Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
QUESTION: But let me ask you how it went. You’re fresh from the Vatican. How did it go this morning with the cardinals? What progress did you make?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Look, we had a constructive discussion. We have a shared objective. The Chinese Communist Party is behaving in ways that are reminiscent of what’s only happened in centuries past in terms of human rights violations. We’ve watched them oppress not only Muslim Uyghurs but Christians, Catholics, Falun Gong, people of all faiths. I know that the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Holy See all care about these issues deeply. We’ve urged them to take a stronger view, to express their moral witness against these depredations that are taking place there in China.
The United States has been working on this under President Trump now for three and a half years. We continue to seek a better life for the people of China. It’s important to us. It’s personal for me too as a man of faith. I’m hopeful that we together will be able to achieve better outcomes for religious minorities inside of China.
QUESTION: Why do you think the pope didn’t see you this time?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, he’s a busy man. We scheduled this a little bit late. He doesn’t always meet with foreign ministers too. They’ve made clear on my next trip we’ll be able to do it, and I’m hopeful I’ll get back before too long and have a chance to engage with him. It was a lovely meeting that he and I had almost exactly a year ago now. Hope that I get a chance to meet him again before too long.
QUESTION: You know there’s been a lot of controversy about your statements about this China-Vatican accord and some of the pundits here have accused you of trying to put Francis into a cold war with China and others have said that you’ve helped to aggravate a rift between the anti-Francis – you’ve emboldened the conservatives who are not so fond of Pope Francis. Is there a reason – did you feel that you needed to make your statements and write the article rather than speak to them privately about your concerns with the China accord? Was that something that could have been done better in private, or do you feel that it was important to get that all out there in advance of this trip?
SECRETARY POMPEO: We’ve been pretty consistent in this administration demanding better rights, religious freedom around the world. The President – our first president to have an executive order on religious freedom – he spoke about that in deeply personal terms at the United Nations – guess it would have been a year ago at the United Nations General Assembly. This is something that the American people demand that their leaders speak up about, and that’s what I was doing. I was honoring the Catholic Church’s power, its capacity for moral good around the world. I believe that deeply and we urge them to continue to use their persuasive power, their ability to affect the hearts and minds of people all across the world to improve the lives of people who are in very difficult situations all around the world, including inside of China.
QUESTION: You’ve been a tireless advocate for religious freedom in China, and on many other China issues you’ve been very strong. What is your single biggest fear about the Chinese in terms of a threat to the United States?
SECRETARY POMPEO: When you stare at the capacity and the actions that General Secretary Xi Jinping has taken all around the world, you come to understand that the nature of authoritarian regimes – the world knows these systems well, the harm that they inflict on basic human dignity, the security risks that come from unstable nations. And when you have this much effort to exert this much political control inside of your own country, it bleeds over. The President’s talked about this, right – it comes out in a way on our trade deals, where it’s deeply unfair. The United States can’t invest in China, but they can invest in the United States; the tariffs, the burdens that they place on American companies inside of the – these cost Americans’ lives. These affect families of the American people.
There’s a series of concerns that are broad. There’s no single one that stands out, but the totality of the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to subjugate its own people and to engage in predatory economic activity all around the world to the harm of not only Americans but Europeans, Canadians, people of Africa – these are serious concerns and concerns that President Trump has taken on in a most serious way.
QUESTION: You and President Trump are quite convinced in this maximum pressure campaign against Iran, but Iran has not come to the table, the government is still intact, and they’ve started to up their nuclear activities since we pulled out of the JCPOA. Europe has not been at least publicly on board with the United States. So what is the next move?
SECRETARY POMPEO: This is all in the context of the President’s efforts more broadly in the Middle East to create Middle Eastern stability. I remember it would only have been a couple months ago reporters would have asked, well, you haven’t made any progress on normalization with Israel, either. These things only happen the day that they happen, and it’s true, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues its terror campaign around the world. It continues all of the efforts it had in its nuclear program.
The wrong way to approach it was to appease, to give them money, to give them wealth, to create opportunities for them to continue to build out their terror campaign around the world, so we’ve stopped that. We have denied them money. I think President Rouhani said $150 billion that they have lost as a result of the American efforts. That money, that $150 billion, would have cost people all around the world their lives. Our efforts have been successful, they will continue to be successful, and there will come a day when I am confident that the nature of the regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran will respect the people of Iran again.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about Nagorno-Karabakh, because that seemed to have flared up out of nowhere. Some are suggesting that it is a provocation by outside players. What’s your take on what’s going on there?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So our view is that this has been a longstanding conflict between these two countries in this particular piece of real estate. We’re discouraging internationalization of this. We think outsiders ought to stay out. We’re urging a ceasefire. We want them both to back up. We’ve spoken to the leadership in each of the two countries, asking them to do just that. We’re hopeful that in the days ahead they’ll see that violence won’t resolve the conflicts that are there, the ethnic and political conflicts and strife that are there, and having third parties – other nations – join in that only exacerbates the problem.
QUESTION: Belarus. I know a lot of people in Belarus, and they’ve been very heartened when you’ve made comments supporting their resistance, but now it’s pretty clear that President Alexander Lukashenko has to go, and I’m just wondering how the United States plans to help the Belarusian people achieve that end.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So our approach is pretty straightforward. We’ve been very supportive. We declared that the election was a fraud within days of the election’s conclusion. We’ve opposed the fact that he’s now inaugurated himself. We don’t think that makes sense. We know what the people of Belarus want. They want something different. They want freedom. They want a turn towards a different direction that President Lukashenko has not given them and we’re going to be alongside them to try and help them, support them, use our diplomatic capabilities to give them a better path forward.
QUESTION: Is there talk about possibly recognizing Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the legitimate president?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, we haven’t considered all things yet. We’re still working our way through the process. I saw that there were sanctions put in place by the United Kingdom and Canada and perhaps the EU will follow. We’re looking at the tools that will best deliver the outcomes that the people of Belarus are demanding, not just in Minsk but indeed all across the country.
QUESTION: Without provoking little green men, I assume.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, no, we’ve made clear to the Russians as well that it’s not in anyone’s best interest to engage in that kind of activity. It won’t benefit the people of Russia, it won’t benefit the people of Belarus, it will make things more difficult between all the countries in the region.
QUESTION: Let me ask you about the historic Abraham Accords, because that really is, as I see it, one of the top foreign policy achievements so far of this administration, and it certainly opens up the path for a lot of prosperity in that part of the world. But how can you assure the Palestinians that their dreams of having their own state will not be forgotten?
SECRETARY POMPEO: That’s up to them. In the end, they need to select leadership that’s prepared to engage in a conversation. It can’t be the case that your solution to every conflict is to throw Molotov cocktails and threaten to kill others. It’s proven a dismal failure for the people that live in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip as well. Terrorism is not the solution, it’s to negotiate.
This is what we did in the Abraham Accords. We made clear that from President Trump’s perspective, the central threat to the stability – indeed, what makes life worse for the Palestinian people – is what is taking place in Iran. What Iran is doing in the region – they are destabilizing it, they’re creating risk, and they’re destroying wealth and economies. So we flipped the table, we flipped the switch on how we approach this, so we began to engage with the Gulf states in a serious conversation.
In the end, those two leaders of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates made the sovereign decision that it was in their peoples’ best interest to recognize Israel, engage in commerce, to engage in diplomacy, to engage in security activities collectively. This will make the Middle East more peaceful, more stable, and we hope and pray that the leadership of the Palestinian people will come to understand that that’s in their (inaudible) best interest as well and they too will engage in a negotiation with Israel that will lead to a better path forward. That’s what the President’s Vision for Peace was that he laid out now a couple years back. We hope that they’ll engage.
QUESTION: You’ve been rightly very forthcoming and critical of Iran’s human rights abuses, but tomorrow is the second anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. And I know there are people sitting in prison with sentences for executing (inaudible), but I think a lot of people around the world still want to know where the buck stopped on that one. Do you continue to ask questions? Has Saudi gotten a free pass, or are you still (inaudible)?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, I don’t think the Saudis think that they have received a free pass. We do continue to raise – we made clear, President Trump too made clear from the beginning that this was a horrific murder. It was tragic. We’ve demanded that Saudi Arabia take action against those who perpetrated it. As you said, there are those now in prison as a result of having engaged in this. We want to make sure that their investigation is full, complete, thorough, gets to the bottom of this as well. We’ve been assured that they will and we’ll continue to press that issue with them.
QUESTION: Last question about China: They’re all over Africa. Do we have a strategy for trying to counter that influence?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So the first step in any problem is to recognize that you have one, and I have spent now two and a half years as the Secretary of State traveling the world, making clear to places like here in Italy that when China shows up and they want to invest in your ports, it’s almost certainly not for the benefit of the Italian people. We’d say the same thing in Africa. When they show up as a – with a commercial face, this is really the Chinese security state showing up. They may come with money, it may feel good, the deal may be a transaction important to you at a given moment, but there’s enormous cost, enormous price. The absence of political freedom that will follow from most of these deals is real and we’ve urged nations to be thoughtful as they engage, to make sure that they were doing this in a way that actually benefited their nation. If they do that, if it’s a straight-up commercial deal, we brook – we brook no harm from Chinese activity.
But we have watched, whether it’s Chinese infrastructure here in Europe – telecom infrastructure – whether it’s port systems, we’ve watched the Chinese use their commercial face, their commercial footprint to make better and more secure their people and extend their reach into these countries politically, and from a security perspective that’s not constructive.