White House National Security Adviser, Tom Bossert, delivers a press briefing aboard AF1 en route back to the U.S. from France. If you did not read and watch the information yesterday from President Trump’s Special Envoy, Brett McGurk, I would strongly suggest you review that prior to this press briefing. -SEE HERE- Everything is connected.
[Transcript] Aboard Air Force One – En Route Newark, New Jersey – 3:01 P.M. CET
MR. BOSSERT: So let me just start the conversation by saying that President Trump and President Macron had private conversations yesterday, but also an extended bilateral conversation. And I wanted to talk you about that and give you a readout, and answer your questions if I might.
♦ Q Did they discuss the role that Syrian Kurds might have in a future Syria after ISIS?
MR. BOSSERT: So, among other things in the bilateral conversation yesterday, the Presidents discussed Syria — defeating ISIS in general, but Syria specifically; our desire to have a political solution outside and after our military solutions prevail. They discussed counterterrorism in general, as it will be an enduring and ongoing problem after our defeat-ISIS campaign takes the physical caliphate from ISIS.
They discussed limiting and containing and, ultimately, reducing and removing Iranian sponsorship for terrorism and regional influence. They discussed the current relations with Qatar. They discussed what to do after our short-term objectives are met in reducing their contributions — financial contributions — to terrorism, and three or four other topics.
In general, the conversation was detailed, the conversation was fairly involved, and we discussed terrorism, largely. President Trump thanked President Macron for France’s continued and pretty extensive support for not only American efforts, but for global efforts to counter terrorism in North Africa and throughout the Sahel region. That’s something that the French have been committed to and have doubled and redoubled their efforts, I think, in the last three to five years. And President Macron has shown leadership there in that regard.
♦ Q The former Obama administration officials on the NSC said that the U.S.-French relations were really good in terms of counterterrorism, but intelligence-sharing was one of the kinks in the relationship. Can you tell me how that might be improved with this new alliance — with friendship with President Macron and President Trump?
MR. BOSSERT: There are no kinks in that relationship. In fact, the intelligence-sharing and counterterrorism-sharing between the two countries has never been better. And I can tell you that from the perspective of my service in the White House under President Bush, and now my service, again, under President Trump. The comparative analysis is unquestionable. We’ve got the strongest relations — in fact, the strongest security relations — at least counterterrorism security relations with the French ever.
♦ Q Could you just tell me how the new friendship that we’ve seen over the past couple of days might change that intelligence-sharing or the — what effect would that have?
MR. BOSSERT: Well, I think the intent to share and the intent to cooperate and collaborate is there and has been reaffirmed, which is a reassuring thing for the people of France and America. But I think that the relationship that the two Presidents have forged will increase the trust that’s required for that information-sharing and that intelligence-sharing relationship. And I think that the conversations, in particular, in the extended bilateral that I attended, puts some additional details and framework on the strategic objectives for the sharing of that information and the vital interests that we’re seeking to protect.
♦ Q President Macron mentioned working together to fight propaganda and disinformation. Was that conversation in the context of Russia? And what are the U.S. and France doing together to combat disinformation campaigns and propaganda campaigns like the ones we’ve seen from Russia?
MR. BOSSERT: So two questions there. The content and nature of the conversation between the two Presidents in the bilateral yesterday had to do with removing terrorist propaganda from social media sites and the Internet — open Internet in general — something — an objective that both countries share.
The approach and the details now are going to require some additional work. Both Presidents agreed, and I have agreed to help at the staff level coordinate some additional conversations in that regard.
I think some of the conversation now, in the community of like-minded, centers around whether we need to compel that removal and if there’s a way to do such a thing, or whether we can work collaboratively and cooperatively with the companies and their providers to remove that kind of counterterrorism — or terrorism propaganda from the Internet. I think that remains to be seen, but that was the nature of the conversation.
♦ Q So was this conversation about counterterrorism propaganda not the kind of propaganda we saw, for instance, from the Russians during the election?
MR. BOSSERT: No, the conversation about Russia didn’t take place in the context of yesterday’s bilateral conversation. The context of propaganda and its removal from the Internet yesterday was centered on the global jihadi problem.
♦ Q Did the Iran nuclear deal come up? And can you talk about the reports that we’re hearing from back home that you guys are ready to again certify that Iran is in compliance, which would keep the deal kind of in place for now?
MR. BOSSERT: So, no, it didn’t come up. And I’m unable to comment on the additional information you asked about. I’m not completely read in to what you’re hearing or what you’re reporting. But I do know the President and Secretary of State and others have discussed the matter, but I have no details to update you.
♦ Q Back to the (inaudible) region, there’s been some buzz that there might be some American troops kept in northern Iraq as like a stabilizing force or maybe a joint stabilizing force with other countries. Was that discussed at all — you know, sort of the future of Iraq and whether a military presence in some form will be required?
MR. BOSSERT: So the future security of the region in terms of troop presence but also generic commitments to a partnership were discussed, but the details of which I’ll keep between the two Presidents, as I would the details of most of these topics, as they got into not only a detailed conversation but a fairly complex one. And so all I would say to that is, regional stability in a sustained, durable way did come up, but the details of that are to be continued.
♦ Q Can you say if the Kurdish government has approached either Washington or Paris to have some troops left over?
MR. BOSSERT: No, I can’t and I won’t. And I would ask, probably, that you talk to Secretary Mattis about that.
♦ Q A judge in Hawaii has, once again, kind of narrowed the travel ban and kind of expanded who would be known as a bona fide relations to the U.S. to be able to get in. Does the administration have any response to that? Does that raise any concerns as far as security, et cetera?
MR. BOSSERT: So I don’t know if we have a formal administration response to that, but I will offer that I do have concerns with the early reporting. I haven’t read the entire court holding or ruling.
So I would say that, as it was reported to me, it seemed to be fairly broad and something that would trouble me if it was as broad as reported. In terms of a connection with any group, any refugee organization, it might be read, if the early reports that I looked at were accurate, as something so expansive as to cover every refugee. And that certainly couldn’t be the interpretation the Supreme Court intended.
So we’ll have to go back and have the attorneys read it, interpret it further, and decide whether this is another productive or unproductive step in this saga as we try to secure our country.
♦ Q On the travel ban, are there steps being taken to implement — design and implement extreme vetting procedures? And also on the travel ban, is there a review going on to look at other countries to add to the banned list?
MR. BOSSERT: So, as you know, there’s a number of efforts ongoing to implement the President’s executive order, especially now that it is been freed from legal constraint by the Supreme Court. The question you asked is about vetting. Of course, we’re improving — constantly, regularly — our policies and our capabilities to better vet people seeking entry into the United States. And that’s ongoing. We’re unapologetic about that, and it contributes not only to our security, but to the hopeful relook in a comprehensive, strategic way at our immigration policy, not just our counterterrorism policy.
♦ Q Are any specifics coming — anything specific coming about changing the vetting procedures?
MR. BOSSERT: So it’s less about countries and more about the ability for people to demonstrate the paperwork and background information that we need to appropriately demonstrate that they have or don’t have a security past that would concern us. So no additional conversations about countries, but conversations about people’s background and whether they represent a security threat.
♦ Q General Kelly had mentioned that they were thinking of asking people for social media passwords when they apply for visas, if they’re coming from certain countries. Is there a process — are you looking at a way to implement that formally?
MR. BOSSERT: Actually, I can’t add to that. I would say that Secretary Kelly owns and is responsible for that portion of the policy, and for implementing it. So if he commented on it, you’ve got it right from the horse’s mouth, and I can’t add to it. I don’t have anything that I would try to add to it, but I would refer you back to Secretary Kelly on that.
♦ Q Can I ask about the ceasefire in Syria? The President in the press conference yesterday talked a lot about how he saw that as a big success. So I’m wondering if you can talk about what kind of conversations have been going forward with the Russians since the G20 meeting, and also if there’s any thought of expanding the, sort of, safe area, ceasefire?
MR. BOSSERT: Sorry, no, I don’t have too much more to add to add. But at the time of the extended bilateral conversation that the two Presidents had on this trip to Paris, we were on our fifth day of successful ceasefire, and both Presidents, both publicly and privately, were quite pleased with that development and hopeful that that would continue.
♦ Q Are there any next steps planned with regard to your conversations with the French on Syria? I mean, where did you leave things off in terms of where we go?
MR. BOSSERT: We left things off with a continued commitment to continue conversations. Unfortunately, that’s about as much as I can add to it. But I would say that, as President Trump pointed out and I would reiterate, that continued conversations, even with countries who we don’t always agree with, can sometimes produce positive results. In this case, the ceasefire has been a positive result.
And both the French and American Presidents on this particular trip agreed on that approach to Russia, but also agreed that that’s a positive result and that the French and American relationship on counterterrorism in Syria and throughout the Middle East, and internationally, would continue in a really strong way.
In fact, I think what we’ll do together is develop our counterterrorism strategies together, with other likeminded allies as well, as we both come into power here about the same time, and the new French administration, the new American administration are starting on a good footing. I think that our counterterrorism strategy should start on a co-equal footing as well.
♦ Q What do you say to critics who say that — I’m sorry —
♦ Q (Inaudible) what the President said about the Paris Accord yesterday and whether they talked about climate change, he and Macron?
MR. BOSSERT: I can’t elaborate on it, except to suggest — or tell you that we didn’t discuss any climate issues in the extended bilateral conversation that I attended. And the topic didn’t chill or affect or any way come up verbally or through nonverbal cues in our conversations. They were very positive conversations and very upbeat relations between the two foreign leaders.
♦ Q What do you say to critics who say that, when it comes to Syria, the U.S. has kind of let Russia set the agenda? Yes, you have the ceasefire, but it’s kind of on the terms that Russia set. France and the U.S. have backed away from saying Assad has to leave. That, basically, that Russia will be able to continue to kind of have their influence in the country and that the U.S. is kind of just going along with what they wanted.
MR. BOSSERT: Well, I don’t agree with that assessment. I do agree that it’s a positive development that there’s a ceasefire, and I do believe that the French are very strong in their commitment, as is President Trump through his demonstrated airstrikes in not allowing anyone in the regime, Assad, to use chemical weapons against anyone. And any additional attempt to do that, certainly any use of chemical weapons in the future I’m sure would be met with a strong response from both President Trump and from President Macron.
♦ Q Can you give us any more of the backstory of when President Trump was at the G20, met with Putin, they decided they were going to have this bilateral initiative on cybersecurity, and then President Trump tweeted that that was never going to happen? Can you just give us a better understanding of what that agreement actually was? Is it true that it’s not getting off the ground? I mean, what happened there?
MR. BOSSERT: I didn’t attend the G20, so what I will tell you is that President Trump, I believe, is right in his continued assertion that even with countries with whom we have friction or disagreements, we have a responsibility on behalf of the American people to continue to have conversations to the extent that they can yield a positive result.
And as his senior-most cybersecurity advisor, I will help him coordinate the Cabinet with Secretary Tillerson and others, Secretary Kelly, Mattis and Mnuchin and others, as we develop the appropriate level and contours of those conversations. But we’ll have to set the rules for that. And I think it’s a pretty important reminder that President Trump started that conversation by pointedly and exactingly telling President Putin that we will not have our elections messed with. That’s unacceptable.
Moving past that, we have to have a conversation about the rules of the road in cyberspace, norms and expectations. I’d like those same rules, norms and expectations to be part of our conversation as we discuss any potential future dialogue with the Russians in cybersecurity. And I’ll help the President coordinate that among the right staff levels at the departments and agencies.
♦ Q But given your expertise and the position you hold, do you feel that Russia is sincere in their efforts to partner on cyber, particularly after everything we’ve heard in the last year? Do you feel confident that they could actually pull this off in a sincere way?
MR. BOSSERT: So, I’m not nitpicking your question, but I would say we are not discussing a partnership here. That is not what President Putin left the room for. That is certainly not what President Trump suggested. And that’s not what I’m suggesting today. A partnership is a much different topic.
What was broached at that G20 conversation, as I understand it, was an opportunity to continue a dialogue — one that had in the past existed between the two countries, and I think one that we could pursue in the future with the appropriate reservations and the appropriate expectations, that we at least start with what is acceptable behavior in cyberspace and what norms and expectations that we’ll have moving forward, long before you get into the enforcement of those rules or anywhere near before we get into a partnership.
But again, the instinct to make some progress on behalf of the American people and their security online is a good instinct on President Trump’s part.
♦ Q Why prematurely announce a dialogue if nothing is agreed upon on those subjects?
MR. BOSSERT: I don’t think anything was prematurely announced. I think the President was clear in saying that the conversation was raised and the idea was suggested, and that he was open to it. And I’m going to help him put the contours on that and give him some advice back on how we can frame that in a productive way without giving up any U.S. security and certainly without giving up any election security, which is President Trump’s priority.
♦ Q You said you didn’t want to use the word “partnership” because it sounds like you’re a little bit worried about the relationship. Can you tell us how you deal with the Russians at the lower — not the presidential level — when you’re dealing with these delicate issues? How that’s changed?
MR. BOSSERT: Well, the point — the distinction I made was that a partnership suggests that you’ve reached a place where you believe that you have a trusted relationship and you’ve come to some common agreement on ideals and goals and behaviors. I don’t believe that the United States and Russia have come to that point yet in cyberspace. And until we do, we wouldn’t have the conversation about partnership. But we had to have a dialogue, and that’s where we’ll start.
♦ Q The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice last year had dialogue with China about rules of the road for cybersecurity. Are you continuing that process? And is that a roadmap for discussions with Russia over rules of the road for hacking and cybersecurity?
MR. BOSSERT: It’s not a roadmap. Every country has their own unique conversations that they have to have. The nonbinding agreements that the Chinese made with the United States are still in place, and the United States has every expectation that they’ll continue to meet those nonbinding agreements, the thrust of which was that no government engage in cyber espionage directed at commercial practices and commercial industry. And that’s something that we would expect the Chinese to continue to honor. The United States is very serious about that.
And I think that it’s important to note that President Trump and President Xi continue to have a growing and strong relationship. So I would have no expectation that that would be reneged upon. And if it were, it’s something I would advise the President — President Trump — that he raise to President Xi immediately. But for now, the conversation with the Chinese is one that’s productive and is one that’s built on some other mutual and common objectives and interests, and it is not a template or anything that I would use to compare our conversations and relations with the Russians.
♦ Q Do you (inaudible) that China is abiding by those agreed-upon norms?
MR. BOSSERT: Well, I don’t have any trend analysis to report today on whether China does or doesn’t observe the norms. That’s a very difficult thing to answer. But I believe that they have the commitment. I believe that they have the resolve to meet that commitment. And if I were to see trends that they were not meeting that commitment, I would advise the President to call him on that behavior.
♦ Q Did immigration or refugee issues come up with President Macron? And if so, in what context? Where do they stand on that?
MR. BOSSERT: No, no immigration or refugee issues came up specifically. But both Presidents did note, of course, that we had to be mindful of any fighters migrating to, and returning from, areas of active conflict in the global jihadi conflict in which we are on our 17th year.
So, thank you very much.