In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s supine performance before Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a key Senate panel that the American president is actually tough on Russia, provided observers disregard what he actually says.
It’s a stance that could come back to hurt one of Trump’s closest advisers, and three hours into an extraordinarily contentious hearing, Pompeo opted to dial it back.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had summoned Pompeo on Wednesday to find out what Trump actually discussed with Putin, solo and without witnesses, and what, if anything Trump agreed to. Trump and his White House mouthpieces have discussed the meeting in generic terms. Trump said in Helsinki that he and Putin had discussed Syria “at length,” as well as Ukraine and bilateral arms-control accords, but it remains unknown if Trump made any specific commitments to his Russian counterpart.
Russian officials, with evident relish, have stepped into that vacuum and implied that Trump made promises they expect him to keep. A spokesman for the Russian military looked forward to “practical implementation of the agreements” the day after the Helsinki summit. The following day, Russia’s ambassador to Washington said Putin and Trump had made “important verbal agreements,” particularly concerning Syria. The senior U.S. general responsible for the Middle East, Joe Votel, told Pentagon reporters on Thursday that there was “no new guidance for me as the result of the Helsinki discussion.”
But Pompeo, at turns dismissive and smug to his oversight committee, made it clear he wasn’t there to shed light on what Trump and Putin discussed alone. “The president has a prerogative to choose who’s in meetings,” he shot back to the panel’s top Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey. When Menendez pressed him on any commitment Trump made to relaxing sanctions, Pompeo subtly shifted the subject to say “no commitment has been made to change policies” and said he saw the “game” Menendez was playing.
It went on like that for three hours. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, cited the Russian defense ministry’s description and the Pentagon’s information vacuum. “I will humbly suggest you have more confidence in statements from General Votel than the Russian ministry of defense,” Pompeo responded. After Arizona Republican Jeff Flake raised a similar point about the lack of a verifiable record of the conversation, Pompeo retorted, “I know you’ve had private conversations in your life and you valued them.”
Pompeo showed up to the hearing armed with what he called the “Crimea Declaration,” and he seemed to view it as a rhetorical checkmate. Before the hearing began, Pompeo put out a statement refusing to ever recognize Russia’s nearly four-year occupation of the peninsula. Moscow “acted in a manner unworthy of a great nation,” the declaration reads. Pompeo referred to it frequently throughout the hearing, referring to how the White House cleared it. The implication was that Pompeo’s rebuke of Russia was more important than anything Trump himself said in Helsinki.
Pompeo kept it up for three hours. Every time a senator expressed alarm over the mysterious solo Trump-Putin meeting, Pompeo ratcheted off a list of Russian diplomats the administration expelled, oligarchs and institutions placed under sanctions or aspects of the U.S. nuclear arsenal the administration has bolstered. “The policies,” Pompeo told Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, “are indeed the most important statements.”
The problem is that Trump sanctioned Russia with extreme reluctance and belated implementation. Indeed, the sanctions Pompeo claimed credit for, known as CAATSA, were congressional creations to hedge against Trump giving the store away to Putin. Senators were quick to read back Trump’s CAATSA signing statement that the bill was “significantly flawed.” It got to the point where Pompeo had to aver that he was willing to entertain new sanctions on Russia.
It all got to be too much for the panel’s Republican chairman, the retiring Bob Corker of Tennessee, who called Trump a “pushover” in Helsinki. Corker praised Pompeo’s service to the heavens before telling him to cut the bull. Creating “an equivalence between our intelligence agencies and what Putin is saying,” Corker said, “shocks people,” as does Trump’s willingness to entertain the idea of Russian interrogations of U.S. diplomats.
“To purposefully cause the American people to misunderstand about the NATO contributions and to cause them to doubt NATO and really drive public opinion against NATO, that to me was purposeful, not unlike what happened after Charlottesville,” Corker said. “Why does he do those things, is there some strategy behind creating doubt in U.S. Senators’ minds on both sides of the aisle, doubt in the American people as to what his motivations are?”
Pompeo denied any such thing was happening. “You somehow disconnect the administration’s activities from the president’s actions,” Pompeo said, acting wounded.
“I know what we’re doing. Talk to the points I just made,” Corker said.
“Here’s what the world needs to know with respect to Russia. This administration’s been tougher than previous administrations,” Pompeo replied. “I think I can prove that’s the case today. I think I have. Somehow there’s this idea this administration is free-floating. This is President Trump’s administration.”
Corker didn’t really dignify that. “You handle yourself in exactly the way you should in my opinion, as it relates to comments. I notice you are not responding to what I’m saying. … You just didn’t, OK?”
Pompeo’s insistence that Senators disbelieve the evidence of their senses wore out most senators, particularly Democrats, who didn’t have the stomach to flatly call the secretary of state a liar. But his vigor in spinning might have created Pompeo some problems by suggesting that the logorrheic, Twitter-addicted president’s words weren’t statements of U.S. policy, a position he walked back later in the hearing.
Pompeo, again confronting Menendez, effectively revised and extended his own remarks. “I misspoke. It is the case that the president calls the ball. His statements are in fact policy. But it’s the case that when all of us speak in informal settings, in response to questions, we’re not covering the full gamut of things that impact the world. That’s what I intended to say,” Pompeo said. “I saw the glee on your side walking away, trying to make a political point from that. That’s silliness. This president runs this government.”
It was the only substantial terrain Pompeo ceded in a combative performance atypical for a secretary of state. And it may reflect a shift in power dynamics within the administration
After Helsinki, Trump tapped the White House-based National Security Council to be the point of contact for follow-ups with the Russians – not the State Department. Right before Pompeo testified, the national security adviser, John Bolton, had covered for Trump’s unrequited invitation for Putin to visit Washington by saying it would have to await the conclusion of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s “Russia witch hunt,” which he implied would be after January.
Those are the sorts of words Trump finds most pleasing of all: echoes of his own.