I would say maybe develop some better sources. Some person that works way down inside an office, or — well, just develop some better sources.
The Congress has been frustrating to him. Of course, our government is designed to be slow, and it is. His sense, I think, as a man who is outside the Washington arena, a businessman — much more of a man of action — I would say his great frustration is the process that he now finds himself. Because, in his view, the solutions are obvious, whether it’s tax cuts and tax reform, healthcare, infrastructure programs, strengthening our military. To him, these all seem like obvious things that need to be done to protect the American people — bring jobs back. These are all the things that he sees as vital to protect the American people, and ought to advance the American economy or whatnot.
And the process is so slow and so hard sometimes to deal with. So I think those two things.
Q Where does everything stand with the Fed right now? Are you guys days away, weeks away?
GENERAL KELLY: Some time away. I mean, there are still ongoing interviews. But every candidate — I’m trying to learn about things that have to do with what you’re talking about. But all of the people that have interviewed have been really first-round draft choices, and we have more to come. And it’s a very measured process. He has great, obviously, advisors to help him make that decision.
Q Thank you. President Trump is —
GENERAL KELLY: Are the people in the front row like the most important people?
Q No. (Laughter.)
Q Not at all.
GENERAL KELLY: No, seriously, how do you end up —
Q We’re the cannon fodder.
Q We’re the first in line when they start shooting.
Q General Kelly, thank you so much, and thanks for being here today. President Trump in recent days has gotten into a bit of war of words with Senator Bob Corker, the latest Republican who he’s had a public feud with. As his Chief of Staff, are you concerned that he’s jeopardizing his agenda by feuding with members of his own party?
GENERAL KELLY: I’m not. I mean, he’s a straightforward guy, the President is — is the one thing I found he is. I have found him — what am I, nine weeks in the job? — willing to work with anyone to advance the agenda, the agenda being what’s good for America, what protects America. You’ve seen him reach out to these people on the other side of the aisle.
I think, not to get into — well, let me just say that when members of Congress say things that are unfair or critical, the President has a right to defend himself. When I read about things that are what I would perceive to be unfair or critical, unnecessarily critical, I will call members of Congress and just ask, is there anything I can do to help you with that misconception you have, or maybe explain to you why he did this or that.
Oftentimes, members of Congress that I talk to will say, “Gee, I didn’t realize it came off that way. I’m sorry.” Or, “No, I meant it,” but it was kind of a grown-up comment and so I’ll take that to the President to say. But then there’s others that are, as the President will say, grandstanding. I’m not saying Senator Corker is that way; I’m just saying that some people grandstand and kind of enjoy the attention.
Q Have you talked to Bob Corker? Have you called Bob Corker?
GENERAL KELLY: I’ve talked to Senator Corker.
Q But in the wake of this recent fight?
GENERAL KELLY: I’ve talked to Bob Corker, yeah.
Q And do his tweets make your job more difficult, General Kelly?
GENERAL KELLY: No. No. I mean, the job of the Chief of Staff is to staff the President, give him the best advice or go get the best advice I can give him, help him consume advice, help him work through the decision-making process in an informed way. But that’s my job and that’s what I do.
Q One question on Cuba, if I may.
GENERAL KELLY: You got it next. I’ll go to you.
Q Thank you. Is it me or him?
Q Does the President believe that the Cuban government is directly responsible for these attacks on Americans? And does the President plan on closing the U.S. Embassy in Cuba? And is the President aware of the visa crisis for Cuban —
GENERAL KELLY: What’s the rule? How many times — how many questions can you ask? (Laughter.)
We believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats.
Q While we’re waiting for the President to make a decision tomorrow about the Iran nuclear deal, can you talk broadly about the strategy to counter Iran’s nefarious activities in the region? And will you list the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, as some members of the Congress have suggested?
GENERAL KELLY: I think — I know that we have great partners in the Persian Gulf region, the Arabian Gulf. Clearly, we have a war that we’re seeing every day being won in Iraq against ISIS. I mean, in the last nine months — I never thought I’d ever feel sorry for them, but they’re getting crushed every day. The caliphate is gone. We see them trying to escape from Iraq and get into Europe and places like that, which should cause Europeans much concern.
But back on your question about Iran, the partners in the region we’re very close with, have great relationships with. We’re out there, we have footprints on the ground, naval and air forces there to just demonstrate our resolve, our friendship, and to try to deter anything that any country out there may do.
So that’s the approach we’re taking to Iran right now. Clearly, the President has — he’s deep in thought, to say the least, about the way ahead in Iran. And once again, he’s not the only one that thinks that maybe the deal that was struck under the previous administration is a deal in the long term, even in the medium and long term, will protect America.
Q Thank you, General. I wanted to ask you about the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. As we saw just a few moments ago, the President signed an executive order, an executive order that he says will bring more choices for Americans, will lower premiums for America as well. It’s October the 12th. He’s been in office since January the 20th. Is there any particular reason why he didn’t sign this executive order his first week in office? What’s taken him so long?
And my other question, if I may. General, the other question is very important. Do you blame Senator McConnell, the leader of the Senate, for the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare?
GENERAL KELLY: On the first question — and I came in late to all of this — but the idea was — and it is a great question. All of what was in that executive order today, there was a sense that had the big bill passed, all of that would have been taken care of.
So since the big bill didn’t pass, and we probably won’t have a healthcare bill until, say, the spring, this was a way to take care of as many Americans as he could legally with an executive order.
As far as the second question goes, the Congress is an extremely complicated — it’s designed to be an extremely complicated, slow-moving part of our government. I have nothing but respect for members of Congress and the staffs that work so hard for them. Sometimes, the — it’s like talking to Nancy Pelosi once. She’s the leader, but, boy, is it really hard to lead. I’d say the same thing about the Majority Leader in the Senate. There are 100, or whatever — 100 members of Congress that look to their states, have their own political baggage to deal with, and they’re not always reliable on every vote to vote the way that the President or Mitch McConnell wants the vote.
So, that good? One more. Who’s the lucky one?
Q Thank you very much, sir. First of all, congratulations.
GENERAL KELLY: For what? (Laughter.)
Q For the new job. Sir, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned, recently, many tragedies have taken place here, and Indian American community and India paid a tribute on 9/11 at the Georgetown University, in cooperation with the Indian embassy and also the Gandhi Center, as far as the tragedy in Las Vegas is concerned.
My question is that Indian Ambassador, Mr. Sarna, said the time has come now [for] U.S. and India to stand together against all these terrorism. And same thing — Prime Minister Modi, when he was here at the White House, he told President Trump that India is with the U.S., anytime, anywhere, as far as fighting terrorism. So where do we stand, sir, today as the U.S.-India relations are concerned?
GENERAL KELLY: By the way, just as I listened there, that face I had on was my listening intently face. (Laughter.)
The United States of America will stand with any country against terrorism. We stand with countries we’re not so friendly with, and we stand with countries that we’re extremely friendly with, like India.
This cancer of terrorism, as we crush it in the caliphate, as you all know is moving in other directions to include the West into Western Europe. But the northern part of Africa is suffering terribly, and it will grow there. As it moves south in Africa, it’s moving out into — it’s already in South Asia — very, very dangerous.
I went to a very, very good conference that King Abdullah of Jordan invited me to — the Aqaba Initiative — where he had all of the Southeast Asia countries represented, particularly the big Muslim countries, to include the Philippines; they have many, many Muslims, as you all know, in the southern part of the country.
And the discussion was, you know, what do we do as this ISIS form of terrorism, cancerous, metastasizes in most parts of the world. And these countries are very, very afraid of that because they’ve had to deal with it locally, but not, if you will, a threat that will go into places that typically you don’t normally see Islamic terrorism thrive.
So again, I would say that the United States will work with any country — does work with every country that is trying to get its arms around terrorism of all kinds. And there are different types. It’s not all religious-based — the various types of terrorism — but that would be my answer.
Q Thank you, General Kelly. I have a question about the tweets that’s a big part of this administration. Do they get you by surprise? And are they official statements? And on the war against North Korea, what are the chance — should the American people be worried about a war?
GENERAL KELLY: That’s two questions.
GENERAL KELLY: Which one should I answer?
Q Both. (Laughter.)
GENERAL KELLY: The American people should be concerned about a state that has developed a pretty good ICBM capability and is developing a pretty good nuclear reentry vehicle. I would believe — I think I speak for the administration — that that state simply cannot have the ability to reach the homeland and, for that matter — well, the homeland.
Right now, there’s great concern about a lot of Americans that live in Guam. Right now, we think the threat is manageable, but over time, if it grows beyond where it is today — well, let’s hope diplomacy works.
As far as the tweets go, you know, it’s funny — I read in the paper — well, you all know, you write it — that I’ve been a failure at controlling the President, or a failure at controlling his tweeting, and all that. Again, I was not sent in — or I was not brought to this job to control anything but the flow of information to our President so that he can make the best decisions.
I have found that Mr. Trump, from the day I met him, does not — he’s a decisive guy. He’s a very thoughtful man, I should say. He takes information in from every avenue he can receive it. I restrict no one, by the way, from going in to see him. But when we go in to see him now, rather than onesies and twosies, we go in and help him collectively understand what he needs to understand to makes these vital decisions.
So again, I was not sent in to — or brought in to control him, and you should not measure my effectiveness as a Chief of Staff by what you think I should be doing. But simply, the fact is, I can guarantee to you that he is now presented with options, well thought-out options. Those options are discussed in detail with his team, and then he comes up with the right decision.
But it’s always, always, always focused on protecting America and advancing America’s economic development, jobs for America, safety for Americans.
And with that, I’ll let you go and I’ll enjoy reading about it tomorrow. Thanks a lot, everyone.