WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say if he believes that Kim Jong Un did not know about Otto Warmbier's mistreatment while the American college student was imprisoned in North Korea, as President Trump has asserted.
Pompeo also rejected the idea that President Donald Trump’s summit with the North Korean dictator had resulted in stalemate and said the Trump administration would not resume joint military exercises with South Korea. The North Koreans would see restarting those war games as a provocation, but some U.S. experts say they are vital to preserving American military readiness.
Pompeo made the remarks in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY, in which he highlighted a series of domestic trips he is taking to pivotal states – starting Sunday with Iowa, which hosts the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses, and then to Kansas, where Pompeo is under pressure from GOP leaders to run for U.S. Senate.
The secretary of state insisted his domestic travel itinerary, which will also include a stop in Houston, was not political or in any way intended to help bolster Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
“That’s a ridiculous statement,” Pompeo said.
Incumbent presidents often deploy their Cabinet secretaries to swing states as they crank up their re-election bids, dispatching those high-profile surrogates to tout popular policies at official events that also have political side benefits.
In Iowa, Trump’s trade policies – specifically his tit-for-tat tariff war with China – have inflicted serious financial pain on farmers. That economic squeeze could sway critical votes in Iowa and other farm states if Trump does not reach a new trade agreement with China soon.
"Iowa sells about 80 percent of its soybeans to China, but China has cut that off" because of Trump's tariffs, said Nicholas Grossman, an international relations professor at the University of Illinois. "So that’s hitting Iowa farmers pretty hard."
Grossman said Pompeo's trip will allow a top Trump emissary to calm farmers' fears, while also taking attention away from the parade of 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls who have been crisscrossing the state.
Pompeo said his "mission" in Iowa is to talk to the state’s agriculture leaders about Trump’s efforts to eliminate trade barriers that restrict American farmers from selling their commodities in China, a huge and growing market.
“This administration is determined to knock those down, so that farmers in Kansas, and in places like Iowa where I'll be traveling, will be able to pass on the tradition of farming ... not only to their children but to their grandchildren as well,” Pompeo said.
In Texas, Pompeo said, he will talk to American energy companies about the potential of foreign investment in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
“I also have an even more sinister goal, which is I want to stop hiring just people from New York and Boston and Washington, D.C.,” the secretary said. “I want to take the message that being an American diplomat is a truly proud profession and that we need a really diverse workforce and that includes people from the heartland, people who grew up with the values that I know so well from my time in Kansas.”
The nation’s top diplomat said that in addition to meeting with Iowa's agriculture leaders and GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds, he would also be speaking with young farmers and high school students. “I want to introduce them to the idea of public service and working as an American diplomat,” he said.
But Pompeo’s trip will undoubtedly fuel speculation about his own political future. The former congressman from Kansas has long been rumored to have presidential ambitions. In the near term, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been pressuring the secretary of state to run for Senate – although Pompeo says he has ruled that out.
Pompeo dismissed a question about why he would spend time traveling across the U.S. at a time when the Trump administration faces a broad array of global challenges, most notably the collapse of negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear arsenal. Trump met one on one with Kim in Hanoi last week, but the president ended the talks early after he and Kim failed to reach any agreement.
Pompeo reacted angrily when asked about the North Korean foreign minister's statement, made hours after the talks dissolved, that the offer Kim made in Hanoi was final.
“That’s not what the North Koreans said,” Pompeo responded. “Don’t say things that aren’t true. ... Show me the quote from the North Koreans that said this was their one and only offer. Where’d you get that?”
After he was read a quote from Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho – in which he said “our proposal will never be changed” – Pompeo fell silent for about six seconds. Then he countered, “What they said is they’re prepared to continue conversations with us and that’s what we intend to do.”
Pompeo confirmed that Trump did not plan to restart U.S. military exercises with South Korea, which the president halted after his first meeting with Kim last year in June. Some experts have said America’s military readiness will degrade if the Pentagon doesn’t begin conducting those war games again soon.
Pompeo said that was not a concern, although he emphasized Trump could change his mind at any time.
“At this point, we don’t intend to begin having the major war exercises there, but it’s always up for review by the president,” he said. “We will also always be prepared to defend American interests everywhere. So the American people need not worry about readiness issues for the United States military.”
Pompeo responded irritably when asked about Trump’s assertion that Kim didn’t know about the mistreatment of American college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in North Korea in 2016 and released 15 months later with severe brain damage. Warmbier died a few days after the Kim regime released him back into U.S. custody.
"I don't believe he knew about it," Trump said of Kim at a news conference in Hanoi last week. "He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word." Trump also said Kim “felt very badly” about Warmbier’s death.
Experts say it's not plausible that Kim didn't know about Warmbier. The North Korean ruler leads a brutally repressive surveillance state, which has forced labor camps and other widespread human-rights abuses.
Asked if he holds Kim responsible, Pompeo said, “The North Korean regime is responsible for the death Otto Warmbier and the humanitarian violations that are continuing to take place.”
Pressed about Kim's personal responsibility and whether Kim knew about Warmbier’s case, Pompeo fell silent again before saying he had answered the question and been “very patient” with that line of inquiry.
He said Trump’s lavish praise for Kim and other despotic leaders did not undercut America’s commitment to human rights.
“Human rights around the world (has) been at the forefront of the work that I have done,” first as Trump's CIA director and now as his secretary of state, Pompeo said. “And I’ve had the full range of freedom, given to me by the president, to make sure that human rights were an important part of every engagement that I’ve had in both of those roles."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Exclusive: Pompeo on the failed North Korea talks, Otto Warmbier and his own trip to Iowa