QUESTION: All right, Secretary Pompeo, thank you, first of all, for joining us.
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s great to be with you.
QUESTION: Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish community in the United States. Today, Kurds are gathered for a demonstration downtown to show support for their counterparts overseas. What’s your message to those in the Kurdish community here in Nashville, especially some who feel somewhat betrayed by the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s great to be here in Nashville, and I appreciate the question. What they should understand is this administration has been incredibly supportive of the Kurds, not only in Syria, but the Kurdish people in Iraq and other places around the world as well. You’ll recall now it was two and a half years ago when we came into office, in this very region ISIS was running free. They had a caliphate that governed and extended, collected taxes, ran schools in that very Kurdish region in Syria as well as in the Kurdish region in western Iraq as well. This administration came in and worked with our Kurdish friends and crushed it. We crushed the caliphate. We created space for the Kurds to no longer have to suffer under the threats from ISIS and radical Islamic terrorism. So I’m very proud of the support that we have provided to Kurds in the region.
Today, even as I sit here, our team, State Department teams are on the ground working to convince President Erdogan, Turkey, that the invasion is not appropriate, that, as the President said, it’s a bad thing. We’re working to convince them that moving into Syria this way, putting at risk the lives of the Kurdish people and others in the region as well – Christians and other ethnic minorities and religious minorities – that it’s a bad idea. We’re using every economic and diplomatic tool to convince them to cease this activity.
QUESTION: Why exactly did the United States pull out?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Turkey made it. Turkey sent large forces across the border into Syria. We had – the United States had a small force there. On Sunday night, it was very clear Erdogan was going to move in. We had a handful, less than 60 people in that space. They were in no position to remain there and keep them safe. President Trump made the decision to bring them 20 or 30 kilometers back out of that space.
QUESTION: But some people see this as a move that we are abandoning once-allies, right, the Kurds that were there for us for so many years. They feel some sense of abandonment. What would you say to them?
SECRETARY POMPEO: That we have worked with the Kurds, the United States has worked with the Kurds not just in Syria, but all across the Middle East, for an awfully long time. They’ve been good partners of ours in each of those places, and I am very confident this administration will continue to support these people who have been good friends of the United States of America.
QUESTION: The action by the United States this week has led to a lot of rebukes from Republicans, Democrats, including Senator Marsha Blackburn, who is a staunch ally of the President. Are there discussions, as Senator Blackburn has called for and others have called for, implementing sanctions against Turkey? Are there discussions about that?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. The President’s made very clear, both publicly and directly to Turkey as well as through State Department channels, that there will be a real cost to Turkey, to President Erdogan, if he continues down this path; that there’ll be an economic cost. Whether that cost is borne through sanctions or other tools, diplomatic tools, I don’t want to get out in front of the President. But the Kurdish people here and the leadership in Turkey should understand that we don’t think what President Erdogan did was right. It’s not proper, and he needs to stop.
QUESTION: I wanted to turn to – obviously, the other thing that’s major in the news this week and the last couple of weeks has been Ukraine. When you were originally asked by Martha Raddatz on ABC News about the phone call between the President and the president of Ukraine, your response was basically that you didn’t know anything about the whistleblower complaint at the time. Why didn’t you volunteer that you were on that call until 10 days later?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I’d have to go back and look at it. Unlike you and others, I don’t spend a whole lot of time retreading on old conversations. My recollection is she asked me about the whistleblower complaint and I responded to that, tried to answer the question accurately. I think I did.
QUESTION: So on – or two days ago, Wednesday, PBS did an interview with you, and you said the phone call was “wholly appropriate” in your mind. Why do you think it’s appropriate for the President of the United States to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, that’s not what he did.
QUESTION: What did he do, in your mind?
SECRETARY POMPEO: He was having a conversation with the new president of Ukraine to talk about our relationship broadly and how we were going to move forward together. President Zelensky had campaigned on taking down corruption inside of the Ukraine. It was the centerpiece of his campaign. President Trump said: We’d like you to make sure you take a look at corruption, at the history of corruption in your country in ways that it may have had an impact all across not only Ukraine, but Europe and the world. The President was having a conversation about how we might move forward together, that we ask our friends and allies and partners – and indeed, our adversaries – to do things for us all the time. We ask them to engage in behaviors – I just talked about one. We’re asking President Erdogan to engage in a set of behaviors that are more aligned with America’s national security interests. It’s completely common to do so. And I actually heard President Zelensky again say yesterday that he didn’t feel pressure to – I think the only ones who think Zelensky was pressured are a handful of folks in the media and a bunch of folks on Capitol Hill, the Democratic Party, who are trying to take down this President.
QUESTION: I mean, you bring up the Democrats, and obviously, there’s been discussion about what they’ve been doing, the way they’ve been going about it. Your office is essentially – what’s your level of cooperation with the impeachment inquiry?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, we’re cooperating to the maximum extent required by law. I have an obligation to do that. And my team, this whole State Department team, our civil servants, our Foreign Service officers, our political appointees – everyone understands that. I’ve made clear we’re going to comply with the law every step of the way.
QUESTION: I mean, I went back and looked at what you had said after the Benghazi hearings where you wrote an op-ed for USA Today, actually the parent company of my paper, where you said: “We make note of the disappointing fact that the administration did not cooperate with our committee’s investigation from the very beginning. In fact, they obstructed… from day one. It is our belief that many of these failures were the result of… administration’s obsession with preserving a political narrative.”
In your assessment, is this current administration trying to, quote, “preserve a political narrative” in failing to cooperate with Congress when they’re trying to do things like impeach those that are leading the impeachment effort, or trying to out a whistleblower?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I’m very familiar with the details. I don’t want to spend a lot of time going back through history. But we let every single witness have counsel from the agency that they worked for. We’ve been denied that. We’ve allowed those agencies to review transcripts of the hearings. The Democrats here have just chosen to behave in a way that’s deeply inconsistent, and to compare to the two processes is ludicrous on its face. We were fair. We treated witnesses with dignity. We gave them time. We coordinated with the agency to set the schedules, all the things that you do so that you get good government on behalf of the American people so that you don’t ever – what the American people have – we did those things when I was part of that committee. That’s what we’ve been asking the Democrats to do in the House of Representatives. We hope they’ll begin to do that.
QUESTION: In general, what’s your assessment of the impeachment inquiry? I mean, do you think it’s absurd?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I came here today to Nashville to talk about religious freedom. The people of Nashville care deeply about that. It’s what I intend to focus on while I’m here today.
QUESTION: I was actually going to ask you about that. You – obviously, you’re here for the American Association of Christian Counselors. Why is religious freedom such an important thing for you?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s at the center of the American experiment. It’s engrained in our First Amendment of our Constitution. It’s something I think sometimes as Americans we take for granted. We don’t recognize that 80-plus percent of the people around the world are in situations where they can’t exercise their religious freedom, their own conscience. We think that’s certainly bad for human dignity. And so the State Department has determined to try and improve that situation all around the world, and why we come talk to this particular group today, because they could be helpful as the State Department executes that mission.
QUESTION: Do you see the administration’s efforts to curtail refugee resettlement as not congruent with that same effort, though, that you – you’re talking about religious liberties and saying how it’s so important to have religious freedom. But many of these people that are trying to flee their countries are fleeing oppression from – whether it’s human rights issues or whatever else. How are those two issues congruent?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, it’s a great question. They’re deeply congruent, indeed. Our mission with respect to refugees and how we handle asylum cases is entirely consistent with our policy on religious freedom. Our mission set, the State Department’s mission set, is to go to the root source of the problem to – these people want to stay in their homelands; they don’t want to come to America. Right? They want to be – they want to live in their own home countries. And so our mission set is to put them in a position where they can, in fact, live their lives, not only the economic issues and the security issues they face, but the issues that confront their fundamental human dignity.
And so the State Department’s mission all around the world is to create a set of conditions so that they can practice their faith in their homeland, in their home country where the kids and the grandkids and their parents and grandparents all live. These are the things that are consistent with protecting religious freedom around the world, and this administration has been fantastic and successful in achieving that outcome.
QUESTION: And one last question I have for you. There were reports that your senior advisor, Michael McKinley’s resignation is happening or will be happening because – you said that or there have been reports that say you failed to protect State Department employees from attacks and retaliation. What’s your response to that?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I protect every single State Department employee. It’s one of the reasons that we asked the House of Representatives to stop their abusive prosecutions where they won’t let State Department lawyers sit with our employees. That’s not fair. We’ve – we have and we will continue to stand up. When the State Department employees are doing things right, when they’re behaving in ways that are consistent with the rule of law and working on President Trump’s and America’s mission, I’ll always stand with them; I’ll always have their back.
QUESTION: Appreciate your time, Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you very much, sir.