WASHINGTON — The hearing was just about over when Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., finally lost his temper. “If President Obama did what President Trump did in Helsinki, I’d be peeling you off the Capitol ceiling,” Menendez said, gesturing forcefully with a pencil. Seated before him was Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who had spent three hours testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the recent summit between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital, as well as denuclearization talks with North Korea and other matters.
As the blowup by Menendez indicated, Democrats left the hearing unsatisfied. “I really don’t believe, Mr. Secretary, you know what happened during the president’s two-plus hour conversation with President Putin,” Menendez said acidly. “And I really don’t know much more about the summit after sitting here for three hours than I did before.”
Pompeo looked on grimly, then proceeded to dismiss some of the questions directed at him by Democrats as partisan “silliness.” Prior to joining the Trump administration, initially as the director of Central Intelligence, Pompeo was a Republican congressman from Kansas. He became secretary of State after Rex Tillerson, the former oil executive, was chased out of Foggy Bottom in March.
Pompeo’s role on Wednesday afternoon was to paint the Trump administration’s foreign policy toward Russia, North Korea, Syria and the rest of the world as coherent and consistent. But as he sat down in the packed Dirksen Senate Office Building hearing room, Pompeo had to know this would be no easy task.
The first hints came during the opening statement by the committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a not-infrequent critic of the president. While praising Pompeo’s leadership, Corker expressed “serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy.” He said that Trump had been “submissive and deferential” in the press conference that followed their summit in Helsinki, at which no other officials were present. Corker also said that there had been “zero clarity” on the import tariffs Trump has placed or threatened to impose. And he characterized the outcome of June’s meeting with North Korean president Kim Jong Un as “a vague agreement of promises to make more promises.”
Pompeo sought, for his part, to reassure the legislators before him. That reassurance was two-pronged and, as such, contradictory: Pompeo described Trump as fully in control of American foreign policy, but at the same time said that the president’s statements on Twitter or in interviews should not be taken as expression of what American foreign policy was or would be. He presumably was referring to friendly overtures to Putin and dismissals of concern about Russian electoral interference, as well as a recent interview with Tucker Carlson of Fox News in which he suggested — by using the example of Montenegro — that the United States might abandon the joint defense doctrine that is the centerpiece of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
As evidence that the State Department wasn’t taking cues from Fox News pundits or presidential tweets, Pompeo pointed to the Crimea Declaration, issued that afternoon, reaffirming that “the United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.” He also listed a number of tough measures taken against Russia, including what he described as the levying of 213 separate sanctions, the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats, the closing of Russian consulates in San Francisco and Seattle and the continuation of military exercises in Europe.
And though Trump only ever haltingly admitted that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election, and has conflated that interference with “collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia, Pompeo averred that Trump “has a complete and proper understanding of what happened. I know. I briefed him on it for over a year.”
Though he has earned respect from Democrats and Republicans alike, on Wednesday afternoon, Pompeo seemed more eager to defend Trump’s foreign policy in the abstract than to grapple with its wild swings and contradictions. He described a process of “patient diplomacy” with Pyongyang, while conceding North Korea’s commitment to abandoning its close-to-realized nuclear ambitions remains difficult to gauge. And though NATO members might be pleased to hear Pompeo call their organization “an indispensable pillar of American national security,” that is unlikely to eclipse memories of Trump berating NATO members in Brussels for not meeting their defense obligations.
Democrats had plainly hoped for more. They may have also been annoyed by Pompeo’s not especially subtle insinuations that Trump’s foreign policy, on Russia in particular, was more muscular and effective than that of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. And they grew frustrated by Pompeo’s unwillingness — or inability — to say what Putin and Trump had discussed in Helsinki. In an extraordinary turn, the two leaders met in private, with only interpreters present. It is not known if Trump has briefed Pompeo and other senior administration officials on what he and Putin discussed..
That made Pompeo’s assurances — whether on Russia, Syria or North Korea — ring hollow. Trump is known to favor his own counsel, to listen to Fox News pundits like Sean Hannity much more closely than he does to seasoned diplomats. And his tweets are often the purest expression of his will, not just the casual musings Pompeo and others have tried to make them out to be.
“While your statements have been clear, our president’s statements have confused our allies, encouraged our adversaries and have failed to be comparably clear,” said Chris Coons, D-Del.
And though Republicans, with the exception of Corker, were not nearly so tough on Pompeo, three hours of Democratic grilling took their toll. Shortly after Menendez concluded his outburst — a “political soliloquy,” in Pompeo’s estimation — the senator from New Jersey asked Pompeo if he had a comment on the idea of asking the American translator at the Putin summit to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations committee and tell the senators what was discussed.
Pompeo glowered. “Not a word,” he said.
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