Pompeo bashes media, says American life is under 'attack' in speech unveiling human rights report

The secretary of state called for a return to the country's "founding principles" on human rights and attacked The New York Times.
Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the National Constitution Center about the Commission on Unalienable Rights in Philadelphia
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pauses while speaking at the National Constitution Center about the Commission on Unalienable Rights in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on July 16, 2020.Brendan Smialowski / Pool via Reuters

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By Abigail Williams and Dareh Gregorian

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a Thursday speech about U.S. human rights advocacy abroad, called for a return to country's "founding principles" while attacking The New York Times and criticizing recent racial justice demonstrations that saw monuments to Confederate generals and George Washington vandalized or removed.

"Today, the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack. Instead of seeking to improve America, leading voices promulgate hatred of our founding principles," Pompeo said in an address at National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, where he was unveiling the findings of a study by a group he'd assembled, the Commission on Unalienable Human Rights.

The group spent more than a year examining the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy, including looking back at the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Pompeo created his commission in the summer of 2019 after arguing that human rights had become commodified. At the time, he cited a research group that found "between the United Nations and the Council of Europe, there are a combined 64 human rights-related agreements and 1,377 provisions."

"More rights seldom means more justice," he said Thursday.

"Americans have not only unalienable rights, but also positive rights granted by governments, courts, and multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t," Pompeo said.

He said the "foremost" concerns for the U.S. abroad should be religious freedom and property rights.

In his speech, Pompeo also said that "the evil institution of slavery was our nation’s gravest departure from our founding principles" — slavery existed in America at the time of the country's founding, many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves and the Constitution contains clauses meant to appease slaveowners — before blasting The New York Times for its "1619 Project," which examined slavery's role in the founding of the country and its lasting impact.

"The New York Times’s 1619 Project — so named for the year the first slaves were transported to America — wants you to believe our country was founded for human bondage. They want you to believe America’s institutions continue to reflect the country’s acceptance of slavery at our founding," Pompeo said. "They want you to believe Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed. The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout their ideology."

He added that "some people have taken these false doctrines to heart," and referenced the widespread tearing down of statues that President Donald Trump has railed against. Some of the targets have been Confederate generals and leaders, while some others have targeted tributes to the Founding Fathers and other historical figures because of their slave-owning histories or racist legacies.

"The rioters pulling down statues thus see nothing wrong with desecrating monuments to those who fought for unalienable rights — from our founding to the present day. This is a dark vision of America’s birth, I reject it," Pompeo said, before pointing to a quote from one of the country's best known abolitionists.

"As the Commission’s Report reminds us, Frederick Douglass, himself a freed slave, saw the Constitution as 'a glorious liberty document…' that it is!" Pompeo said.

Douglass made the comments about the Constitution in a famed 1852 speech where he questioned what Independence Day actually meant to Black people in a country that continued to allow slavery. "This Fourth July is yours, not mine," Douglass said.

"I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the Constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America," Douglass declared.

In his address, Pompeo said that "the nation’s founding principles gave us a standard by which we could see the gravity of our early failings. Our political framework gave us the tools to ultimately abolish slavery and enshrine in law equality without regard to race."

Jordan Cohen, a spokesman for The Times, said, "We disagree with Secretary Pompeo’s interpretation of The 1619 Project” and are “proud that it continues to spark a dialogue that allows us to reexamine our assumptions about the past."

The timing of the report's release comes as protesters continue to demand justice for Black Americans killed by police, including Breonna Taylor, who was shot multiple times in her home by officers with the Louisville Metro Police Department executing a no-knock search warrant and George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes during an arrest.

Pompeo said he felt compelled to address the "societal upheavals that are currently roiling our nation." He acknowledged the U.S. has fallen short of securing rights for all, but said, "America is fundamentally good."

Pompeo's speech was open to the public on a limited first-come, first-serve basis, according to a notice posted two weeks prior to the event. There was no mention of masks or other precautions around preventing the transmission of COVID-19.

Pompeo was introduced by the head of the commission, Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a longtime friend who is known for her strong opposition to both abortion and same-sex marriage.

The bipartisan 10-member group composed of scholars and experts is largely united in their advocacy for religious freedom.

From the beginning, the commission has sparked controversy. The first announcement described the goal of the commission as providing "fresh thinking about human rights discourse where such discourse has departed from our nation's founding principles of natural law and natural rights." Asked if "natural law" included the rights to marriage equality or abortion, State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told reporters those were "political rights granted by governments."

"[The Secretary] has studied human rights; it’s something very personal to him," Ortagus said in a June 2019 briefing. "And again, we think that human rights are a bipartisan issue. This is not a commission that is set out to create new policy on human rights."

But critics of the commission fear the focus on religious freedom, which Pompeo often refers to as the "first liberty," will be at the expense of the rights of LGBTQ, women and minority groups in U.S. foreign policy.

Hundreds of human rights organizations, faith leaders, foreign policy experts, scholars and civil liberties groups wrote a letter to Pompeo in 2019 demanding it be disbanded. A coalition of international human rights organizations also sued the Trump Administration in March of this year, claiming the commission violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, requiring committees to be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented."

Pompeo has acknowledged the criticism with which his panel was met.

"There are those who would have preferred I didn’t do it and are concerned about the answers that our foundational documents will provide," Pompeo told the Concerned Women for America last fall. "I know where those rights came from. They came from our Lord."