Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with USA TODAY on March 2. Here is the full transcript of the nearly 20-minute interview:
Reporter: Hi Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. This is Deirdre Shesgreen with USA TODAY.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Hi Deirdre.
QUESTION: I know you’re heading to Iowa tomorrow, not a typical stop for the nation’s top global emissary. But farmers there are suffering under President Trump’s trade policies. How do you convince them to give him a second term?
Pompeo: Well, my mission there is to talk to the U.S. agriculture industry about innovation, about the United States’ relationship with China, the deep recognition at the State Department that American farmers are the backbone of America and American national security. And it’s a perfectly wonderful place for the Secretary of State to go because our first client is in fact the American people. And when we talk about threats from abroad, the fact that farmers don’t have the opportunity to sell their goods because other nations place barriers.
I know this well. I’m from Kansas. I represented an agricultural district for six years, and I know the harm that occurs to farmers when countries like China put up barriers, not only tariffs but trade barriers as well, or non-tariff barriers as well. This administration is determined to knock those down so that farmers in Kansas and in places like Iowa where I’ll be traveling will be able to pass on the tradition of farming. An important American tradition, not only to their children but to their grandchildren as well.
QUESTION: But how much of this trip is designed to boost Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign? I mean the itinerary, you’re going to Houston next, and then your home state of Kansas. There will be a marquee Senate race there in 2020, and the itinerary has a political feel to it.
Pompeo: That just, that’s a ridiculous statement. These trips were planned with the aim of doing several things. One is to talk to important American industries, so (in) Houston I’ll be talking to the American energy industry. In Iowa, I’ll be talking to the American agriculture industry. Deirdre, I mean just on this recent trip, both with the Vietnamese and with the Philippines, I talked about the importance of high quality, low-cost affordable food that America can deliver and how those countries have placed barriers in the way of our farmers selling.
In each of those places, I spoke about energy. The Philippines has enormous energy resources in the South China Sea. Vietnam has the same issue with offshore energy. We want to make sure the Vietnamese people benefit from that with American businesses helping them achieve energy security for themselves. Those are the reasons we’re attending to these audiences.
I also have a even more sinister goal, which is I want to stop hiring just people from New York and Boston and Washington, DC. I want to take the message that being an American diplomat is a truly proud profession and that we need a really diverse workforce. And that includes people from the heartland, people who grew up with the values that I know so well from my time in Kansas and I want to introduce – I’m going to talk to a bunch of young farmers and I want to introduce them to the idea of public service and working as an American diplomat, delivering the message from the United States of America to the world as a noble calling.
QUESTION: OK, but why all these stops stateside at a moment when you’ve come off this failed negotiation in North Korea and regional allies there are concerned about what’s next and …[crosstalk]
Pompeo: This trip’s been planned, Deirdre, this trip’s been planned for a long time. I’ll be heading out to the Middle East in a few days for a trip abroad. The United States Secretary of State has an important element of his job communicating to the American people the importance of American diplomacy across the world, and I’m determined to do it.
QUESTION: OK, on North Korea, the president essentially absolved Kim Jong Un of any responsibility in the death of Otto Warmbier. Do you accept his assertion that Kim didn’t know about Otto’s detention, imprisonment and injury?
Pompeo: The murder of Otto Warmbier is a tragedy. The president has said as much. It’s horrific what took place. We hold the North Korean regime accountable for that. This administration has engaged the North Koreans. I think that’s really at the heart of this, this question of why would we engage with the North Koreans. And the answer is, is to try and stop exactly what it is that you are describing. You know we were, we were, we worked hard and I was personally blessed to be able to bring back three Americans who were actually in pretty good physical condition.
The previous administration had done nothing to address these human rights abuses. Literally nothing. And this administration has engaged in way that we hope will one day lead to a brighter future for the North Korean people and a fundamentally different regime, which will have a brighter economic future for the North Koreans with a strong economy. That’s what we’re aiming to achieve so that we don’t ever have to see another American murdered in the way that Otto Warmbier was.
QUESTION: But there’s a difference between holding North Korea responsible and holding Kim responsible.
Pompeo: We hold the North Korean regime accountable for this.
QUESTION: Does that include Kim Jong Un? Are you willing to say that he is responsible for the murder or the death of Otto Warmbier?
Pompeo: The North Korean regime is responsible for the death Otto Warmbier and the humanitarian violations that are continuing to take place.
QUESTION: Do you believe he didn’t know anything about it, as the president said?
Seven seconds of silence.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary?
Pompeo: Yes ma’am?
QUESTION: Do you believe as the …
Pompeo: I’ve answered… Deirdre, I’ve answered your question. You’ve asked it three times now, and I’ve been very patient and I’m happy to answer it again if you’d like. But I’ve answered your question three times.
QUESTION: Well no, I’m asking if you believe that Kim didn’t know anything about it, as Trump said.
Pompeo: Yes, and I’m telling you that as President Trump reiterated yesterday, as he has said previously, we hold the North Korean regime accountable.
QUESTION: Were you in the room when Trump raised that and if so, what was your read and did you say anything?
Pompeo: Oh goodness. I’ve raised this issue with the North Koreans. I’ve probably spent more time with Chairman Kim and the North Korean leadership than … any other American in history. And I’ve raised this issue with him multiple times.
QUESTION: And has he denied it to you?
Pompeo: Ma’am, I don’t talk about the conversations that I’ve had with him, in any context. I don’t talk about the negotiations over nuclear weapons. And I’m not going to talk about private conversations that I’ve had with my counterparts. I don’t do that when I talk with any counterpart around the world, Deirdre.
QUESTION: For many Americans, the summit in Vietnam looked like a fiasco. And the North Koreans are saying that was basically their one and only offer. So what now?
Pompeo: That’s not what the North Koreans said, Deirdre. Don’t, don’t, don’t say things that aren’t true. That’s not constructive.
QUESTION: Well, what now then?
Pompeo: No, tell me what I missed. Did I miss that, Deirdre? Tell me, show me the quote from the North Koreans that said this was their one and only offer. Where’d you get that?
QUESTION: From their news conference after the summit was over.
Pompeo: OK, I’m reading … I’m staring at that right now. I’m staring at it. Where does it say this was on their one and only offer, Deirdre, because clearly your translation is different than mine, so tell me where that was.
QUESTION: OK, well, I can pull the quote out but that’s going to take time [crosstalk].
Pompeo: No Deirdre, it’s important. It’s important. Please do, please pull the quote out. Yes ma’am, because what you’re saying is false. The predicate of your question is false, so let’s talk about what they really said. So go ahead and pull it out.
QUESTION: OK, so they said ‘Our proposal will never be changed.’
Five seconds of silence.
Pompeo: What they said is they’re prepared to continue conversations with us and that’s what we intend to do.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. going to restart military exercises with South Korea? And if not why not given the concerns about readiness?
Pompeo: The president’s been very clear all along that he’s going to consider this as time moves on. At this point, we don’t intend to begin having the major war exercises there. But … it’s always up for review by the president. We are also, it is important to note, we will also always be prepared to defend American interests everywhere. So the American people need not worry about readiness issues for the United States military.
QUESTION: On Muthana ISIS bride case, setting aside the legal questions for a moment, do you think Americans deserve second chances in cases like this? I mean, she has expressed remorse for her actions. She says she recognizes she needs to serve jail time and she’s willing to help de-radicalize others.
Pompeo: She’s a terrorist.
QUESTION: And you don’t think she deserves a second chance?
Pompeo: She put American’s soldiers’ lives at risk. You ask the family members of those soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines all across world who were serving, trying to take down the threat from radical Islamic terrorism, risking their own lives. Indeed, we’ve lost American life. And this woman, this woman chose to use her life to try and kill those people.
QUESTION: There’s a court hearing on Monday. If the courts rule in the family’s favor and she’s allowed to return, what will the administration do then? What are the lengths you’ll go to to bar her reentry?
Pompeo: I don’t intend to speculate. The court, if the court rules properly, she will not be permitted to return to the United States. She has no legal basis for her claim of U.S. citizenship. She’s a terrorist. She is not an American citizen, and she ought not return to the United States. And we are going to work diligently to ensure that that doesn’t happen.
QUESTION: The president’s comments about Otto sort of echoed other statements he has made accepting the word of brutal leaders over American intelligence and in contradiction to America’s traditional emphasis on human rights. Do you have any personal moral queasiness with President Trump’s embrace of and praise for dictators like Putin, and Kim, and Mohammed bin Salman?
Pompeo: You know, I’ve had a chance to serve America and President Trump now in two roles, first as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now as America’s most senior diplomat, as the Secretary of State. And I can tell you in each of those roles, human rights around the world of the world have been at the forefront of the work that I have done. And I have had the full range of freedom given to me by the president to make sure that human rights were an important part of every engagement that I’ve had in both of those roles.
You might not think of it so much as the role of the head of the CIA. But we deal with complex human rights issues there as well. And we have never varied and will never vary from America’s tradition of placing human rights at the forefront of American foreign policy. It’s important from a values perspective, but it’s also important as an element of ensuring that we protect Americans and keep them safe, which is the foremost job that the president has and one that I have today as well.
QUESTION: But doesn’t the president undercut that when he praises Kim Jong Un as a fabulous person and a smart man? The Otto Warmbier family said yesterday, called it ‘lavish praise’. And they were clearly upset by the language he’s using to describe Kim Jong Un. Doesn’t it undercut the message on human rights?
Pompeo: Our message on human rights is completely clear. You can, you don’t need to take my word for it. You can look at the remarks the president made in multiple opportunities he’s had to speak to this issue, at the U.N. and in Warsaw. It’s been an important part of the Trump administration’s approach to the world and its foreign policy, and I am very confident that will continue to be so.
QUESTION: On Venezuela, Maduro remains in power and opposition leader Juan Guaido is stuck outside his own country – along with all this humanitarian aid that the U.S. has sent. Is the administration working to help Guaido return to Venezuela? If he goes back and is arrested, what will your next move be?
Pompeo: You know, Deirdre, each of the problems that we’ve spoken about today – whether it’s the threat to the United States from North Korea or the challenges that we face in the Middle East, you’ve now turned to Venezuela. Two and a half years ago, the Obama administration did nothing to address any of them. We have taken these on in a serious way. And they are difficult problems.
Venezuela is yet another good example of where the Trump administration has truly made progress, where in the previous eight, we led from behind. We exercised strategic patience. All disastrous for the security of the American people.
And so Venezuela is the perfect example, where we have now worked alongside our allies to build out an enormous coalition, now some … 50-plus, maybe it’s 60-plus now countries, who have made clear that the Venezuelan Constitution and the Venezuelan people are demanding freedom. And we’re there to work alongside them.
We built out a global coalition in North Korea. We got every member of the U.N. Security Council to put these sanctions in place. This administration has worked with our allies and partners around the world in the way that, for eight years we completely neglected. We had abandoned the global stage. And we’re determined to reassert American capacity for good around the world.
And the same is taking place in Venezuela. We’re working to help the duly elected interim president Guaido assert his power and get food and humanitarian assistance in to starving people. To watch the Maduro regime, to watch the Maduro regime deny medicine to sick people and food to starving people is sick.
State Department spokesman: We’re out of time, Deirdre … We have to wrap it up right there.
Pompeo: Deirdre, I’ll take one more question if you have one.
QUESTION: In Afghanistan, the U.S. is in talks with the Taliban about a power-sharing agreement. What do you say to the women in Afghanistan who are terrified this deal will erase all the gains they’ve made and allow the Taliban to once again bar girls from attending to school, beat women who don’t comply with their severe restrictions?
Pompeo: We are working to get a reconciliation agreement that will be good for every Afghan. Men, women, children. That’s our objective. We’ve now been there 17 years. There are still places where life is not good for Afghan women. The United States is a force for good there. We’ve working on reconciliation, and we are hopeful that the Afghan people will once again be able to take control of their entire country with an agreement where we can take down hostilities, we can reduce the level of violence. And there is nothing like that violence to hurt the weakest among us, the children, the kids that you’d referred. Or to put women in a difficult position.
If we can take down the violence level, if we can stop this fighting, we will have made substantial progress in terms of protecting every Afghan, including women and children in the country.
QUESTION: Can I get one more in, back to Iowa and China trade?
QUESTION: The China trade deal is taking a long time to materialize, so what do you say to [crosstalk]
Pompeo: These are difficult things. When the Obama administration does nothing, Deirdre, when the Obama administration allows China to bar our agricultural products, when the Obama administration allows all of our farm innovation technology to be stolen, when the Obama administration sits by and watches intellectual property theft, into the hundreds of billions of dollars, straight out of our agriculture community to take place over years and years and years, yes it takes a little while to turn the ship around. There’s no doubt about that.
QUESTION: OK, but what do you say to these farmers who [crosstalk]…
Pompeo: No, not OK, but. Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre. Not OK, but. Not OK, but. These are the facts. It’s just been two years that this administration’s had the opportunity to course correct from the disastrous polices that the Obama administration put in place to allow China to steal the heartbeat of agricultural America.
These farmers, I know these farmers. I lived with them, I represented them. They want to pass these farms down to their kids and their grandkids. And the Chinese were stealing us blind. And they weren’t permitting our farmers to sell our food products into those countries – a big huge growing market in China and we were effectively denied access to this for our farm products.
We have to get those back and were going to do it. I’ve watched these trade negotiations unfold. I think they’re in a good place. I think we’re making real progress. And when they are, we will have protected American farming for generations to come.
Reporter: OK, thank you so much.
Pompeo: Deirdre, thank you very much, ma’am.
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