QUESTION: And we are joined now by the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Thank you for joining us this morning, Secretary Pompeo. And let me begin with what we just heard from that Kurdish commander who says the Kurds are not happy, that this is a betrayal that she fears will lead to genocide.
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, we need to go back to where this all began for the Trump administration. It began with a situation in Syria where the previous p resident had drawn a red line and failed to enforce it. It began with 4 million people internally displaced or even as many as 6 million people, half a million people killed. This administration came in when ISIS was on the rise. You remember, George, there were people in cages, heads being cut off. This administration came in and worked seriously alongside the SDF forces and our allies as well to built out a counter-ISIS coalition to take down that caliphate.
Now the President believes we have accomplished a significant part of our mission and he wants our folks to come home, and we’re beginning to work that on that. This week the Vice President and I traveled to Ankara after Turkey had made its decision – against the President’s desire – to make an incursion into Syria, and we put out a joint statement which we think will really save lives. It’s worked so far. There is much work to be done to continue to implement it, but we’re optimistic.
I got a report within the last half hour from my senior leaders, who indicate that there’s relatively little fighting, a little sporadic small-arms fire, a mortar or two, but we got wounded out of a town called Ras al-Ayn last night. We’re hoping that the SDF forces will move out of those towns and this ceasefire that the Turkish leaders and the SDF leaders agreed to while we were on the ground in Ankara will hold.
QUESTION: Yeah. And the question is – the question will be how far they have to remove. But as you know, those feelings of betrayal as stated by the Kurdish commander right there are echoed by many of the President’s allies in Congress. We saw Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, saying withdrawing from Syria is a grave mistake. He calls it a strategic nightmare. Lindsey Graham has raised concerns as well, as was Senator Marco Rubio on the Senate floor. Listen:
“We had these 2,000 troops working with the Kurds to keep ISIS from re-emerging and to provide leverage in a future Syrian settlement, to restrain Assad’s power, to safeguard Kurdish interests, our partners’ interests, and to limit Iranian influence. Every single one of those stated interests that was our policy less than two weeks ago has been wiped out.”
Senator Rubio was your first choice for President back in 2015. You cited the success you felt against ISIS over the last couple of years. The concern is that we’re going to – there’s going to be backtracking on that now that we’ve abandoned the allies we were fighting with against ISIS.
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I listened closely to what Senator Rubio said. Each of the interests that he identified this administration is still fully committed to. I can assure you that the efforts to push back against Iran are real and continuous, unlike what the last administration did that picked Iran as its strategic security partner in the Middle East. We’ve taken an incredibly different approach to that, and the Islamic Republic of Iran is feeling it, and security – stability in the Middle East – has increased because of the work we’ve done on the counter-ISIS campaign.
I’m proud of the work that our team has done under President Trump’s leadership not only in countering ISIS in Syria – you know, George, Syria has been a mess for an awful long time – but countering ISIS all around the world. We’ve been serious about it. We’ve been thoughtful. We’ve been strategic. And we will continue to make sure that we take the —
QUESTION: But didn’t the President —
SECRETARY POMPEO: We take the primary effort, which is to make sure we keep the American people safe from the threats from radical Islamic terrorism wherever we find it.
QUESTION: But didn’t the President put those gains at risk by pulling the troops out? We saw the fighting immediately.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I am very confident that this administration’s efforts to crush ISIS will continue.
QUESTION: And Lindsey Graham raises the other concern about as – with Kurds are withdrawing from that border with Turkey that it would lead to a military occupation that displaces hundreds of thousands. He says that’s not a safe zone, it’s ethnic cleansing. Can you assure the Kurdish people and the President’s allies in Congress that you will not be party to ethnic cleansing?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, we were very clear, and the Vice President could not have been more clear when we were speaking with President Erdogan. Go take a look at the statement that was released jointly. No fewer than three of the paragraphs were aimed squarely at ensuring that in this space, this Turkish-controlled space between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, in that Turkish-controlled space that there wouldn’t be attacks on minorities, that this was about getting a ceasefire, a secure area, and that this, in fact, will save lives in that very space. That was our mission set. We accomplished it and now we need to make sure that the commitments that were made in that statement are honored.
QUESTION: The Turks said they got everything they wanted.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I was there. It sure didn’t feel that way when we were negotiating. It was a hard-fought negotiation. It began before the Vice President and I even arrived in Ankara. It lasted hours while we were there. We achieved the outcome that President Trump sent us to achieve.
QUESTION: Let me move on now to the situation in Ukraine and that press conference by Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, on Thursday, where he said that decision to withhold military aid, that it was in part conditioned on this – on the Ukraine pursuing a political investigation for President Trump. Here’s what he said:
“MR MULVANEY: Did he also mention to me in pass the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely. No question about that. But that’s it. And that’s why we held up the money.
Now, there was a report —
QUESTION: So the demand for an investigation into the Democrats was part of the reason that he ordered to withhold funding to Ukraine?
MR MULVANEY: The look back to what happened in 2016 —
QUESTION: The investigation into Democrats.
MR MULVANEY: — certainly was part of the thing that he was worried about in corruption with that nation. And that is absolutely appropriate.
QUESTION: And withholding the funding?
MR MULVANEY: Yeah. Which ultimately, then, flowed.”
A pretty startling admission right there, drawing some criticism from Democrats certainly but also some Republicans in the Senate, including Lisa Murkowski, Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, who said this: “You don’t hold up foreign aid that you’ve previously appropriated for a political initiative, period.” Is Senator Murkowski correct?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I never saw that in the decision-making process that I was a part of, the decision surrounding whether there should be Department of Defense assistance as well as State Department assistance provided to push back against Russia. The conversation was always around what were the strategic implications, would that money get to the right place, or would there be corruption in Ukraine and the money wouldn’t flow to the mission that it was intended for, how did we protect that, is it appropriate for us to provide defensive weapons systems.
George, you’ll remember. I don’t know why Barack Obama held up that funding. Maybe he had a theory, too. I don’t know. He never provided it. This administration has done it not once, not twice, but now three times.
QUESTION: But President Trump —
SECRETARY POMPEO: The people in Ukraine are safer and more secure as a result of that, and the Russians certainly don’t appreciate it.
QUESTION: But President Trump ordered Mick Mulvaney to suspend the aid, and you saw Mr. Mulvaney right there say that one of the reasons was indeed this idea that the Ukrainians had to pursue these political investigations.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ll leave it to the chief of staff to explain what it is he said and what he intended. I can speak clearly to what America’s strategic objectives were in providing this defensive weaponry to the people of Ukraine.
QUESTION: So do you agree then with Senator Murkowski that it would have been inappropriate to withhold the military aid unless this political investigation was pursued?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I’m telling you what I was involved with. I’m telling you what I saw transpiring and how President Trump was working to make the evaluation about whether it was appropriate to provide this assistance.
QUESTION: But that’s what I’m asking is would it be appropriate to condition that aid —
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I’m not going to get into hypotheticals and secondary things based on someone – what someone else has said. George, you would have never done it when you were the spokesman. I’m not going to do it here today.
QUESTION: Well, except it’s not a hypothetical. We saw the chief of staff, the acting chief of staff right there —
SECRETARY POMPEO: It is, George. You just said if it – George, you just said if this happened. That is, by definition, a hypothetical.
QUESTION: The chief of staff said it did.
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, you asked me if this happened. It’s a hypothetical. I’ve told you what I observed, what I saw, the process related to this very funding. What we did and how we thought about that was aimed at the strategic interests of the United States of America in the right and appropriate way to ensure that there wasn’t corruption in Ukraine that would divert these resources to an inappropriate place.
QUESTION: The evidence and testimony being collected by Congress is also establishing that the President’s meeting with President Zelensky was being conditioned on him pursuing those political investigations. Were you aware of that? Did you approve?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I haven’t had a chance to see the evidence that you assert is being accumulated. I wish that I could. I frankly wish that State Department lawyers were being permitted in the room to hear testimony from State Department officials. This is deeply unfair to the officers that serve under me. It’s wrong. I can’t comment on what they’re saying because I have not been permitted to either have a lawyer present or to see the recorded transcripts or the translations of what was said in those. So I can’t comment on what people may or may not be saying in that room.
QUESTION: Well —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Frankly, you can’t either. You weren’t there either, George.
QUESTION: Well, I’ve read the reports. We’ve seen the testimony. Some of —
SECRETARY POMPEO: You’ve seen reporting. You’ve seen leaked reporting from Democrats. That’s right, George.
QUESTION: Some of the testimony has already been released by those who – the witnesses themselves. And of course, the State Department is not complying with some of the subpoena – with some of the subpoenas for documents as well. And we do know that so much – and this is by his own admission – that so much of this activity was being carried out by the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Was he acting with your blessing and supervision?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I have had one consistent policy as the Secretary of State to not talk about internal deliberations inside the administration. I’m not going to change that policy for you here this morning.
QUESTION: But this was different. This was not a member of the administration. This is the President’s personal lawyer who was pursuing this – as a – at the President’s direction and going around the normal State Department procedures.
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, private citizens often are part of executing American foreign policy. You know that. You lived that. Let’s —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Do you want to talk about Sidney Blumenthal for a while, George? Let’s go. I can go all day.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, of course, there have been special envoys for presidents in the past.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Of course, there have. Of course, there have. There have been private citizens all the time, George. All the time.
QUESTION: That’s true.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Bill Richardson does this kind of work all the time. There’s lots of good, patriotic Americans who are working trying to deliver and assist the State Department, the Department of Energy – all of the elements of American power – to get good outcomes for the American people.
QUESTION: And they —
SECRETARY POMPEO: This is completely appropriate.
QUESTION: And they generally have formal appointments. They generally go through reviews for conflicts of interest. We now know that Rudy Giuliani, Mayor Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, was pursuing business interests in the Ukraine at the time he was acting as the President’s special envoy. Doesn’t that create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I missed Sidney Blumenthal’s conflict of interest clearance. You must have seen that, and I did not.
QUESTION: Was there a review of the conflicts from Mayor Giuliani?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I don’t talk about internal White House deliberations.
QUESTION: We do know that he – that Mayor Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, collected a dossier of materials from Ukraine and passed it on to you through the White House. What did you do with it?
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s true. I received a set of materials. It was in a sealed envelope. I passed it on to the appropriate persons inside the State Department for their review. I never reviewed them.
QUESTION: You didn’t look at them?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I did not.
QUESTION: So did you know what Rudy Giuliani was doing?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, I don’t talk about internal deliberations inside the administration.
QUESTION: He said publicly – and there’s been corroborating testimony from several others, including some of the people you worked with in the State Department in the Foreign Service – that he pushed hard for the removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from Ukraine, from her post as ambassador to Ukraine, circulated a series of false – what she called even defamatory – charges against her. Were you aware of that?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, let’s talk about Ambassador Yovanovitch for just a minute. She was withdrawn from her post a handful of weeks early. She still works at the State Department. She is a Foreign Service officer in good standing. You know this, George: Ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the President; and when a President loses confidence in an ambassador, it’s not in that ambassador, the State Department, or America’s best interest for them to continue to stay in their post.
QUESTION: She testified and she put out this testimony that in late April she met with the Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who told her she was being removed “even though she did nothing wrong.” That’s a quote. Why did you approve the removal of an ambassador who had done nothing wrong?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, again, I’m not going to get into personnel matters inside the State Department. I’ve not done it. I’m not going to do it for you here this morning.
QUESTION: But, sir, she is saying that she is being defamed because of this. She said that she was also told that there had been a pressure campaign and that Deputy Secretary Sullivan said there had been a pressure campaign since the summer of 2018 against her led by the President. And many who have observed this, many Foreign Service professionals, say that you have a duty to speak up for her, that you had a duty to protect her in that position.
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, in good time, all of the facts surrounding each of these incidents will become clear, but it’s not appropriate for me to comment on all of the things that happened inside of personnel decisions. None of our Foreign Service officers would welcome the Secretary of State talking about why someone stayed, why someone was removed, why someone was transferred. It wouldn’t be appropriate. If we get into it once, we’ve got to get into it everywhere. George —
QUESTION: Why wouldn’t it be appropriate?
SECRETARY POMPEO: And I just won’t do that, George.
QUESTION: But, sir, if someone is – if false things are being said about one of your professionals, don’t you have a duty to stand up and speak out on behalf of that professional?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, no secretary of state has defended its team, its team members, has done things that served them well, that took care of their families, that made sure that they were getting promotions – we have – by the end of this year, more Foreign Servicers on – Foreign Service officers on duty than at any time – any time, George, a couple hundred years of the State Department – at any time in the State Department’s history. We have done great things for these officers.
I see these stories about morale being low. I see things precisely the opposite. I see motivated officers. I’ve watched them perform in Syria this week. I’ve watched them perform in difficult situations during my year and a half as Secretary of State. I am incredibly proud of the work that they have done, and I will always defend them when it’s appropriate.
QUESTION: That may be, sir, and your senior advisor, Mike McKinley, who also testified on Capitol Hill this week, did praise many aspects of your leadership but pointed out that he tried very hard to get a statement of support for Ambassador Yovanovitch after the July 25th phone call which you were on with President Trump where he called her bad news, yet that statement didn’t come.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So Mike McKinley served me well for a year and a half. I chose him. I had people tell me he was a great Foreign Service officer, and in fact, he served America wonderfully for 37 years. He, in fact, had the office that was just, just behind mine. It had a door that he could walk in any time and say whatever he wanted. From the time that Ambassador Yovanovitch departed Ukraine until the time that he came to tell me that he was departing, I never heard him say a single thing about his concerns with respect to the decision that was made.
QUESTION: So you were never asked to put out a —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Not once. Not once, George, did Ambassador McKinley say something to me during that entire time period.
QUESTION: You were never asked to put out a statement in support of Ambassador Yovanovitch?
SECRETARY POMPEO: George, again, I’m not going to talk about private conversations that I had with my most trusted advisors. I think it’s most appropriate that trusted advisors keep these conversations precisely where they are. Imagine if it becomes commonplace that a secretary of state would talk about things that his closest advisors said to him. I think you would agree, George, that that advice would change. People would be reluctant to speak. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I don’t intend to do that.
QUESTION: Well, this is not a commonplace situation, as you know. And you have drawn criticism from professionals. I want to – Bill Burns, who is the former deputy secretary of state, served Republican and Democratic presidents for over 30 years, wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine this week called, “The Demolition of U.S. Diplomacy.” And here’s how he described what you allowed with Ambassador Yovanovitch:
“[Secretary Pompeo] allowed specious opposition research about Yovanovitch to circulate around the department and sat on his hands as Trump slandered Yovanovitch on the infamous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and warned ominously that she is going to ‘go through some things.’” He then goes on to say, “The ghost of Roy Cohn was smiling somewhere,” comparing it to McCarthyism.
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s crazy. I think Bill Burns must be auditioning to be Elizabeth Warren’s secretary of state.
QUESTION: But, sir, the question is did you speak —
SECRETARY POMPEO: I mean, people have opinions, George. Everyone is entitled to theirs. Bill Burns is clearly looking for a spot in the next administration. That’s fine. He’s entitled to that view. I have to tell you I’ve had a number of Foreign Service officers walk into my offices and tell me how much they appreciate the way we’re handling this process.
QUESTION: And finally, sir, one more quote from Mick Mulvaney on Thursday, where he was describing how he saw the Foreign Service professionals going up to testify on Capitol Hill this week. Let’s listen:
“What you’re seeing now, I believe, is a group of mostly career bureaucrats who are saying, ‘You know what? I don’t like President Trump’s politics, so I’m going to participate in this witch hunt that they’re undertaking on the Hill.’”
Is that how you view those who are testifying?
SECRETARY POMPEO: No, I have a different view. My view is that each of us has a solemn responsibility to defend the Constitution and to speak the truth. I said this the other day. I hope those officers who go to Capitol Hill will speak truthfully, that they’ll speak completely. I only wish that this was a process that merited such a response. This has been unfair in the Nth degree. We’ve got officers going up there to testify about important security-related matters without a State Department lawyer in the room, and then we’re not being prepared to – being allowed to know what it says. We’re not able to protect the State Department. We’re not able to protect the United States of America. And Adam Schiff ought to be embarrassed by the kangaroo court that he is running.
QUESTION: Will you testify if you’re called by the committees?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ve said all along I’ll do everything I’m required to do by law.
QUESTION: Secretary Pompeo, thanks for your time, this morning.