Capital Conversations: Michael R. Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State

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Join us as Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, discusses the priorities and work of his office before, during and after COVID-19.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State


**This teleforum will be 30 minutes.**


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Event Transcript



Dean Reuter:  Welcome to Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society's practice groups. I’m Dean Reuter, Vice President, General Counsel, and Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society. For exclusive access to live recordings of practice group teleforum calls, become a Federalist Society member today at



Dean Reuter:  Welcome to a special Capital Conversations edition of The Federalist Society’s Practice Group Teleforum conference call as today, July 10, 2020, we welcome the 70th U.S. Secretary of State, Michael Pompeo. I’m Dean Reuter, Vice President and General Counsel of The Federalist Society.


      Please note that this call is being recorded for use as a podcast in the future and will be transcribed. Also, all expressions of opinion are those of the expert on today’s call.


      We’re going to hold something of a conversation with the Secretary today in a special 30-minute Teleforum conference call. To begin, Secretary Pompeo, welcome. Thank you very, very much for being with us today, and please, go right ahead with your opening thoughts.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Well, Dean, great. Thank you. And thanks to everyone for joining me today. I’ll be very brief as I want to open it up for as much conversation and discussion if we can. I thought I’d mention just two things, one of which occupies a lot of time and another one which we’ve been working on here for quite a while.


      The first is the challenge presented by a new model of communism in the Chinese Communist Party and the threat it poses to the United States. I’m sure we will talk about that some more. But the President and our team here at the State Department have been very focused not only on the challenges that it presents in the region and the risks that that creates to open commercial flow from a defense perspective but also the larger global challenges that a relatively powerful, 1.4 billion-person nation, directed by someone of the nature of General Secretary Xi presents to the fundamental understandings of the rule of law and sovereignty that President Trump has made the center pillar of our foreign policy. So I’m happy to talk more about that.


      The second thing I wanted to mention is a project that we commenced now—oh, goodness—almost two years ago, not long after I became the Secretary of State, something I’ve worked on and considered for a good part of my life. And that is how we moor our understanding of human rights and the traditions of our founding documents, and then the impact that has on how we execute our foreign policy. I set about creating a commission now a little over a year ago that has completed its work, or largely completed its work, and we will introduce its document next week, a week from yesterday, Thursday, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I’ll make some remarks, and I hope you folks will take the time to read the work of the report and the statement that I make around them.


      If we can’t get this piece right—and I say this at the State Department all the time—we have this enormous proliferation of this idea of rights, this language about things that are right, and as they proliferate, it makes it more difficult to prioritize and to then deliver in improving the human rights conditions for people all across the world. And if we are not grounded here in our rights tradition with an understanding of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution—we’ve certainly seen this play out over the last few weeks here in the United States—if we don’t understand that central tradition of having our government, with its primary focus of securing our freedoms, it’s not possible for us to successfully deliver anything in terms of American capacity to be a force for good around the world in creating opportunity for those freedoms to exist in countries all around the world.


      And with that, Dean, I’ll conclude and take questions or thoughts from the folks who are on the call today.


Dean Reuter:  Well, thank you, Secretary. Again, thank you for being with us. We’ve been told by your staff that we’re supposed to hold a conversation just between the two of us, so that’s what we’ll do unless you want to open it up to the floor.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  I’m happy to open it up if you prefer to do that. I’m wide open. Easy.


Dean Reuter:  Okay, all right. Let me ask you a question about the commission you just mentioned on inalienable rights, which I’ve sort of followed the work of the commission and read up on it a bit. From some of the commentary I’ve read, this effort without having produced a report yet, it’s being anticipated and characterized by some as sort of the anti-gay, anti-LGBT, anti-same-sex marriage. I want to give you a chance to respond to that. The reports I’ve read, they're all couched in language of “if they do this, then this,” or “they might do this,” to “they could do this.” It’s all very speculative. But I wanted to give you a chance to respond to some of that speculation.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  I appreciate that. Yeah, we’ve seen this. We saw this from the moment we made the initial announcement. The traditional human rights organizations went around the bend, thinking somehow that we would depart from what have been the traditional understandings of human rights, not only our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution but the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well. Indeed, what we were doing was just the opposite, trying to go reground, trying to go back to first principles. It’s absolutely imperative that we do so.


      That said, I’ve had lots of speculation. We’ve had many public meetings since then. We’ve been sued, I think at least once, maybe multiple times in the course of us just trying to just have a commission do some really good work on their report. And next week, we’ll get to show America what the work of the commission was. I’m sure many people will agree with parts of it, disagree with other parts of the commission’s work. I’m confident that none of the commission members agree with everything that will end up in the report either.


      But suffice it to say, if we get this right, and we can deliver for my team, who’s out in 180+ places around the world every day of trying to improve America’s capacity to preserve religious freedom, to protect basic and fundamental human rights, if we get that right, if we reground this, then I think we will have done a good turn for the world.


      I’m sure we’ll be criticized by some. I’m sure those will -- some will say that we have abandoned the plethora of rights that have expanded over time. I think when people of good faith read the work that’s been done by this commission, it’s something that America can be truly proud of.


Dean Reuter:  And the report you mentioned, I don't know if it’s coming out on a date certain. You mentioned next week. So I will look for it then. Is it a policy paper? Does it talk about principles or policy or both? Can you talk about -- give us a lot more insight into what to expect in that regard?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Yes. The charter that I provided to the commission was not to set foreign policy. It’s not the commission’s role to do that. I have an entire bureau—a human rights bureau—that executes that. But it is not possible to set one’s human rights foreign policy platform without a deep understanding of the principles that underlay it. And I think we have lost the bubble. I think we lost the fundamental moorings that had permitted us to have the firm foundation to go execute this mission across the world. And I’m hoping we reground this.


      This is about a set of principles, a set of deep understandings about the nature of rights, from where those rights flow, how we secure them here in the United States, and then how we should use our capacity around the world to improve the human rights conditions for people in a complex, difficult set of foreign policy contexts, in multiple countries that each have different rights traditions, all the while making sure that we remain our focus as preserving and securing those rights and freedoms for the American people to task. Which I swore I would do when I took on this gig.


Dean Reuter:  And I don't know if your acting is an ex officio member of the commission or not, but I'm wondering if you want to share your thoughts on -- just say a little bit more about your thoughts on the Founding of the United States and whether and how the Declaration of Independence is applicable in U.S. foreign policy. You sort of touched on that, but I wonder if you want to go a little deeper on that.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  I’m not an ex officio member, which gives me the freedom to do that today.


Dean Reuter:  Good.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  And then I’ll comment more on this when I make my remarks, which will be separate from the report itself. I believe that the Declaration of Independence is fundamental to understanding the American experiment, the project in which we’ve all been engaged and which I try to put in a little bit better place each and every day that I come to work. Our Founders, when they wrote that document, understood the nature of our rights, that each of us was created in God’s image and that our rights flowed from that fundamental understanding. They weren’t granted by government, but rather government was created to secure those rights.


      And I think that understanding is central. We’ve seen others, now big institutions with lots of money, trying to make an argument that that is not in fact the central understanding of the American experiment. I think that is a dangerous path to go down for the traditions we have in America that have created a truly exceptional nation now 244 years on.


Dean Reuter:  Any thoughts on the records of any countries in particular when it comes to respecting inalienable rights and their understanding of inalienable rights and actions taken therefrom?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  You know, Dean, maybe one way to think about this is more broadly than mentioning any specific nation. There are so many one could go through where these universal rights are so sorely neglected, certainly places like Nicaragua and Cuba, today China. The list is sadly too long.


      There is an important point to consider here. Sometimes the United States is accused of hypocrisy when we travel the world and talk about these things because, in fact, we don’t get it right every day here. We are imperfect and we strive to become a more perfect union every day. But it is dangerous and intentional when people compare the United States and our efforts to preserve those rights to these other non-human rights respecting countries. There is no moral equivalence between the two, and our capacity for self-reflection and improvement is the hallmark of demonstrating the difference between how it is the United States strives to protect and secure those rights for its people, and how these nations that do not choose to respect human rights act and behave with respect to their people. There’s no recourse. There’s no recrimination. There’s no improvement. It is simply improper to compare a human rights value that occurs here in the United States with one that occurs in many of these nations that are not rights respecting. I think that’s an important framework for everyone to understand, and indeed, I think the commission’s report, I think, will address this as well.


Dean Reuter:  Let me ask you one other question, if I could, about the report, and then maybe a question about China. And then if we have some time, I’ll open it up to the floor.


      These are pretty complicated issues with potential implications for international and foreign policy. Is there anything you mentioned that the rank-and-file listeners here can do to further the cause? You mentioned paying attention to the report when it comes out, reading it, actually going to the original source document rather than maybe relying on characterizations by the press. Beyond that, what else can our listeners do?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  That would be most useful. We’re also going to -- the State Department’s going to spend time after this to get in front of different groups and articulate, not only what’s contained in the report, but the why. Why this matters.


      And then I know lots of folks who are members of your organization have been in government or will be in government again. I think it’s incredibly powerful as they interact with government leaders, whether that’s government leaders here in the United States or leaders from around the world, not just people who are formally part of their nation’s leadership structure but commercial actors, lawyers, all those people who are engaged in enterprises that have real impact on the rights understandings around the world. I hope they will take on board some of the work that the commission did, and then help reinforce it to the extent they're in agreement with the conclusions that the commission has reached about how it is we should think about rights in the United States, and then how it is we should take our rights tradition and try to improve the lot for people around the world as well.


Dean Reuter:  Very good. I do have one question. I'm interested in asking about China in particular. But let me defer and, if you're amenable, open the floor to questions.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Yes, sir. Of course.


Dean Reuter:  We’ve got quite a few callers and quite a few questions. So at least a half a dozen questions to begin. I’m going to ask our callers to be as concise as possible and respect for the time here. We’ve got 15 minutes left, a hard stop at 12:30.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  And I’ll do the same, Dean.


Dean Reuter:  [Laughter] Well, you can go on as long as you like. But we’ve got a caller from Washington. Go right ahead, caller.


Caller 1:  Yes, thank you, you, Attorney General Barr, and President Trump at the Mount Rushmore have been an outstanding spokesman of law and religious liberty in my lifetime, and I want to express thanks for that.


      A quick question. Many of us are skilled lawyers. Many of us are skilled litigators. The federal government is engaged in a war with China, a cold war. What parts of the federal government do skilled litigators need to go to participate?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  That’s a great question. So we’ll always take skilled, solid Constitution-breathing lawyers here at the State Department. There is, to your point with respect to the Chinese Communist Party, there is a significant element of this “cold war” that you described. There is a significant element that is a legal battle. So there’s lawfare being engaged in across multiple fronts. I could spend an awful lot of time talking about it. It is both of interest to me as someone who has a law degree as well, but importantly, significant in how we compete, whether this is about legal claims in the South China Sea or legal claims at international institutions all across the world. There is a real role there.


      And of course, we see this in environmental issues as well. There are many good places for talented field lawyers to go, mind -- to execute their profession and deliver good outcomes for the United States.


Caller 1:  Thank you.


Dean Reuter:  Secretary, it’s Dean. One thing you’ve mentioned: lawfare. One thing that’s been on the mind of a lot of our members and practice group leaders is, I would describe it as the weaponization of a country’s antitrust or IP regimes to the advantage of wholly-owned government corporations, or at least partially-owned government corporations. And at a level of detail deeper, a complaint that our agencies in some respects are not setting good examples. Now I don’t want to turn you on other American agencies, but I wonder if you want to respond to that at all? Or is there coordination between our foreign policy efforts and our trade efforts and domestic agencies that are in charge of enforcement?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Dean, I may take a pass on this other than to say --


Dean Reuter:  -- That’s fine.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Other than to say we do our best to coordinate. The risks that you have identified there, that concern about how other nations are using their intellectual property laws to prevent real competition is real. President Trump’s actually recognized this in a way I think previous administrations have refused to take on. You see the same kinds of things happen in the religious freedom space where they truly use particular legal structures to accomplish ends which aren’t directly related to their state’s objective. We try our best to coordinate. We don’t always get it right, but we’re better at it today than we were even just a couple of years ago.


Dean Reuter:  Very good. We’ve got about 12 minutes left. Still a handful of questions, so let’s check in with another caller.


Kimberly Lewis:  Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Kimberly Lewis. It is an honor and a pleasure to talk to you, sir. As an ex officio emerita of my law school’s Federalist Society, one major question for you, sir: there are -- the floor was opened up with LGBTQ rights. Chechnya has a really, really, really problem of how they treat gays and lesbians in that country. I’ve noticed that the Trump administration—which I am a supporter of and a supporter of you also, sir, for the work that you’ve done—has not really issued visas for people from that part of the world coming here to the United States to be relieved of some of the grievances and egregious punishment that’s going on towards them. Is there anything we’re doing to help people in that part of the world come to the United States via visa program?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  So it’s an important question. I do not know the answer with respect to that particular country or region. I will do my best to get you an answer. Thanks for giving me your name, and if you're willing, we’ll make sure and get a formal response to you. But if I raise up just one more level, there are many nations around the world that treat LGBTQ people in ways that are deeply inconsistent with what is it. You’ll see in the Commission on Unalienable Rights report the protection of those fundamental inalienable rights. We see this in lots of nations in the world. It is often part of our diplomatic effort to address that and confront it. We have lots of issues in many of these countries. Some of them are cross cutting. But make no mistake, President Trump has given real guidance to our team to do all that we can to make sure that the criminalization of that in countries around the world is something that the United States is very clear and not ambiguous about, that that is, in fact, unacceptable.


Dean Reuter:  Very good. Let’s move on to our next caller.


Caller 3:  Hi, Mr. Secretary. Thanks a lot. Two years ago, you wrote an article explaining the religious persecution in Iran and China, and I was just wondering, given the increasing attention that this administration has directed toward those activities, how do you anticipate us moving forward? Do you anticipate the Trump administration making it a bigger focal point of his administration entering the election and going forward?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Well, I can’t speak to what the campaign my do. With respect to religious freedom, I’m truly proud of what we have done. Ambassador Brownback, who I’ve known from my days back in Kansas, and our team have made a real priority promoting religious freedom on virtually every trip that I take. I meet with religious leaders around the world. I meet with those who have suffered from religious persecution. When I was in central Asia, I met with Uyghur families who had either currently or previously had some of their family members held in the most awful conditions one can imagine in Western China.


      It is truly been a priority for President Trump and our team. We’ve built out something that we pray will be lasting. We conduct an annual event here at the State Department that is the largest diplomatic event that we do every year where we bring religious leaders from all around the world, from all faiths, to talk about religious freedom and how they can build institutions inside of their countries that preserve it. And then we try and connect it up for them, that having an open space for religious freedom and people to exercise their own conscious actually makes their government more stable and improves the lives of their peoples in ways that are important to their leadership and to their regime.


      I hope we will continue to pursue that for the next six months until the new administration comes in. And then I hope, whether it’s President Trump continuing or Vice President Biden, that they will continue this work. It is important work for the State Department to be engaged and to work around the world to promote religious freedom wherever we can.


Dean Reuter:  We’ll continue to work through our questions. We still have a half dozen left. We might get to all of them. But go right ahead, caller from area code 678.


Caller 4:  Yeah, my name is [inaudible 20:33] of Radio Free Asia. Yesterday, the North Korean leader’s sister say another summit between the West and DPR case unlikely. So I want to know your reaction and what you think about the possibility to have a summit between the U.S. and the DPR before the presidential election this November?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Well, we’re now a hundred-some days out from the election. We have continued -- I saw the remarks from Kim Yo-jong this morning. I know that we are trying to continue to have dialogue, to try and keep the discussion that began -- when I first when to Pyongyang myself back in April of 2018, we’ve had an ongoing conversation since then. Twice the leaders of the two countries have met.


      We only value the summits when there’s a possibility that we can do something that’s significant. We achieved that in Singapore by getting at least the outlines of at least a central understanding. In [inaudible 21:33], we weren’t able to make as much progress. But it doesn’t make sense to put the two leaders together unless there’s substantial opportunity to make progress on the core problem set of North Korea denuclearizing and creating peace and stability on the peninsula. Whether that’ll happen in the next hundred-plus days or not, I don't know. We’re always open to that possibility.


Dean Reuter:  Very good. Head to our next caller. Area code 949, go right ahead caller.


Taylor:  Hi, Secretary Pompeo. My name’s Taylor and I’m an undergrad at UCLA. And I just want to say this is really exciting. It’s such an honor.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Go Bruins. I grew up in Southern California myself and went to UCLA as well.


Taylor:  There we go. I wanted to ask you about the New START treaty. I know that Trump is set on trying to bring China into this key nuclear deal with Russia, but given China’s relatively minimalist nuclear posture and low state of nuclear readiness, I know this is seemly unlikely. So I wanted to ask what steps is the Trump administration taking to get China onto this deal? And do you think that the coronavirus would at all affect China’s decision?


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  Uh, no. I don't think the virus will impact their decision. I think they're going to make a strategic decision based on their calculus about whether it’s in their own country’s best interest to participate in this strategic dialogue alongside us and the Russians.


      They made an interesting statement from China yesterday that suggested that they were at least open to some form of dialogue. They set a condition for entry into the conversation with a pretty high bar. And we have responded to that. But our view is very clear. We have a set of historic arms control discussion and strategic dialogues that had, historically, in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s involved two nations: the United States and the Soviet Union, and then Russia. It is no longer the case that you can get a comprehensive strategic outcome that reduces risk of a nuclear confrontation absent a nation like China that has such a significant nuclear capability. So they claim they want to be part of the international firmament. They claim they want to comply with the norms that great powers achieve. They ought to sit down and be part of this conversation about how it is we achieve a strategic outcome that reduces risk for the world that any nation would ever actually use their nuclear weapons.


      And then you asked, too, at the beginning about New START. That conversation is ongoing. I think our team was on the ground in Vienna. They may have finished up early this morning our time, having what would be the third conversation with the Russians about how we can move forward together and reduce risk even with just two of us having the conversation. But we have made it clear to the Russians that it is important that they, too, lend their hand in convincing the Chinese Communist Party that it is the Chinese Communist Party’s best interest to participate in these discussions. They are an important nuclear country and we need them to be part of this conversation.


Dean Reuter:  We’ve got just about two minutes left. Let’s see if we can squeeze in a final question. I’ll ask the caller to be as brief as possible. Go right ahead, caller.


Caller 6:  Senator Pompeo, I’m curious with the current events, daily basis, if you look at certain media outlets, you’d think that the rest of the world thinks that we are -- we’ve lost what we had at the Founding. Can you just give us a little bit of insight? Is that truly what’s going on? Or do most leaders still respect us for our religious freedom and our adherence to inalienable rights? Thank you.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  I read the stories of the decline of America with a small chuckle in that my optic as America’s Secretary of State is that wherever I go, I show up, a wonderful airplane that you all provide for me, and everybody wants to see America’s Secretary of State.


      It’s not Mike. They want to see the Secretary of State for the United States of America. They recognize that we are, in all of our efforts, a force for good trying to make things better for the entire world. When we compete around the world, we try to do so on a basis that is fair and transparent and reasonable. When we are forced to engage in kinetic activity, we do so only for the ends of reducing risk either to the nation in which it’s taking place or defending our own country. I think nearly every leader in the world recognizes that, although many of them might not say so publicly.


      My observation is that they still understand that we are, in fact, a beacon of freedom around the world. Not every nation, not every regime wants to follow that path. But those who do recognize that it is important to have a deep and robust relationship with the United States of America. And so these stories of nations around the world deciding somehow that the United States is no longer a valuable partner are patently false.


Dean Reuter:  Well, Secretary, this is Dean, again. It is truly an honor to have the U.S. Secretary of State on our humble Teleforum conference call. Thank you so much for joining us today. We’re going to have to leave some questions pending. Maybe we can have you back in the future sometime at your convenience.


Hon. Michael R. Pompeo:  I would welcome it, Dean. Thank you all. Thanks, everyone, for joining me today. Everybody stay safe and have a wonderful weekend.


Dean Reuter:  Thank you so much, sir. We are adjourned.




Dean Reuter:  Thank you for listening to this episode of Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society’s practice groups. For more information about The Federalist Society, the practice groups, and to become a Federalist Society member, please visit our website at