WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Michael Pompeo confronted harsh bipartisan questioning at a Senate hearing dominated by lawmakers’ ire over President Donald Trump’s policies toward Russia and his trade strategy.
“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,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in his opening statement. “I can’t say it more forcefully. We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on.”
Corker also slammed the administration’s trade war with China and allies in Europe. White House briefings on trade policy have left senators without “a sense that there’s a coherent strategy driving these policies,” said Corker who’s retiring from the Senate and has had a contentious relationship with Trump.
“The administration tells us, ‘Don’t worry, be patient, there’s a strategy here,’ but from where we sit it appears that in a ‘ready-fire-aim’ fashion the White House is waking up every morning and making it up as they go,” he said.
While the comments came before Trump and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said they reached a deal to avoid a trade war, the U.S. and China continue to ramp up threats of retaliatory tariffs, and an agreement to rewrite NAFTA with Canada and Mexico remains unfulfilled.
During a combative back-and-forth with Sen. Bob Menendez, the panel’s top Democrat, Pompeo defended Trump’s decision to meet one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their summit last week in Helsinki. Pompeo said the president “is entitled to have private meetings” and that Trump and Putin gave a summary of their talks in a subsequent meeting with aides. “I think I have a pretty complete understanding” of what was discussed, he said.
Pompeo later added that he’s been asked to follow up on a number of general agreements with Russia from the summit, including establishing business-to-business leadership exchanges, re-establishing a counterterrorism council held at the deputy secretary of state level and trying to get “Russia to be more cooperative” in finding a solution to the crisis in Syria.
Pompeo arrived at the hearing seeking to quickly tamp down concern about Trump’s stance on Russia, telling lawmakers that the president fully understands the scope of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. But he added, “President Trump believes that two great nuclear powers should not have such a contentious relationship.”
The top U.S. diplomat touted a State Department proclamation just before the hearing emphasizing that the administration remains opposed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Pompeo also praised Turkey’s decision to put a U.S. pastor who had been jailed under house arrest instead.
But senators pushed back, seeking assurances that the president wouldn’t ease sanctions on Russia and that North Korea remains committed to complete denuclearization after talks Pompeo held with a top aide to leader Kim Jong Un this month in Pyongyang seemed to stall.
Pressed about the status of negotiations with North Korea, Pompeo said Kim’s regime continues to produce fissile material that could be used in nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, he reiterated that North Korean officials have committed to denuclearizing and added that their vow includes getting rid of chemical and biological weapons.
Asked about the timing to achieve denuclearization, Pompeo said it should occur by the end of Trump’s first term in January 2021, or “more quickly if possible.” But he declined to answer specific questions about progress on the steps needed to get to a fully denuclearized North Korea.
“We have not been taken for a ride, senator,” Pompeo said during an exchange about North Korea with Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts. “I hope you can sleep a little bit better tonight.”
Florida Republican Marco Rubio told reporters outside the hearing room that despite Pompeo’s assurances, he remains concerned about North Korea’s commitments and whether Kim is just seeking “a prolonged process of step-by-step-concessions” to “allow the economy not to collapse.”
Toward the end of the hearing, Corker brought the discussion back to the concerns senators on both sides of the aisle expressed: that Trump’s public statements on issues from Russia to NATO undermine the U.S. and its relationships with key allies.
“Much of what we’re hearing today has nothing whatsoever to do with you,” Corker told Pompeo. “It’s the president that causes people to have concerns.”
Pompeo pushed back, saying the administration’s actions are directed by Trump, that he and key aides like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis are simply carrying out the president’s policies. Corker was unpersuaded.
“It’s not about you and it’s not about Mattis and it’s not about what we’re doing on the ground,” Corker said. “It’s the president’s actions that create tremendous distrust in our nation, among our allies. It’s palpable.”