SALT LAKE CITY — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo didn't have good news Wednesday about securing the release of a Riverton man being held in a Venezuelan prison the past two years.
In response to Utah GOP Rep. John Curtis' question about efforts to free Josh Holt, the new secretary of state said his team is "very focused" on bringing him home.
"Unfortunately, we’re going to have two of our seniors (diplomats) kicked out, so our capacity to reach them on the ground will actually be diminished. I’m very worried about that," Pompeo said during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Curtis is a member of the panel.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro expelled the top U.S. diplomat in the country and his deputy Tuesday for allegedly conspiring against the socialist government and trying to sabotage the presidential election.
"I felt like there was some good news, bad news. That part clearly was not good," Curtis said in an interview after the hearing.
Curtis also questioned Pompeo about the U.S. pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the tentative meeting next month between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Holt, 26, posted on Facebook last week that he feared for his life as violence erupted in the prison.
Pompeo said the State Department watched the riots closely but could not give an update of Holt's condition. He said it's doing what it can to encourage the Maduro regime to "at least in this one instance do something right and send this fella back."
Venezuelan authorities have claimed Holt was keeping guns in the home of the woman he went to the country to marry in 2016. Holt denies the charges. His family has said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time of a raid in the Caracas neighborhood of his wife, Thamara Caleno, whom he met through online Spanish lessons after returning from an LDS mission.
Curtis said one of his goals in asking Pompeo about Holt was to keep his situation top of mind, and he's pleased that seems to be the case.
On North Korea, Curtis asked Pompeo what a "reasonable" expectation of the talks between Trump and Kim is, noting it seems expectations have been elevated to the point that anything less than world peace would be a disappointment.
Pompeo said the problem gets solved when the two leaders agree the solution they're aiming for is complete denuclearization of North Korea.
"If that’s what we can get the two to agree that that’s the end state we’re working toward, we will have had a good day," he said.
The scheduled June 12 meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore, however, is up in the air. Kim has threatened to pull out and Trump is sounding less optimistic, telling reporters Tuesday there is a "very substantial chance" it won't happen next month. On Wednesday, the president said "we'll know next week" if the summit is delayed.
Curtis said he'd rather the meeting go right than go fast.
"I think we've gotten perhaps a little ahead of ourselves. That's why I asked the question about expectations," he said. "I think at least myself and I think others have been a little concerned that things were actually moving so quickly that it was a little too good to be true."
Curtis said he's good with slowing down as long as there's progress and the situation isn't escalating.
"I'm looking for the trajectory," he said. "If the trajectory we're on is taking us to a good place, then I think we could be patient."
On Iran, Curtis asked Pompeo what other measures in addition to economic sanctions the U.S. could take against Iran.
Pompeo said it could limit the ability of senior Iranian leaders to move around the world. The U.S. could also build a global effort to call out Iran much like it has with North Korea.
Curtis said those are good steps.
"I don't think even Mike Pompeo would acknowledge that we can't say they're adequate until we're doing everything that we could be doing," he said, adding it became more clear to him on his recent trip to the Middle East that "we can't allow Iran to have nuclear weapons."
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