Policy

Pompeo talks tough on China, says tariffs won’t push United States toward recession

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo struck an uncompromising tone toward China on trade and human rights Friday as Kansas farmers feel the effects of the continuing trade war.

The former Wichita congressman, in Kansas to deliver a speech at Kansas State University, acknowledged there will be “bumps in the road” as the United States battles China over trade. But he rejected concerns that President Donald Trump’s increasingly aggressive tariffs would push the U.S. toward a recession.

Pompeo also said the U.S. has acted “insufficiently” in fighting China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of the ethnic minority have been sent to internment camps.

Overall, the nation’s chief diplomat shared a vision of a confident, assertive American foreign policy while in Kansas. At the same time, he did little to definitively resolve speculation that he may run for the U.S. Senate.

“The American economy is strong. We are confident. We will get this right,” Pompeo said during an interview with The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. “Recession risk is when America is weak. When America allows China to walk over us and treat us horribly. That’s what’s happened for 20 years. And I think Kansans get that. There’ll be some bumps in the road.”

China stopped purchasing U.S. agricultural products a month ago. But the tariffs have been wearing on the agricultural industry for months.

Commodity prices have fallen because of retaliatory tariffs. The Trump administration has provided billions in aid to U.S. farmers so far to combat the effects of the tariffs.

Pompeo said during the interview that Kansas farmers have been seeing the trade challenge in China for decades. As a congressman, Pompeo said he heard from farmers unable to sell their crops. He added that China has stolen American technology.

“And previous administrations frankly just ignored it. President Trump’s not ignoring it. We’re going to get a set of fair reciprocal trading arrangements with China. We’re going to grow the American economy because we’ll get access to those markets,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo also sought to pressure China on Friday over human rights. While giving the prestigious Landon Lecture at K-State, he said over the past two years China has tried to brainwash more than a million Uighur Muslims in camps.

But facing audience questions after the speech, Pompeo said the U.S. was fighting to end China’s oppression of Uighur’s “insufficiently, because it’s still going on.”

“The mission continues. We’ve used the diplomatic tools that we have,” Pompeo said.

Facing skepticism

University officials estimated about 875 attended the lecture. Pompeo faced several skeptical questions from audience members afterward.

One man accused Pompeo’s security detail of being hostile toward a protester.

“This was a lone woman holding a sign expressing displeasure with her government. And your security detail – really, what they did is they harassed her,” the man said. It wasn’t clear what she was protesting.

Pompeo said he didn’t see the situation, but added, “I have not been sheltered from protest.”

“I’m pretty sure I know exactly what people think about our policies,” Pompeo said.

Another questioner pressed Pompeo on scientists leaving the federal government under the Trump administration. In July, a State Department analyst quit amid reports that the White House had blocked his discussion of climate in testimony to Congress.

Pompeo responded that the Trump administration relies on science more than any other in history. During an interview, he dismissed concerns about Trump’s decision to skip key international climate change gatherings this year, saying “the message that this administration has sent to the world is that we are going to do things that actually matter to the American people.”

In 2017, Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a landmark accord aimed at limiting the rise of global temperatures.

“Everyone wants to talk about the United States withdrew from the deal. In, out –what really matters is not fancy meetings, cocktail parties, agreements of elites socializing in places in Europe. What really matters is delivering for the American people,” Pompeo said during the interview.

Pompeo was critical of Trump before the 2016 election. But he quickly became one of the president’s closest allies, easily moving from CIA director into the role of secretary of state. In a March interview, Pompeo said he tries hard to deliver what the president wants.

Jim Slattery, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas, said Pompeo has to keep Trump satisfied.

“I think he’s playing a tough hand about as well as it can be played,” Slattery said.

Focus on ‘unalienable rights’

Much of Pompeo’s address focused on rights. The speech echoed a July opinion article he wrote for The Wall Street Journal that included similar themes.

He warned that the lines between fundamental rights and personal preferences have been blurred, and he compared rights to ice cream cones.

Pompeo drew a distinction between “unalienable rights” core to the country’s founding and other rights that he said were more akin to political preferences. He invoked the violent struggle over slavery called Bleeding Kansas to emphasize the importance of fundamental rights.

“With respect to unalienable rights, we need to know more, per se, is not always better,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo also struck out at the media, saying it tries to rewrite history as an “unrelenting tale of racism and misogyny” instead of a bold experiment in freedom. And he said there isn’t enough agreement on what constitutes an unalienable right — opening the door to other countries to “corrupt the understandings” of these rights.

Pompeo also highlighted his creation in May of a Commission on Unalienable Rights, which he said is tasked with upholding America’s “noble tradition” of unalienable rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union has criticized the commission, saying the commission is intended to “redefine universal human rights and roll back decades of progress in achieving full rights for marginalized and historically oppressed communities.”

Senate speculation continues

Friday’s speech was a very public homecoming for Pompeo, and came as speculation continues to swirl over whether he’ll run for Senate. It was at least the secretary’s third trip to the state this year.

Talk of a possible Pompeo candidacy began almost immediately after Sen. Pat Roberts announced in January he wouldn’t run for reelection. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he would welcome a Pompeo run. Sen. Jerry Moran said Thursday that Pompeo would be a “solid candidate.”

Pompeo has previously said a Senate run was “off the table” but he was less definitive on Friday. He said he is aware of the “noise” and speculation over a possible campaign, but reiterated that he intends to serve as secretary of state as long as Trump wants him in the job.

“You can take it however you’d like,” Pompeo said of his response when pressed. “I hear all the speculation. There’s a lot of people thinking about my future a lot more than I am.”

David Kensinger, a Kansas Republican strategist, called the speech proof of why many people see Pompeo as a dream candidate.

“There are a lot of ways to describe Mike Pompeo. One way I’ve never heard him described is careless,” Kensinger said. “If he is stoking speculation without becoming the eventual candidate, that would be a careless thing to do… I think he will run.”

Pompeo refused to say whether he has spoke with Trump about the race, saying that he never speaks about his private conversations with the president.

“All I can tell the American people and the people of Kansas is that we love this place. But my mission’s that I get this privilege to be America’s secretary of state. I’m the 70th secretary of state,” Pompeo said. “I intend to do this just as long as President Trump will give me this incredible privilege and every day I will work to deliver security for America’s people as America’s most senior diplomat.”

Kansas City Star reporter Bryan Lowry contributed to this story

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.
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