Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
QUESTION: Hello. We’re here today with Mike Pompeo, the 70th Secretary of State. And we’re beginning the new year with a conversation with him. Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for giving us time today.
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, it’s great to be with you. Happy New Year to you.
QUESTION: So did you get any time off for the holidays, or you had to work straight through?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I did. I had a chance to get back home to Kansas for the first time in quite a while and have a couple days. It was really nice to be back on the farm in Winfield.
QUESTION: Okay. So unlike many people who went, let’s say, where warmer weather was, that wasn’t your interest?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It was not warm there. The weather wasn’t so great. But I was with family, making it just perfect.
QUESTION: Now Jim Baker, former secretary of state, somebody I’ve gotten to know over the years – he was in my firm – he used to say the best job in the United States, and the best job in Washington, is secretary of state. But it’s a difficult job. Would you say it’s the best job in Washington, the best job you’ve ever had?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, undoubtedly. It’s the privilege of a lifetime, David. It is a challenging job, but one that if you got a great team here at the State Department like I do, you can do wonderful things to protect America, to keep our nation safe, to keep our boys and girls who are in the armed forces out of harm’s way, and to do a good turn for the world as well and be a force for good every place America is present.
QUESTION: So as you’ve now served about two and a half, a little more than two and a half years as Secretary of State, and you look back on what you’ve achieved, what would you say you’re most proud of having achieved as Secretary of State?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Internally here I think we’ve made some real progress at the State Department. We created an ethos for our team. We made sure we had the right people in the right places. We built out a planning system here that I think will have real value as the years go on here at the State Department. I don’t talk about those things enough, but the leadership challenge of being the Secretary of State and building out what is a big organization and handing that off to the next secretary of state is an important one.
Around the world, we’ve taken on what President Trump calls “America first.” It’s based on restraint, and realism, and respect for other nations and their sovereignty. We’ll talk about specific places and regions, but it’s a central understanding of American capacity to do good in the world, to do it without putting lots and lots of people in harm’s way, and to deliver on the things that matter. We have an important economic component to what we do here at the State Department, too, that was neglected. I think we’ve reinforced that in important ways that will create wealth and prosperity for our people here at home, which as you know, David, is always the basis for American security.
QUESTION: So as you look back on your tenure as Secretary of State, what would you say has been the most frustrating thing for you? Is there something you wish you had achieved and you hadn’t – haven’t yet achieved, or some other frustration you’d like to discuss?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, there’s certainly lots of unfinished business in lots of places in the world. The work that we’ve done to change how America thinks about the Chinese Communist Party and how we respond to it is incredibly important work, but it is a long-term project, something that America neglected for five decades. We turned the page. We put American foreign policy with respect to the Chinese Communist Party in a new direction. But there’s still an awful lot of work to be done.
QUESTION: For those who don’t know your background, you are somebody who went to West Point and graduated first in your class. So to be first in your class at West Point, does that mean everybody’s shooting at you all the time, to say he’s not as smart as we thought he was? And there are a lot of famous people that’ve been first in their class – Douglas MacArthur, among others. So did that produce a challenge for you to live up to that reputation?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, I don’t know about that, David. I have lots of classmates who didn’t graduate first who have gone on to do amazing things in their life. I was a good student, to be sure, but I haven’t thought much about that and how it’s impacted me here as Secretary of State, or as the CIA director, or my time in Congress. There’s no doubt people like to make fun of it from time to time. So be it.
QUESTION: Okay. So you went to Harvard Law School, where you were also near the top of your class. What propelled you to go to law school versus, let’s say, staying in the military?
SECRETARY POMPEO: This was the early ’90s, and I was a young captain in the United States Army, and the military was downsizing. There was lots of change. The first Gulf War had just ended, and I had this opportunity, this incredible opportunity to go to Harvard Law School, and so I took it. I don’t regret that at all. I learned an awful lot. I learned a lot about different viewpoints at Harvard Law School, many of which are different from the ones that I hold. But I learned a lot. I became a better writer. I think I became a more crisp thinker as well. And so I think the – enormous benefit. It was three years that was a long slog, but I’m glad that I did it.
QUESTION: So you practiced law in Washington for a while, but then ultimately you got involved in business, did something in Kansas, and then you ran for Congress. Why did you want to be a member of Congress?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I was watching what was taking place. I was a small business owner. You’re right, David, I first had ownership interest in a company called Thayer Aerospace, along with three of my best friends in the whole world, then later ran a company that was in the oil and gas industry. Both of them were machine shops. These were blue collar workers in complex, high-end, engineered, metallic products and the like. I loved doing that.
But I watched government getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I watched the regulatory environment deteriorating. I could see that if this continued, that the capacity for American entrepreneurship and growth, and the chance to take care of the families that I was responsible for as the president of Sentry International or the CEO of Thayer Aerospace might well be diminished because of government action. And so an opportunity arose when the congressman from my district had decided to run for the United States Senate, and I seized it.
QUESTION: Okay. So you ran for Congress, and you got elected. You served three terms, is it?
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s right. I was elected four times, but in the very beginning of my fourth term President Trump selected me to be his nominee to be the CIA director.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about that for a moment. You were not an avid Trump supporter, as I understand it. In the campaign, you were – I’m not sure who you were supporting, but you weren’t advocating that he should be the nominee or the president. So how did you get the relationship with him such that he would select you to be the head of the CIA at the beginning of his administration?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I worked hard for President Trump from the convention forward. I had campaigned on behalf of Senator Rubio in the primary. But as soon as I saw the option set between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it became clear to me which was better for the United States of America. I worked hard for him, and as a result of that and the fact that I had known Vice President Pence as well, I got a phone call in the – I think it was the second week of November of 2016, asking me to come to New York and interview with President Trump, then President-Elect Trump, to be his CIA director.
QUESTION: Okay. So you got the position, and then when you get to be the head of the CIA, do you realize that some of the nation’s secrets are not as secret as you thought they were – they’re in The New York Times or The Washington Post – and were you surprised at how many things that you’re working on that are secret are actually known to the public relatively shortly thereafter?
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, I wasn’t particularly surprised. You’ll recall I was on the House Intelligence Committee for I think four years prior to my time as CIA director. So I had seen this intelligence, much of this intelligence.
I’ll tell you what I was surprised with when I went to the CIA, David, is the breadth and scope and scale and the capacity of the American intelligence community. The – when you’re a member of the House Intelligence Committee, you do that as one of the things that you do. You spend time back in Kansas, you work on – if you’re in Kansas, you work on ag issues, you work on aircraft manufacturing issues, you work on all the things for U.S. domestic politics. You spend only some of your time working on intelligence issues.
When you become the CIA director, you have access and exposure to a far broader range of activities, and you see the capacity for us to use these tools in ways that provide important information for our leaders so that they have the best, most real-time information in the world.
It’s true, much of what’s classified ends up sometimes in the Post or in The New York Times. I regret that. It’s not in the best interest of the United States of America for that to happen, but there’s lots of things that the United States Government is doing that are properly taking place in classified lanes. And the American people should know these are things that are good for them and for America’s security.
QUESTION: Now the CIA, I think since the time of President Kennedy, has prepared a president’s daily brief, which is the most important intelligence information given him every day orally and in writing. President Trump tended not to read it and so therefore you tended to often brief him orally. Is that how you got to know him better and better over the years so that he would make you Secretary of State?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah David, I did have a lot of chance to spend time with President Trump when I was CIA director. If I understand the history right, different presidents have done this in different ways. This president wanted to be briefed by his senior leaders. There was also always a CIA briefer alongside me – a great guy – for most of my time as CIA director. So we would do it together. There were other senior leaders there as well. The vice president attended from time to time. The DNI also attended these briefings.
But it was a chance for me nearly every day to go see the president, to talk to him about the intelligence that was – had been gathered, what we knew, the confidence levels around what we knew to give him the context for the information that would allow him to make informed decisions.
QUESTION: Okay. So right now the Intelligence Community is saying – your former colleagues at the CIA, among other intelligence agencies – that we have been hacked by the Russians. And I think you have made a speech in effect saying that the Russians were in your view responsible for it. Do you stand by that position and your – any doubt that the Russians were the hackers in this most recent instance? And how damaging has the hack been?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, the United States Government is constantly under threat from cyber attacks. The particular incident that I think you’re referring to was in fact a Russian operation, but as we sit here today, David, there are North Korean efforts. There are Chinese efforts. There are Iranian efforts. There are Iranians from non-state sponsored entities as well all trying to get inside U.S. systems – not only U.S. Government systems, but U.S. commercial, private sector systems as well. This is an ongoing challenge, not led by the State Department, to protect our systems, led by DHS and the Intelligence Community and the FBI.
But it’s something that’s ongoing. Defense is hard to play in the cyber space. And identifying the appropriate deterrent response is also particularly complicated in cyberspace as well. We’ve made progress in thinking about how to do that, but make no mistakes, there are bad actors, whether the bad actors are Iranian, Chinese, Russian, or otherwise who are even as we sit here today trying to figure out who to steal our secrets, how to take away American intellectual property, and all kinds of things that would do real damage to the United States of America.
QUESTION: Now the United States doesn’t advertise what we do in response to these kind of hacks, but can you say that it’s likely that some kind of response will be given as a result of what has happened?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, I’d rather not comment on that, just to say we have an articulated vision for the appropriate way to respond, and I am confident that we have done that in each case as it was appropriate, and we will do in this particular instance as well in a way that matches – that matches the response that is most appropriate. That’s all I can really say, David.
QUESTION: Okay. Let’s talk about some other things that have been in the news recently in your area of domain. It is said that you are considering labeling Cuba a terrorist nation on our State Department watchlist, I guess it is. Is that something you can comment on? Is that likely to happen?
SECRETARY POMPEO: We don’t get out in front of decisions that will be made on designations, but the world knows Cuba’s evil hand in so many places. I’ll give you the perfect example. We’ve been working to create democracy for the people of Venezuela for our entire four years, and it is Cuban efforts, Cuban security operations, Cubans controlling the security apparatus inside of Venezuela that has inflicted massive pain on the Venezuelan people. It is completely appropriate for us to consider whether Cuba is in fact sponsoring terrorism. And if so, just like any other nation that is providing material support to terrorists, they too should be designated such and treated in a way that’s consistent with that behavior that they’re undertaking.
QUESTION: I have been always wondering how Venezuela survives given the fact that its oil production is way down. It doesn’t seem to have an economy that’s – that’s very productive right now. How do you think Venezuela and the government in power there has been able to survive over all these years since Chavez died?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, you’ve seen this – rogue regimes who inflict massive pain on their people can often survive well past their sell-by date. They do it by stealing. They do it by oppression. They do it by having control of the military or the capacity to inflict kinetic harm on people. They put their people in information fear as well – that is, they have the apparatus that can communicate to their people and impose real emotional burdens on them. They threaten them. Regimes often can survive far longer than the people who are being harmed by them would prefer.
And we’ve done everything we can to deliver for the Venezuelan people a better outcome. It’s tragic that Maduro continues to hang on and inflict so much harm. I think – I think now, David, we’re up to 12 to 15 percent of the Venezuelan people have fled their country. That’s a very telling statistic when that many people decide they just can’t hang in there. They can’t stay where they want to be; they can’t be home. We are very hopeful that the Venezuelan people under President – acting President – excuse me – President Guaido will see the light of day, and we hope that day comes soon.
QUESTION: Okay. Let’s talk about the Middle East for a moment. The Abraham Accords, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, or Trump supporter or not, most people would say is probably a plus for Israel and other parts of the Middle East. So who do you think deserves the credit for that? Is that President Trump? Is it the State Department? The White House? Who actually put together that – those agreements with several countries now?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, it was a big team effort. It was first enabled by President Trump who made some decisions at the beginning of his time as president which enabled us. What were those? Those were the simple recognition of the rightful capital of Israel being in Jerusalem, the homeland of the Jewish people; the fact that the Golan Heights was rightly part of Israel; the issue – the statement from the State Department which talked about settlements not being necessarily illegal in every situation.
The policy we took with respect to Iran – putting pressure on Iran, not taking Iran as our primary security partner in the Middle East, but in fact flipping the script and acknowledging that the Gulf states had the rightful capacity and Israel had the rightful capacity to defend themselves from Iran, and putting real pressure on Iran. Those things all enabled the good work.
And then it was a team effort. Jared Kushner, his team at the White House, our State Department team, the team at the Department of Treasury all had a hand in making sure that we delivered the outcome which enabled these nations to make the right decision, which was that Israel is not a threat, but a partner; Israel is a friend, not an enemy, and that they ought to normalize relationships with them.
It’s a good thing. We’ve got a handful so far. I’m confident that there will be more. It’s the direction of travel. It’s the direction of history. And I’m glad that we were here to be the part – the partners for these countries that enabled them to get across the line to make this decision.
QUESTION: Now one of the countries that most recently joined the Abraham Accords is Morocco. And subsequent to that or around that same time that they announced their support, the U.S. Government announced that it supported Morocco’s control over Western Sahara. And was that a quid pro quo, or that was unrelated to the agreement to the Abraham Accords?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So David, every situation with these Abraham Accords, these were a complex set of discussions and so there were lots of things taking place. But make no mistake about it, whether it’s Moroccans or the Sudanese or the Bahrainis or the Emiratis – whoever it is that made this decision – we’re working with countries in Asia that I’m hopeful will make a similar decision before too long – they’ll make those decisions because it’s in the best interest of their country.
And I’ll give you the Emiratis as a good example. Their decision to normalize their relationship with Israel allowed us to begin to develop a security relationship with them that is different. So we are now going to sell them high-end American equipment to permit them to defend themselves. Those are things that can happen.
And so you talk about quid pro quo – the truth is, these are how relationships change and how partners and security partners work together. It’s true in Sudan. It’s true in the Emirates. It was certainly true with respect to Morocco. We announced that we’re going to begin the process of establishing a State Department operation in the Western Sahara. Those are things that can happen once nations make a decision that they want to be part of this structure, the structure that the Abraham Accords lay out.
QUESTION: Okay so what you’re referring to as the high-tech equipment, the F-35s are now going to be sold to UAE, but that wasn’t a quid pro quo is what you’re saying? It was a natural evolution of the relationship?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well we always – as you remember with respect to Israel, we always – indeed we have a legal requirement to make sure that Israel maintains its qualitative military edge, but that a concept, the idea of Israel’s security being central to how America thinks about not only its relationships, but its sale of American equipment changes when a country decides that Israel is not a threat but a partner. And so you can begin to open up things that can happen that couldn’t have happened elsewise.
QUESTION: Now when you last visited Israel you became the first Secretary of State to visit the West Bank – territories that are now occupied by Israel through settlements and also to visit the Golan Heights. So was that a conscience statement to visit areas that previous Secretaries of State hadn’t been willing to visit? And what do you think the purpose of your visit was in terms of sending a signal to the Palestinians and others in the Middle East by visiting those sites?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well not just the visits, David, but everything that the administration has done has been very clear – not just signals. We’ve communicated directly with the Palestinians about the fact that they need to stop the model that they have adopted, which is that no deal is good enough for them. In the end, the President laid down a vision for peace and his vision for peace included a really, really good outcome for the people that live in the West Bank. They’ve rejected that. They’ve rejected even the willingness to start a conversation about a conversation about this. That’s unacceptable.
And so what we’ve done is whether that was my trip to Judea and Samaria, or my visit to the Golan Heights or the Abraham Accords, we’ve simply said we’re going to recognize what’s real – what the reality is. We’re going to acknowledge that. We’re going to ask Palestinian leadership to step up and do the same. So far they have declined to do that. I hope that they will. I hope they’ll do it today or tomorrow or the next day.
If they do, if they get that right, I am very confident that they – they – they, being the people that live in these places, can live a far better existence than they do today, and they can have more control and autonomy over their own lives, more wealth and prosperity as well. But so long as their leadership chooses to reject the willingness of the Israelis to engage in a conversation with them about how to move forward, then the plight of these people will continue to be challenged in ways that are just awfully sad.
QUESTION: Now you mentioned earlier the Iranians. Would you say by pulling out of the agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons and nuclear materials, we gained a benefit? Because it seems that they have actually begun to develop more nuclear-enriched facilities than they had before, so what would you say has been the benefit of pulling out of the agreement that we had with the Iranians?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’d say three things. First when President Trump came into office, the Iranians were growing their economy as 5, 6, 10 percent a year. And they were doing so with American wealth that was funneled through European companies that were doing business there or the famous money that the Americans shipped to them to get the deal done. All of this was creating wealth and capacity for the kleptocrats and the theocrats in charge of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and it was threatening the United States of America and our people. Their capacity to foment terrorism around the world was expanding. That’s not the case today. Simply not.
They have reduced their ability to underwrite Hizballah, the Shia militias in Iraq. Their work in Syria has now become more costly for them with the Caesar Act where we put real sanctions on Iranian activity that’s taking place there and on the Assad regime. We have diminished their capacity to inflict risk and security threats to the people of the United States of America and, indeed, to people all across the world.
One of the core critiques from my time in Congress – David, you’ll remember I opposed the JCPOA vehemently when I was a member of Congress as well – was that the Iranians could start up their centrifuges any time they wanted to. This was a deal where they had made a promise that they wouldn’t, but if they wanted to start those centrifuges up, in a snap they could. And you’ve seen it. You’ve seen it. As they now think they may have a president come into office that will do a deal with them again, they’re going to raise their level of activity to threaten. And so that the Europeans and the United States will once again kowtow and enter into a deal with them that presents them with enormous opportunity in America and the Gulf States with real risk.
You need look no further than the Gulf States and the Israelis – the people who have to live in close proximity to the Islamic Republic of Iran – to understand that the approach that the Trump administration has taken with respect to Iran was the right one, and that we ought not go back to the policies of the previous years to our time in office.
QUESTION: There was a concern that on the first anniversary of Soleimani’s death, that there would be an attack by Iran on some U.S. facilities somewhere. So far, the first anniversary has past and that hasn’t happened. Are you still worry that there will be some retaliatory attack by Iran?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Look the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran that they’ll make an attack on the United States is something they talk about nearly daily. They tweeted about it again over the weekend. They threaten the President. They’ve threatened me and other senior leaders of the United States Government. They threaten Israel nearly daily. Yes, we’re on guard. We’re always ready. It’s been the case for four years. It will be – it will be the case so long as I’m the Secretary of State and President Trump is our President. We will be prepared, and we will do the right thing to deter them, to prevent them from having the resources to inflict costs.
Now 40 years on – right, 40 years-plus, David, this regime has been there threatening Israel and the United States. We’ve done the right things. We’ve put America in the right place to convince the Iranians that this is a bad idea. And if they decide to take action, I am very confident that the Trump administration will respond in a way that President Trump talked about and President Trump tweeted about now I guess week or a week and a half ago.
QUESTION: Now ISIS was a big threat for a while. It seems to be less of a threat now. Do you think that ISIS has more or less faded into the background or is it something we should still be worried about?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well the caliphate is gone. President Trump took it on. They owned a piece of real estate that was enormous in eastern Syria and western Iraq. They no longer control that real estate. But the threat from Sunni terror, whether that’s ISIS or al-Qaida remains. It’s diminished, for sure, in many places. But they’re still active. They still have intentions of harming America and the United States has a responsibility to do all things necessary to protect our homeland from threat, whether that’s from ISIS or al-Qaida or al-Shabaab or any of the other terrorists who are intent upon harming the United States.
QUESTION: Now, on Iraq. Iraq seems to be reasonably stable now, by previous standards at least, but in hindsight do you think that the invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush’s administration was a plus for Iraq and the world or do you think that in the end it wasn’t a plus?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, I really don’t want to revisit that. We know it created a space – it created a space for bad actors to arise, but there was bad stuff going on at that time. That’s now 17 years on. What we need to think about is how we make sure and protect the United States of America today. That’s what we’ve done.
If you look at our force posture – everyone focuses so much on the troop strength. Oh, you have X number of soldiers here or Y number of soldiers there. America’s capacity to protect the homeland has expanded greatly under the Trump administration. That starts with really good and capable intelligence and President Trump unleashing the Intelligence Community to do the things that it needed to do to protect and preserve America, and then our capacity to defend, whether that’s defense through information warfare, defense through actual kinetic capabilities. The United States counterterrorism efforts under President Trump have expanded, and indeed, have protected our homeland.
We – no use in revisiting lots of the history. We are where we are today. I’m proud of the counterterrorism work we have done and I am proud, too, that we’ve done it in a way that has permitted us to refocus our energy on the great power competitions that truly threaten America in a way that fundamentally dwarfs the risks to the United States from a particular terrorist threat.
QUESTION: Now, prior to President Trump becoming President, the eastern Ukraine and Crimea was taken over in effect by Russia. Do you see any progress that’s been made there and do you have any hope that ultimately the Russians will pull out of eastern Ukraine or give back Crimea?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Boy, David, it’s been pretty frozen. The Russians have twice made agreements that they have failed to live up to. I regret that. We have continued to do the things that are right by the Ukrainian people, whether that was our effort to stop Nordstream 2 from being built, whether it was the President’s decision to provide lethal defensive materials for the Ukrainians – something the previous administration refused repeatedly to do. We’ve done the right things for them and we’ve tried to build up the capacity for the Ukrainian Government to defend itself from the threats that come from Russia, both the military threats, the information threats, the threats inside of Ukraine, the energy threats. We’ve done all of those things, and yet in southeast Ukraine there is still a conflict that hasn’t made – we haven’t made much progress nor have the Europeans made much progress in their diplomatic efforts as well. I regret that. I wish – I wish we would have made more progress during our time.
QUESTION: As we go forward with the – we move forward around the world, let’s talk about Afghanistan. On Afghanistan, the U.S. under the administration, Trump administration, has more or less reached an agreement under which we will pull back some troops from Afghanistan. Are you comfortable that the Taliban will honor the agreement that we have reached with them?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, goodness. There’s every reason to expect that this agreement will be complicated, fraught, one step forward, two steps back, and that there remains an awful lot of work to do. Ambassador Khalilzad headed back to the region yesterday or today to continue these negotiations. But we’ve made real progress in Afghanistan in these four years. David, we were spending upwards of $20 billion a year in Afghanistan. That’s an awful lot of money. And we were putting lives of American soldiers and Marines and airmen and sailors at risk there, and we weren’t making much progress.
President Trump said: Let’s get this right. Let’s get the cost right. Let’s make sure we do everything we can to support the Afghan Government. Let’s continue to help build out the Afghan National Security Forces, the ANDSF. We’ve done each of those things. And then let’s get the Afghans talking together, right. Four administrations have tried to convince the Afghans to get together and talk, and we did that for the first time. We got all the Afghans in a room in Doha, Qatar, to have a conversation. We’re now months into that conversation. We’ve got the process right. The international community has come around. We’ve built out a real coalition to try to work to build out an Afghanistan that is reconciled and peaceful. I am confident that it will be both fraught, but I am optimistic as well. I’m optimistic that the Afghan people know that the days of endless fighting have to end, and that an Afghanistan that is sovereign and independent not only from the challenges internal but the challenges external from Iran and elsewhere are things that they’re going to have to stand up and take care of on their own. We’ll still be there. We’ll still provide support. But we can do so in a way that protects the American homeland and reduces American cost and risk from the activities that are taking place in Afghanistan proper.
David, I have just one last thought. We remember why we went there after 9/11. I’m still pissed off about 9/11 every time I think about it. But there are fewer than 200 al-Qaida fighters left inside of Afghanistan today. That’s real progress. That’s mission accomplished in the sense of we no longer have an enormous al-Qaida presence capable of hiding from our Intelligence Community inside of Afghanistan. I’m proud of our successful mission there. We need to continue to work to build out peace and reconciliation, and I am hopeful that we will be able to do so and the Afghan people will once again reclaim their country’s history and providence.
QUESTION: You and President Trump have spent a fair amount of time on North Korea. Do you feel that there has been progress? I know there were some meetings, but do you feel that they have actually not moved forward with their nuclear program or are they actually in possession of more nuclear weapons than they were several years ago? And what progress do you think can realistically be made in the future there?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, that’s an important question. President Trump came in and recognized that one of the great challenges that we faced was a – the tension between the United States and North Korea. They had a real nuclear capacity when we took office. Over time, he came to believe that the best path forward was to begin a real conversation with them from the most senior levels. He had summits in Hanoi and in Singapore where Chairman Kim made the commitment that he would be part of a process that would denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, we have not achieved that yet. Chairman Kim has not yet made the decision that he is actually prepared to execute that, and so the challenges continue.
There are many, many actions taking – going on that I can’t say a whole lot more about. But we have convinced Chairman Kim at the very least, to date, since we began these conversations, not to continue to test his longest-range ballistic missiles, the ones that threaten the United States. We have convinced him not to continue to develop his nuclear capability by testing a nuclear weapons system, something that you know, David, that testing is required to continue to advance programs that are at a low level of maturity. All of those things are true. We’ve got about 70 North Korean remains – U.S. servicemember remains transferred back to the United States. I’m proud of that. I am hopeful that one day, Chairman Kim will come to recognize what President Trump told him repeatedly, is that the North Korean people would be far better off, that they could have a brighter future if they would acknowledge that this nuclear program that they possess is actually the thing that presents risk to the people of North Korea. It’s not something that deters a threat from the United States, who poses no real threat to the North Korean people.
QUESTION: Let’s talk about China. And China, you’ve been fairly tough on China on human rights issues and other things that they have been involved with, with respect to Hong Kong and a new security law there. Do you have any hope that China will ease up on its constraints on Hong Kong, or do you think that’s a fait accompli?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, I’m afraid it’s a fait accompli. I hope I’m wrong about that, but everything that we have seen over the past year has indicated that Hong Kong is going to become nothing more than another communist-run city. That’s most unfortunate. It had a special status. The Chinese Communist Party committed to that status for 50 years, then broke the promise about halfway through.
Now the people of Hong Kong are living under threat from this national security law which you referenced, where actions that they take pose the risk that they’ll end up in jail. They’ve already had some of the people who were just doing simple acts of exercising what we would consider our First Amendment right to protest, they have been put in jail.
It’s very telling, too. There were a group of people who chose to flee Hong Kong, and they have now been imprisoned and tried inside of the mainland in China. That’s a bad sign. We know what happens when countries begin to jail people who want to leave their country. It’s very telling. We’ve seen this history. We saw this history in Europe. When people close their borders – not from keeping people out but keeping their own people in – I think that’s very telling about the fragility of particular regimes and the threat that they feel from the fact that their people may ultimately decide their country is not the best place to live.
QUESTION: Now, you’ve been tough on the islands that China has been building in the South China Sea. Do you have any doubt that they are for military purposes only?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, those islands are islands that have been built with the intent of controlling the – for the Chinese Communist Party to have control and capacity to influence shipping lanes all throughout not only the South China Sea but the East China Sea on around through the Indian Ocean as well. They are attempting to create – I talked about the – this region as being an effort by General Secretary Xi Jinping to create a Chinese empire in the sea. The United States should never permit that to happen. The Trump administration has worked very, very diligently with our friends and partners in the region to slow them down.
QUESTION: Now, China and the United States had tough trade negotiations over several years. The first phase has been completed. In hindsight, do you think we’ve gotten out of the first phase what we thought we would get, which is more Chinese purchases of American products and also more access to their market, or it really hasn’t happened yet?
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, I think they will ultimately deliver on the commitments that they made in the phase one trade deal. Some of it was slowed a little bit by the fact that the global economy slowed down tremendously, but they have said all along they would, and we have seen indications that they intend to comply with those.
The regret is, is that the big issues, the hard issues in the trade relationship between the United States and China have not been resolved – the issues about intellectual property theft, the intellectual – about fairness and reciprocity and the fundamental investment rules for a broad range of industries, the protection of assets and property that is American-owned property inside of China. Those things that are central to making sure that we have a fair and balanced trade relationship with China, the Chinese Communist Party ultimately walked away from. That work remains to be done.
QUESTION: And do you have any doubt that Xi Jinping will serve as president of China for quite some time beyond his second five-year term?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh goodness, the Chinese – I don’t comment on longevity of foreign leaders. The Chinese people will make that decision.
QUESTION: Okay, let’s go to Europe for a moment. It appears that Brexit, after four and a half years, is finally going forward. Why does the Trump administration think that’s a good thing for the UK to do, because the Trump administration, I think, supported Brexit?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Look, we always think it’s a good thing when people of a country make a sovereign decision that they execute. What did it take, David? Some four years, four and a half years, from the time that the people of the United Kingdom said “we want out” till the time that the government actually got them out and extracted them from this. We always think it’s a good thing when sovereign nations do what their people ask them to do.
QUESTION: Okay, let’s talk about NATO for a moment. President Trump was tough on NATO, saying that the NATO members should increase their defense spending. They would argue that they were going to do it anyway. He would say that they did it, in part, because of his talking about it. Where do you think NATO stands? Is it as strong as ever, or is it not as strong as it once was?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, I think NATO is in a better place today than it was in January of 2017 by a long shot. And you don’t even have to take my word for it. You can ask Secretary General Stoltenberg, the leader of NATO.
What’s better about it? First, there is no doubt that European countries have made decisions. I think Stoltenberg, Secretary General Stoltenberg, puts the number at about $440 billion of commitments between now and 2024. That’s not that far off. That’s 36 months on, right? Significant investments in their partnership with NATO. That’s a good thing. Commitments to defend their own nation, commitments to the partnership and NATO. That’s a fantastic outcome that President Trump spurred on.
Second, we challenged NATO not only to make sure they spent the right resources, but to be sure that they were focused on the right things, the right activities, the right threats. And so we’ve spent a lot of energy making sure we were focused not only on the threat from Russia that was created to deter the Soviet Union. It’s important that we continue that effort. But today, much of the threat to NATO countries comes from the Chinese Communist Party that we were just talking about, and we have now made a fundamental pivot in how we think about NATO as a counter-China effort.
Whether that’s in space, whether that’s in cyber, all of it, whether that’s in information warfare, NATO is under attack from the Chinese Communist Party as well and it needs to retool and refit, just as we have done, David, with every international organization that the United States is a part of. We’ve asked some central questions: Does it work? Is it fit for purpose? Does it have the resources it needs? Is it delivering on the commitments that it made? If it is, the United States will support it. If it’s not, we’re going to do our best to fix it, reform it. And if that fails, we’re not going to be part of it. We’re not going to spend American taxpayer money on those.
I think NATO is one where we can safely say we had a two-hour conversation about China with the NATO foreign ministers in December. That’s unheard of. It’s new, it’s different, and it’s important and it’s the right thing for NATO to do.
I’m really proud of the work that we have done to enhance the set of NATO relationships between not only the transatlantic partners of the United States and Canada but amongst the European countries as well. I think the capabilities that NATO will have in the years ahead are much better as a result of the work that the Trump administration has done as partners in NATO.
QUESTION: As we’ve talked, China has reached an agreement with many of the European nations on trade, which is something that I think the Trump administration was not in favor of European countries doing. Do you think that’s going to be a handicap for the United States in dealing with either China or European countries?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, I don’t know the answer to that for sure. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions about precisely what the ramifications of that agreement will be. As we stared at it, it was a weak agreement. It didn’t protect the European workers from the predation of the Chinese Communist Party. They get to make their own decisions.
This is not the kind of deal that the United States ought to enter into with China. We care too much about our workers, about our people, about our manufacturing, about our intellectual property to sign a weak deal that would continue to allow China to engage in activities that weren’t fair and even, balanced and reciprocal.
QUESTION: Now, when the history of 2020 is written, it’ll no doubt be written that COVID affected dramatically everything in the world, so let’s talk about COVID for a moment. Do you think China could have done a better job in alerting the United States and other countries about how devastating COVID could be? Or do you think they did what they could do and that there’s nothing more they could have done?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, undoubtedly, they could have done a better job. Not only could they have done a better job – that might imply negligence – they did a poor job intentionally. They knew much; they knew a great deal more than they told the world. They co-opted the World Health Organization, they politicized it, they took it from a science-based organization to a political organization, and they took actions that protected them but threatened the world. No, when the story of 2020 – really December of 2019, when the Chinese Communist Party first became aware of human-to-human spread of this virus – I think the world will come to understand what I think most people already know, is that that the Chinese Communist Party handled this in a way that has caused enormous loss of life and billions and billions of lost dollars in wealth and prosperity around the world. And it didn’t have to be this way.
QUESTION: Now, did you ever get COVID yourself?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I did not.
QUESTION: And have you been vaccinated yet?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I have.
QUESTION: And how painful was that?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Not painful at all.
QUESTION: And no side effects yet?
SECRETARY POMPEO: None. I’m here talking to you. All is good.
QUESTION: So let’s talk a moment about your own future. At some point, secretaries of state go on and do other things. Some have gone and become president of the United States; some have done things in the business world. What do you think you would like to do when your term as Secretary of State is completed, whenever that might be?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, I think I’ve answered all your questions, and I may just – I may kick this one. I don’t know precisely what I’ll do. I want to make sure and tell the story of the work that the Trump administration did, so I’ll find a way to do that. I’m really proud of the work we did, but we lived at a – we served at a time of inflection where the transition from a counterterrorism posture in the United States had to change. I think we’ve gotten that right, but there’s a lot of work to do, and I think it’s really important that the whole world understand how we thought about this, why we thought about it this way, because I believe that’s what needs to continue. The work that we’ve done, the realistic, restrained capacity for America to do good in the world, is too important to leave without a clear exposition. So I’ll spend some time in the time after, when there’s a 71st secretary of state someday, trying to make sure that at least the world understands how we were thinking and why we were thinking about things the way we did.
QUESTION: Many of your predecessors, if not all of them, recently have written a book about their time as secretary of state. So is that something you might consider as well?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I haven’t given it enough thought. I’ve had people suggest that that’s the right thing to do. I don’t know what the right format for making sure that everyone understands what we were doing and why we did it is a book, but I’ll find a way to do that, and then after that, goodness knows what life will bring. I certainly couldn’t have – if you’d asked me this question 10 years ago, I would have never dreamed that I would have served in Congress and then had the privilege to be the CIA director and the Secretary of State.
QUESTION: And do you expect you’ll move back to Kansas at some point or you’ll stay in Washington or you’re not sure yet where you want to live?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m not sure precisely where we’ll live. Home is Kansas. I am confident that we will spend a whole lot more time in Kansas in the time after I’m Secretary of State than I have while I was the Secretary of State. We love it. It’s where our friends and family and our church is. I don’t know. I don’t know precisely where we’ll live. I am confident, however, that my wife will have a big say in that.
QUESTION: So to whomever your successor might be, would you say this is the lesson that you learned, the most important lesson is A, B, or C? What would you say is the most important lesson that you would like to convey to your successor?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Goodness, I remember when I was nominated to be the secretary of state. Secretary Baker came by to see me and he reminded me how important it is that a secretary of state do two things: one, that he build out a team at the State Department to help deliver. No secretary can do this work on his or her own. You need a team around you to help deliver outcomes on behalf of the president of the United States. The second, the relationship between a president and secretary of state is absolutely central to your success. When you travel around the world and meet with leaders or when you speak to them on the phone, they need to know that you have a relationship with the president that means that you are in fact speaking on behalf of him, that you have a clear understanding of the commander’s intent. And so I would advocate for anybody who takes on this role that those two tasks are very, very important to get right.
QUESTION: So as we talk in the first week in January, do you think the world is safer today than it was a year ago or two years or three years ago, or maybe it’s not quite as safe as it was?
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, I think we are leaving – after four years, I think we’re leaving the world safer than when we came in. I hope that the policies that we put in place will have the capacity to continue and whoever the next secretary of state is will begin to follow down this path in a way that recognizes the threat from the Chinese Communist Party, that honors the work that we have done to push back against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the two states with the capacity to inflict real harm on the United States of America.
And then lastly, I’m proud of the work we’ve done. Although we’ve been criticized for walking away from agreements, the truth of the matter is we have built out real coalitions based on real facts, and I hope that too will continue, whether it’s the 60-plus nations that have worked to defeat ISIS, whether it’s the coalition we have built to counter the Chinese Communist Party, whether it’s the effort we’ve done to ensure that trusted vendors are inside of information networks and we don’t have Huawei and ZTE dominating our telecommunications infrastructure. Now – goodness – a hundred-plus telephone companies have sworn off Chinese telecommunications infrastructure. These are important things. That work needs to continue.
QUESTION: My final two questions. The best thing about being Secretary of State is what?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, goodness, it’s the people. It’s all the people that are around you. It’s the people you get a chance to meet not only here at the State Department but people all across the Department of Defense and the Department of Treasury who are true patriots working to secure American freedom and our sovereignty. That is the thing I will remember from my time in service. I’ve made some real friends and I’ve had a chance to see people at every level in the United States Government working and striving to keep the American people safe.
QUESTION: And when your time as Secretary is over, do you expect to take some time off to not have to worry about cables coming in all the time or not have guards around you all the time? What is it you’re most looking forward to when you get to be out of this position?
SECRETARY POMPEO: David, anytime you are the leader, you have a leadership mantle, whether it was when I was the CEO of a company or a tank platoon leader. There’s an awful lot of responsibility that comes with that and real challenges. I have loved every minute of this, but when that leadership mantle passes to the next person, I’ll certainly take a deep breath and I will hope that I will have and that history will reflect that every day the decisions that I made were the right ones and were made with a noble purpose.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for our conversation, and good luck to you in whatever you decide to do next, okay?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you, David. So long.
QUESTION: Appreciate it.
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