An often-defensive Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo struggled Wednesday to explain President Trump’s often confusing and secretive handling of foreign policy as senators demanded details about the president’s conversations last week with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In testimony that began shortly after the White House announced that a planned Putin visit to Washington would be put off until next year, sparing Republicans an unwanted election-season distraction, Pompeo attempted to dispel the criticism that Trump has been soft on Russia.
Citing a series of economic sanctions that Washington imposed on Moscow and the expulsion from the U.S. of dozens of Russian spies, Pompeo contended that Trump has overseen a defensive military buildup that “frightens” the Russian president.
“Our approach has been … to steadily raise the costs of aggression until Vladimir Putin chooses a less confrontational foreign policy, while keeping the door open for dialogue,” Pompeo testified.
He also unveiled a Crimea Declaration that repeated U.S. condemnation of Russia’s 2014 attacks on Ukraine and its invasion and annexation of Crimea, and demanded Putin respect international boundaries.
The declaration was designed, in part, to put to rest ambiguity created by Trump when he chose not to condemn Putin’s actions when the two appeared together in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16.
In nearly three hours of often-tough questioning by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo refused to answer questions that demanded explanations of Trump’s often contradictory comments, including his back-and-forth statements on Russian interference in U.S. elections and his boasts that he already has resolved the North Korean nuclear threat after a one-day summit last month with leader Kim Jong Un. He repeatedly deflected questions about Trump’s one-on-one meetings with Putin and Kim.
“Presidents are entitled to have private meetings,” he said as he declined to answer questions from the committee’s senior Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
All Democrats on the committee, and several Republicans, voiced frustration over the administration’s refusal to provide more detailed answers.
“It’s not about you; it’s not about Mattis,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the committee chairman, complimenting Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis.
“It’s the president who causes people to have concerns,” Corker said, listing a series of statements Trump had made this month that he said appeared “purposefully” designed to “create tremendous distrust in this nation and our allies.”
“Why does he do those things?” Corker asked.
Pompeo said he disagreed and implored senators to pay more attention to policy than to presidential tweets and remarks. He also insisted that Trump was “clearly in charge,” even though he often contradicts his own Cabinet members.
In one such contradiction, Pompeo forcefully insisted that the U.S. would never allow former ambassadors or other officials to be interrogated by Russian agents. “The United States will defend our team that’s in the field,” he said. “Both during their time in service and thereafter.” He declined to acknowledge that in their joint news conference in Helsinki, Trump had complimented Putin for suggesting just that sort of interrogation of several Americans, including a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul.
The hearing began on a contentious note.
“You come before a group of senators today who are filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy,” Corker said. “We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on, what our president is agreeing to, and what our strategy is on a number of issues.”
Within minutes, Pompeo was exchanging barbs with Menendez, who branded Trump’s actions and statements “incoherent” and “untruthful” that cause “chaos and confusion, or worse,” and asked whether there was a strategy behind what he called the “art of concessions” that weaken the United States.
Pompeo retorted: “I understand the game that you're playing."
Repeatedly asked about specific points or topics in Trump’s two-hour private talk with Putin, Pompeo would only restate U.S. policy — not whether an item was discussed or what was said.
When Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) noted that he was avoiding the question, Pompeo curtly responded that he was addressing “what matters.”
In high-stakes summits with Putin and Kim, Trump took the unusual tack of sitting down with experienced, wily adversaries without advisors or note-takers. That has led to unverifiable speculation over any agreements that might have been made and widespread unease among lawmakers, politicians and even the Pentagon.
In the absence of U.S. statements, Russian officials and media have reported on verbal agreements they say Trump made, often leaving U.S. officials scrambling.
The Pentagon has been struggling to find out, for example, whether Trump and Putin agreed to a U.S. withdrawal of troops from Syria, as Moscow has said. Pompeo appeared to downplay that, saying that Trump and Putin had agreed only to further talks on Syria to “see if we can’t get Russia to be more cooperative.”
Foreign policy experts say the risks of Trump making concessions to Russia are real, given his apparent affinity for Putin and Putin’s ability to manipulate inexperienced world leaders.
Corker said that Trump presented the United States as a “pushover” and that the Helsinki event was a “sad day” in American history.
Menendez, meanwhile, launched a bipartisan effort Tuesday to place additional economic sanctions on Russia, something Trump has repeatedly resisted. On Wednesday he described Trump’s Helsinki performance as an “appallingly self-serving circus” that undermined U.S. democracy.
Trump has shown himself ambivalent toward sanctions, and imposed many on Russia only when Congress forced his hand.
He has also publicly doubted the extent to which Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election despite the evidence of meddling. That has colored much of his positive posture toward Putin — and given ammunition to his critics who say he is weak before Moscow.
Pompeo refused to say whether Trump discussed easing sanctions with Putin. Pompeo said he favored additional sanctions and insisted that Trump understood the scope of Russian interference.
“He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo is a Republican former congressman from Kansas and former CIA director and has often appeared cool and collected, if not always forthcoming, in past command appearances before his former colleagues. But he was also known for being combative when crossed or when championing a favorite cause.
In announcing the delay of the White House invitation to Putin, John Bolton, the White House national security advisor, said the meeting would take place early next year “after the Russian witch hunt is over,” a reference to the special counsel investigation into the Kremlin’s campaign interference and Trump associates’ possible coordination.
In fact, Putin has yet to accept any White House invitation. Leaders of the Senate and House have said they opposed the idea and would not invite Putin to speak to Congress, an honor they said should be reserved for allies.
Republican elected officials were particularly insistent that Putin not come to Washington this fall during the run-up to the midterm election, a period during which they do not want voter attention focused on Trump’s foreign policy controversies.