White House

Full interview: Mike Pompeo on his return to Kansas and status as a ‘Trump Whisperer’

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with McClatchy’s Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle ahead of his Monday visit to his home state, his first official trip to Kansas since becoming the nation’s top diplomat.

Here is a transcript of the full 20-minute interview.

Q: Just a question for your former constituents. How is the work you’re doing at the State Department relevant to Kansans?

POMPEO: So much that I do at the State Department matters to every American, including South Central Kansas and all of Kansas, the people I used to represent. We help open up markets, so manufacturers can sell things like airplanes or all the manufactured goods that Kansans deliver. Kansas farmers depend on these markets too. Whether its corn farmers, cotton farmers, whatever it may be, we need to make sure every country around the world allows American products, the finest products in the world, to be delivered into their countries and the State Department has a big role in that. And then finally, we’re responsible for keeping Americans safe. Using American diplomacy to ensure that countries around the world know that America is powerful, capable, wants to be their friend, but in the event that it goes another direction, that America is going to protect its own people.

Q: It seems like you are still tied to Kansas. You still follow the Wichita basketball team.

POMPEO: It’s home. Yes we follow the Shockers closely. Congratulations to Kansas State on a great season as well. Hopefully the Shockers will make a good run on the tournament and make the big dance too.

Q: Are you planning to move back after your time in this administration?

POMPEO: You know Susan and I both would love to get back there. Goodness knows what the Lord will bring to us when our time in service here in Washington, D.C., is done. But our friends, our family, our church. All the things we love so much are back in Kansas and I hope we get back there one day.

Q: Will you buy property again in Kansas do you think?

POMPEO: Oh goodness, I don’t know. If we move back I’m sure we will.

Q: Who do you talk with regularly in Kansas to keep the pulse of things back there?

POMPEO: You know, fewer people than I wish. But I get lots of great notes, kind notes, people say they’re praying for Susan and me. They see me on TV they see me traveling somewhere in the world. They’ll write back. We stay in touch with a whole bunch of our friends. My wife lived her whole life there in Wichita. And so it’s certainly home. And we miss it a great deal.

Q: And what’s your sense of how Kansans have fared during the past two years?

POMPEO: I think this economy is booming and my sense is that it is in Kansas as well, right? The lowest unemployment rate in an awfully long time. I’ve watched some of Kansas’ companies be incredibly successful on the global stage. I think Kansas has fared pretty well.

Q: You have said you’ve ruled out running for Senate in Kansas in 2020, but do you see yourself running for elected office again some day in Kansas?

POMPEO: You know, I remember 10 years ago or 11 years ago if you had asked me if I would ever run for office in Kansas, I would have told you there was almost no chance. I was running a small business, living my life. It would have seemed unlikely. I try now to avoid predicting what I may do a year, two years, six years from now.

Q: Could you see yourself representing Kansans again or being able to bring what you’ve learned in this experience in a way that could help them, as an (elected official)?

A: You know what it’s hard to know. I have learned an awful lot, both in my time six years serving in Congress, then as a year and a few months as CIA director, now almost a year here as secretary of state. I hope I have more wisdom, I certainly should. But I know this much, I’ve seen a lot of the world and I dearly love the people of Kansas.

Q: Would you rule it out, ever running for office in Kansas again?

POMPEO: I try to just avoid ruling things out when there’s others who are in control. The Lord will get me to the right place.

Q: Throughout your career, you’ve always taken free trade positions. When you talk to farmers and you talk to people in the aviation industry in Wichita, they’re feeling a bit hammered by some of the retaliation against U.S. trade policies. So when you’re talking to the president at cabinet meetings or just personally, do you ever convey those concerns of Kansans?

POMPEO: Oh my goodness, the president is deeply free trade. Let’s be clear, the trade war with China was started decades ago, and no president was prepared to take it on. They let the Chinese exclude Kansas products from their markets. When Kansas companies went to sell products inside of China they were told, no you can’t do that unless you give us all of your intellectual property, you give us everything you have - the seed corn for your very business, you must turn over to the Chinese government. That has destroyed opportunity for Kansans. And president Trump is working diligently to fix that, to course correct that, to tell the Chinese government - Look, a company that I had, two little small companies I ran in Kansas, if we had wanted to go invest in China, we couldn’t. But if the Chinese company had wanted to invest in my company in China, they could’ve. That’s deeply unfair. President Trump is determined to fix that. I think Kansans see that. They see the abusive behavior of the country of China against American farmers, American manufacturers. Jobs being created in Kansas, and they see President Trump out trying to fix it.

Q: It is a concern, though. We talked to your former campaign chair Fred Berry and one thing he said to me is we used able to take it for granted that we could export crops and airplanes without tariffs.

POMPEO: But we can’t. But we can’t. That’s the problem. Look at the Chinese behavior look at the billions of dollars and intellectual property stolen from the United States of America and from American businesses. It’s an enormous amount of money. We’re going to fix it.

Q: Just thinking about the impact to Wichita specifically being so export dependent.

POMPEO: Yep, this is why we’re doing it. This is why we’re doing this work. It’s because not just Kansans, but many states, many businesses are dependent on the opportunity to export their goods around the world. So it’s not just China. It is Europe that has said that American food is not safe enough for them. It’s places like Africa that has denied us the ability to sell our goods. President Trump is focused on creating American wealth and American jobs by opening these markets up for people like the people from Kansas. We’re going to get it done.

Q: Including the ag industry? That it’s actually record grain stocks for this (last) year, which means Kansas farmers can’t move their product.

POMPEO: My family’s got a farm down in Winfield. I know that business well. It has good years, it has bad years. What is important is that in the long run, over time, that those farmers have access to global markets. No president has been willing to take on China for the reasons you describe. Because sometimes in the short term, there’s a little bit of a hiccup. And so they weren’t willing to go do the right thing to make sure. And you talk to farmers, you know this, right? They care about their kids and their grandkids and their great grandchildren inheriting that farm, being able to live that wonderful amazing lifestyle that Kansas farmers get to live. President Trump is going to put America in the place where the kids and grandkids have every opportunity to continue to grow. The biggest growth opportunity in the world for American agriculture products is in Asia. We have to make sure that Asia doesn’t shut us out.

Q: In the meantime, while farmers are struggling, not being able to move their products... is it part of your role or do you ever find yourself trying to convey that stress or concern that its putting on farmers to the president, in your role, since you have his ear?

POMPEO: Oh sure, of course. But the president is deeply aware of all the economic activity that’s taking place and the challenges that are being faced not only by agriculture folks, but I’ll say this: You’ve got an economy that’s growing at a rate we haven’t seen in a long time. You’ve got the lowest unemployment rates for African Americans and for women that America has ever seen. The economy’s doing incredibly well. President Trump’s aware where there are challenges, where there are places that aren’t doing as well as we would like. He’s going to fix it. But you have to remember that these are long-term, structural challenges that are an absolute imperative. And it’s a shame. It’s too bad Barack Obama wouldn’t take these on. It’s too bad he cowered in a corner while China ripped us off. President Trump’s not going to let that happen.

Q: The president is proposing a 23 percent cut to budget for the State Department budget and international programs. Are you on board with that?

POMPEO: The State Department is going to be great. It is great. We’re going to deliver. Everything that America has in its diplomatic tool kit in every corner of the world will get the resources we need. I’m deeply confident of that. I was deeply involved in the budget process, in its preparation. I’ll testify on Capitol Hill in a week or two on our budget and I’m very confident that the State Department will have the resources it needs. It always has. President Trump has ensured that it has. And we’ll get to where we’ll need to be.

Q: You’ve talked about getting the State Department’s swagger back, as you’ve put it. How do you do that when its facing deep cuts like these?

POMPEO: The people at the State Department understand what’s going on. They know that they’re going to get to every place. What they needed wasn’t more money. What they needed was a leader who was prepared to empower them, was prepared to let them go out and do their job. A leader who was prepared to help make sure they got the training they needed, that we could get family members back to work, all of the things that you do as a leader of an organization. When I talked about swagger it was about going out in the world and having the confidence that as an American diplomat you represent the greatest nation in the history of civilization. That’s what the people of the State Department want. We’re giving it to them in spades. They’re responding to it wonderfully. We’re doing wonderful work all around the world.

Q: Speaking of that, how will the crisis in Venezuela play out? How do you see that ending?

POMPEO: I’m not in the prediction game. I’m in the hard work game. And so we’re working diligently to make sure that the citizens of Venezuela no longer have to suffer under the tragic conditions that Maduro has imposed on his country. They now have a interim president as designated by the Venezuelan constitution and countries in the region are supportive of the Venezuelan people in the same way the United States is. The American taxpayer, including Kansans, delivered hundreds of metric tons of humanitarian assistance to a country that is in crisis and Maduro wouldn’t let medicine get to those who were sick, he wouldn’t let the food get to those who were starving. The white hat here, the people who are aiming to help the Venezuelan people, are folks who are supporting Maduro - excuse me supporting Guaidó - and supporting those in the region who understand the Venezuelan people are speaking loud and clear: They want Maduro gone.

Q: Why is the administration considering granting TPS (Temporary Protected Status) to Venezuelans?

POMPEO: Oh there’s just lots of discussion about that. Who knows what we’ll decide. There will be a long conversation. We’ll get it right.

Q: What are the factors in that decision?

POMPEO: Look we want to make sure that folks who return are safe. But it’s also at the same time the case that we have to make sure we do that right. We want the Venezuelan people to return home. That’s what they want too. And there are now over 3 million folks who have had to flee the country. We think maybe another 2 million this year, if conditions don’t change. That’s 15 percent of the Venezuelan population. That would be 45 million Americans. We want them not to be here, because they don’t want to be here. They want to be home, they want to be in their country. They want a nation that can be successful. Venezuela is rich in resources. It’s a powerful country. The United States is supporting the Venezuelan people and returning it to be a country that can be once again the beacon of freedom and democracy in Latin America.

Q: And so why is the administration considering cutting democracy aid to Venezuela?

POMPEO: We’re prepared to provide more aid than any other country in the world. And you should know that America remains the most generous nation in the world when it comes to humanitarian assistance and more broadly assistance to countries all around the globe. And when Venezuela turns the corner, it will be America, along with other countries in the region, who will be there to make sure there’s long-term support for the success of the Venezuelan people.

Q: I’m just going to follow up on that. The Trump administration, it’s my understanding, is proposing $9 million for Venezuela. Congress last year gave $15 million, in fiscal 2019, for Venezuela (democracy programs). I’m just trying to understand why you’re proposing less than Congress did.

POMPEO: Yeah, you just have your math wrong. You should do better work than that. You’re more capable than that. Go look at the budget for this year. See what we’re proposing. See what the United States has delivered on the ground, physical goods in Columbia, in Curacao, in Brazil. That’s U.S. power and goodness in the region. We’re there. We’re a force for good. And we’re gonna ultimately deliver a good outcome for the Venezuelan people. We won’t be stingy. We will be the noblest nation in the world, as we always are.

Q: Moving back to your role here with the Trump administration. You’ve been called by some media - actually a lot of media - the Trump Whisperer. How well does that describe your relationship with the president?

POMPEO: I’ve been called lots of things. You enter public life, this happens to you. My relationship with President Trump is exactly the way it should be with a cabinet member: I give him my best wisdom. I share with him things with him the department that I lead, first the CIA and now the State Department, the things we can deliver on behalf of America. He provides guidance. He says these are the outcomes we’re asking you to achieve and then we go work our tails off to deliver on his behalf. It’s precisely the relationship that I have with this president. I think it’s important that the American people understand he is a leader who is delivering that guidance and giving us the freedom to go out and get it done.

Q: Did you guys hit it off right away when you met at Trump Tower when you interviewed for this job - or for the CIA job? Did you feel a personal connection right away? How would you describe it?

POMPEO: He is the commander in chief. He is the president of the United States. I’m his secretary of state. I work hard to try and deliver the things he is asking us to do because he got 306 electoral votes and the American people chose him to be the leader. I every day try to make sure I help him, provide wisdom to him, share our best advice and wisdom and then go out and execute and implement with all the energy we have.

Q: Was there a moment that was really key in terms of the development of that relationship. I mean I remember seeing you speak in Wichita on Marco Rubio’s behalf. I know that’s kind of ancient history at this point, but there had to be a moment when you and Trump bonded.

POMPEO: You know, how do you develop relationships? You work hard. You go deliver. You demonstrate value. I hope I’ve done that for the president. I’ve hope I’ve done that for the United States of America. It’s what I’ve tried to do in my now, I guess two years and change in service for this administration. No, there’s never one moment. I haven’t seen it that way in my life. It’s always about being in the right place to deliver value, to demonstrate that the team that you’re leading can do good things for America and President Trump is demanding that of us at the State Department. He demanded it of us when I was at the CIA. And I hope I’ve been able to deliver at least in part for him and for the country.

Q: What’s the significance of coming back to Kansas for this event on the 18th?

POMPEO: I haven’t been back to Kansas for a long time, so that will be personally fun. But the reason for the trip is we’re going to go talk to a bunch of entrepreneurs. It’s part of a bigger global effort. We’ll do a subsequent event in the Netherlands later this year. It’s to talk about the importance of entrepreneurship and innovation and creativity. No better place to go than back to Kansas to talk about that. So we’ll be meeting with a whole bunch of different business leaders and entrepreneurs, talking to them about State Department programs that can help entrepreneurs sell their products, build their products and innovate all across the globe. And then we’ll do the same thing in the Netherlands later this year.

Q: Do you think its important for Kansans to see the secretary of state back in the state now in an official capacity. Is there anything that you’re hoping that they glean from that?

POMPEO: Yeah a handful of things. I’ll take a handful of more trips here domestically. It’s not unusual for secretaries of state to travel in the United States. They usually confine their travel to Boston, Washington and New York. I think that’s completely inappropriate. I’m going out to where real people in the heartland are and I want to talk to them about the great things the State Department is delivering for them, why it is the State Department matters and then I have the selfish interest, too. I hope to recruit a lot of young Kansans, convince them that life as an American diplomat is noble, that it’s important, that they have this real opportunity. For young people who want to serve America, travel the world and represent America I want to make sure they know this opportunity, this option is out there. Sometimes young people in Kansas and Missouri and places outside of the Beltway don’t see it quite as clearly as those who live here. And I want to make sure they know they can come help America.

Q: There’s a parental kidnapping case in Wichita where the girls are currently in Russia. Your successor Ron Estes is very concerned about that. Is that something you’re looking into at all in your capacity as Secretary of State?

POMPEO: We’re always concerned when we have issues of that nature. I can’t talk about any particular case. But suffice it to say the State Department does its best to make sure parental rights are treated fairly. And when we’ve got issues surrounding abductions when U.S. citizens have been taking wrongly the State Department is always fully engaged to make sure we get those folks to the right place.

Q: You have said this is your first trip back to Kansas. Is that in an official capacity or do you occasionally go back for family visits?

POMPEO: You know I haven’t had the chance to get back very often. I may have been back once since I was confirmed as CIA director. It would have been a personal trip. But this will be at most my second trip back to the state of Kansas.

Q: I heard that there’s a small group in Wichita that you still see time to time and talk to?

POMPEO: I haven’t been back to Kansas. But I still talk to lots of friends back there. It’s my life, it’s my home. So I do talk to them from time to time, I’ll send ‘em a note, they’ll send me a note. I’ll talk to ‘em on the phone. Yeah I still have lots of friends back there. At least I hope I do.

Q: Are there certain people you talk to or who keep you apprised of what’s going on in Kansas.

POMPEO: I talk to a lot of my friends. I’m not going to name them here. But folks from our church, people I worked with. And from time to time one of them will come to Washington and I’ll get a chance to spend a little bit of time with them as well.

Q: What’s it like being Sam Brownback’s boss?

POMPEO: You know Ambassador Brownback’s doing fantastic work on religious freedom here, important work. It’s great to have another Kansan here, someone that I know and trust and value.

Q: The other question I wanted to ask you was reflecting on the fact that you took this big leap from congressman to fourth in line to the presidency, and we haven’t had a chance to talk to you since that happened. I was just wondering if you had reflected at all or could reflect for us on how that may have changed your perspective, whether now that you’ve been all over the world and meeting with leaders from all over the world, is there an attraction in returning to Kansas either as a resident or one day going back or even visiting as you are?

POMPEO: You know, it’s a good question. You know you do as you get a chance to see other parts of the world, you measure that against the things that you come to know. I must say I treasure Kansas all the more. I see what a special place it is. I see how hardworking the people of Kansas are, I see how they’re honest and they often practice their faith. Those are the important things. And I see how that’s not the case everywhere in the world and it makes Susan and I both truly appreciate the place that we’re from.

Q: Do you have any concerns about the direction Kansas is headed in now?

POMPEO: You know, I’m pretty focused on doing my part on behalf of America as sec of state. I haven’t spent much time focused on the details of what’s going on inside of Kansas.

Q: Thank you for spending some time with us. Please keep in touch. And if you do change your mind about running for office, we’d like to be the first ones to know.

POMPEO: You’d be right at the top of the stack, absolutely.

Q: Anything else you’d like Kansans to know?

POMPEO: Just that they should know the State Department is out working on their behalf every day.

Related stories from McClatchy DC

Lindsay Wise is an investigative reporter for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Previously, Lindsay worked for six years as the Washington correspondent for McClatchy’s Kansas City Star. Before joining McClatchy in 2012, she worked as a reporter at the Houston Chronicle, where she specialized in coverage of veterans and military issues as well as the city’s Arab and Muslim communities.
Support my work with a digital subscription
Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
Support my work with a digital subscription