ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed back to the U.S. after an extensive trip to the Middle East. His travels took him to the heart of several ongoing regional controversies. He is returning from this trip a day early because of a death in the family, skipping a planned visit to Kuwait. The controversies that have dogged him during this trip include the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Pompeo talked about that this morning when he met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. U.S. intelligence believes Salman was behind the killing. We're joined now by NPR's Michele Kelemen who has been traveling with Pompeo. Hi, Michele.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about the discussions that Pompeo and the prince had about the Khashoggi killing?
KELEMEN: Well, you know, it was actually the second time that they've met since the Khashoggi killing. I was here in October when we came, and it was kind of an odd picture, all smiles and everything. Today seemed a little bit more subdued though Mohammed bin Salman said he hopes to add some positivity to the discussion. After the meeting, Secretary Pompeo said that he did raise the case of Khashoggi. He again called for accountability for anyone responsible for his death. And he also said that he raised the cases of women activists who have been jailed in Saudi Arabia. Let's take a listen to what he had to say.
MIKE POMPEO: The Saudis are friends. And when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are. And I think the Trump administration has made clear our expectation is that all those involved with the murder of Khashoggi will be held accountable. So we spent time talking about human rights issues.
KELEMEN: What he's expecting is a full accounting of the killing of Khashoggi, some due process for these women that are in jail. But I didn't get the sense from listening to him that he got very far on any of that.
SHAPIRO: Of course, the death of this Washington Post journalist has caused outrage around the world, including in the U.S. Congress where senators, including Republican senators, have said the prince is responsible for the killing. Based on the tape we just heard, it doesn't sound like this visit is likely to address those concerns.
KELEMEN: I don't think so. I mean, it sounds like they're stuck in where they were before. Pompeo himself has never gone on record saying that he endorses this idea that Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, ordered the killing. In fact, we asked him again today, does he believe the U.S. intelligence assessment? And he just said, I don't comment on the U.S. intelligence assessment.
The other problem that's of concern in Congress, of course, is how the Saudis have waged this war in Yemen. The U.S. has backed the Saudi-led campaign to restore to power a government that was ousted by Iranian-backed rebels. And millions of people in the country are on the brink of famine. And that's another issue that the secretary has been trying to press both sides - the Iranian-backed rebels but also the Saudis, of course - to end this conflict.
SHAPIRO: Just to take a step back, we've been hearing reports from this entire trip, as Pompeo went to Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and more. What has his overarching message been?
KELEMEN: His big message is building up a coalition against Iran. The problem has been, of course, that, you know, he wants to paint this picture of the Middle East as Iran being the destabilizing force, and all the U.S. Gulf partners are the stabilizing force. But when you have things like the war in Yemen or the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, it raises questions about what U.S. partners are doing.
SHAPIRO: And there have also been things that distracted from his message, like the U.S. troop withdrawal in Syria - lots of questions about that.
KELEMEN: Yeah, lots of questions about that. He was trying to reassure everyone that just because the U.S. is pulling out U.S. troops from Syria, that doesn't mean they're backing off in the fight against ISIS or containing Iran. He also had to deal today, for instance, with a tweet from President Trump who said he wanted to devastate Turkey's economy if Turkey goes after the Kurds in Northern Syria. The Kurds have been allies of the U.S. in the fight against ISIS. Turkey sees them as terrorists. Pompeo says he'd like to deal with both sides so that Turkey feels secure from terrorism but also that the Kurds, who backed the U.S. in Northern Syria, also feel secure.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen traveling with the secretary of state. Thanks, Michele.
KELEMEN: Thank you.
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