PRESS BRIEFING ROOM
APRIL 7, 2020
SECRETARY POMPEO: Good morning, everyone. Glad we’re all together, everybody healthy, everybody looking good, staying apart – all fantastic.
I wanted to start with just a few brief items here this morning, beginning in the Western Hemisphere.
First, I want to express my thanks to the dozens of countries that have expressed support for the new Venezuela framework that I announced when I was here last week. The goal is to replace Maduro’s illegitimate dictatorship with a legitimate, transitional government that can hold free and fair elections, presidential elections to represent all Venezuelans. It’s time for Maduro to go.
I’d also like to commend Guyana’s High Court for clearing the way for a nationwide recount of that country’s recent national elections as well. We look forward to working with their elections commission and the international observer community to ensure that that process is free and fair, transparent, and credible.
Turning to Europe, a congratulations is in order for North Macedonia on becoming the 30th member of the NATO Alliance. Its accession, which we marked in our virtual NATO meeting last week, strengthens the Alliance tremendously. And it offers yet more proof that countries know aligning with free nations of the West is the best way to obtain security, stability, and prosperity for their own nation.
Now to the topic of greatest concern these days, the coronavirus. I’d like to speak in some detail about the State Department’s 24/7, worldwide efforts to repatriate American citizens from around the globe. It’s one of the most remarkable diplomatic missions in American history. As of this morning, our team – working at great personal risk – has repatriated more than 45,000 citizens from across the world – 460-plus flights, 75 countries.
Nearly every day, incredible stories of our teams’ speed and tenacity getting our people home hit my desk. These stories could be pulled from a Hollywood script, they’re remarkable. I’ll share just a couple with you.
In Nepal, American tourists found themselves stranded near Mount Everest and other remote areas. Our embassy obtained special permits from the government for 15-passenger commercial planes to fly in and out of that dangerous mountain terrain. Embassy staff arranged buses to travel hundreds of miles to reach U.S. citizens and bring them back to Kathmandu to board flights that ultimately came back here to the United States. We even helped one woman who was running low on medication reach a pharmacy, and evacuated her out of the first two flights that carried nearly 600 U.S. citizens and residents.
In Argentina, our people worked with foreign ministry contacts to help American missionaries pass through armed checkpoints. They arranged for an asymptomatic elderly couple to be released from quarantine, so that they could get home to their loved ones. And our team helped a couple expecting a child get back to the United States in a timely fashion.
We received this grateful note – it’s just one among many – from a woman whose mother was repatriated from Ecuador. The note read, in part: “[I] just want to say a special thank you to the U.S. Embassy for acting so efficiently and expeditiously to bring [home] my mom and her husband! They were pretty much stranded… since all [the] airports are closed… and you guys came to the rescue! You guys are the best! God bless America! [I am] so proud to be an American!” End of quote.
I want the American people to have a better sense of the staggering logistical coordination and detail that goes into every one of these repatriation operations. They’re truly the good work of not only our team that works across time zones, but works with the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Military, and our foreign partners at every level to get transport authorities and airline companies and medical teams all to where they need to be to get these people home.
Our teams are printing emergency passports to get these folks back. We call hotels to find spaces for U.S. citizens to sleep to make sure they’re near the airport for the moment that the plane will arrive, and we make arrangements for flight crews. And we provide Americans with letters for safe passage. The list goes on and on. It’s truly a great piece of work by the United States Government on behalf of the American people.
I want everyone to be reminded that America remains the world’s leading light of humanitarian goodness as well amidst this global pandemic.
Right now, given the great need for PPE in our own country, our focus will be on keeping critical medical items in the United States until demand is met here. But the United States continues, even as we speak, to provide high-quality, transparent, and meaningful assistance to our partners all across the globe.
We do this because we’re good and generous people. We also do it because viruses don’t respect borders. When we help our friends abroad, it keeps us safe back here in the homeland as well.
Today I can confirm that we are prepared to commit an additional $225 million in health, humanitarian, and economic assistance to further boost response efforts worldwide. That’s on top of the roughly $274 million in funding we’ve already deployed to 64 countries across the globe. No country can match this level of generosity.
The new funding that I announced today will be used to reduce transmission through virus diagnosis, prevention and control; to bolster health systems; to prepare labs; to train healthcare workers; to increase awareness; and much, much more.
Our efforts to help these other countries to keep us safer here have already had an impact. We’ve translated PSAs on fighting the virus into almost 50 languages. We helped Guatemala set up its main hospital for COVID patients. We’re supporting online learning for kids in Cambodia whose schools are closed.
Our long-term investments are also paying dividends. An Egyptian nurse who graduated school on a USAID scholarship in 2019 is now treating COVID patients in that country. She said, quote, “My education and the leadership training through USAID’s scholarship program prepared me for this [very] moment,” end of quote.
And we’re always looking for opportunities to partner with the private sector – one of the most powerful force multipliers of our nation. We want to help these countries help themselves.
In Nigeria, we’ve partnered with a company called Airtel to reach more than one million citizens per day with voice and text messages on social distancing, safe hygiene practices, and other measures.
Along these same lines, it’s not just American government springing to help. It’s American charities, too. As just one example, in the Czech Republic, the U.S. firm Dukane IAS, headquartered just outside of Chicago, has voluntarily turned over a part of its production facility to make face masks for Czech first responders, senior centers, and other social service providers.
In Tunisia, Cisco donated video-conference equipment to government agencies so that they can remotely work during this lockdown to ensure the continuity of operations for their leadership team.
It’s a special country that we’re all part of. No other country gives so much.
And on that theme, one more note. Good news. I’d like to draw your attention to the Ebola virus.
For almost two years now, the United States has led the global response to the latest outbreak of that horrible disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Within one month from the outbreak, America deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team and other experts who supported vaccination campaigns, diagnostic processes, testing and tracing, and more. We’ve provided more than $569 million since the outbreak began to fight Ebola in the DRC and the neighboring countries.
Thanks to our efforts, I’m pleased to announce today that on April 12th the DRC is expected to declare this outbreak is officially over. It will be 42 days – two full incubation periods for the disease – since the last person tested negative twice and was released from an Ebola treatment center. American assistance, the goodness of the American people, helped make this victory possible. It’s an inspiration for our continued efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, one announcement with respect to Iraq.
As a force for good in the nation and as Iraq’s closest friend, the United States has proposed a Strategic Dialogue with the Government of Iraq to be held in middle of June.
With the global COVID-19 pandemic raging and plummeting oil revenues, threatening an Iraqi economic collapse, it’s important that our two governments work together to stop any reversal of the gains we’ve made in our efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the country.
The Strategic Dialogue will be led by my Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale. And all strategic issues between our two countries will be on the agenda, including the future presence of the United States forces in that country, and how best to support an independent and sovereign Iraq.
And with that, I’m happy to take a few questions this morning.
QUESTION: Hi. Kim Dozier, TIME.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Hi, Kim.
QUESTION: Sir, have you stopped using the phrase Wuhan virus to lower the temperature of the rhetoric with China, even as U.S. intelligence reports their disinformation is rising? And is the Taliban keeping up its end of the peace deal?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So I’ll take your second question first. When I traveled to Doha and the United States signed a deal with the Taliban and simultaneously we set out a declaration with the Afghan Government, there was no doubt that there would be steps forward and steps backward. We think since that date, and indeed since the trip that I took there now a couple weeks back, that we’ve made some progress. But we see them posturing in the media; we see statements that come out. What we know is that directionally, every one of those parties understands the United States commitment, the things we’re going to do, the things that we will not do for them.
These negotiations have to be intra-Afghan negotiations amongst those parties, and that our expectation, whether that is for President Ghani and Abdullah to figure out the political challenges that confront them, for us to get the deal with the Taliban right, for America to deliver on its commitment that says we will reduce our forces in accordance with the agreement on the conditions that are set out in those agreements – I don’t think there’s any ambiguity with respect to how all of the parties understand what America’s continued role will be if they execute this peace and reconciliation process properly, appropriately, efficiently.
I am confident in the days ahead we’ll have things that look like steps backward, but I’m also hopeful that all the parties are sincere in wanting what’s good for the Afghan people, right. They’ve been at this for 40 years in their country; we’ve been there for half of that. It’s time for these folks to get on with building out a peaceful, reconciled Afghanistan with a real political leadership that can lead the country forward and take down the levels of violence. We’re monitoring that, we are still providing support for the Afghan National Security Forces, and we continue to work to get this process moving forward.
Your first question was about disinformation that we’re seeing. We know that this is a global pandemic, and this is the time for every country to work together to resolve that. To do that, you have to be honest and transparent. Every country has that obligation. We do our best to do that every day, to deliver the real data about the things we know, the things we learn. We do it in formal public channels. There’s a couple hours every day where the President and the team, the task force team, come out and talk to the American people about what’s going on with the best information that we have available. We do that privately; we do that in our discussions. I was on the phone all morning with counterparts from Kazakhstan and from Egypt to share with them the things we’re learning, the best practices we have. HHS is doing the same thing. CDC is doing the same thing.
But we have an expectation. That expectation is that every country will do that the same way, and every nation, be they a democracy or not, has to share this information in a transparent, open, efficient way. We – there are still lots of things we don’t know. We can only know them when the data set – the global data set – is available to every party. It has to be accurate, it has to be timely, it can’t be grudging. We need to let scientists from all across the global community – nation immaterial, best scientist wins – stare at this data, work on this data, and collaborate together. And you can’t do that if nations choose to behave in ways that are inconsistent with that central idea.
The idea of cooperation is more than just saying, “Yeah, sure, we’ll get along, we’re happy to get along with you.” The idea of cooperation entails so much more. It’s so much more substantive than that. It needs to be transparent and timely and open. We have an expectation and we’re communicating that expectation to every country.
MS ORTAGUS: Nadia.
QUESTION: And the phrase “Wuhan virus?”
MS ORTAGUS: Nadia, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya Television. Good morning, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Hi, good to see you.
QUESTION: I have two questions. On Iran first, despite your effort to dry up money that Iran is spending on its proxies, Hizballah emerged as the party in Lebanon now that provided services and helping people during this crisis with corona. How do you counter this message?
And on Iraq, Kata’ib Hizballah threatened that they are not going to – they are going to veto, actually, any nominated prime minister of Iraq. Do you take this threat seriously? Do they have any weight on deciding who’s going to be the prime minister?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So all the voices in Iraq will have some weight on who will be the next prime minister. I hope the most important voice there isn’t Kata’ib Hizballah, it isn’t AAH, it’s not terrorists. I hope it’s the Iraqi people who have the ultimate say. What we’ve said consistently about the Iraqi political process is very simple: A leader who is put forward, who’s prepared to engage in the reforms, that will build out a sovereign, independent Iraq on behalf of the Iraqi people and move away from the old sectarian model that ended up with terror and corruption – any leader that’s put forward that will do that, the United States is happy to support. And that’s the gold standard; it’s what we need. It’s what, frankly, the Iraqi people need. It’s why we want to have the strategic dialogue, is that we want to begin to engage, to take down violence, to take down risks, to take down the threat from a resurgence of terror there.
That’s the – when you talk about who will decide who the next leader is, our mission has been – is to make sure that that next leader is reflected in what it is you see the people who were protesting before the virus broke out, the people who were protesting all across Iraq, demanding – a different political path forward. So I’m sure the Kata’ib Hizballah folks will try to have their say. I am hopeful that it will be the Iraqi people who will ultimately decide who the next leader will be.
QUESTION: On Iran, sir, and Hizballah?
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yeah. We were in a big hole. The previous administration gave the Iranians a whole lot of money, and we have done remarkable work to deny the regime the resources they need to continue to carry out their terror campaign. You describe a situation in Lebanon, I think, or perhaps in Syria where Hizballah’s operating. I can tell you this: Hizballah has fewer dollars today to engage in nefarious activity than they did when President Trump took office, and they will continue to have fewer dollars tomorrow until they fundamentally get the Iranian regime to change its model, the model that says we’re going to use resources – resources that could right now be going for the Iranian people to help take care of them when they’re in a health crisis themself, right – we’re going to use those resources to take weaponry into Iraq, to underwrite Hizballah and Lebanon and threaten Israel, all of the things that the Iranians have engaged in for so long, even in this crisis the Iranian regime hasn’t ceased doing, that’s most unfortunate. It’s unfortunate for the people of Lebanon, it’s unfortunate for the people of Syria, it’s unfortunate for the people of Iraq – you referred to Kata’ib Hizballah before this – and it’s really unfortunate for the people of Iran.
We hope that the people of Iran one day will get a regime with a change in outlook, a change which says, “No, we want to respect what the Iranian people truly want.” And when they do that, that’ll be a fantastic thing, and we will reduce the threat that Iran will ever chase a nuclear weapon in the way that they were on a path toward chasing under the previous administration.
MS ORTAGUS: Rich.
QUESTION: Hi, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Yes, sir.
QUESTION: How concerned are you about leaders using coronavirus to weaken democracies in their countries? There is this specific example of Hungary, which the State Department has commented on. Are you seeing that elsewhere, and what tools does the U.S. Government have at its disposal or would consider using to prevent that democratic backsliding?
SECRETARY POMPEO: So, Rich, I – we talked about that particular situation. We hope that doesn’t happen anywhere, and we’ll do the thing that – the normal toolkit that we have in diplomacy to respond where we see that taking place. There will be bad actors try to use this outbreak of virus for nefarious ends. We’ve seen that. We’ve seen it in tactical ways, as well as you describe, when it’s political.
But there is a thought that’s there that I think is important. I hear people saying that, boy, autocracies sure respond to crises well. I have to tell you they got the wrong end of the stick. It’s democracies that respond to crises well. They protect liberty; they protect freedom. What do autocracies do in the face of crisis? They become more aggressive, they deny people their rights, they lie more – right – they do all – all the things that are the negative aspects of autocratic nations are exacerbated in times of crisis. And while they may in some instance solve a particular problem in a particular way that facially resolves the crisis that’s in front of them, in the end they do enormous harm to the people of their own nation and put the rest of the world at risk as well.
What democracies do is what you see the United States doing. I talked about it today. They get their people home, they become very generous, they share their resources, they help the entire world fight the global pandemic. You’ve seen the President and his task force talk about all the remarkable work we’re doing on therapeutics, all the remarkable work that the United States is doing towards delivering a vaccine. And we’re working with our democratic partners around the world to help deliver that.
No, democracy is the answer in times of crisis, not moving in an autocratic direction. It’s just the reverse of what I think you described having seen there. I hope every leader around the world will see that when times are tough, what you really want is you want peoples of a nation to understand that their fundamental rights are going to be respected, that their liberty will be preserved, that those democratic values will be adhered to. And when you do that, you get a free press, you get a free, active academia. You get all the things that ultimately resolve these crises in a way that’s good for the nation that the leaders represent and good for the world as well.
MS ORTAGUS: Sir, I need to get you to your next meeting.
SECRETARY POMPEO: All right. Thank you all.
MS ORTAGUS: We’re going to have Ian Brownlee come up now.
SECRETARY POMPEO: Thanks, everybody. Ian is the master logistician who’s delivered all those great American people home.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, do you want to say anything about Prime Minister Johnson, about his health? Have you talked to Foreign Minister Raab?
MR BROWNLEE: I better get it right at this point, hadn’t I, with that setup.
Good morning. It’s nice – after several weeks in the bullpen, it’s very nice to actually put some faces to some of these names, so thank you for coming here today.
The Department of State has been undertaking an unprecedented effort to bring Americans home from all over the globe, including from remote locations and countries with strict quarantine orders and travel restrictions.
To update the numbers the Secretary just gave you, we have brought home nearly 46,000 Americans from over 70 countries on 449 flights as of 6:30 this morning.
Our staff overseas and here in Washington, D.C. has been working around the clock to bring home every person who tells us they want to come back.
If you’re an American overseas, you should arm yourself with the latest information on conditions where you are. This is true whether you want to come home now or want to stay where you are, so please, please enroll at step.state.gov.
That’s our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, and it’s how you’ll get notifications from the embassy about when the next flight’s going to be, what travel restrictions might be in place, and more. We also put all this information up on the embassy’s website to make it as widely available as possible.
But let me emphasize: We are committed to helping U.S. citizens return home.
We have used a wide variety of flight options over the past several weeks, including chartered flights, the State Department’s in-house resources, Department of Homeland Security and Department of Defense resources, and U.S. airlines commercial rescue flights. While we are still hearing from Americans all around the globe, we’ve begun thinking about more sustainable options in some places.
The Department has always advised that U.S. citizens overseas should seek to depart on commercial carriers when and while they are – where and while they are still available. Look at Germany, for example. There aren’t any repatriation flights planned there because commercial options are still available.
In places where commercial flights have stopped, the department continues to work with countries and commercial carriers to arrange for special temporary commercial rescue flights for people who want to come home.
We hope to be able to announce something more on that front soon, but as far as U.S.-chartered – U.S. government-chartered flights go, people overseas need to ask themselves:
Do I want to go home or am I ready to stay abroad indefinitely?
This is especially crucial for people who are in Central and South America, where we have been focusing the bulk of our efforts to date. This is a decision they need to make now.
The seat with a person’s name on it right now might not be available next week.
If someone decides to wait it out for a week or two before deciding, they might find that their – that decision has been made for them.
And with that, I look forward to taking a few questions.
QUESTION: Hi, how are you? You said earlier – I honestly can’t remember what day it was – but on one of these calls – it might have been yesterday – you said that these flights are not going to continue indefinitely and that’s something we’ve talked about. Do you have any kind of a timeline as to when they’re going to start winding down?
MR BROWNLEE: No, thanks very much. This is a key issue and there’s no single end date for these operations. We’re looking at the conditions in particular countries, and we are looking to see – at multiple factors, but one, are there still people lining up saying please take me home. When those numbers start to dwindle down to a single plane load, we’re thinking of putting a period at the end of the sentence with regard to that country.
We are also – as I just said, we’re looking to enhance the airline industry’s ability to go back into these places. Part of the success we’ve had over the past several weeks has been with regard to a few carriers who have been willing to go in on what we call direct bill options. Airline carrier says, “I’ll fly into country X. I’ve got a 767. I can carry a certain number of people on that plane.” They put up on their website it’s going to cost you X amount to get on this plane. They’re filling those planes. So what we’re hoping to do is get more of those direct bill options in more places around the world sometime soon to fill in for what we’ve been doing up until now.
MS ORTAGUS: Kylie.
QUESTION: Can you – thank you for doing this. It’s nice to see you in person. Can you expand a little bit on what exactly you mean by that? Like, working with these individual airlines, is the State Department providing additional funding that they wouldn’t be able to find by flying these flights on their own? Like, why do these airlines need the State Department’s help in flying into some of these countries?
MR BROWNLEE: That’s a really good question. Thank you, Kylie. If Hugo Yon were with me now, I’d point to him as I would on the phone call, the bullpen calls, but he’s not, so I have to fill in.
No, what we are doing there – there’s not a direct dollar expenditure by the State Department to support these flights or to subsidize these flights, but the Economic Bureau’s transportation office is coordinating on two ends, one here in the United States with FAA, TSA, CBP, all those entities that need to approve the arrival of a flight from a certain country into the United States, helping them get the landing permissions they need here in the United States. That’s relatively easy. We’re getting – we’re well lashed up with the interagency on that one.
What’s a bit more complicated is getting the necessary permissions at the other end, and this is particularly the case where some of these carriers had not previously served those destinations. So, for example, trying to encourage United to fly into India is a relatively easy lift because they’ve been doing that all along. They’ve got the contracts and ground crews. They know how to deal with the Indian bureaucracy, et cetera. We’ve been working closely with a small U.S. airline called Eastern Airlines – a descendant of the old Eastern Airlines – that didn’t previously serve some of these areas and so they didn’t have that both logistical and there was a bureaucratic infrastructure in place. So EB has been helping here and there, our embassies are helping there, and that’s what we’re doing.
QUESTION: Is it – just – can I just follow up quickly? Is it a bit of a slippery slope with regard to helping out these commercial airlines versus helping out Americans who are stranded?
MR BROWNLEE: No, I don’t see it as a slippery slope. What I see it as is an expansion of the capacity. By expanding the capacity, by saying an airline can go in with a – a 767, a wide-body, whatever it is – can go in and bring out X hundred people at a time, that’s X hundred people who are coming out that we don’t have to go out and charter an airplane, build manifests, et cetera. It’s an expansion of that capacity pool.
MS ORTAGUS: Kim, go ahead.
QUESTION: Could you take this opportunity to tell us on camera what you’ve said on the phone a few times: Your advice to Americans who are on the fence about whether or not to come back to the United States?
MR BROWNLEE: Get off the fence; it’s very simple. Get off the fence. These are individual decisions. People need to decide: Am I doing to remain where I am for an indefinite period of time or do I want to go back to the United States? I can’t make that decision for people. People need to decide based upon their own circumstances. They need to decide based upon their own circumstances. Am I going to stay? Am I going to go? And we’re hearing people coming forward in some places who are saying, “I’m good for now. Come back and ask me in May.” No, no. They need to decide now. We are not going to continue running these chartered flights indefinitely. That’s why, as Kylie was asking, we’re moving to expand the capacity pool, but people need to decide now.
MS ORTAGUS: Anybody else? No? Okay. Thanks, guys.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up – you’ve given some pretty stark advice to people before. It’s been pretty hard-hitting.
MS ORTAGUS: I think she wants the tsunami example. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MR BROWNLEE: All right. (Laughter.)
MS ORTAGUS: On camera, please.
MR BROWNLEE: All right, on camera, the tsunami example, okay. Picture you’re in Indonesia in whatever it was, 2004. You’re on the beach. You see the water going away after the earthquake. Do you stand there waiting for the tsunami to come back or do you head for the hills? You head for the hills now. You don’t wait on the beach hoping to be rescued later. Decide now. These are individual decisions. People are empowered to make their own decisions. If they’re going to get them – if they decide they’re in harm’s way, they need to take steps now to get themselves out of harm’s way.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you, Ian. Thanks, guys.
MR BROWNLEE: Thank you. Thank you all.