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White House Briefing with Chief of Staff John Kelly. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired October 12, 2017 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: -- and modernization that doesn't mean an increase in numbers, I hear him saying -- talk more about, "Wouldn't it be great? How could we get rid of nuclear weapons?"

So, not a lot keeps me 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've got the State Department doing what it does every day, and all the rest of the great Americans that are -- that are working those kind of issues. And you've got the U.S. military, the greatest military on the planet. We don't like to think in terms of things turning 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 a nuclear deterrent or conventional deterrent.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Just to get back to the thing that happened a couple of days ago, the president tweeted that, "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 USA."

Do you think that's a fair characterization?

KELLY: How I would put it is that there is a -- an element within -- 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 in 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 great relationships with the -- with the Mexicans. We have great relationships with the Mexicans on the border. They are 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 -- 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 -- Mexican military risking their lives pulling out tens of thousands of poppy plants that are eventually turned into heroin and are eventually consumed by Americans.

But we need to secure our borders and that includes the maritime 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.

KELLY: 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, Senator Chuck Schumer all voted for it.

And we are -- have a worse situation on our southern border. I'm not condemning Mexico here again. They're great partners. But we have a worse situation on our borders 10 years later, yet there's this unbelievable resistance to -- to securing our border.

And again, some of that is physical barrier, or 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 in 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, you know, the Western Hemisphere from abroad, up through Mexico -- Central America, Mexico and into the United States. We're going to do something about it.

Yes, sir?

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Thank you.

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 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 active are they -- are they -- how actively is the administration engaging (inaudible) at this moment?

KELLY: One of his frustrations is you, all of you -- not all of you, but many of you.

(LAUGHTER)

As I say, when I started -- when I first started talking -- again, I'm a reasonable guy, but when I read in the morning, I read the -- I won't tell you what I read -- but when I watch TV in the morning, it's just -- it's is astounding to me how much is mis- reported.

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'd say, you know, 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 -- as a man who was outside of the Washington arena, a businessman, much more of a man of action, his great -- I would say his great frustration is the process that he now finds himself, because in his view the solutions are obvious.

You know, whether it's tax cuts and tax reform, health care, infrastructure programs, strengthening our military -- to him, these all seems 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 or to advance the American economy or what not.

And the process is so slow and so hard sometimes to deal with. So I think those two things.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: And the Fed -- the Fed -- where does everything stand with the Fed right now? Are you guys days away, weeks away?

KELLY: Some time away. There's still ongoing -- ongoing interviews.

But every candidate -- I mean, I don't think -- I'm trying to learn about things that are -- that have to do with what you're talking about. But all of the people that have been in to interview have been really first-round draft choices, and we have more to come.

And a very measured process. He has great, obviously advisers to help him make that -- that decision.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Thank you.

The president...

(CROSSTALK) KELLY: Are the people in the front row like the most important people? Or...

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: We're the cannon fodder.

KELLY: You're (ph) the first in line when you start shooting? OK.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: General Kelly, thank you so much, and thanks for being here today.

QUESTION: President Trump in recent days has gotten into a bit of a 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?

KELLY: I'm not. I mean, he's a straightforward guy, the president is. That is the one thing I've 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 the people on the other side of the aisle.

I think -- not to get into it -- 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 -- 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, you know, "Is there anything I can do to help you with that misconception you have, or maybe explain to you why I did this or that?"

Often time's members of Congress that I talk to will say, "Geez, I didn't realize it came out that way, I'm sorry," or "No, I meant it." But it was a grown-up comment and so I'll take that to the president and say -- but then, there's others that are, as the president would say, grandstanding. I'm not saying Senator Corker's that way, I'm just saying some people grandstand and kind of enjoy -- enjoy the attention.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... Bob Corker. Have you called Bob Corker? But -- in the wake of this recent fight...

KELLY: I've talked to Bob Corker, yes.

QUESTION: And do his tweets make your job more difficult, General Kelly?

KELLY: No. No. I mean the job of the chief of staff is to -- 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. That's my job, and that's what I do.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: A big question on Cuba, if I may...

KELLY: You got it next, I'll go to you.

QUESTION: Does the president believe that Cuba -- 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 off the visa crisis for Cuban refugees?

KELLY: What's the rule? How many questions can he ask?

(LAUGHTER)

The -- we believe that the Cuban government could stop the attacks on our diplomats.

Now you.

QUESTION: While we're waiting for the president to make a decision tomorrow about the Iranian (inaudible) deal, can you talk broadly about the strategy to counter the Iran nefarious activities in the region? And will you list the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, as some members of the Congress have suggested?

KELLY: I think -- 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 felt -- I never thought I'd ever feel sorry for them, but they're getting crushed every day. The caliphate's gone. We see them trying to escape from Iraq and get into Europe and places like that, which should cause Europeans much concern.

KELLY: But back on your question about Iran, the -- 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 Force is there to just demonstrate our resolve, our friendship, and try to deter anything that any country out there may do.

So that's the approach we're taking to Iran right now.

Now clearly the president has -- he's -- he's deep in thought, to say the least, about a 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 that in the long term -- even in the medium and long term -- will -- will protect (sic) America. (CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: 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, and lower premiums for Americans, 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?

KELLY: On the -- on the first question -- and I came in late to all of this. But the idea was -- and it's a great question.

All of what was in that executive order today, there was -- there was a sense that had the -- the big bill passed, all of that would've been taken care of.

So since the big bill didn't pass, and we probably won't have a health care bill until, say, the spring, this was a way to take care of as many Americans as he could legally, with a -- with an executive order.

As far as the -- the second question goes, the -- the Congress is an extremely -- it's designed to be an extremely complicated, slow- moving part of our government. I have nothing but respect for members of the Congress and the staffs that work so hard for them.

The -- the -- sometimes the -- it's like (inaudible) Nancy Pelosi once once, she's the leader, but boy, is it really hard to lead. And 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, you know, have their own political baggage to deal with, and they're not always reliable on every vote to vote the way the president or Mitch McConnell wants to vote, so.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Thank you, General. First, our congratulations...

KELLY: On what?

QUESTION: ... on your new job, sir.

Sir, as far as U.S.-India relations are concerned, recently many tragedies have taken place here. And Indian-American community in India played a tribute on 9/11 at 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 Indian Ambassador Mr. Sarna said the time has come now, U.S., India, to stand together against all these terrorisms. 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 far as U.S.-India relations are concerned?

KELLY: By the way, I've just -- as I listened there, that face I had on was my listening intently face.

(LAUGHTER)

I would -- 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 -- like India.

This cancer of terrorism, as we crush it in -- in the caliphate, as -- as you all know, is moving in -- in other directions, to include the West, into -- into Western Europe. But the northern part of Africa is suffering terribly, and -- and it'll grow there. As it -- as it moves south in Africa, it's moving out into south -- is 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, you know, ISIS form of terrorism, cancerous, metastasizes in those parts of the world? And that country's -- these countries are very, very afraid of that, because they haven't -- they've had to deal with it locally, but not, if you will, you know, a threat that -- 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 -- of all kinds.

And there are different types. It's not all religious-based. There are various types of terrorism.

But that -- that would be my answer.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: 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 (ph)? Should the American people be worried about a war?

KELLY: Good questions.

QUESTION: Yes.

KELLY: Which one -- which one should I answer?

QUESTION: Both.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: The -- the American people should be concerned about a -- 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 -- 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 it -- if it grows beyond where it is today -- well, let's -- let's hope diplomacy works.

As far as the tweets go, you know, it's funny. I -- I -- I read in the paper -- well, you -- you all know; you write it -- that, you know, I was, I -- 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 -- or 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 -- he can receive it.

KELLY: I restrict no one, by the way, from going in to see him. But when we go in to see him now, rather than the onesies and twosies, we go in and help him collectively understand what -- what he needs to understand to make 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 -- with the right decision.

But it's always, always, always focused on protecting America and -- and advancing America's economic development, jobs for America, safety for Americans.

And which that -- with that, I'll let you go, and I'll enjoy reading about it tomorrow. Thanks a lot, everybody.

[14:19:55]

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN: Well kind of a breath of fresh air there from the Chief of Staff, General John Kelly. Really rare that we get to hear from him let alone members of the media, you know, asking him really pointed, really important questions about the Administration. About policy around the world and just even about the President's own frustration.

So, I have the A team surrounding me beginning with Dana Bash here on just hearing from General Kelly, you know, off the top. And yes there was laughter among the White House press corps. I'm not quitting today despite all of what you've been reporting on me, I don't think I'm being fired today. And he said, "Not my job to control the President." What did you make of all of that?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well you know you called it a breath of fresh air. I think we saw something and we heard something that we haven't in a while which is somebody who is self-deprecating, who uses humor as a tool - an appropriate tool from really the way that this briefing was bookended from the beginning saying, "I just was with the President. I'm not getting fired, I'm not quitting."

To the end, saying very explicitly "I am not here to control the President. I am here to control the flow of information to him." He also said why he didn't want to do this beforehand. Because he said he wanted to figure out base he is on and feel more comfortable with his job and knowing what that job is.

But obviously we have gotten to the point where there have been a cacophony of stories here at CNN and elsewhere about not just John Kelly but he's certainly been part of it but other members of the Administration, of the Cabinet. In particular really being concerned about the way things are running or not running.

And clearly, just in terms of his demeanor Brooke, he is somebody who is a calm, steady figure and that in and of itself in addition to the words he was using that was all aimed at explaining to the American people we got this. Everything is OK.

And I just might add one interesting thing and that is I was talking to a source who spoke to the President this week who was saying that despite all of the stories about John Kelly that this week at least the President feels very happy about John Kelly being in that job. He wasn't happy about the new restrictions at the beginning.

He was uncomfortable with it, unused to having people stopped at the door and not allowed into his office unless they had an appointment. But now the President says he's more comfortable with it. Now the President says different things to different people depending on how he feels at that moment in the day.

But I thought that was very telling and maybe in keeping with the idea of John Kelly to come out to the briefing room for the first time. BALDWIN: Yes, I hear you on this week as the qualifier there. Let me pivot back over to the White House because Sara Murray is standing by, our White House correspondent. They're in the briefing room and can you give us any sort of back story? How did we get the Chief of Staff today?

SARA MURRAY: Well Brooke we had a little bit of an indication that this might be coming but, look, I think that this is a White House where they've been trying to put more people out in front of us. And obviously the Chief of Staff had some things he wanted to deal with head on. He was very forward about the fact that the press has been a frustration, not just for himself but also for the President.

The fact that he opened his appearance by saying, "I'm not quitting today. I just spoke to the President. I'm not getting fired." Look, he clearly wanted to try to move beyond some of the (inaudible) stories that have popped up now and again and also give his own sort of version of events of what it means to be a Chief of Staff in what has been an extremely chaotic White House with a ton of turnover.

So I think this was an opportunity for him to do that in front of the cameras and to speak for himself. But it was also an opportunity for them to foreshadow sort of a lot of the big decisions that are on the President's plate right now and to explain the process he's going through.

If all you see are the President's tweets and maybe his suggestions that we'll have to see what's coming next, something big could be coming, talking about fire and fury that could be a little bit unsettling as an American citizen. That is not what we heard today from General Kelly. And if you look for instance about his rhetoric when it comes to North Korea he was very forthcoming about his level of concern.

About the threat that North Korea could pose to the United States and to U.S. territories. But he said, "Look, I hope diplomacy works." Obviously that's a very different tone than what we've heard from the President that gives you an indication that not everyone in this White House is kind of running around on the same level and tweeting what comes to their mind in the same way that President Trump does.

BALDWIN: Right, right. Jim Sciutto, what struck you?

JIM SCIUTTO: Listen, it's a former military General - marine General - that behind the podium a very different presence, a very different level of credibility, as you said a breath of fresh air. But to be frank different messenger, same message, right? I mean he leveled stinging critiques at the Press in front of them.

BALDWIN: Sure.

SCIUTTO: And only General Kelly can do that a draw a laugh, right? Because he's a charming, credible guy who's done his time on the battlefield.

BALDWIN: (Duty is never in doubt), he said. But, da-da-da-da-da. SCIUTTO: Right. Same message against the Press just as we've heard from others denying any White House discord which we know and my colleagues reporting from there with very good sources they're not making this up. There are voices from inside the White House talking about discord and disagreement.

Even on the nuclear claim, right? NBC's report about him saying that he wanted 10 times the nuclear arsenal. Again, delivering the same message we've heard in the last 48 hours that this is a lie but it's coming from General Kelly so people smile and they laugh. But at the end of the day delivered differently and from a different, more credible, more charming voice the same postions.

BALDWIN: But let me say on that, because the point he made about the nukes he was saying not only was that false.

SCIUTTO: Right.

BALDWIN: Right, but that he said if I've heard anything from the President more than once is that he wants nukes to be gone.

SCIUTTO: Right.

BALDWIN: (Inaudible)

SCIUTTO: And to be fair President Trump has said that not just in private to General Kelly, he's said that publicly at times, right. We don't know what he said in private then but again these are same points that you might have very well heard from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, right. But coming from General Kelly they get a different reaction. But it does not represent a shift or a change in the White House position on these issues.

And really that moment there where he said, "Listen, you're making up stories and check your sources because I don't believe your sources.", is pretty much what the President has said repeatedly. And yet it's coming from General Kelly so people kind of laugh it off a little bit.

JAMIE GANGEL: Same thing. The messenger matters. Feels very different. He feels like the adult in the room. But as Jim said, the message is the same. The last thing he said on the way out the door was, "I'll enjoy reading about this tomorrow." So there is the same message. I also think it was very interesting that there were points he wanted to make. He wanted to make these points that I'm not here to control the President.

I bring information to him. Those things - he - you know - about you expect me to control him about the tweets. There were some very specific messages he wanted to get back out.

BALDWIN: But speaking of being the messenger and this is something that I noted and so did you when the question was asked, like Senator Corker, you know, using some pretty tough criticism against the President he said, "Listen, I myself sometimes pick up the phone and call members of Congress." Whether it's a - so that the President should be able to stand up for himself against especially grandstanding. What do you make of the fact that he picked up the phone?

GANGLE: I think reading between the lines it's not just every once in a while. I think that General Kelly calls Capitol Hill a lot. And is the intermediary, does try to be a buffer and also on occasion say quit it. But I thought it was a very interesting insight that he gave at how much of a role he is playing.

BALDWIN: We need to pan out.

SCIUTTO: I do think - you have to - you have to imagine that when those calls are received from General Kelly people pick up the phone and they listen.

BALDWIN: Dana Bash, what do you know about - how often is General Kelly calling friends down the road?

BASH: A lot. A lot. These instincts are right from my reporting. There's no question. A lot. But you know what that is the job of the Chief of Staff in any Administration to be in contact with key members of Congress on any given day on any given topic. But certainly General Kelly from understanding from my reporting from Capitol Hill is that he is pretty aggressive about the back and forth.

You know certainly he tried to smooth over the idea of someone like Bob Corker calling it an adult day care center, which effectively means that John Kelly is a day care worker. And this is from the Senate Foreign Relations Chairman, OK.

But it - at the same time he did say that he kind of understands - this is another personality but this is on, more importantly on the legislative process that while the President is frustrated with the Republican lead Congress that a lot of his agenda has not passed yet he is - he, Kelly, is coming to understand that they have their own constituencies, quite literally that they have to deal with.

And they don't work for the President. And that the President who is new to Washington is coming to understand that this isn't the Trump organization. This is a constitutionally set up process of checks and balances and it's just the way it works sometimes. And lastly I just want to say that I agree that it's a different messenger, same message. But it - messages and messengers - excuse me, messengers matter.

And the way he delivered that was really key and really different. Having said that they all work for the same guy and there is at the end of the day an audience of one. And that's why you heard a lot of the going after the media. There's no question in my mind.

BALDWIN: You know one piece that I didn't hear come up but was in that Vanity Fair article that we've all read by D.H. Sherman.