Aboard Air Force One
En Route Miami, Florida
12:00 P.M. EDT
MR. ANTON: Just to reiterate the ground rules: You’ve got a senior administration official who will speak on background as a senior administration official. For those getting the audio in the White House, this is just for information only. It is not be used for broadcast on radio or TV.
With that, I will turn it over to our SAO.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Good afternoon — I suppose it’s noon now. Good to see you. I’ll take a question or two here off the record, if I can. But on the record, with respect to the reporting on the — reported killing of al-Baghdadi today, my answer would be no comment.
Q So you are aware of the reports?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s correct. I’m aware of the reports. Senior leadership here at the White House and the President have been made aware of the reports, and my official answer now is no comment.
Q Are you in touch with the Russians on those reports? Have you spoken with your Russian counterparts?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If we could, just as a ground rule — all I’m prepared to say on the record is no comment.
But if I can then switch to off the record answers —
Q Off the record, meaning background as senior White House official?
Q You mean you want to go just completely off the record?
MR. ANTON: Background as an SAO.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So let me do background as an SAO then for a minute before I take your questions. A couple of reasons for the “no comment” that I would put into your thinking here would be that we’ve seen a number of, and a pattern of, claims from Syria, Russia, and others who have various different motives and intentions for making such claims wrongly, or quickly and inaccurately.
And what we want to make sure we do is maintain our credibility as a government, not only with the media, but with our world partners, allies, and enemies alike so as to not informally or incorrectly corroborate such a claim.
At this point, the claims seem to have a number of infirmities that made me nervous and would ask for actual reflections from our intelligence community,and I’m not prepared to give you that report yet because I don’t have it.
Some of those infirmities suggested that this happened at the end of May and that there were upwards of 300 or more soldiers killed in that strike. That’s the type of magnitude that we would think we would have already seen reflections of, and at least to my knowledge, we weren’t aware of.
And so a strike of that size and that claim that would have happened that long ago without any knowledge is something that made me curious and specious of the claim. And then the track record, really, and pattern of previously incorrect claims made me nervous.
And then, lastly, as the other side of that coin, after the U.S. killed Adnani, we had seen that reported by the Russians and Syrians within days. And so the fact that this has gone for weeks just made me a little bit careful.
So that’s why for now it’s no comment.
(Goes off the record.)
(Returns on the record.)
So that’s it for the prepared part.
And I think, to your question, I have not been in contact with any other government other than my own U.S. government partners, so I can’t speak for, honestly, as we’re on the plane, whether any of our intelligence community has talked to their counterparts in Russia.
I know that our officials on the ground are aware — in other words, our diplomats and our military forces on the ground in Syria and elsewhere. And our State Department officials are already on the highest of heightened security postures because of Ramadan and the higher threat that accompanies it. So there would be nothing to do to increase our security posture for U.S. interests for a potential retaliatory strike, which lessens my urgency on determining whether the claim is true.
Q For the new Cuba policy, does that have anything to do with —
MR. ANTON: I’ll see if I can get my colleague.
Q I’m just wondering if you’re worried about Cuba being a staging ground for terrorists and that’s part of the reason for the new policy.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The only thing I’ll say on the Cuba policy here, for what it’s worth, is that the continuation of no wet foot, dry foot policy, of the ending of that policy is a good thing for not only the people who end being put in harm’s way, but for our border security.
And outside of that, I am going to leave H.R. and the President, and Senator Rubio and others to do most of the talking on the Cuba policy today.
Thank you very much. Thanks, all.
* * * *
MR. ANTON: Look, I can’t talk about stuff beyond the NSC purview that I have. So for DACA, I’ve got to refer you to the White House Press Office, which everybody is there.
(Goes off the record.)
(Returns on the record.)
Q On the Cuba announcement today, you guys are doing it during a meeting of a lot of Latin American leaders who have been against changing the Obama administration policy. Some might see this as a slap in the face to them during this meeting. Why the timing?
MR. ANTON: The timing — there’s nothing intentional about the timing. It’s not a slap in the face. This is something — we hope we can get support from other Latin American leaders for this policy, and we’ll be — we think this is a policy that favors the Cuban people over and against an oppressive regime. And we hope that we can garner other support from leaders in the region.
Q Mike, explain the significance of the location. The theater is named after the man who led the Bay of Pigs invasion. There’s the notion that this is provocative.
MR. ANTON: The President spoke at this same location in October of 2016 in a campaign event. He was also the only presidential candidate ever endorsed by this group of either party in any election. He was grateful for that endorsement. He’s inspired by the courage shown by the leaders of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and he’s honored to go back and stand with them again to make this announcement.
Q The changes that are being talked about seem relatively small compared to what you could have done. How is that going to — are the folks going to be happy with that?
MR. ANTON: I don’t think I would classify them as small. I think the changes are very targeted, and the changes are specific, and they have a clear intent, which is to put pressure on the regime and to support the people. That’s why the embassy, for instance, will remain open. That’s why — travel will remain permitted, but travel will be permitted that’s consistent with U.S. law and that falls under one of the 12 categories that we think are intended to help develop civil society, develop a free economy, develop a private sector, small businesses, and so on.
Q The President said in a statement today that he was under investigation. How was he made aware of that?
MR. ANTON: I going to refer you to the White House Press Office.
Q Michael, if you’re an American wanting to travel to Cuba, what will you need to do before going?
MR. ANTON: Well, as I said, there are 12 categories of permissible travel under the law. The regulations will be in the process of being changed after this policy takes effect once the President signs it today.
We don’t have a hard date for when all of those regulations will be published. Some will be published by Treasury, some by the State Department. You will need to consult with those agencies to figure out whether your specific trip and purpose are permissible under the law.
Q How do you square the President’s focus on human rights in Cuba with his apparent lack of interest in human rights in other countries.
MR. ANTON: I dispute that he has a lack of interest in human rights in other countries. It’s true that the President approaches the question of human rights in different ways, depending on the relationship the United States has with a particular country. For instance, the United States has a strong security relationship with Egypt. The President was proud to welcome President el-Sisi of Egypt to the White House, where he discussed in private his concerns about human rights. And very shortly thereafter, the Egyptians released an American they had held for — if I recall correctly — nearly three years.
So he takes a different tack depending on the nature of the relationship between the two countries, but his concern is consistent no matter what the country.
Q — in his speech — just what we’re expected to hear today from him?
MR. ANTON: I think you’re going to hear strong support for the Cuban people, a strong condemnation of the regime and its practices, and an outline of what the policy does and is intended to do.
Q Is he going to list the benchmarks that Cuba needs to do for better relations with the United States?
MR. ANTON: I wouldn’t call it a list, but he will certainly refer to the policy change that he would like to see the Cuban regime take.
Q And what are those?
MR. ANTON: Great political and economic freedom. I would say everything that he’s asking for is lumped under those categories. He will call for them to release political prisoners. He will call for them to return U.S. fugitives from justice back to the United States so that they can face justice in the United States. He will call for Cuba to liberalize its economy, to strengthen the private sector, and to take steps toward greater democratic participation for its people.
Q Do you expect the policy to change which hotels Americans will be able to, under the law, to stay in in Cuba? In which hotels —
MR. ANTON: Hotels, but also not just hotels, also other businesses that are linked to the military, the intelligence services and the Cuban security apparatus will not permissible to transact business with. And that’s one of the things that’s going to be worked out as the regulations are finalized.
The State Department will eventually be publishing lists that make that clear where people — what’s permissible and what’s not permissible.
Q Can you address what the administration is doing to get to the bottom of what happened to Otto Warmbier in North Korea and how it is that he was returned to the U.S. in a coma?
MR. ANTON: I can’t say anything, I think, beyond what we have said about it. I think we’ve given some detailed information about the discussions that led to that release. And I think you also know that the President spoke to the family, I guess, two evenings ago now. But the family has asked for privacy beyond that, and so we’re just not commenting further than that.
Q But is the U.S. satisfied with the explanation that North Korea gave that it was botulism and then a sleeping pill that led to his current condition?
MR. ANTON: I don’t have anything further about that. I think we are glad that Otto is home with his family. We’re certainly very concerned about his current status. And we’re trying to respect the family’s wishes for privacy beyond that.
Q Michael, is the President willing to have talks with the Cuban leadership?
MR. ANTON: Well, look, the United States talks to the Cuban government and we’re keeping the embassy open, as I’ve noted. So those talks will continue. In terms of higher-level talks, there’s no discussion of that at this time, but our government remains open to speaking at higher levels if we see progress toward the goals that the President has outlined. But I’m not going to prejudge that or promise anything or set specific conditions for which leader at which level might speak.
Q Why will these changes help bring about change in Cuba when decades of a full embargo did not change significantly the human rights record?
MR. ANTON: Well, our hope is that these people-to-people contacts that are allowed under specific rules and the ability of Americans to travel there and meet Cubans, directly support Cuban small businesses, directly support Cuban private enterprise, directly support dissidents will strengthen the Cuban private sector, strengthen Cuban civil society, and lead to popular pressure for positive change.
Q Does that mean you agree, essentially, with the Obama administration’s posture toward Cuba, even though you’re refining the policy? Because those are similar arguments that they made.
MR. ANTON: No, I think the President was very, very clear that he thinks the Obama administration’s deal wasn’t much of a deal at all. It was the United States giving the Cuban regime most, if not all, of what it had wanted for the past half-a-century without getting anything in return for the Cuban people. And this policy is a necessary change to address the deficiencies that the President outlined in the Obama policy.
Q Can you tell us who is aboard?
MR. ANTON: Senator Rubio is aboard. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart is aboard. Secretary Perdue, of Agriculture, is aboard. Secretary Ross, Commerce. Secretary Acosta of Labor. And Representative Curbelo — I hope I didn’t pronounce that wrong. Those are the — aside from the senior staff, those are the — so we have three members of Congress and I guess three Cabinet Secretaries.
Q Is Reince on the plane?
MR. ANTON: Reince is not on the plane.
Q Will the President do anything in Miami besides the speech and signing the directive?
MR. ANTON: He will meet with veterans of the Bay of Pigs and some — there’s a private meet-and-greet that’s not open press with some Cuban —
Q From the group that endorsed him last year?
MR. ANTON: And other Cuban-American leaders in Miami.
Q Will anybody from the administration today be able to answer questions on DACA and DAPA and the President’s statements regarding the investigation?
MR. ANTON: I would refer you, again, back to the White House Press Office, which is fully manned and ready to take your questions.
12:18 P.M. EDT