WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly defended the administration’s policies on Russia and North Korea on Wednesday, assuring skeptical senators that President Donald Trump has taken “a staggering number” of steps to protect U.S. interests abroad.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo said emphatically that Trump will hold Russia accountable for its aggressive actions across the globe and its interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened,” Pompeo said.
Seeking to ease bipartisan concerns that the administration is soft on Russia, the State Department released a statement in advance of Pompeo’s appearance before the committee declaring that the U.S. rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea. The statement also called on Moscow to end its occupation of the territory.
“In concert with allies, partners and the international community, the United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored,” Pompeo said in the state called the “Crimea Declaration.”
The statement called on Russia “to respect the principles to which it has long claimed to adhere and to end its occupation of Crimea.”
In his testimony before the committee, Pompeo said there will be no relief of Crimea-related sanctions imposed on Russia until Moscow returns control of the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine.
Pompeo’s appearance on Capitol Hill marks the first time lawmakers have had a chance to grill a top administration official since Trump touched off bipartisan alarm and outrage at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki nine days ago.
At a joint news conference with Putin after the two leaders met privately, Trump downplayed the conclusions of America’s intelligence agencies and said he accepted Putin’s assertion that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump later walked back his pro-Putin remarks, but he has not disclosed what he and Putin discussed during their controversial, closed-door tete-a-tete.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said Trump seemed “submissive and deferential” toward Putin in Helsinki.
Corker also stressed that senators have “serious doubts” about the White House and how it conducts foreign policy.
“The administration tells us, ‘Don’t worry, be patient, there is a strategy here,’” Corker said. “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.”
“I can’t say it more forcefully,” Corker added. “We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on, what our president is agreeing to, and what our strategy is on a number of issues.”
In a tense and pointed exchange, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the committee, pressed Pompeo to divulge what Putin and Trump discussed in their private meeting at the Helsinki summit.
Menendez asked whether Trump discussed relaxing tough economic sanctions on Russia and whether he confronted Putin about its aggression in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, among other topics.
After initially offering a vague response, Pompeo eventually said “no commitment has been made” to change U.S. sanctions on Russia and the president was “very clear” about U.S. policy opposing Russia’s incursions in Ukraine and Crimea.
In response to questions from Maryland Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin, Pompeo said Putin and Trump discussed a number of issues, including reviving an exchange between the two countries’ business leaders; re-establishing a counterterrorism council to increase cooperation on that front; and working to return the millions of displaced Syrians who have fled that war-torn country, where Russia is working to prop up the brutal dictatorship of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Pomepo faced numerous questions on whether North Korea’s pledge to denuclearize after a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.
As with the Putin summit, Trump met privately with Kim. Afterward, both men signed a vaguely worded document in which the North Korean leader affirmed his commitment to the “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., suggested that North Korea has taken only “empty gestures” toward fulfilling the agreement, such as dismantling an outdated nuclear testing facility. Markey said he fears the U.S. is “being taken for a ride.”
“Fear not, senator,” Pompeo responded.
Pompeo said he remains confident that North Korea understands the U.S. definition of denuclearization aand remains committed to achieving that goal.
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