QUESTION: He is a native of Orange, California, and a graduate of Fountain Valley High School, a congressman from Kansas, former director of the CIA, and now the 70th Secretary of State of the United States. He is Mike Pompeo and he’s our guest today, although I guess I’ve been your guest this jaunt through Latin America, and I appreciate that, sir.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’m glad you joined us, and by the way, I’m from Kansas. Don’t forget.
QUESTION: Oh, yes. Of course. Congressman from Kansas – that’s very important.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I represent Kansas. Yes, sir.
QUESTION: Well, but we’re on KABC in Los Angeles, so your —
SECRETARY POMPEO: No worries.
QUESTION: Your Orange County creds are very important.
SECRETARY POMPEO: My family still – my family still all lives out in Santa Ana and in Orange.
QUESTION: Oh, great. Well, listen, this is a very big day and I know that things are busy for you, so I do want to talk about what happened today in Buenos Aires, especially that very moving ceremony today commemorating the 25th anniversary of that horrible terror attack. Tell me about how important that was, especially considering what’s going on with the nation of Iran right now.
SECRETARY POMPEO: It was really something. It reminds us all that this threat that we talk about today from the Islamic Republic of Iran has been around for an awfully long time. So we talk about 40 years of terror. Today we commemorated something that happened 25 years ago just yesterday, where 85 people getting on with their lives – and described what a handful of them were doing at the moment that the explosive went off – they woke up that morning planning to go back to their families that night and didn’t because Hizballah and the Islamic Republic of Iran decided that they wanted to blow up a facility that catered to those of the Jewish faith. It reminds us of the hard work we all have in front of us and the importance of pushing back against Iran’s capacity to inflict terror all around the world.
QUESTION: You mentioned a couple of times today that this is not a theoretical threat, this is a real threat, and it suggested to me that sometimes maybe people do think that it’s not real; maybe in your dealings with other nations they don’t take it quite as seriously as you’d like them to.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, look, I see that all the time. Most days we go out and everything is fine. Most days nothing bad happens. But this is an intention on the part of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s part of their theocracy, their revolutionary design of their theocracy, which says that it’s okay to go out and inflict terror. It’s okay to go out and kill and maim innocent people. And we’re seeing that. We’re here in Argentina where that challenge still exists today. We’re not immune from it in the United States either and our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen and Marines that are all around the world see this threat from Iran and are working diligently to push back on it.
QUESTION: Well, and the latest headlines of course is now Iran has seized two more now British tankers, British-flag tankers in the Straits of Hormuz. The President just moments ago said that Iran is in big trouble. What does he mean by that exactly?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, I didn’t see the tweet. I have seen the reports on the two British ships. In fact, I just spoke with Foreign Secretary Hunt, my counterpart from the United Kingdom, and we talked about what they’ve seen, what they know, and how they’re beginning to think about how they will respond. Iran is in a place today that they have taken themselves. They have become a pariah nation and the United States has chosen to try to convince them that you simply can’t have nuclear weapons, you can’t have ballistic missiles that threaten the world and threaten Israel. It’s not okay to conduct assassination campaigns in Europe or — they tried to assassinate an ambassador in Washington, D.C. That’s not okay. And we’ve used a number of tools because they are so destabilizing in the Middle East. Foremost amongst them is the sanctions that we’ve put in place, which has put Iran in big trouble and the Iranian regime in big trouble because they now have to make some very difficult decisions. Hizballah has less money today because of the good work that America has done pushing back against them.
QUESTION: Is it time to escort those ships through the Straits of Hormuz or flag them with the American flag, as we’ve done in the past?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So we’re working very diligently to put together a maritime security initiative. It will do precisely what you described. It’ll be international. It’ll be countries from all across the world that will participate in this. And its mission set is defensive. It is to protect. It is to keep these international waterways open and reduce the threat that – of the things that we have now seen reported today about the two British tankers. We – that’s not acceptable to take tankers off the high seas in international waterways, if that’s in fact what happened.
QUESTION: You were asked today about Foreign Minister Zarif and especially about him engaging with members of Congress, and you said sure, he can if he wants to. But I drew from that response that Foreign Minister Zarif really isn’t in a decision-making position here. I mean, isn’t it true that it’s really just the President of the United States and the supreme leader of Iran that’s going to hammer this out, if anything gets hammered out?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, I think in the end, it always takes the leaders of nations, of sovereign countries, to make final decisions about this. Who will end up in the negotiations – if it’s a complex set of negotiations, I imagine it will be me. But yes, in the end leaders make hard decisions about how to resolve these problems, not folks from the legislative branch.
QUESTION: It seems like Mr. Zarif has a bit of a fan club, though. I mean, you chuckled a little bit about how the media has some pretty good access to him and everything. Is that appropriate? Is it appropriate for your predecessors to engage with Foreign Minister Zarif?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ll allow the media to make their own bad decisions if they choose to do that. But as for former leaders engaging in activities that are trying to – that are aimed at undermining American foreign policy, that’s not okay. That’s not appropriate. And I’ve had conversations with some of them. I’ve urged them at every turn to get off the stage. They had their turn, they had their moment, they made their decision, they did the best they could. I don’t fault them for their efforts. But when you’re done it’s time to let the team that America elected – they elected President Trump and his team.
QUESTION: I’d love to follow up on that a moment because the – former Vice President Biden, part of his campaign speeches, his stump speech, is that he has these conversations with foreign leaders and they’re all really concerned about the United States of America. I’m guessing you’re not having those same conversations with foreign leaders.
SECRETARY POMPEO: He’s politicking. I’m trying to keep Americans safe.
QUESTION: To that end, I would love to talk about other events this week in D.C. Your speech with regard to religious freedom I found incredibly moving and actually very important because I think people are looking beyond. They talk about social justice, they talk about all of the various freedoms that are important, but you reframed this conversation that religious freedom really is the first and most important freedom. The rest come down from there. Expand on that, please.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So what I’ve seen – and it’s more than just my time as Secretary of State; I’ve seen this as a member of Congress and even, frankly, when I was in private life running a small company – I think sometimes in America we take these core rights that we have, that the whole world have, that every human being has by nature of them being a human being – I think we take them for granted here in the United States, and then we start throwing around rights language about things that are rights of ours, and I now have this opportunity to remind people – with respect to religious freedom I have the right – I have the ability to remind them how central that is to every other thing that we do. Without that, without the capacity to believe what you want to believe or choose not to believe in a higher being without government getting in your way and preventing you from doing that – it’s unique. There aren’t many countries that have it in the way the United States do. And every human being ought to be able to have that. Without that freedom, so many of the other freedoms that we count on – freedom of speech, freedom to assemble – all of those can fall away very, very quickly.
QUESTION: Is that part of the sort of larger conversation right now with China? We’re dealing with the trade talks, of course, and that’s paramount and important, but they’re not on the good guys list right now, it appears, with regard to religious freedom.
SECRETARY POMPEO: We talk to every nation – allies, partners, those countries with which we have fundamental disagreements. We always talk about these fundamental rights. And I created an unalienable rights commission. One of its aims is to go back to the grounding, how our founding fathers thought about this, so that when we’re abroad talking about this, sharing with other countries why their behavior doesn’t conform to these understandings about how every human being should be treated, that we can talk about it with clarity and with authority.
QUESTION: I think that that’s obviously something that you care deeply about, and I think it’s been great that you’ve been able to push that forward. In fact, this was the first time we’ve had two ministerials specifically about religious freedom, right? That’s within three years, within two years?
SECRETARY POMPEO: In two years.
QUESTION: That’s amazing.
SECRETARY POMPEO: One year apart exactly.
QUESTION: So it’s – I think people like to look at these things in very stark and broad lines, but this is – it’s a nuanced thing to have to communicate these ideas yet at the same time be partners with countries who don’t have the best record. So, for instance, Saudi Arabia. They have some issues in their past and yet they’re a critically important ally. Talk to me about the challenges of that. Because people I think sometimes are confused. They’re like, listen, why are we friends with Saudi Arabia?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. So it’s a good question. When our mission set is to keep America safe, we have a number of priorities. One of those priorities is to talk about religious freedom and fundamental rights. Another priority is to make sure that we have partners and allies who will work alongside of us to help push back against those that are trying to do real harm to the United States of America. Saudi Arabia is that. I contrast that. People will say, well, goodness, you go after Iran but not Saudi Arabia. Well, we talk about – we talk about religious freedom and the way human beings ought to be treated in both places, but one country is trying to destroy Israel. One country has said “death to America;” the other is our partner working for security cooperation to make sure that people in California, in Kansas, in New York, in Pennsylvania are safe.
QUESTION: And with some of those —
SECRETARY POMPEO: So those are fundamentally different.
QUESTION: With some of those countries it’s probably easier to actually effect change when you’re engaging with them and actually have a good relationship as well.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I think that’s right. The other thing one learns as a diplomat, very quickly, is that sometimes, too, private messaging is better than beating folks around the head publicly. It depends on the situation.
QUESTION: You just do Twitter direct messages now? Is that how you —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Sometimes quiet is good. Sometimes I think a private conversation can get you more than issuing a press release trying to achieve your end.
QUESTION: One last question with regard to Iran. There are reports now that Senator Rand Paul is really interested in being a special envoy to Iran. Has the President talked to you about that? Do you have any advice on that? Because it doesn’t seem like he really meshes with your approach.
SECRETARY POMPEO: The President always gets to choose who he wants, but my sense is that that’s something the President is probably not likely to do, but I’ll leave that to the President.
QUESTION: All right. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it’s a big week ahead of us and I’m very interested in what’s going to happen in El Salvador, especially with regard to your relationships there, and hopefully how it influences the crisis we’re seeing at the border.
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s a great trip, an important trip. I’m glad you could join us.
QUESTION: We will get to that. Thank you for having us.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you very much. Pleasure. Thanks, Larry.