CHUCK TODD (HOST): Joining me now is the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. Secretary Pompeo, welcome back to Meet The Press, sir.
MIKE POMPEO (SECRETARY OF STATE): Good morning, Chuck. It’s good to be with you this morning.
TODD: Let me start with the shooting — the strike against Soleimani, the killing of him. He’s been a threat to the United States, to U.S. interests for years. Why now? Why was it urgent this week?
POMPEO: Chuck, you’ve captured it. We’ve all known about Qassem Soleimani for a long time. He’s been a terrorist. He’s a designated terrorist. He’s someone who has inflicted many deaths on Americans, over 600 in Iraq and countless other places. He was even connected to what happened in Beirut so many years ago. You would know this too, Chuck.
This was different, in the sense of we’ve seen recent deaths, recent killing, on December 27 a strike, an operation conducted by Kata'ib Hezbollah, directly orchestrated by Soleimani himself, killed an American. We could see that he was continuing down this path, that there were in fact plots that he was working on that were aimed directly at significant harm to American interests throughout the region, not just in Iraq. President Trump made the decision this was the time to stop this reign of terror from this guy, who was the glue, who put this all together, who was the IRGC leader for, goodness, a couple of decades and who had put so much pain and suffering on the American people and frankly the people in the region too. Hundreds of thousands of deaths in Syria, millions displaced in Syria. It's a bad guy, and it was time to take him out.
TODD: Why are you confident that -- they've already promoted his deputy, the Ayatollah has already basically, you know, pumped this guy up, his replacement. Why are you convinced -- if there is an imminent operational attack getting put together against American interests, why are you convinced that taking out Soleimani has done anything to stop it?
POMPEO: We would have been culpably negligent had we not taken this action. The American people would have said that we weren’t doing the right thing to protect and defend American lives. President Trump has been crystal clear --
TODD: Is it that imminent? Is the threat -- is what the attacks he was putting together so imminent and so big it would have been seen as that kind of negligence?
POMPEO: We made the right decision. There’s lots of intelligence. You've seen, some of it's out in the public. The death of the American, December 27. We had intelligence on the go-forward basis of risk as well. The president made the right decision. We will reduce risk. I think Gen. Milley said, is there still risk of attack? Of course there is. There's tremendous risk. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we take that down and protect American lives. That's the mission set. When the president laid out his national security strategy three years ago, this is all in the context of a larger American strategy to create peace and stability in the Middle East. A key element of that is taking down Qassem Soleimani who has been such a destabilizing force in the region for so long.
TODD: OK. So was the justification that he’s been this destabilizing force in the region for so long or was the justification this imminent threat?
POMPEO: Chuck, it’s never one thing. You’ve been at this a long time. The American people are smart too. It’s never one moment, it's never one instance. It’s a collective. It’s a full situational awareness of risk and analysis. And I am confident and the intelligence community presented us a set of facts that made clear that the risk from doing nothing exceeded the risk of taking the action that we took. And we made the right decision. We protected and defended the American people. And President Trump has said repeatedly as he tweeted again just last night, we will continue to take all actions necessary to preserve and protect and defend America.
TODD: Can you confidently say America is safer today?
TODD: How do you square that statement with the fact that we’re bringing — you’re advising American citizens essentially to leave the region, particularly Iraq. We have the Homeland Security department bracing Americans for cyber attacks, saying that we know the Iranians have been through our infrastructure. It is likely to happen and there won’t be a warning from it. It doesn’t sound like we’re safer today after this.
POMPEO: Yeah, Chuck, we’re definitely safer today; 100% certainty that America is safer today.
TODD: Then why did we put out that warning after the Soleimani — I mean, we do expect retaliations against American citizens now, correct?
POMPEO: Chuck, you’re concentrating on the second and the moment. President Trump is focused deeply on keeping Americans safe over the long haul. Preserving, protecting, defending America is the mission that we have. It may be that there’s a little noise here in the interim that the Iranians make the choice to respond. I hope that they don’t. President Trump has made clear what we will do in response if they do, that our response will be decisive and vigorous just as it has been so far. But we’re going to take all actions necessary, not only in Iraq but throughout the region to protect Americans, American citizens as well as my diplomats and service members who are serving overseas. We’re always going to do the right thing to protect America. And I am confident that the decision we made to take down this terrorist, this designated terrorist who had inflicted so much harm over such an extended period was the right course of action to reduce risk to America.
TODD: During the State Department briefing on Friday, the aides — that were not put on name — there was a lot of confidence being expressed without a lot of evidence that you thought the Iranians aren’t going to — they likely won’t retaliate. Why do you think they won’t? Why do you have this potential confidence they may not retaliate?
POMPEO: Chuck, we’re prepared for everything. I’m not going to get in the game of predictions. We have intelligence, we have lots of reconnaissance, we have good observation of what’s taking place. What we’re doing is preparing for all possible courses of actions that the Iranian regime may take and we are driving, we are driving a strategy that we have had in place now for three years -- diplomatic, economic, now military -- to convince the Iranian regime to simply behave like a normal nation and to raise the cost when they inflict harm on America if they don't.
TODD: You guys talk about a maximum pressure campaign. You just outlined it now, what we've been going through the last three years. The fact that you’ve had to go to military, doesn’t that tell you that sanctions haven’t worked and the maximum pressure campaign is not working?
POMPEO: Just the opposite, Chuck. We suffered from eight years of Iranian support from America. We gave them billions of dollars. We gave them resources. We allowed countries to trade with them, to build up their economy. What we are now having to correct for is the enormous economic activity that took place during this Iranian nuclear deal that President Trump rightly got out of in May of 2018. It’s taken a little time and will continue to take time, but we are going to restore deterrence. We had a big hill to climb up, Chuck. We had seen hundreds of thousands of people killed in Syria, millions have to depart the region. We’ve seen Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas, the PIJ in Gaza strip, all of these terror organizations, the Shia militias, the Shia militias that we are now challenged to push back against today, all underwritten by American policy in the Obama Administration. We’ve flipped the switch. We’re draining those resources and going to protect America and keep American people safe.
TODD: I’m curious, how do we get out of a cycle of escalating violence. The president tweeted yesterday, saying this, We have targeted 52 Iranian sites representing he said the 52 American hostages taken back in 1979. And he said to Iran those targets and Iran itself we’ll hit very fast, very hard, even noted there were cultural sites that were being targeted. Is that -- is that already being lined up at the Pentagon? We have our response ready for whatever Iran — we have target sites here, these 52 target sites? Can you confirm that?
POMPEO: Chuck, the American people should know that we have prepared for this, that we are ready.
TODD: We’re going to target cultural --
POMPEO: That our responses are lawful and that the president will take every action necessary to respond should Iran decide to escalate. We hope that they don’t. We’ve communicated clearly and crisply to them with respect to what it is we have as an expectation and we have communicated clearly and crisply what we will do in response if they choose another path. We hope that they will not, but we are prepared in the event that they choose to do so.
TODD: Finally, what do you tell the families that have, there are some Americans being held hostage by this Iranian regime. What do you tell Americans right now who, I know they have been working with you at the State Department, those families who probably look at this and think, OK, whatever progress we were making, no more progress. Is that what these families have to prepare for, that maybe their loved ones are going to be there longer, not shorter?
POMPEO: I love these families. They are suffering greatly. They’re suffering from the very Iranian regime we’re seeking to counter. Most of these folks were taken during the previous administration. It was a policy that was designed to guarantee that the Iranian regime would have power, authority, capacity to take Americans, but not only Americans, other westerners too. Those families should know that we built out a coalition, we’re patrolling the straits of Hormuz with that coalition, there’s an air defense strategy attached to the coalition, and we have gotten multiple countries now to sanction Mahan Air. We have built out a strategy that will ultimately put America in a place where the Iranian regime will no longer threaten American hostages, and they should know this too. We have worked diligently to get those held in Iran back. We had one returned just within the last several weeks. We continue to work on that process, to get every American held anywhere in the world, including by the kleptocrats, theocrats in Iran to get them to return American hostages. We will never give up on that mission.
TODD: Finally, last question. If targeting Soleimani is not regime change, then what are we advocating, if not regime change?
POMPEO: As I said before, Chuck , we clearly stated our strategy for three years. We want the regime to change its behavior. And ultimately the leadership in Iran will be determined by the Iranian people. We saw the protests. I am confident we will continue to see protests. They weren’t protesting against America. They weren’t protesting saying death to America. They were demanding that the Iranian leadership behave in a way that takes care of the Iranian people. I am confident that the American support that we provide to that and support that is provided from countries in the region and around the world will continue to support the Iranian people in their quest for freedom.
TODD: Secretary Pompeo, I am going to have to leave it there.