US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sparred for hours with the Senate Foreign Relations committee, divided along partisan lines but united in hostility to Russia and disdain for the policies of President Donald Trump.
Democrats demanded that Pompeo explain what Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed at the summit in Helsinki last week, what (if anything) actually happened as a result of the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and why the White House wasn’t imposing more sanctions against Russia.
“All we’ve come to expect is a saber-rattling president who embraces and provides legitimacy to some of the world’s most notorious bad actors and who denigrates our closest allies,” declared ranking member Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey). “We’ve seen our president look weak as he stands beside our adversaries.”
Menendez also described Putin as a “thug” and insisted Russia was continuing to actively undermine US elections.
Pompeo countered that the Trump administration has been “tough” on Russia, listing a number of measures such as expulsion of diplomats, over 200 sanctions, closure of consulates in San Francisco and Seattle, 150 military exercises in Europe, hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, and so forth. He also defended the usefulness of the Helsinki summit.
“We can’t make progress on issues of mutual concern unless we are talking about them. I am referring to key issues like stopping terrorism, obtaining peace in Ukraine, stopping the civil war in Syria and delivering humanitarian assistance, ensuring security for Israel, and shutting down all of Iran’s malign activity,” the secretary of state said in his opening remarks. “In Helsinki, we sought to explore whether Russia was interested in improving the relationship.”
The State Department had just issued a Crimea Declaration, announcing the US will never recognize the peninsula’s 2014 decision to join Russia – described as “illegal annexation”– and that sanctions against Russia will remain until Crimea was returned to Ukraine.
While avoiding going into details about the ongoing negotiations with North Korea, Pompeo acknowledged that Pyongyang was continuing to produce plutonium, even as it dismantled missile-testing and launch sites.
Speaking about Syria and Iran, Washington’s current top diplomat and former top spy made several slips of the tongue, saying that Tehran was supporting Hafez Assad –the long-dead father of current president Bashar Assad– and wrongly naming the elusive Major General Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps the Supreme Leader of his country. None of the senators reacted to the mistakes.
Questions from Republican senators mainly focused on their own pet issues, from Marco Rubio (R-Florida) talking about the threat from China to Todd Young (R-Indiana) discussing soy exports and invoking his “Burmese constituents” in regard to the situation in Myanmar. One notable exception was Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who urged against the ongoing saber-rattling and noted that diplomacy was all about talking with one’s adversaries.
“I would ask that we deescalate the partisanship in our country so we could once again be open to some kind of diplomacy,” Paul said at one point.
Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the chairman of the committee and an outspoken Trump critic, set the tone for the hearing by saying the members were “filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy.”
Corker later raised the issue of Trump’s alleged consideration of “sending diplomats over” to Russia for questioning – which was never a thing – and his expressing doubts about US commitments to protect Montenegro as a NATO ally.
“Why does he do those things?” Corker asked, telling Pompeo the Senate had “tremendous faith” in him and Defense Secretary James Mattis, but that the president’s actions were creating “palpable” distrust among US allies.
“I disagree with most of what you just said there,” Pompeo countered. “This is president Trump’s administration, and make no mistake, he’s fully in charge.” As for Trump’s statements, some of them “actually achieve important policy outcomes,” he said.
“Some do, and some are damaging,” Corker replied.
Senator Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) also argued that Trump was acting without informing his underlings, entering into the record a series of BuzzFeed News headlines claiming that Trump’s statements on a variety of issues came as a surprise to the State Department and the Pentagon.
Pompeo himself made a joke about entering documents into the record, telling Sen. Mark Udall (D-New Mexico) that “We’ll back a truck up and get it on in here,” when asked for documents about the Trump administration’s actions against Russia.
Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) recited a litany of accusations against Trump, including the claim that “adoptions” was a “code word for sanctions” in discussions with Russians and that Trump personally invited Russia to attack the US with a comment about Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails.
Pompeo dismissed Booker’s claims as “a litany of all things political.” When asked how it was possible for him or US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley or others to say one thing only to have Trump say something else, Pompeo laughed.
“There is vigorous debate in this administration,” he said. “The president didn’t hire a single shrinking violet.”
Pompeo, who used to be a Republican member of the House of Representatives before accepting the nomination to head the CIA in 2017, then taking over the State Department in April, was visibly tired with political grandstanding towards the end of the hearing.
“I’ve now been here for three hours and now you’ve got a political soliloquy,” he told Sen. Menendez as the ranking member insisted that nothing was accomplished in Singapore and that Pompeo doesn’t really know what happened in Helsinki, either.
“If President Obama did what President Trump did in Helsinki, I would be peeling you off the Capitol ceiling!” Menendez retorted angrily.
“Not a word,” Pompeo replied with a smile when Corker asked him if he would like to respond.