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