U.S Department of State
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
October 16, 2019
QUESTION: And joining me right now is the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Mr. Secretary, it’s a pleasure to see you. Thanks very much for joining me this morning.
SECRETARY POMPEO: You bet. It’s great to be with you again, Maria.
QUESTION: So you just heard what Erdogan said; he’s not going to speak to the Vice President. Are you still planning to go to Turkey?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So at this point the Vice President and I are planning to take off later this afternoon, and we have every expectation that we will meet with President Erdogan. And it’s important, Maria; we need to have this conversation with him directly. The President felt it was important that we do this at the most senior levels of the United States Government to speak to him face to face. He needs to stop – he needs to stop the incursion into Syria. This is a complicated matter with lots of states at play, lots of non-state actors as well.
SECRETARY POMPEO: And we’re working to try and find a resolution.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, were you on that phone call with Erdogan over the weekend? Lindsey Graham has been tweeting about it, saying he was part of a phone call yesterday between President Erdogan and President Trump where Erdogan had a commitment, made a commitment to the President that he would stay away from the Kobani area to prevent further escalation in Syria. Did he promise the President he would not invade, and then went against, broke the promise, and did so anyway?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I was on the phone call that I think Senator Graham was referring to. In that call he made a commitment. He said he wasn’t in position to move into Kobani. I spoke with my counterpart, the foreign minister, what would have been now about 24 hours ago. He made the same commitment to me. We hope they’ll honor that. This is a big city with a large civilian population, a multiethnic civilian population. It would not be useful for Turkey. It would not be a good thing for the world or the region. It’s one of the things that we are traveling today to talk with President Erdogan about. We need them to stand down, we need a ceasefire, at which point we can begin to put this all back together again.
QUESTION: Are you prepared to hold Erdogan personally responsible for breaking that promise, for doing something after he said he was not going to do it, and for the recent behavior of Turkey?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Well, we have to remember this is a complex situation, Maria. You saw the initial set of sanctions that the President chose to put on Turkey. I think, frankly, the world has underappreciated the severity of those sanctions and how much impact they will ultimately have on the Turkish economy. But our goal here – remember, our goal here isn’t to break the relationship with Turkey. They are a member of NATO. We have important security interests connected to Turkey. Our goal isn’t to break the relationship. It is to deny Turkey the capacity to continue to engage in this behavior. The President said this was a bad deal, it was a bad thing; we’re working to stop it.
QUESTION: When are you expecting the roughly – is it 1,000 troops in Syria – to be pulling out? When exactly are you expecting that to happen?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I’ll leave the details of the military movements to the Secretary of Defense and the Defense Department. But the President’s guidance has been very clear. But we are working to make sure that we don’t create precisely the vacuum that I heard some of the previous folks talk about. The President’s spoken with some of these folks; I’ve heard them as well. We know the complexity of the situation, we’ve been engaged in this a long time, and I need to remind all your viewers when we came into office two and a half years ago this was a broken place, a difficult challenge where President Obama hadn’t done the things that needed to be done to contain Assad and the Syrian regime. And we have been trying to remedy that situation with great success. The success was the takedown of the ISIS caliphate. We’re proud of what we’ve done, and President Trump is committed to ensuring that ISIS does not rise again.
QUESTION: And you said that now twice, that you want to make sure ISIS doesn’t rise again. But even the Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, released a statement saying that the decision by Turkish President Erdogan to invade northern Syria has resulted in widespread casualties, refugees, destruction, insecurity, a growing threat of U.S. military forces, and the invasion has resulted in the release of many dangerous ISIS detainees. Are we actually seeing the Kurds run away from the jails that they were guarding, and ISIS detainees are now on the loose again?
SECRETARY POMPEO: No one disputes that the decision by the president of Turkey has created enormous risk in the region. That’s absolutely true. It’s precisely the reason we’re headed there today, to try and take down that set of risk – most importantly for the United States, to ensure that the work that has been done to reduce the risk to the American people, which after all is our first and foremost priority, to reduce the risk to the American people, is fully addressed.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, I’m trying to understand better what’s behind the President’s decision now to pull these troops out. I mean, I know that the President is under massive attack here domestically from the media, from the left; that has to be tough. Is there any reason to believe that that pressure is causing him to make the wrong decisions in our foreign policy?
SECRETARY POMPEO: I always go back to our first principles: What’s the mission? What’s the objective? When we set about this now to lay down the President’s National Security Strategy a couple years back, our mission set was very clear: to do counterterrorism all around the world in an effective way to protect the American people. Our efforts in Syria, our efforts in West Africa, our efforts in the Philippines, all across the world, have been aimed at that singular objective. It’s what we’re still focused on.
And so Syria is a small part of this. It’s a small part of our Middle East strategy more broadly. You and I, I think, have spoken a number of times about the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, the Islamic Republic of Iran. This – to focus singularly on what’s taking place in a part of Syria neglects the true risk to the American people and how effective this administration has been at preventing that risk from impacting security for the American people.
QUESTION: Yes, and I’m not disagreeing in terms of the effectiveness so far. But is it not in the U.S.’s national security interest to keep a small number of troops there to actually protect – help the Kurds protect, for example, the oil fields? I mean, if you’ve got Iran getting access to those oil fields, you and the administration have had Iran on its heels, and now with Turkey invading you’re opening up these oil fields to the Iranians, giving them revenue to continue to support ISIS. Not to mention the ISIS fighters being let out of these jails.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I’ve watched the world rally to push back against President Erdogan and the invasion that took place. We should never mistake who the actor is that has caused this disruption there. It wasn’t the United States, it wasn’t the European countries that were there in Syria alongside of us; it was President Erdogan who is responsible for this instability. We’re now working to make sure – and your point is well taken. There are oil fields a little bit further south that are very important, and I know the President is thinking about – with the recommendations from myself and the Vice President – about how best to address that.
QUESTION: But isn’t it also true that we had a small number – we have a small number of troops in Syria, and for the most part we are acting as the backup to the Kurds, we’re helping them with armament and weaponry, we have not lost many people in the last five years? And granted, any life lost is too many, but when you consider the fact that it’s really the Syrian Kurds that are doing the bulk of the fighting, the Syrian Kurds that are losing men and women, not the U.S.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Every American life matters an awful lot, Maria, as you just said. I know we both value that. We’re —
QUESTION: How many people have we lost? How many people have we lost in five years?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, it’s been more than any American would wish. Right? I mean, Maria, I understand your point. Your point is well taken. But we need to make sure that we get this right, that we get the balance right, and I’m very confident that President Trump will do that.
QUESTION: I guess my biggest issue here is the strength of Iran. And I feel like the administration had the Iranians on their heels and ruining the economy through sanctions, through this pressure campaign, and now we give up and leave Syria, and in effect, wrong those people who have been supporters and have been our partners – the Kurds – and open up this area to Iran.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, I can assure you of this: The Islamic Republic of Iran is feeling the full might, the full pressure, of the United States of America. They were feeling it yesterday. They were feeling it a week ago. They will feel it months from now. We’ve laid down the strategy, the ask, what it is we’re hoping the Iranian regime will do, how they’ll change their behavior. We are still fully committed to that, and I am confident that ultimately we will prevail.
QUESTION: Is there any reason to believe that there’s a strategy beyond what we see here in terms of hitting back at Turkey? Turkey’s behavior has not been one of a NATO ally, and now, given that they are in Syria and have invaded here, going against NATO principles, now it enables the U.S. to put sanctions, enables the U.S. to hit back at Turkey?
SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s been a difficult relationship in that sense. They’re a NATO ally and they have forces embedded with us in different places in the world. We have important resources that are there inside of Turkey. Our Department of Defense values that relationship and needs it to continue. So it’s complicated, Maria. And we know that Turkey has not done what President Trump asked President Erdogan to do – he did not green light this invasion; he, in fact, told them just the opposite – that made this decision. We’re hoping that we can convince them to stop and ultimately reverse this.
QUESTION: So is that part of the decision to pull the troops out, because Turkey was committed to going into Syria and the President wanted to get our troops out of the way?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Oh, 100 percent, 100 percent. I was very, very closely involved when President Erdogan told, informed, notified us that he was prepared to move and that he was going to do so within hours. President Trump saw that there were American soldiers in the way, that we didn’t have the capacity to do that, and to think that we were going to have NATO-on-NATO fighting, the President made the right decision in the moment to get American forces out of the way.
QUESTION: You heard earlier in our montage of comments from people, the former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, was in the studio earlier this week, and he said the winners in all of this are Russia, Assad, Iran, and ISIS. Is it your belief that Israel today is less safe as a result of this move?
SECRETARY POMPEO: No.
QUESTION: Okay. You don’t have a date in terms of when the President would pull these troops out. Is there any reason to believe the President would change his thinking on this and leave this couple thousand troops on the ground? How many troops do we have?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, my experience with the President is that he makes decisions and then absorbs data and facts, evaluates situations. If we need to adjust our policy to achieve our goals in which – the President is always very focused on what’s the objective, what is it we’re really, truly trying to achieve.
SECRETARY POMPEO: If we conclude that we need to adjust our policy to achieve those goals, I’m confident that the team will make that recommendation, that the President will move in that direction if he concludes it’s the right thing to do to make sure that we protect America.
QUESTION: And I’ve got one final question on this subject, because Erdogan right now, right now live, is – he’s clarifying his comments. He said he will meet with you and he will meet with Vice President Pence. What would be victory in your view? Do you think in this trip today when you go to Turkey you can get Turkey to pull out of Syria?
SECRETARY POMPEO: We’ll go have this discussion. We’ve had extensive conversations. There’s a team on the ground. My ambassador, Ambassador Jeffrey, is on the ground now. There’ll be lots of discussions through today in Turkey. I’m very hopeful that we can get a good resolution when the Vice President and I travel later today and are on the ground there maybe 24 hours from now.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, let me ask you about the unrest in Hong Kong. China is threatening to counter-measure if the U.S. enacts legislation to support pro-democracy protestors, all in the face of them saying that they want to do a trade deal with the United States. What’s your reaction to that?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Back to first principles again, Maria. Our mission with respect to China is to make sure that we get from the Chinese a set of fair relationships. It’s not just trade. There are national security implications in the South China Sea. There are intelligence issues. It is a complex relationship.
With respect to Hong Kong in particular, I think the President has been very clear. The President said China made a promise. They said one country, two systems. And they are asking the Chinese leadership to respect that commitment that they made. They made it to the British in the agreement that was submitted to the UN. That has been U.S. policy. We have been very clear about that.
The President has also said that he wants to make sure that China treats the individuals there humanely. Those are the things that are at the center of American policy with respect to Hong Kong.
QUESTION: What about this deal that the President just talked about, phase one of a deal with China? Is anything about the human rights abuses part of this conversation? You and I have had this discussion many times. There is upwards of 2 million Uighurs in concentration camps right now.
SECRETARY POMPEO: So the trade discussions have a number of topics. They are working to knock through just as many of them as they can as quickly as they can. They’ve got a set of them that are part of this first phase. I don’t want to get in front of Secretary Mnuchin and Ambassador Lighthizer on their agreement. They’re hoping that they can get that resolved here quickly.
But make no mistake about it: There will still be – even after the phase one trade deal – there will still be challenges between the United States and China even after that trade deal is complete.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, we thank you for your time today, and of course, we’re all wishing you best wishes on your trip to Turkey. Thank you so much.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thank you. Thank you very much. Maria, thank you so much, ma’am. So long.