Pompeo on Iran and Ukraine

The chief diplomat of the United States isn't very diplomatic (nor informative).

“Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Mnuchin Speak to Reporters” by The White House is in the Public Domain, CC0

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly had an interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week. In it he provided vacuous responses on Iran and utterly refused to discuss the treatment of former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. He ended the encounter by yelling at the reporter off mic. One can access the complete, unedited transcript here.

In order, he answers on Iran were a combination of empty and a bit delusional.

The empty part, for example (bold is Kelly, regular text is Pompeo) is about Iran:

Let’s start with Iran. What is the plan? And on diplomacy, specifically, is there any serious initiative to reopen diplomacy with Iran?

So we’ve been engaged in deep diplomatic efforts since the first day of the Trump administration. We’ve built out a coalition that is working together — Gulf states, Israel, many European countries — to deliver on the three central outcomes that we’re looking for.

On the one hand, it is not unusual for officials to provide anodyne, if not plain vague, responses in situations like this. I do think, however, that for the administration to have credibility it needs to provide a clearer path forward than vague references to a new coalition. Fundamentally this suggests that Israel is on board with the “maximum pressure campaign” (which is more of a tweet than a policy) and that Saudi Arabia is also interested in countering Iran (the degree to which this is the basis of a real coalition is a different discussion).

I am not sure which of the “many European countries” he is referencing, but that statement papers over the fact that by pulling out of the JCPOA, the US alienated major European players and whomever might be in this new coalition is of far less significance and influence.

And, to be honest, this does not sound at all like a true coalition, but more a collection of actors who have some overlapping reasons to be anti-Iran and/or who are simply currying favor with the US.

Most of what he said about Iran has just empty:

You use the word pressure. This is the maximum pressure campaign that President Trump put into place a year and a half ago when he pulled out of the nuclear deal. But in that year and a half, Iran has behaved more provocatively, not less. So is maximum pressure working?

Absolutely working. To put it in context, this is 40 years. When you say worse, they held American hostages in our embassy in Tehran. They had our sailors kneeling. The previous administration gave them billions and billions of dollars to underwrite the very actions that they’re taking today. When we came into office, it took a lot of work to fundamentally reshape the diplomatic, military and economic landscape. So it didn’t happen instantaneously, but we made an enormous amount of progress in delivering —

First, she didn’t say “worse”–rather, she noted (correctly) that the response to the JCPOA withdrawal and other US actions has increased Iranian belligerence, rather than reducing it.

And I know that the talking point is that Iranian capability to act is somehow the result of the JCPOA. (And the Obama administration give not “give” them those dollars–it returned Iranian assets that we had been holding, which is an important distinction). I will certainly allow that the Iranian government has more funds now than it did. However, Iran had missiles before the JCPOA. The Quds forces existed before the JCPOA. Irainian support for Hezbollah existed before the JCPOA. The notion that current activity is the result of an influx of resources after the JCPOA does not stand scrutiny.

Further, Iran’s behavior, regardless of whether one likes it or not, has to be understood in the context of its desire to be a regional power. And, it really has to be understood in the context of the United States having a military presence to its east since 2001 and to its west since 2003 (really since late 1990). In conjunction with that (which would make any country seek to find ways to expand its regional military and political power) has been Saudi Arabia’s increasingly aggressive actions in the region as it seeks to assert its regional influence.

Pretending like it is so simple as to says its about the money returned because of the JCPOA negotiations is to either be a ruse to further confuse the American public, or it is an indication that Pompeo doesn’t understand even basic political dynamics in the region (or even basic international relations).

Some other examples of cogent, helpful, and confidence-building answers include the following:

But my question again, how do you stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon?

We’ll stop them.

How? Sanctions?

We’ll stop them.

Well, then.

There was also this on Iran, which I find to be troubling, if not a bit ominous:

But again, you say you’re determined to prevent them. How do you stop them? I was in Tehran two weeks ago. I sat down with your counterpart there, Javad Zarif, and he told me, quote, “All limits on our centrifuge program are now suspended.”

Yeah. He’s blustering. Look, the truth of the matter is this is a regime that’s never —

Do you have evidence that he’s blustering?

This is a regime that has never been in the position that it’s in today. One has to confront so many elements that challenge the central thesis of the theocracy and the revolutionary nature of this regime. And you can see it in protests, not just in Tehran. And you should know when you traveled there, I’m guessing you weren’t permitted to travel freely. I’m guessing that you didn’t get a chance to go out into these places where the life of the Iranian people, these are people who are suffering. Qassem Soleimani, who we removed from the battlefield, killed hundreds of Iranians, and the Iranian people know that. And it’s been our strategy that has delivered this message of freedom for the Iranian people.

Now, Pompeo is right in the sense that yes, Iran has an authoritarian regime. Yes, it has abused and killed its own people. And yes, I am sure that Kelly was limited in her movements when she visited Iran.

I will go so far as to say that, in terms of normative preference, I want to see substantial liberalization in Iran. I certainly am opposed to, for example, the human rights record of the regime. I am not in favor of its provocative foreign policy. I recognize that it acts in contradiction to US interests. The question becomes, for a foreign policy POV, is how much of that is controllable by US policy? And what are the costs and benefits of various actions?

The part I find troubling about his answer is that it sounds way too much like pre-Iraq War talk. It is based in false assumptions that because their is internal dissent and because a regime engages in human rights abuses that “pressure” can lead to regime change. It also suggests that violence applied by the US, like the assassination of Soleimani, is received in Iran as a “message of freedom.” When will we learn that it doesn’t work like that?

I could go on about his utterly anemic and dangerous responses on Iran, but let’s get to Ukraine.

Change of subject. Ukraine. Do you owe Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch an apology?

You know, I agreed to come on your show today to talk about Iran. That’s what I intend to do. I know what our Ukraine policy has been now for the three years of this administration. I’m proud of the work we’ve done. This administration delivered the capability for the Ukrainians to defend themselves. President Obama showed up with MREs (meals ready to eat.) We showed up with Javelin missiles. The previous administration did nothing to take down corruption in Ukraine. We’re working hard on that. We’re going to continue to do it.

I confirmed with your staff [crosstalk] last night that I would talk about Iran and Ukraine.

I just don’t have anything else to say about that this morning.

That is nice soundbite about the Obama administration, and it is something that pro-Trump media will gladly focus in on. However, it is a non-answer.

Kelly pressed the issue:

I just want to give you another opportunity to answer this, because as you know, people who work for you in your department, people who have resigned from this department under your leadership, saying you should stand up for the diplomats who work here. [crosstalk]

I don’t know who these unnamed sources are you’re referring to. I can tell you this, when I talked to my team here —

These are not unnamed sources. [crosstalk] This is your senior adviser Michael McKinley, a career foreign service officer with four decades experience, who testified under oath that he resigned in part due to the failure of the State Department to offer support to Foreign Service employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry on Ukraine.

I’m not going to comment on things that Mr. McKinley may have said. I’ll say only this. I have defended every State Department official. We’ve built a great team. The team that works here is doing amazing work around the world.

Sir, respectfully [crosstalk] where have you defended Marie Yovanovitch?

I’ve defended every single person on this team. I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team. [crosstalk]

I can understand why Pompeo doesn’t want to answer. It is because he doesn’t have an answer. He did not protect Yovanovitch in the least. He allowed her to be mistreated and hung out to dry. It is simply a lie to state “I’ve defended every single person on this team” if he means the statement to be inclusive of Yovanovitch. Of course, if she isn’t part of his “team” then he should have the courage of his convictions and say so, and say why. That would make the statements true, but also make them cowardly dissembling.

So, here Pompeo is either a liar or a coward.

It is damning that Pompeo does not have a cogent answer on why he (and the administration writ large) treated Yovanovitch as they did.

After cutting off the interview, the following took place (as reported by USAT, but as was also described by Kelly on air at NPR):

After the interview, Kelly said she was taken to the secretary of State’s private living room, where Pompeo was waiting for her. “He shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself. He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine,” Kelly said, in an account released by NPR with the interview transcript.

She said he used the F-word and “many others” when he asking her if Americans cared about Ukraine. He then asked her if she could find Ukraine on a map.

“I said yes, and he called out for aides to bring us a map of the world with no writing. I pointed to Ukraine,” she recounted. 

Pompeo then said: “‘People will hear about this.'”

The State Department issued a statement (also via USAT):

On Saturday, Pompeo responded by calling Kelly a liar and suggesting she was unable to point out Ukraine on an unmarked map. 
“NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice,” Pompeo said in a statement released by the State Department.

He said she lied last month when setting up the interview and again on Friday. He suggested that Kelly had agreed to keep Friday’s post-interview conversation off the record.

In Saturday’s statement, Pompeo suggested Kelly had pointed to Bangladesh, not Ukraine, on the map.

“It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine,” he said.   

Kelly stated in the interview (see the transcript) that she had informed Pompeo’s aides that she would ask about Ukraine and that there was no request for the after-interview encounter to be off the record.

First, I would ask, why would Pompeo be unwilling to talk about Ukraine?

Second, he does not appear to be denying chewing out a reporter (just that he thought it was going to be off the record).

Third, recognizing it because he said/she said, I cannot for a minute believe that Kelly identified Bangladesh as Ukraine. And, I would note, Pompeo didn’t actually say she did, but rather made a glib, and true, statement that “Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine” without actually saying that was where Kelly identified Ukraine as being. This is a propaganda tactic. No doubt, right wing media will take that statement to mean that she made that error and it will become a running joke. This is just more undermining of truth for short-term political gain.

BTW: even if Kelly couldn’t find Ukraine on the map, it in no way takes away the substance and force of her question, nor does it excuse Pompeo’s behavior nor his inability to provide an answer to a wholly legitimate line of questions,.

The entire interview, including a description of what happened at the end of the interview, can be heard here:

FILED UNDER: Middle East, US Politics, World Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Teve says:

    In Saturday’s statement, Pompeo suggested Kelly had pointed to Bangladesh, not Ukraine, on the map.

    Her undergrad is from Harvard, and her Masters is in European studies from Cambridge. And we’re expected to believe she can’t tell Ukraine from Bangladesh?

    I think Pompeo and I have the exact same opinion of Republican voters.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is what comes of aiming your appeal at cretins, you begin to think everyone’s as dumb as #Cult45.

    And by the way, I can not only point out Ukraine (it’s huge FFS) but correctly differentiate between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Not everyone is geographically illiterate.

  3. SenyorDave says:

    I think it is much more likely that Pompeo would be unable to find Ukraine on a map than Kelly. I suspect that Trump could not identify Ukraine on a map even if the countries were identified. Pompeo really is a hack.

  4. Hal_10000 says:

    , they held American hostages in our embassy in Tehran. They had our sailors kneeling.

    It’s always 1979 to these old idiots, isn’t it? The previous 30 years didn’t happen. The subsequent 40 didn’t happen. No, it’s always about THEY TOOK ER HOSTAGES! and it always will be.

  5. @Teve:

    Her undergrad is from Harvard, and her Masters is in European studies from Cambridge. And we’re expected to believe she can’t tell Ukraine from Bangladesh?

    I was unaware of this–so no, there is no way she couldn’t find Ukraine on a map (let alone confuse it with Bangladesh).

  6. @Hal_10000:

    It’s always 1979

    It is tiresome (like Trump’s threat to target Iranians site, one for every hostage). 1979 was four decades ago and while it does have salience, it should not be the guiding light of US policy.

    There should be rule, at least, that every mention of 1979 also needs a mention of 1953 to include the US’s role as well as how that date, and the subsequent rule of the Shah (also authoritarian, also with human rights abuses) plays into contemporary politics.

  7. Kathy says:


    Have your forgotten the Alamo? 😛

  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I read the transcript. Mary Louise Kelly is a bad ass.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is tiresome (like Trump’s threat to target Iranians site, one for every hostage). 1979 was four decades ago and while it does have salience, it should not be the guiding light of US policy.

    We finally left Vietnam (58,220 KIA and who knows how many WIA) 5 years before the Iranians took the 52 hostages. How long ago did we normalize relations and trade with them?

  10. mattbernius says:

    In terms of the Bangladesh lie, I have to wonder if the SoS actually meant to say “Belarus,” which would have at least been more plausable.

    Of course that explanation doesn’t particularly reflect well on our chief diplomat either. Not does him folding like a house of cards under tough questioning from a reporter.

  11. Teve says:

    I would bet my car that Donald Trump couldn’t find Ukraine or Bangladesh on a map.

  12. gVOR08 says:


    How long ago did we normalize relations and trade with them (Vietnam)?

    And all that talk of dominoes and we’ll have to fight them here if we don’t fight them there fell out as another source for cheap blue jeans. There’s a moral there somewhere on how to conduct foreign policy. Obama’s plan with JCPOA was apparently too subtle for any Republican to understand it.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    With Pompeo, as with all Republicans, you have to ask if he’s lying or if he’s an idiot and really believes his nonsense. The answer is usually – yes.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @SenyorDave: I find conservative site comment threads irritating in that they tend to be an exercise in content free one-upmanship. Hillary is shrill, Hillary is shrill and stupid, Hillary is a shrill, stupid harridan…

    At the risk of being like them, I doubt Trump could find New York State on an unlabeled map of the US East Coast. Besides being monumentally incurious, when do you suppose is the last time he had to navigate to somewhere?

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: I can’t speak for Hal, but as a factor in policy, yeah, long ago.

    And the only reason the hostages are still a factor is that we have no real reason for hostility toward Iran other than our mutual lingering hostility. Pompeo needs the hostages as a causus belli because there’s so little else.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Last night when he had to navigate his way to the dinner table. I was gonna say this morning but then I remembered he gets his Egg McMuffin and hash browns served in bed.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @gVOR08: Bill McClennan (a STL Post Disgrace columnist) (and Vietnam vet, tho as he points out he spent his war unloading helicopters) once said that we could have skipped the whole war part and defeated them with Levis and Cokes, which is what we eventually did.

  18. charon says:


    that we have no real reason for hostility toward Iran other than our mutual lingering hostility

    Have you noticed that Israel hates them and Evangelicals/GOP are cat’s paws for Israel?

    Gotta bring back Jesus doncha know?

  19. Scott says:

    @Hal_10000: @gVOR08: @Steven L. Taylor:

    Another reason to vote out the baby boomers. We keep making everything about us.

  20. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Took a boat to a long weekend trip to Riga. Bless Scandinavian infrastructure, that ship was squared away! Sweden knows process and function and hygeine. All the front end staff were Indonesian or Filipino, but the ship was Swedish to the core.

    I wasn’t in Riga long enough to have a sharable opinion. I liked it, it was pretty, the architecture was awesome, the folk were nice, I went to a club which is probably a really nice place, but I’m not a really club guy. I preferred the street food over the restaurant food.

  21. Erik says:

    BTW: even if Kelly couldn’t find Ukraine on the map, it in no way takes away the substance and force of her question, nor does it excuse Pompeo’s behavior nor his inability to provide an answer to a wholly legitimate line of questions,.

    This. I suspect that the whole reason for making the comment about Bangladesh was to create a pointless controversy to derail any substantive discussion of Pompeo’s behavior. This administration does exactly this sort of thing again and again. Troll tactics.

  22. @mattbernius:

    I have to wonder if the SoS actually meant to say “Belarus,” which would have at least been more plausable.

    This would have made more sense. But to catch the error, the press office would have had to know that Belarus was the more likely mix up.

  23. @gVOR08:

    Pompeo needs the hostages as a causus belli because there’s so little else.

    To be fair, Iran’s long-term support of Hezbollah, as well as its actions in Iraq and so forth does run counter to US interests and policy. Still, all of that is a lot less dramatic than the hostages.

    Really, it also underscores the fragility of our national ego: that we are still smarting over 1979 and 2001 so disproportionately.

  24. Hal_10000 says:


    Have your forgotten the Alamo?

    I haven’t, but I don’t open up conservations with Mexican friends with that subject. Well, not the casual ones at least. 🙂

    Between this and whats-her-name chiding that reporter as a “liberal hack”. the GOP is venturing into open hostility toward even the most basic media questions. By November, someone will pull a Greg Gianforte and be running on it by sunset.

  25. DrDaveT says:

    So, here Pompeo is either a liar or a coward.

    Ooo, ooo, I know this one!



  26. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Pro Tip: Every page of US Govt strategic communication and policy (which guides Congressional appropriations) rank orders Iran AFTER Russia and China as strategic threats. It would be impossible to deny Iran nuclear weapons with the national resourcing that comes with being the #3 priority.

    The Iranians are not going to be sanctioned into a dramatic shift of their foreign policy. This is more Trumpian theater. Pompeo is an embarrassment to his alma mater.

  27. Teve says:

    Jeet Heer
    The interesting detail here is that Pompeo had a map without words on it ready. It was a set-up. He wanted to make the point that no one knows about or gives a fuck about Ukraine. Which is, when you think about, not much of a defense.

  28. An Interested Party says:

    I wonder if there has ever been any other presidential administration where being a douchebag was a prerequisite to joining the administration…I realize that the Bush Administration came close, but really…

  29. Teve says:

    Friend of mine who’s a Lit professor:

    Saudi Arabian operatives dismembered a Washington Post journalist on the orders of Mohammad bin Salman. In response, Trump cut a new arms deal with the Saudis. Then they hacked the phones of Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. We will do nothing in response. Yesterday the Secretary of State defamed and lied about Mary Louise Kelly, of the best foreign affairs reporters around.

    Pompeo’s behavior may seem just childish, but it is not.

    Let’s say you’re an American reporter in an autocratic foreign country. Let’s say you’re looking at that country’s attempt to meddle in American politics, or that country’s funneling money to Trump interests. Would you feel safe? If you were threatened by authorities in that country, would you feel that you could go to an American consulate or embassy for protection?

  30. Joe says:

    He wanted to make the point that no one knows about or gives a fuck about Ukraine. Which is, when you think about, not much of a defense.

    It’s not just not a defense, Teve, it’s actually this administration’s policy statement.

  31. Kurtz says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    It may reflect Pompeo’s opinion of Trump supporters. But it’s also reflective of his own intelligence. He can’t even run a basic con correctly.

    If he really wanted to make it plausible, he could have said, “Poland is not Ukraine” or “Belarus is not Ukraine.” Nobody with any knowledge of the world would confuse a South Asian country with a European one.

  32. mattbernius says:

    Man, remember the predictions the no one could be a worse SoS than Tillerson?

    Good times!

  33. Kurtz says:


    Haha, you beat me to the Belarus comment. I replied to Reynolds’s comment before I read the rest.

    You’re being more generous to Pompeo. Which is admirable.

  34. Kurtz says:


    The funny thing about Trump’s appointments–DeVos and Carson come to mind–is that he put unqualified people in place to run departments. Oh, this asshole may be the most egregious example. And my point also reminds me of this.

    One of the arguments I saw regularly from Trump supporters was that Hunter Biden didn’t have any energy expertise, so why would Burisma give him a position other than his name?

    I’ve wondered whether the following phrase is accurate:

    Skilled people tend to overestimate their intelligence; intelligent people tend to overestimate their skill.

    We have several influential professions (e.g. journalism, the law, congress, business) that routinely require broad knowledge, but are typically filled with people who studied the profession itself.

    Certainly, in the case of a federal judge or a congressperson, they have advisors, clerks or Special Masters to explain things, but it still bothers me how many interdisciplinary professions rely on people who don’t have the particular knowledge to make informed decisions and formulate sharp analysis. After all, an expert explaining something doesn’t confer enough nuance to give a true picture of the situation.

    Experience matters too, and the requisite knowledge can be gained, but I have little faith that the smartest, most capable people are the ones who get promoted, elected, or appointed.

    There are exceptions, of course, and I suspect Tillerson was one of them. I have little love for him, but given the nature of the energy business, he probably was more specifically qualified than Pompeo to run State.

  35. mattbernius says:

    Update from the NYT on this topic, they have the records proving that Pompeo or his staff members are lying about not knowing Ukraine questions where coming:

    On Sunday, The New York Times obtained emails between Ms. Kelly and Ms. Martin that showed Ms. Kelly explicitly said the day before the interview that she would start with Iran and then ask about Ukraine. “I never agree to take anything off the table,” she wrote.


    This is my look of absolute surprise that SoS would so blatantly lie.

  36. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    [Tillerson] probably was more specifically qualified than Pompeo to run State.

    Fair enough, but not a high bar to jump. “More qualified than Pompeo”=/= likely to do a good job at it.

  37. Kurtz says:


    Mark Levin tweeted about why NPR exists. Trump agreed. People calling for it to be defunded. None of these idiots seem to realize that a very small portion of their funding comes from the FG. And I’m quite sure if the budget was cut, it would likely fuel plenty of donations to make up for some of it.