President Donald Trump’s top diplomat faced withering questions from Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday about the president’s ability to steer American foreign policy and his affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other strongmen, as the White House scrambled to present a tougher stance toward Russia.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came as the White House postponed a follow-up meeting with Putin amid criticism of Trump’s conflicting statements on Russian election interference.
In an effort to reassure lawmakers, Pompeo said the president accepts the views of the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and declared that the United States would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
But Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the panel, told Pompeo that lawmakers are “filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy.”
He challenged Pompeo to satisfy bipartisan concerns that the White House is “making it up as they go” and that Pompeo himself may not know what is happening.
“We really need a clear understanding of what is going on,” Corker said.
The senator, a frequent Trump foil who is not seeking reelection this year, said Trump appeared “submissive” in his interactions with Putin, adding that Trump is “antagonizing our friends and placating those who clearly wish us ill.”
Corker’s frustrations followed a week of walk-backs, reversals and clarifications from a Trump administration trying to account for the president’s freewheeling comments about Russia and the 2016 election.
In recent days, Senate Republicans have made public remarks opposing a future meeting between Trump and Putin, which had been previewed by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week.
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, unleashed a torrent of criticism, going so far as calling the news conference “treasonous” and placing a rare demand for the president’s interpreter to testify before Congress about what Trump and Putin discussed.
On Wednesday, Pompeo said critics were unfairly characterizing Trump administration policy toward Russia as soft, and he ticked off a list of aggressive steps taken, including the expulsion of 60 Russian spies and diplomats, the sanctioning of Russian oligarchs and the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine.
When confronted with specific questions about what Trump and Putin discussed, Pompeo repeatedly recited U.S. policy, prompting senators to accuse him of withholding details about the discussions.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked whether Trump talked to Putin about removing U.S. troops from Syria. In response, Pompeo said “there’s been no change to U.S. policy.”
“That’s not exactly the questions,” Shaheen said.
Sen. Robert Menendez repeatedly asked whether Trump and Putin discussed sanctions related to Crimea. Pompeo said it was U.S. policy not to lift sanctions imposed after Russia annexed Crimea, but did not answer the question directly.
“Presidents are entitled to have private meetings, I’m telling you what U.S. policy is here,” Pompeo said.
“We don’t know the truth of what transpired in those two hours,” Menendez shot back.