November 22, 2010 | by Chris Johnson
Gibbs unsure if ‘Don’t Ask’ report will influence military chiefs

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he doesn't "want to presume" how the Pentagon "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" report will influence service chiefs.. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday said he’s unsure whether the results of the Pentagon study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will move the four service chiefs to support an end to the law as he suggested that unanimous support among the military leaders won’t be necessary for moving forward.

Asked by the Washington Blade whether President Obama anticipates that the service chiefs will favor repeal following the completion of the Pentagon report, Gibbs said he doesn’t “want to presume” where they would stand after the study is finished, noting the president hasn’t yet seen it.

“I think the service chiefs as I understand it are meeting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary as we get closer to this report coming out in order to discuss where they are based on that survey,” Gibbs said. “The president has not yet seen that survey, so I don’t want to presume whether based on those results that would change their opinions on it.”

Pressed to clarify whether the intent of the year-long study was to bring the military leaders such as the service chiefs on board with repeal, Gibbs hinted that “whether you have unanimous agreement or not” among the military leaders isn’t necessary to move forward.

“The president has known where people have stood on this policy for as long as he’s supported changing that policy,” Gibbs said. “So, I think it will be important to again view the attitudes and to use those attitudes to craft a pathway to implementing a changed legislative policy.”

Gibbs also implied that the president hasn’t recently spoken to the service chiefs about getting them to support repeal during the lame duck session of Congress as he noted Obama had previously spoken to them on this issue.

“I know the president has spoken previously with the service chiefs on this subject and expect that as this report is finalized and released that he’ll have an opportunity to speak directly with the chair, the vice-chair and the service chiefs as the process moves forward,” Gibbs said.

Obama has said — notably in January during the State of the Union address — that part of his effort in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is working with the military to make it happen. The Pentagon working group, established by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in February, was seen as part of this process.

The service chiefs have heretofore been against the legislative effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In May, the service chiefs of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marine Corps sent a joint letter to Congress urging lawmakers to wait for the Pentagon report — now set for release on Nov. 30 — before taking action.

But in an interview Saturday with the National Journal, Navy Chief of Staff. Adm. Gary Roughead reportedly praised the Pentagon report — and the surveys sent to 400,000 service members that were a component of that study — and said he’s “just trying to put it all in context.”

“I think the survey, without question, was the most expansive survey of the American military that’s ever been undertaken,” Roughead was quoted as saying. “I think the work that has been done is extraordinary.”

The Navy chief reportedly added that he’s “eager to see” where repeal “goes on the Hill.”

The last public statements of the Army and Air Force chiefs have them on the record as wanting to Congress to hold off before pursuing legislative action. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos last month took on the mantle as head of his service, and he has spoken out against repeal.

A number of U.S. senators have said they’re awaiting testimony from military service chiefs before making a decision on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In his defense of the law, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has emphasized that the service chiefs — in particular Amos — have asked Congress to hold off on legislative action. A spokesperson for Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) has recently said the senator is awaiting testimony from the service chiefs before making a decision on the issue.

Also during the news conference, Gibbs counted “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal among the legislative items that Obama wants to see happen during the lame duck session of Congress and argued that legislative action is better than having the courts overturn the law. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has committed to a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the year’s end.

“There are issues around ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ that the president and, I think, many people believe are best dealt with through the legislative process and not through a legal system,” Gibbs said.

Gibbs maintained that overturning the gay ban through court order is “not likely to provide the Pentagon and others with a pathway” for implementing repeal and said “doing this legislatively” is the best way to end the law.

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A partial transcript of Gibbs’ remarks on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” follows:

Robert Gibbs [on the legislative agenda for lame duck]: … There are issues around “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that the president and, I think, many people believe are best dealt with through the legislative process and not through a legal system. …

National Public Radio: Has the president asked the Pentagon has the Pentagon to hurry up to Nov. 30 the report — it’s internal report –

Gibbs: I think the original date was Dec. 1. Obviously, the report is being released a day or so early in order to have some informed hearings on the survey and its results. I think those, hearings, if I’m not mistaken, start on the 1st.

But I think it’s important if you look at what others have said particularly — take for instance Secretary Gates — we know we can do this legislatively. The House has done this; the Senate can do this — do this legislatively, which provides an avenue to implement the policy. The court doing this is not likely to provide the Pentagon and others with a pathway for doing this, and I think in order to do this in a way that the president want to see that doing this legislatively is the best way to do this. …

Washington Blade: Robert, back on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the service chief of the Navy recently praised the Pentagon report and said he’s eager to see what happens with the Hill with regard to repeal. But the remaining three service chiefs — they’re all on the record as saying they want to wait for the report to come out before Congress takes action. Does the president that once the report comes out, the service chiefs will be on board in favor of repeal?

Robert Gibbs: I don’t — I think the service chiefs as I understand it are meeting with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the secretary as we get closer to this report coming out in order to discuss where they are based on that survey. The president has not yet seen that survey, so I don’t want to presume whether based on those results that would change their opinions on it. I think it’s best not to get too far down the road on commenting on that until we chance to personally see the substance.

Blade: But wasn’t that the purpose of the study, though? You’ve said the president has supported repeal since you’ve known him, and the president has said he wants to work with military leaders — in the State of the Union address — he said he wants to work with military leaders to get them on board with repeal. So, what the point of this report if not to get those service chiefs on [board]?

Gibbs: I’m not saying they won’t. I’m just saying — I think the original question you asked me is would that report change their mind. I haven’t seen the report, and the president hasn’t seen that report and neither of us have had an opportunity to talk with the chiefs. That’s not to say that it won’t; that’s not to say that — and quite frankly, that’s not to say whether or not — whether you have unanimous agreement or not that the policy — look, the president is going where people have stood on this policy for as long as he supported changing that policy. So, I think it will be important to again view the attitudes and to use those attitudes to craft a pathway to implementing a changed legislative policy.

That’s what the president has advocated through this process. Again, I can’t — we may have a better sense of that when we get an opportunity to talk to those who have seen the report and get a chance to look at that report ourselves.

Blade: Has the president had conversations directly with the service chiefs to get them in favor of legislative repeal during the lame duck session of Congress?

Gibbs: I know the president has spoken previously with the service chiefs on this subject and expect that as this report is finalized and released that he’ll have an opportunity to speak directly with the chair, the vice-chair and the service chiefs as the process moves forward.

Watch a video of the exchange here (via Think Progress):

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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