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Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press

Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
Washington, D.C.
February 25, 2020

SECRETARY POMPEO: Good morning, everyone. It's good to be with you all. As you know, President Trump has been visiting our friends in India, and I'm just back from a ten-day, six-country trip.

In Germany, I reinforced our transatlantic partners the good news, that the idea of the West, the model of capitalism and freedom, is clearly winning. In Senegal, in Angola, and in Ethiopia, I had important conversations with our partners about how the United States can invest, build out their democracies, their economies, and can produce prosperity that Africa needs to be successful in the years and decades ahead. And then I traveled on to Saudi Arabia and Oman, reaffirming America's strong ties to each of those two indispensable partners.

Today, I want to make remarks on situations that have been developing while I was away working.

First, in Afghanistan. Last year, I described the three principles underpinning President Trump's foreign policy: realism, restraint, and respect. All of these apply to Afghanistan and what we're doing there. It's a place where our brave soldiers, diplomats, allies, and Afghan counterparts have served and sacrificed now for nearly two decades.

So first we have to be realistic. We're proud of our gains, but our generals have determined that this war is unlikely to be won militarily without tremendous additional resources. All sides are tired of fighting. We've arrived at a historic opportunity for peace. It won't be easy to obtain; we should seize the moment.

Then there's restraint. We're currently in a seven-day reduction in violence period that started on February 22nd. In 19 years of war, this is the first weeklong break in violence by all sides, if we're successful in achieving it.

If – and only if – it's successful, we will sign the U.S.-Taliban agreement coordinated with the Government of National Unity on or about February 29th. That includes a timeline for both a conditions-based and phased troop withdrawal, and for the commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations. These negotiations, if they take place, will be the first time that Afghans representing all sides of the conflict will sit down together and begin the hard work of reconciliation.

Lastly, respect. The Taliban must respect the agreement, specifically regarding their promises of severing ties with terrorists. We're not required to leave unless they can demonstrate they are fulfilling every element of their end of the bargain. This agreement also entails respect for the Afghan people – it's a declaration that the future of their country resides in their hands, not ours.

Second, I want to talk about America's world-leading response to the coronavirus outbreak, not just at home, but abroad as well.

As the President made clear, our first priority is to protect the homeland. We've imposed prudent travel restrictions and strong travel advisories to slow the spread of the virus to the United States. All known American carriers of the coronavirus are in isolation and treatment, and healthy travelers who traveled from high-risk locations – namely, Hubei Province and the Diamond Princess cruise ship – were placed in mandatory quarantine upon return to the United States.

Outside of our borders, the State Department continues to do an enormous amount of work to review developments inside and outside of China, and to help countries who have been stricken by the virus.

We also want to applaud the brave reporters who are covering the spread of coronavirus from Wuhan itself. Expelling our journalists exposes, once again, the governance issue that led to SARS, and now, the coronavirus, namely censorship. It can have deadly consequences. Had China permitted its own and foreign journalists and medical personnel to speak and investigate freely, Chinese officials and other nations would have been far better prepared to address the challenge.

Similarly, the United States is deeply concerned by information indicating the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country. As of yesterday afternoon, Iran was second only to China in coronavirus deaths.

All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations.

Staying on Iran: This weekend, the Islamic Republic held another rigged parliamentary election. The United States heard the Iranian people's disgust at their government's repression. We've had people send in messages from all across the country. One Iranian said, quote: "I will not vote. Voting means that we give legitimacy to this corrupt regime. We won't cooperate with them in its crimes." Another said, quote: "I have not voted in my life and I will not vote for this corrupt mafia system at all," end of quote.

The United[1] stands with the Iranian people. We will continue their support their voices. These are people who are desperately eager to be heard in a free and fair election.

I also want to speak briefly about the situation in Syria's Idlib province. The Assad regime's brutal new aggression there, cynically backed by Moscow and Tehran, imperils now more than 3 million displaced persons, including, as we've tragically seen, young people. As we've said many times before, the regime will not be able to obtain military victory. The regime's offensive only heightens the risk of conflict with our NATO ally Turkey.

The answer is a permanent ceasefire and UN-led negotiations under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. As President Trump said on Tuesday, we are working together with Turkey on seeing what we can do together.

Finally, as I've said many times, and most recently during my meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Munich, meddling in our elections is unacceptable. The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections – period, full stop. Should Russia or any foreign actor take steps to undermine our democratic processes, we will take action in response.

And Russian election interference isn't a problem unique to America. Russians have been sowing division and distrust among citizens of the United States and other countries, from Belarus to Zimbabwe. I'd love to see you all report more on that.

I think we've covered pretty much everything that I wanted to speak about today. I'm happy to take a handful of questions

QUESTION: Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Secretary.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Good morning, Matt. How are you?

QUESTION: Well, I'm doing very well. Thank you. Welcome back.


QUESTION: One, very briefly, I just wonder if you have any thoughts about the passing of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. And then secondly, and more perhaps newsworthy, on Afghanistan – and I realize there's a bit of a hypothetical element to this, but presuming that we get to Saturday, the deal is signed, and the inter-Afghan talks begin, are there redlines for this administration other than the renunciation of terrorism for those talks? By that I mean, do women's rights, respect for the Afghan constitution more broadly – if those are not agreed to by the Taliban or in those talks, does that mean the whole thing – the whole deal collapses?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Matt, thanks. So first, with respect – our condolences to the family of Mr. Mubarak. Our mission set there has been to work with the current government to develop a better partnership with Egypt. We continue to work on that.

As for what the inter-Afghan negotiations will yield, if we get to that point, I think we're all eyes-wide-open about the complexity and the challenges. There's a reason it's been this long since they've sat at the table together. They have deeply divergent views. But I am confident that the wide range of persons who ought to have a seat at the table and who ought to have the capacity to yield an Afghanistan government that is formed out of this consensus will address all of the issues that you discussed, right.

So we have our deep counterterrorism interest there, making sure that the homeland is never attacked. It's one of the central underpinnings of what President Trump has laid before us. And then our mission set is to make sure that the Afghan people come up with a solution that is an Afghan solution to the problems that have plagued that country for more than 20 years now, for an awfully long time. We'll certainly be there, be led by others, but will be part of that conversation.

And our mission set is very clear. We want to assist and provide structures so that the Afghans can ultimately get an outcome that is led by Afghanis, driven by Afghanis, and is a long-term solution that all of the people of Afghanistan can live with. And they have all the rules, all the constitutional norms. Our hope is that when they sit at the table together that they can grind through the broad range of issues that confront this country, whether that's the security situation, the economic situation, all the political dynamics that are at play there. It will be arduous; it will be complex. But it has to begin with a moment where the Afghans all sit together and begin to hammer out a consensus for their own nation.

MS ORTAGUS: Nike. Go ahead, Nike.

QUESTION: Thank you. Good morning, Mr. Secretary.


QUESTION: On China, you have issued a strong statement to condemn China for expelling The Wall Street Journal reporters. What other options being considered by the United States to respond? And what is your take on this headline controversy that some of The Wall Street Journal's China staff has asked the paper to apologize and the headline which was considered by the Chinese Government as racist?

Separately, if I may, on coronavirus – is a coronavirus outbreak affecting the preparation of the expected U.S.-ASEAN special summit? Thank you.

SECRETARY POMPEO: So with respect to the decision that the Chinese Communist Party made to expel three Wall Street Journal journalists, we made a statement; we've condemned it. We've condemned it because it's the wrong thing to do from a perspective of freedom. We talk about reciprocity and what Chinese media outlets have access to or are permitted to do here in the United States. That is not the case for U.S. media outlets or, for that matter, other non-Chinese media outlets inside of China as well. So there's an important principle there that we want to defend.

But second, it's also incredibly important that we get accurate information about what's taking place there. With respect to the coronavirus, this data set matters. This information matters. The tactical situation on the ground matters, not only to assist us in helping the Chinese people, which we are committed to continuing to do, but to make sure that we are helping citizens all across the world, including citizens right here in the United States.

So we think that information flow inside of China is at a critical moment. It's always important that we get good information, that there's free press everywhere. But it's especially essential at this time, where data and information matter because they provide things that go beyond anecdote so that we can respond in a way that meets the actual threat, not based on anecdote and rumor.

I don't want to get ahead of what our policy options are that are being considered. We're looking at a broad range of things. We will take the appropriate action and, if necessary, we'll make sure that the President also gets a chance to weigh in on this decision as we move through our decision-making process.

And then I don't have anything to say. We've – the ASEAN summit is still – we're working our way through it for the – I guess it's the second weekend in March in Las Vegas.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Andrea.

QUESTION: May I follow up on Matt? First, on Afghanistan.


QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, you were suggesting in your answer to Matt that this has to be an Afghan-led solution once the negotiations take place. But President Bush, Laura Bush, and the entire administration of the State Department here under President Bush made it very clear, as did the Obama administration, that women's rights had to be a guarantee under an American commitment to the women of Afghanistan. And having traveled there in the '90s under Taliban rule, I've witnessed what it was like for the women under Taliban rule. Would all of the blood, sweat, and tears of American – of this horrible war have taken place if not for some of those horrible procedures by the Taliban?

QUESTION: One question I have (inaudible) –

QUESTION: And so are we prepared to –

SECRETARY POMPEO: I'm not sure – I'm not sure I understand your question.

QUESTION: Are we prepared to –

SECRETARY POMPEO: What terrible procedures?

QUESTION: I mean the human rights abuses against half the Afghan population as well as the terrorism base, of course, that led to 9/11. So are we prepared to withdraw and let the Afghan Government and the Taliban reach conclusions that disadvantage women despite the American commitments under two administrations to the women of Afghanistan?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, our mission set there has been much broader than that and it continues to this day. It's deeply consistent with what you just spoke to. Our mission set there is to deliver good security outcomes for the Afghan people, to let their political process work its way through. I've met lots of Afghan leaders along the way as well. I'm very confident that the very concerns that you raise will be addressed as part of these conversations.

The United States effort is to let the Afghans lead this process, and they'll come up with a resolution that is, I'm sure, uniquely theirs, just like every nation across the world does. The United States has expended enormous – an enormous amount of life in this, and we are now on the cusp of having an opportunity which may not succeed, but an opportunity for the first time to let the Afghan peoples' voices be heard. I am confident that voices all across the Afghan political spectrum – the voices of women, the voices of minorities, the voices from all the different tribes and sects and political views – I'm confident all those voices will go into the ultimate solution. We and the others who will lead these negotiations will ensure that those voices are heard, and the Afghans will drive the solution.

You'll see. When you see what we – if we get to this point on Saturday and you see the arrangements that we have set forward, our conditions-based withdrawal sets a high bar for the things that will take place in order for America to ensure that we can accomplish both of those missions, of peace and reconciliation, solution in Afghanistan, and ensuring that the homeland continues to be as risk-free as we can possibly make it.

QUESTION: Can we resolve the prisoner release issue?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Next question.


SECRETARY POMPEO: I just – I'm not ignoring the prisoner release issue.


SECRETARY POMPEO: It's an important one. We're – we'll work our way through it. You'll see – if we get to that point on Saturday, you'll see what we have accomplished so far, and then you'll see our proposals for how we would proceed after that.

QUESTION: Thank you.


QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary.


QUESTION: Is there a role the United States can or should play in these competing claims to the Afghan presidency?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. We have the security role, right? Our lead function there is to make sure that there's an Afghan – our commitment is – right, there's an Afghan constitution. We want to make sure it's followed. They held a set of elections. We've got to validate that those elections were free and fair and accurate, that the counting and tally was right. We're on the cusp of an enormous, enormous political opportunity. We're not going to let any one small group who has the idea that somehow they can undermine it – and there are many, many who want to spoil what it is that we have already achieved – we're not going to let that happen. And so our mission set is very clear.

We – the Afghan people have spoken over the last 16 months as we've been working to get to this point that we are, and so far the reduction in violence is working. It's imperfect, but it's working. It's got to work for a long time while this political resolution is driven forward, and we want to make sure that we have a process in place, that those who want to undermine it – there are those with an enormous vested interest in the status quo. Make no mistake about it. We want to make sure that those who want the status quo – bloodshed, tears, economic challenges – all of those people who have an interest, whether that's because of corruption or because some ideological view, can't spoil what it is that the Afghan people so richly deserve after they have sacrificed so much alongside – fighting alongside of us these past 20 years.

MS ORTAGUS: Thank you sir.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) expectation from Afghan leaders, Secretary?

MS ORTAGUS: (Off-mike.)

SECRETARY POMPEO: I could take – I'll take one more. Who's got one?

MODERATOR: One more? Okay, Nadia, go ahead.

QUESTION: Good morning, Mr. Secretary.


QUESTION: Can we first get a reaction about the passing of the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak? And second, on –

QUESTION: He said that already.

QUESTION: Oh, you did? I'm sorry.

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah, I did. I'm –

QUESTION: I didn't hear it.


MS ORTAGUS: That's okay.

QUESTION: Okay. Second, on Syria, you have issued many statements about the humanitarian disaster that's unfolding in the Idlib province. You have blamed the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian regimes. Yesterday, the Russian foreign minister warned Western – what he called Western powers – from negotiating with rebel groups. Does that mean that the ceasefire now is very difficult to achieve? And what can you do to enforce the ceasefire?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, it's very difficult to achieve. This is a complex problem that's gone on for a long time. It certainly predates our administration's time in office. Every effort at the ceasefire has been undermined by Assad, by the Russians, and the Iranians. Every effort the United Nations has made to get the constitutional committee together under UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which is ultimately the resolution that the Syrian people need, has been undermined by those three. We have all the while used our diplomatic capability. You see that we still have forces on the ground in northeast Syria.

And then we've also been the lead contributor to the humanitarian issues. You saw, perhaps, what happened – I guess now two weeks back, at the UN, where we wanted more ways to bring safe passage for medical assistance and food assistance to come through. Those resolutions were blocked at the UN Security Council by the Russians. The humanitarian relief effort into this part of Syria was blocked by the Russians. We're continuing to work. We're working with Secretary-General Guterres to make sure that not only American assistance but assistance from all across the world can get to these people to at least mitigate the damage that's being done by the latest offensive in Idlib.

Thank you all very much. Have a great day.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: One question –

QUESTION: Do you have any broad message to the chiefs of mission (inaudible)? No?

SECRETARY POMPEO: Thanks, everybody.

QUESTION: Secretary Pompeo, Iran's facing a very serious coronavirus outbreak (inaudible) –

QUESTION: The expectation from Afghan leaders, please?

[1] United States

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