Transcript: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on "Face the Nation," January 13, 2019

Pompeo: Trump isn't a threat to national security

The following is a transcript of the interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that aired Sunday, Jan. 13, 2019, on "Face the Nation."


MARGARET BRENNAN: Joining us now from Abu Dhabi one of nine countries he's visiting in an eight day trip through the Middle East is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Welcome to "Face the Nation."

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: It's great to be with you, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, we are in the middle of this shutdown, and I know a number of State Department employees are not getting paid including a quarter of U.S. employees in foreign countries. You've been going to U.S. embassies. What are you telling staff about when they can expect a paycheck?

SEC. POMPEO: Look it- it's unfortunate that we're in the shutdown, I wish we weren't, too. I hope that it's resolved quickly and I've certainly told our- our teams that. But you have to know these great Americans who are working in our embassies around the world. They understand the mission. They understand its importance. They understand that whether the government is open or closed they have a task to do and they are hard at it. They have- they have all uniformly been very engaged and continue to be so. It's been a great trip in that respect.

MARGARET BRENNAN: How has this been impacting morale? I mean how are you telling people to explain to their foreign counterparts why the U.S. government shut itself down?

SEC. POMPEO: Yeah, Margaret, our foreign counterparts have lots of things on their agenda to talk with us about. The topic of the government being shut down in the United States hasn't risen to the top of the pile in any of the visits that I've had.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well I do want to ask you since we are so focused on what's happening with this shutdown here at home, the State Department when it comes to the border issues has issued a report in 2017 about counterterrorism and it says that there is no credible evidence that international terrorist groups have established bases in Mexico or sent operatives via Mexico into the United States. It adds the southern border is vulnerable, but terrorist groups likely seek other means of trying to enter the United States. How does this match with the claim that there is a border security crisis?

SEC. POMPEO: Margaret, make- make no mistake about it Margaret, keeping our southern border secure is an important national security component, it's- it's critical that we do that well. There's a real risk to the United States of America. We need to take this seriously. We need to secure our southern border. We need to make sure that those who want to do us harm don't have a way to access us in that way. There are many things we have to do. One of the reasons I'm in the Middle East is to work on prevailing against terror. There are lots of elements of this but border security is a certain and certainly an important component.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So is the State Department report wrong to say that this is not how terrorists are trying to enter the United States?

SEC. POMPEO: Margaret, terrorists try to get into our country lots of ways. One of the ways they can come in is across our southern border. What you saw was an unclassified report. Make no mistake about it, terrorists will always find the weakest link. And we need to make sure that the weakest link in our national security isn't on our southern border.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to get to your trip through the Middle East, but I first want to ask you about this New York Times report that says right after President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey the FBI began investigating whether President Trump himself was a potential threat to national security and whether he'd been working for Russia or unintentionally influenced by Moscow. What is your reaction to this?

SEC. POMPEO: I'm not going to comment on New York Times stories, but I'll certainly say this: the- the notion that President Trump is a threat to American national security is absolutely ludicrous.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Just to clarify since you were CIA director did you have any idea that this investigation was happening?

SEC. POMPEO: Margaret- Margaret- Margaret. I've answered this question repeatedly indeed on your show. The- the idea that's contained in the New York Times story that President Trump was a threat to American national security is- is silly on its face and not worthy of a response.

MARGARET BRENNAN: One of the reasons you're in the Middle East is to reassure and explain to some of our allies what the U.S. policy in Syria is. So I'd like you to do that for us today because the Pentagon announced yesterday that it actually has begun its withdrawal from Syria. Yet the U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said that wouldn't happen until two things. One, the U.S. defeated ISIS and two, Turkey assured us it wouldn't go after our Kurdish allies. Have those two conditions been met?

SEC. POMPEO: Margaret the president's guidance is incredibly clear. The roughly two thousand uniformed soldiers that are in Syria today are going to be withdrawn that- that activity is underway. We're going to do so in an orderly and deliberate way. A way that protects America's national security. A way that allows us to continue the important mission that they were on - the counterterrorism mission. The effort to make sure that with the destruction of ISIS is not only complete but that their resurgence is not possible. Our efforts to counter the threat from terrorism stemming from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Those are all real missions. The tactical change we've made and the withdrawal of those two thousand troops is just that - a tactical change. Mission remains the same.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So has Turkey's president promised you not to attack our Kurdish allies?

SEC. POMPEO: Yeah, look when President Erdogan and President Trump spoke, they talked about this issue. The Turks have made clear that they understand that there are folks down in Syria that have their rights. We also want to make sure that those in Syria aren't attacking- terrorists aren't attacking Turkey from Syria. We're fully engaged. Ambassador Jeffrey is fully engaged in conversations with the Turks as well as with the SDF in Syria to make sure that we accomplish all of those missions. We can- we can do each of those things, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The SDF among some of the fighters that we were talking about Kurdish allies there. Just to explain for our audience.

SEC. POMPEO: That's right.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to ask you here though because you know as a diplomat the threat of credible use of military force is what gives you power at the negotiating table. How does taking out U.S. troops from Syria get you any closer to expelling Iran?

SEC. POMPEO: Margaret, the United States of America can project military power from lots of places in the world. The absence of a couple thousand soldiers on the ground in Syria in no way materially diminishes the capacity of the United States of America and our amazing armed forces to deliver American power to accomplish our objectives anywhere in the world. That certainly includes in Syria. It certainly includes into Iran if need be. We still have those tools. America's diplomats still have that leverage and that power standing behind them. I'm very confident in our military capabilities here in the Middle East.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So by that, are you saying that having U.S. troops in nearby Iraq will fill any kind of vacuum left by pulling out of Syria?

SEC. POMPEO: Margaret, we have lots of tools in the arsenal. I was out visiting some amazing warriors out at NAVCENT yesterday in Bahrain. We have an enormous amount of American military capacity. Our- our ability to achieve what we need to do militarily is there. My task as America's Secretary of State is to make sure that we don't have to use that tool. That we get the diplomatic outcomes to secure the Middle East and keep it stable and protect the American people as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When it comes to Iran, the Trump Administration has taken some, you know, confrontational tactics here, pulling out of the nuclear accord saying that Iranian threats would be matched here. But we saw this week another American - a Navy vet - Michael White has been behind Iranian bars since July. So the Trump administration is not stopping Iran from taking Americans hostage. What is happening with this American?

SEC. POMPEO: This administration is proud of the work that we've done to get Americans released all across the world. With respect to that Michael White case in particular, I can't say much. It's an ongoing consular matter. But the American people should know we take the security of every American, wherever they are traveling in the world as one of our foremost priorities. We will continue to work to get each of them back. And your point- your point about the Islamic Republic of Iran is spot on. It's why the JCOPA was such a horrible idea. Many Americans are being held there today that were taken by the Iranian regime. These are a group of people who are among the worst terrorists in the world and who have the least respect for human rights in the world. And it's why this administration has taken the very hard line you just described against Iran.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is the Trump administration open to a prisoner swap with Iran?

SEC. POMPEO: I'm not going to talk about something like that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well I ask you because Michael White's mother spoke to CBS and she said she would like the administration to negotiate for her son. She said, "What is a human life worth? I would like the U.S. to negotiate. I want him home." What can you tell her you're doing to bring her son home?

SEC. POMPEO: I have great sympathy for the families of those Americans who are wrongfully detained all across the world. And we do everything we can every day to get their return. We use our diplomatic tools in every corner of the world, to reach out to these places to get these young men and women home. We're intent to do that in Iran. We're intent to do that all across the world. We- we take this- this obligation as a solemn one. And this administration's had quite a few successes.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So--

SEC. POMPEO: I hope we have more.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Potentially open to negotiations then?

SEC. POMPEO: We're using every tool that we have in our arsenal to get these Americans back home, wherever we find them.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Ambassador Bolton said the next summit with Kim Jong-un would be in January or February. We're in that window. When will we see President Trump sit down with the North Korean leader?

SEC. POMPEO: We're working out the details Margaret, you'll be among the first to know.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I know, sir, you're at the end of this trip, you will be headed to Saudi Arabia. It has been about 100 days since Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered there. Will you raise this issue with Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince?

SEC. POMPEO: Of course.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Then what will you say?

SEC. POMPEO: I'll say what- Margaret I'll say what we have said consistently. America's position both privately and publicly is the same. This was an outrageous act, an unacceptable murder. Those who were responsible will be held accountable by the United States of America. We're determined to do that. We're determined to get at the facts just as quickly and as comprehensively as we can. We've had a policy that's been remarkably consistent with respect to this. We- we- we, we like the rest of the world, value human rights all across the globe. And the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was outrageous and we'll hold those responsible accountable. And then we'll talk about all the important things we do with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all the support they provide to keep Americans in Kansas and Colorado and California and in Washington, D.C. safe.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Mr. Secretary, thank you very much for your time. Safe travels.

SEC. POMPEO: Margaret, thank you very much. You have a great day