It has been two weeks since President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. But the administration has kept Congress in the dark about how it plans to proceed with the negotiations, and officials have not yet formally briefed lawmakers about the summit itself. As of Tuesday, no briefings had been scheduled.
The absence of communication about the summit has begun to frustrate lawmakers who say, remarkably, that they know as much about the high-stakes meeting as the general public knows.
“We have no information,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast. “We’re trying to get [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo in to share with us what occurred, but I have the same information that you have.”
According to lawmakers and aides, the administration is still trying to determine whether North Korea is serious about moving forward with negotiations involving denuclearization. A State Department official told The Daily Beast that Pompeo is “in regular contact” with lawmakers and “looks forward to continuing these engagements and keeping members informed.”
But without firm commitments from the North Koreans, and absent basic information such as how the summit went, Congress is left unable to exercise its oversight responsibilities. A congressional aide involved in the oversight process said that lawmakers are still “waiting to see evidence that North Korea is genuinely committed to denuclearization and that negotiations are beginning in earnest.”
Two weeks after the summit between Trump and Kim took place in Singapore, the main Senate panel responsible for oversight, the foreign relations committee, hasn’t yet been briefed. Corker’s spokeswoman, Micah Johnson, said the committee is still working with the State Department to “find a date for Secretary Pompeo to appear before the committee to share his insights on the North Korea negotiations.”
But it’s not just Corker’s panel that remains on the sidelines. Earlier this month, the Trump administration granted a select group of senators from both sides of the aisle an “observer” role in the North Korea negotiation process. But that contingent, the National Security Working Group (NSWG), has not met in recent weeks and has not received briefings or other classified materials about the status of the negotiations, congressional sources told The Daily Beast.
“To be fair, it is hard to expect [the NSWG] to start making demands if the administration has made no plans on what steps follow, what the agenda will look like, or if/when the next meeting(s) will take place,” a Senate aide said.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID), who co-chairs the NSWG alongside Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), said in an interview that lawmakers have “been in close communication” with the administration on an individual basis, adding that the group would eventually meet as a whole “in all likelihood.” Senators have said they want to have a role in the negotiations so that they could eventually vote to ratify, as a treaty, any deal that might be reached in the coming months or years between the U.S. and North Korea.
Risch, a close ally of the Trump administration on foreign-policy and national-security matters, has been hesitant to publicly criticize Pompeo or the president, and he has praised both men for their engagement with Pyongyang. Other Republicans, though, have expressed deep skepticism about North Korea’s willingness to follow through on the joint communiqué that the two sides signed in Singapore.
Democrats said the dearth of information being sent to Capitol Hill is symptomatic of a larger problem regarding Trump's relationship with the legislative branch.
“This administration has really not established a cooperative relationship with many of the committees on the Hill. In some isolated cases they have, but for the most part we’re dealt into the conversation at a later stage,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told The Daily Beast.
Complicating matters further for lawmakers is that Pompeo, in recent days, has given conflicting responses about a timetable for the negotiations with North Korea. Earlier this month, the Secretary of State said he was aiming for full denuclearization by the end of Trump’s first term in office. But on Monday, he tapped the brakes lightly, saying in an interview with CNN that he was “not going to put a timeline on it,” although the U.S. would “constantly reassess” whether North Korea is committed to seeing the process through to the end.
In the days since the summit, Trump has touted his relationship with Kim, and even went as far as to claim that the nuclear threat from North Korea no longer exists. Trump has called the joint communiqué that both sides signed after the summit a “denuclearization deal,” but the memorandum included only a vague commitment to denuclearization, a goal toward which Pyongyang has taken few concrete steps. And while Trump claimed earlier this month that he would be having a “call” with North Korea, CNN reported that no such call took place between the two sides.
That Congress is in the dark about the deal is, in part, a product of the thin nature of the memorandum that Trump and Kim signed after the summit. Trump’s critics have argued that the U.S. gave up too much for too little, and they note that the administration has done little to dispel those fears.
“We’re in the dark about it. And we’re puzzled because the administration clearly thinks they’ve done a great job. But we’re seeing no evidence of any change. So we don’t know,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a member of the foreign relations committee, told The Daily Beast.
Risch warned that Congress should not be stepping on Pompeo’s toes, telling The Daily Beast that “we need to yield to his view” when it comes to the timeline.
“This is so serious that we have got to proceed along the lines that we expect them to do what they’re saying they’re going to do. And because of the consequences here, we need to give this an opportunity to work,” Risch said. “Secretary Pompeo has been very forthright on his actions and views and objectives with this, and I’ve been very satisfied with my communications with him.”
Lawmakers will have an opportunity to press Pompeo on Wednesday when he testifies in front of a Senate appropriations subcommittee, but the hearing will be focused on the department’s budget for the next fiscal year.