QUESTION:  Meanwhile, let’s go out to the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, kind enough to be joining us live at this very important moment in American military and security history.  Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.  Can you bring us back to that decision when you realized you would have a shot at General Soleimani and you wanted to take that shot?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, Brian, good morning.

QUESTION:  Good morning.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  President Trump made the decision, a serious decision which was necessary.  There was an imminent attack.  The orchestrator, the primary motivator for the attack was Qasem Soleimani, an attempt to disrupt that plot.  You all have been talking this morning about the history of who Qasem Soleimani is.  He’s got hundreds of American lives’ blood on his hands.  But what was sitting before us was his travels throughout the region and his efforts to make a significant strike against Americans.  There would have been many Muslims killed as well – Iraqis, people in other countries as well.  It was a strike that was aimed at both disrupting that plot, deterring further aggression, and we hope setting the conditions for de-escalation as well.

QUESTION:  All right.  The Pentagon did release a statement that one of the reasons that he was taken out now was because he was planning more attacks on Americans.  What can you tell us about that generally?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Steve, I can’t say much more, but you need not look any further back than just the last few months – dozens and dozens of attacks against American and allied interests throughout the region by Iran and its proxies, culminating in what happened with an American killed on December 27th.  But we’ve had artillery rounds fired in the direction of Americans to Iraqi facilities.  There have been a series of actions and we’ve watched that escalation take place.  There was an American UAV shot down.  The restraint that President Trump had shown was important, and it’s now the time we needed to take action to restore deterrence.  So the men and women who are on the ground there today, we take seriously the need for their security and we’re working on it.  We’ve been planning for this and we’re prepared.

QUESTION:  Now, if Iran does retaliate – I’ve heard some experts say they don’t always retaliate immediately; it could take a long time – what are the President’s military options?  Lindsey Graham has suggested maybe taking out their three oil refineries.  What do you say?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Ainsley, I certainly don’t want to get out in front of how the President will decide to respond other than to say this:  I think the Iranian leadership understands that President Trump will take action.  We’ve made this clear for months.  When I was the CIA director, we made very clear that these responses would be swift and decisive.  We’ve now demonstrated that.  I hope that the Iranian leadership will see that and they’ll see American resolve and that their decision will be to de-escalate, to take actions consistent with what normal nations do.  And in the event that they do not, in the event they go the other direction, I know that President Trump and the entire United States Government is prepared to respond appropriately.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, I was struck by some of the people that were calling out you and other members of the administration, one of which is Ambassador Chris Hill, who for I think 16 months was in Iraq, and I really can’t point out much that went well during his tenure.

But he felt secure enough to make this comment a couple of days ago:  “The U.S. Government has a kind of cartoon image of what is happening in that part of the world, and one worries whether the administration has the sort of horsepower and brainpower to deal with them.”

Do you have the brainpower or horsepower to deal with this?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I don’t pay much attention to what folks like that say.  I know precisely what President Trump has given as our direction.  I know the mission set; the whole team does.  We’re focused on making sure for the day that we’re secure, that we’re doing everything we can to prepare to have the resources in the region to respond.  I think they’re positioned appropriately and we’re confident.

QUESTION:  Right.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  We also – I can’t fail to mention we gave the Iraqis a real opportunity.  We watched these protests over the last months.  These protests weren’t against America.  They were against the terrible leadership that had come out of Iraq over the past decades.  And we watched last night and you saw the video of Iraqis dancing in the streets.  They’re happy too.  The absence of Qasem Soleimani is a boon to this region, and we reduced risk last night.  It was very clear that we did so and we will continue to take actions to reduce risk and to protect Americans.  President Trump’s been very clear about that, and nothing is different today than it was yesterday with respect to that.

QUESTION:  Clearly, this is part of the President’s maximum pressure campaign which he has launched on a number of entities.  In the past, I know you have been critical of certain members of President Obama’s administration who you felt were undermining the President’s maximum pressure campaign by saying to Iran behind the scenes, hey, just hang on, once he loses in 2020 we’ll be able to go back to the way things used to be.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah, that kind of activity is never appropriate.  It is especially bad when it puts American lives at risk.  So I would hope that those former administration officials will just simply get off the stage and allow President Trump and our team to do the right thing.  Look, we took a very different approach.  We didn’t send pallets of cash to the Iranians.  We didn’t pay for hostages.  We didn’t create a deal which would have given them a clear pathway to a nuclear weapon.  We’ve taken a very different approach.  We believe it’s the one that will ultimately lead to success and stability in the Middle East.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  This is the non-Benghazi.  So what do you know about the other individuals that were killed?  I’ve heard seven, I’ve heard eight people.  One of the guys in addition to Soleimani was the Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.  What do you know about him?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So he was the leader of the Iraqi Shia – he was the primary contact for Qasem Soleimani when it came to Shia militia forces acting in Iraq.  He was a bad guy.  I can only confirm that General Soleimani is dead; but if Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is passed away as well, again, less risk in the Middle East, more freedom for Iraqis, more opportunity for Iraqi people to stand up and get a independent, free, sovereign Iraq built.  It’s what America has been there for.  We’ll continue to work it.  We’ll continue to fight ISIS in the region.  We’re committed to making sure that Americans are safe from terror wherever we find it.

QUESTION:  So I understand – The New York Times is reporting that Donald Trump did something that George W. Bush and Barack Obama did not want to do because they feared there would be reprisals.  They could have taken out Soleimani in the past, but they didn’t want to take the risk.  You know there’s a risk to every move like this.  Why was this risk worth it now?  Because I imagine over the last two and a half, three years, you’ve also had a shot at him in the past, you as CIA director or as – might have heard from your own former secretary of defense.  Why now?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, now was important because of the escalations that’s taken place as well as the imminency of attack that Qasem Soleimani himself was planning.  But, Brian, I think you know this.  The risk of doing nothing was enormous, enormous in the short term in terms of the imminent attack that Qasem Soleimani was plotting, but also highly risky – doing nothing in this region shows weakness.  It emboldens Iran.  It’s what’s happened under the previous administration for eight years where the Iranians felt free to conduct hundreds of attacks.  We know that this didn’t work.  President Trump has taken a fundamentally different approach, and we’re confident that our strategy that we’ve developed, not only the economic pressure but building out coalition forces in the Straits of Hormuz, working to reinforce our Saudi and Emirati partners – all of the things that we have done to create the conditions for a more stable and peaceful and prosperous Middle East, we think this is a part of.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, a number of Democrats running for president had said, yup, he was a bad guy.  But at the same time, a number of Democrats are also wanting the President to explain what legal authority he used to take this guy out, because he wasn’t just a terrorist.  He was a member of the Iranian Government.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah, it’s – we shouldn’t forget it’s General Soleimani.  He’s a military commander.  He’s a military commander who was actively engaged in plotting to kill Americans in the region.  We had an important set of underlying reasons to take this strike.  It was wholly lawful.  We’re confident that we not only got it right legally but we got it right strategically.

QUESTION:  We’ve heard the experts say that this is the number two guy over there.  I know you delayed your trip to the Middle East.  What does this mean for negotiations going forward?

QUESTION:  To Ukraine.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  I’m sorry, is the question about Iraq or Iran?

QUESTION:  Well, what does this mean for negotiations going forward?  I know you delayed your trip to the Ukraine.  What does this mean for negotiations with Iran going forward?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Well, the President’s been pretty clear.  We don’t seek war with Iran, but we at the same time are not going to stand by and watch the Iranians escalate and continue to put American lives at risk without responding in a way that disrupts, defends, deters, and creates an opportunity to de-escalate the situation.

QUESTION:  Are you prepared for the retaliation of – on embassies around the region, whether it’s Yemen, Oman, Iraq in particular?  The way – the one thing about Iran – and they even were rumored to have sleeper cells here – they are – they do – they are pretty fanned out.  How fortified and how firm are our defenses?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Yeah, Brian, we’ve known for a long time that there was risk not only in Baghdad at our embassy but around the region.  We’ve done all that we can to prepare to secure those facilities.  The Department of Defense, the State Department have been working closely together on that, and President Trump’s made clear we’re going to take all necessary action.  We’ll have the resources we need to achieve that.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, there’s no doubt about it.  The reports were that you were about to hit back at Iran after they took out our $200 million drone, and others say you were ready to – and the President at the last minute changed his mind.  When did the President make the decision?  And up until the last minute, were you ready to – to back off had the President – if the President changed his mind?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Brian, I don’t want to talk about the decision-making process.  I’ll only say this:  This was a thoughtful approach.  It was an intelligence-based approach.  It was a whole-of-government approach.  President Trump, through this whole process, was in charge of directing our actions.  And as we moved through the day yesterday, it became clear that we were going to have this opportunity to disrupt this plot, and we achieved that.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, final question for you.  While Brian was asking about the embassies and the potential for terrorism over there, for the folks watching right here, they’re way over there.  There could be some terrorism here, but something that’s a real concern is cyberterrorism.  I would imagine that precautions have been taken to make sure they can’t fiddle with our internet.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Steve, there’s always risk of cyber attacks.  The Iranians have a deep and complex cyber capability, to be sure.  Know that we’ve certainly considered that risk.  Your point about risk here in the United States is real too.  Qasem Soleimani himself, the man that we took out yesterday, orchestrated an attack right here in Washington, D.C., not too terribly long ago.  It was unsuccessful, but that was him.  That was this same guy.  He’s a bad actor.  He was involved in the Beirut bombings in – that killed Americans.  This is a guy with enormous blood on his hands, and the actions that we took yesterday were both consistent with deterrence and with disrupting that imminent attack.

QUESTION:  All right, Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, joining us on a very busy day.  Sir, thank you very much.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Thank you all.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thanks for making time for us.  We truly appreciate it.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Thank you, Brian.

 

U.S. Department of State

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