Secretary Michael R. Pompeo Remarks to the Press

03/17/2020 04:01 PM EDT
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
Washington, D.C.
Press Briefing Room

SECRETARY POMPEO:  Good afternoon, everyone.  As you all know, the Trump administration continues to put an enormous amount of energy into combating the Wuhan virus and protecting the American people.  We’re highly engaged here at the State Department on that critical mission.  I’ll talk about that a bit and happy to take some questions as well about what we’re doing here at the State Department.

That being said, I wanted to come out here today to note the State Department remains fully engaged across a broad range of matters even as we tackle this global pandemic.  No nation gives so much to defend life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness more than we do here in the United States, and we’re doing that work all over the world.  That work continues.  That’s what I wanted to share with you today.

QUESTION:  I was wondering if you could give us a more specific sense on how coronavirus has affected the State Department, how many employees have been tested, tested positive, quarantined, or teleworking?

And then separately, a note that went out yesterday from the State Department saying that China is spreading information about the origins of coronavirus – in light of that, do you believe that China’s containment has been as successful as officials there say?  And then do you believe that China is honestly reporting its infection numbers?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So with respect to the State Department, we’re taking activities that have two objectives.  First is to maintain our capability to deliver American diplomacy.  We’ll never sacrifice that capability.  Second, we want to protect our workforce so that they can continue to do that.  We’ve taken many measures.  We’ve issued I think it’s now some 15 guidelines.  We’ve limited travel.  You’ve seen the work that we’ve done here.  We’ll continue to do that, we’ll continue to take care of our team, and we’ll act in a way that’s consistent with the CDC’s guidelines and the professional medical staff that works here at the State Department – who, by the way, has performed unbelievably.  The work that our medical team has done, the work that we did to get Americans out of Wuhan, the work that we’ve done on these cruise ships to protect American lives, is in the finest tradition of American diplomacy.  It’s truly some of the most amazing things I’ve seen State Department officers do during my time here as the Secretary.  I’m so proud of the way the team has performed there.  We have an obligation (inaudible) take care of them and all of our team, and we’ll continue to do that.

Your question about China – look, the disinformation campaign that they are waging is designed to shift responsibility.  Now is not the time for recrimination.  Now is the time to solve this global pandemic and work to take down risks to Americans and people all across the world.  My team just got off the phone with the – our ambassador to Italy.  The remarkable work our team’s doing there to help the Italian people would make every American proud.  We’re doing this all across the world.

There will come a day when we will go evaluate how the entire world responded.  We know this much:  We know that the first government to be aware of the Wuhan virus was the Chinese Government.  That imposes a special responsibility to raise the flag, to say, “We have a problem, this is different and unique and presents risk.”  And it took an awful long time for the world to become aware of this risk that was sitting there, residing inside of China.  We’ll do the after-action when the time is right.  Every nation has a responsibility to share all of their data, all of their information in as timely and accurate a fashion as they have the ability to do not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because that’s how you save lives for your own people as well.  The Chinese Communist Party had a responsibility to do this not only for Americans and Italians and South Koreans and Iranians who are now suffering, but for their own people as well.

MS ORTAGUS:  Christina.  Or did you —

QUESTION:  Oh, I was just going to – how do you think their response is now, currently?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  We’re all working to solve the problem.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) my questions now.  I’m – seriously, I’d like to follow up on a colleague’s question and ask if anyone in this building or in the diplomatic corps overseas has tested positive for the virus, what you’re doing for those employees.  And then at our embassies overseas, are we ramping up medical facilities?  What is the plan to treat Americans in those countries since a lot of the flights have been canceled, the borders are closed?  Are they getting sent testing kits?  How is any of that working?  And then I also have an Afghanistan question, but I can – that can wait.

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the intricacies of what the State Department’s doing.  It is a rapidly evolving situation.  I stay as current as I can on what our support team is doing for our team.  State Department officials – and every American should know we’re going to do everything we can to take care of our team.  We’ve had a couple of employees – count them on one hand – who have positive tests.  We’ve handled those exactly the way we’re asking every American to respond to those wherever they find themselves in the world.  And I’m mindful, too, as we work to make sure that we’re protecting our team, the State Department team, we have a responsibility to try and help American citizens wherever they are as well.  So it’s not just about our officers serving in these distant places, protecting themselves and our team, but making sure we’re doing the right thing by the American people.  You see our travel advisories as they go out, trying to make sure they’re in step with the latest data sets we have in each – not only in each country, but in every province, county, township.  So we’re articulating them properly so that Americans make good decisions about whether they should or should not travel.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Mr. Secretary.  You mentioned prisoners in Iran.  A UK citizen was just temporarily released for two weeks, but Siamak Namazi lawyer said that he was denied medical follow.  Do you have any indication that there is a possibility for a U.S. citizen to be released or fresh talks on prisoner swap?  And do you have a U.S. own assessment on the death toll in Iran, as some exile organizations mention more than 5,000 death?

And just if I may, China has just announced that they will get the press cards from several American journalists in the next two weeks.  Do you have any reaction to that?

SECRETARY POMPEO:  So as for Iran, that’s an excellent question.  I don’t talk about our efforts to get Americans home, what we’re actually doing.  But the family members of those that are being held – and frankly, that’s for all Americans that are being wrongfully detained should know we’re working on this every day.  We’re aware of what Iran has been doing with some of the prisoners given the outbreak of the Wuhan virus there.  We’re aware that they are thinking about whether to release them or not.  Everyone should know that we’re working it.  We are communicating with them.  We are urging them, as we have done publicly many times, to release every American that is being wrongfully held there as a humanitarian gesture given the risk that is posed to them given what’s taking place inside of Iran.

We use – for purposes of how many people have been impacted in Iran, we use the data set that is the global data set.  It’s a big number; it’s a real concern.  I spoke with the head of the World Health Organization just this morning, Dr. Tedros, where we talked expressly about Iran and how America might be able to help.  We made a commitment to do everything we can to provide them with all that America can deliver for Iran.  I hope they’ll accept that offer.  That alone will contribute to Iran being able to manage this problem set for the Iranian people.  I hope they’ll take us up on these humanitarian efforts, not only us but countries all around the world who want to come help the Iranian people stay healthy and mitigate the risk that’s there.

Your third question was about the announcement that the Chinese Communist Party made today.  Two things to say about that.  First, in their statement they suggested somehow that the actions that we had taken here in America prompted this.  This isn’t apples to apples.  You all know the press freedoms you have.  We were just joking about them, right.  You all get to ask me whatever questions you want, and I give you the answer.  We know that that kind of freedom doesn’t exist inside of China.  Indeed, the Chinese will tell you that they want more information, people to know more about their country, and yet they continue to take actions like the one you see today, where they deny the world the capacity to know what’s really going on inside of their country.

The individuals that we identified a few weeks back were not media that were acting here freely.  They were part of Chinese propaganda outlets.  We’d identified these as foreign missions under American law.  These aren’t apples to apples in any respect.  And I regret China’s decision today to further foreclose the world’s ability to conduct free press operations, which, frankly would be really good for the Chinese people, really good for the Chinese people in these incredibly challenging global times, where more information, more transparency are what will save lives.  This is unfortunate.  We just saw it.  I hope they’ll reconsider.