WASHINGTON ― Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got into several heated exchanges with senators on Wednesday while testifying about President Donald Trump’s disastrous summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill, Pompeo offered few details about Trump’s two-hour, one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki last week, where no note takers were present. At a joint press conference with Putin following the meeting, Trump refused to condemn Russia’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 presidential election and he cast doubt on his own intelligence community’s assessments that found Moscow responsible.
Pompeo, a former CIA director and GOP congressman, maintained he had a “pretty complete understanding” of what happened in the meeting between Trump and Putin, but he did not reveal what was discussed between the two leaders beyond broad topics like the situations in Syria and Israel.
“Presidents have the prerogative to choose who’s in meetings or not. ... Presidents are permitted to have conversations with their Cabinet members that aren’t repeated in public,” Pompeo said in a tense back-and-forth with Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top-ranking Democrat on the committee.
Pressed to state whether Trump and Putin discussed loosening U.S. sanctions on Russia, Pompeo said only that U.S. policy with respect to Moscow had not changed.
“Senator, I understand the game that you’re playing,” Pompeo added, dismissing queries about Trump’s conversations with Putin.
Menendez took umbrage at that remark, however, telling Pompeo that he didn’t “appreciate” the secretary of state “characterizing my questions.” He further argued that it is “consequential to our national security as well as to the American people knowing what their president is or is not giving away at these meetings.”
In his opening remarks before the committee, Pompeo reaffirmed that the U.S. does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Later in the hearing, he also said Trump and Putin discussed business exchanges between the U.S. and Russia, the creation of a counterterrorism council and steps to deal with displaced people from Syria.
Trump’s actions and statements in the wake of Putin’s summit drew bipartisan criticism from lawmakers ― in particular, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the retiring chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Corker lamented in his opening statement before the committee that “we saw an American president who appeared submissive and deferential” to Putin and further faulted Trump for using “false information to turn public opinion in the United States against” the NATO alliance.
Corker seemed to reach a breaking point later in the hearing, after months of pent-up frustration with Trump’s bellicose statements against adversaries like North Korea, his trade policies with respect to allies like Canada and Mexico, and his siding with Putin over the findings of the U.S. intelligence community about Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“Is there a strategy to this? What is it that causes the president to purposely create distrust in institutions and in us?” Corker asked.
Pompeo said he disagreed and then deflected by arguing that Trump’s controversial comments are backed up by his administration’s tough policies on Russia, such as the president’s signing of a law that levied additional sanctions on Russia.
“I notice you are not responding to me,” Corker countered.
“I think I did,” Pompeo said.
“You didn’t. Hell, let’s run the transcript,” Corker said. “The president’s comments cause concern on both sides of the aisle.”
This story has been updated with more of Corker’s comments from the hearing.