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.
Michael R. Pompeo, Secretary of State
Press Briefing Room
March 17, 2020
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.
Let’s start with one of our most important topics, terrorism. Today the Department of State is announcing our intent to designate Amir Muhammad Sa’id Abdal-Rahman al-Mawla a specially designated global terrorist. He was previously active in al-Qaida in Iraq and is known for torturing innocent Yezidi religious minorities. He was named the leader of ISIS after we killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last year. We’ve destroyed the caliphate and we remain committed to ISIS’s enduring defeat no matter who they designate as their leader.
Continuing on designations and our leadership in trying to staunch the flow of terror groups, the Department of State is today also sanctioning nine entities based in South Africa, in Hong Kong, and in China, as well as three Iranian individuals, all for knowingly engaging in significant transactions for the purchase, acquisition, sale, transport, or marketing of petrochemical products from Iran, the world’s largest leading state sponsor of terror.
This action includes the designation of Iran’s armed forces social security investment company and its director for using their resources to invest in sanctioned entities.
I’d also like to mention today that in response to Iran regime’s unacceptable nuclear escalations, the Department of Commerce is adding five Iranian nuclear scientists to the entities list.
These five individuals were involved in Iran’s pre-2004 nuclear weapons program, known as the Amad program, and continue to be employed by the regime to this day. After work on the Amad plan was stopped, Iran continued to preserve its Amad-era records and its cadre of nuclear weapons scientists, including these individuals.
Many unanswered questions remain about Iran’s undisclosed past nuclear-related activities. These new listings today by the Department of Commerce reaffirm the importance of demanding a full and honest accountability and accounting from Iran of its past nuclear weapons-related activities.
I also want to call attention to the Iranian regime’s misinformation campaign surrounding the origination of the Wuhan virus. Instead of focusing on the needs of the Iranian people and accepting genuine offers of support, senior Iranians lied about the Wuhan virus outbreak for weeks.
The Iranian leadership is trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance. Sadly, the Iranian people have been suffering these kinds of lies for 41 years. They know the truth: The Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice.
We’re trying to help. We continue to offer assistance to Iran in numerous ways and we will continue to do so.
We have an open humanitarian channel to facilitate legitimate transactions even while ensuring our maximum pressure campaign denies terrorists money.
We are assisting the IAEA, the nuclear watchdog, their inspectors, who are trying to ensure that Iran continues to comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
We’ve allocated a million dollars through the IAEA to provide member-states that requested support with coronavirus test kits and training.
And in the spirit of humanitarian gestures, the United States also continues to call on Iran to immediately release all wrongfully detained Americans being held inside of that country. We will continue to hold the regime responsible for its terror and we will continue to assist the Iranian people.
On to Syria, our efforts to help the Syrian people:
Earlier today the United States designated the Assad regime’s minister of defense, Lieutenant General Ali Abdullah Ayoub, for perpetuating the violence and the disastrous humanitarian crisis inside of Syria. His deliberate actions since December of 2019 have prevented a ceasefire from taking hold inside of Syria. The obstruction resulted in the displacement of almost a million people in dire need of humanitarian aid in the midst of a cold winter in Idlib.
The Assad regime’s forces, backed by Russia and Iranian-supported forces, have been responsible for the continued bombardments that destroyed schools and hospitals and killed civilians, including medical professionals and first responders who were risking their lives to save others inside of Syria.
We continue to call for an immediate end to the slaughter and a political solution to the Syria conflict.
Additionally, we believe Russia has killed dozens of Turkish military personnel in the course of their military operations, and we stand with our NATO ally Turkey and will continue to consider additional measures to support Turkey and to end the violence in Idlib and in Syria more broadly.
Turning to the ICC, a so-called court which is revealing itself to be a nakedly political body:
As I said the last time I stood before you, we oppose any effort by the ICC to exercise jurisdiction over U.S. personnel. We will not tolerate its inappropriate and unjust attempts to investigate or prosecute Americans. When our personnel are accused of a crime, they face justice in our country.
It has recently come to my attention that the chef de cabinet to the prosecutor, Sam Shoamanesh, and the head of jurisdiction, complementarity, and cooperation division, Phakiso Mochochoko, are helping drive ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s effort to use this court to investigate Americans. I’m examining this information now and considering what the United States’ next steps ought to be with respect to these individuals and all those who are putting Americans at risk.
We want to identify those responsible for this partisan investigation and their family members who may want to travel to the United States or engage in activity that’s inconsistent with making sure we protect Americans.
This court, the ICC, is an embarrassment. It’s exposing and – we are exposing and confronting its abuses, and this is a true example of American leadership to ensure that multilateral institutions actually perform the missions for which they were designed.
A quick note from South America and then I’ll take some questions:
The United States is closely monitoring the tabulation of votes in Guyana, which took – the election took place back on March 2nd. We join the OAS, the Commonwealth, EU, CARICOM, and other democratic partners in calling for an accurate count. We commend CARICOM’s role in seeking a swift, democratic resolution, and it’s important to note that the individuals who seek to benefit from electoral fraud and form illegitimate governments, regimes will be subject to a variety of serious consequences from the United States.
And with that, I’m happy to take questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Rich.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Hello.
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: Mr. Secretary, I was wondering —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Hi.
QUESTION: — first of all, how you’re feeling.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I feel great.
QUESTION: And —
SECRETARY POMPEO: Not as good when I’m here with you all, but the rest of the day I’ve been feeling fantastic. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I’ll try not to be offended, sir.
SECRETARY POMPEO: I love you just as much as you love me. (Laughter.)
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.
We’ve seen the guidance that says, boy, if you don’t have to go someplace, one ought not to. That’s Mike’s words, not the CDC’s. The American people should go read the actual guidance. But we’re all being mindful that this is a time that every American has a responsibility to do the right thing for themselves, for their family, for those around them, and for the community writ large. We’ll do that for our State Department officers too. We’ll do our best to make sure the State Department team both here in Washington and around the world is the safest we can possibly make them, while we still recognize we’ve got a mission to accomplish as well.
MS ORTAGUS: John. I mean Francesco, sorry. (Inaudible.)
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.
MS ORTAGUS: I’m sorry, sir. You have to go.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Great. Thank you all.