Mike Pompeo scrambles to clean up after Trump in Senate hearing

Pompeo faced tough questions on Capitol Hill about North Korea, Russia and Trump's meeting with Putin

Published July 25, 2018 6:39PM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Mike Pompeo, Trump's second secretary of state, faced tough questions on Wednesday on Capitol Hill about the president's handling of North Korea and Russia — including a particularly tough grilling on Trump's recent one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo said that the president is "well aware of the challenges that Russia poses" and has taken "a staggering number of actions to protect our interests." He defended Trump's joint press conference last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland that cast doubts about the president's ability to be tough with Russia.

The testimony comes as controversy mounted over the president's performance in Helsinki, during which he accepted Putin's denial of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election over the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community.

READ MORE: Bill Browder and Vladimir Putin: A tangled tale of two nations, two centuries and a lot of history

Back in Washington, Trump attempted to walk back his remarks, in part, by claiming that "other people" could have also meddled in the 2016 presidential election. In a reversal, the president claimed to the world that he had simply misspoken by one word during his press conference in Finland. The president explained that he had intended to say he did not see any reason why it "wouldn't" be Russia – a double negative.

Trump's tumultuous week of walk-backs have left many lawmakers questioning his ability to get tough on Russia, though the president has frequently described himself as heavy-handed on Russia. On Tuesday, Trump claimed that "no president has ever been as tough on Russia as me."

In his opening remarks Wednesday afternoon, Senator Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, "In the summit's aftermath, we saw an American president who appeared submissive and deferential."

"You come before a group of senators today who are filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy," Corker added. Trump is "antagonizing our friends and placating those who clearly wish us ill," Corker said, calling the Helsinki summit "perhaps the most troubling example of this troubling reality."

The top Democrat on the committee, Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, had an even more combative opening exchange with Pompeo.

Menendez grilled Pompeo over what Trump had discussed with Putin during their two-hour closed-door meeting in Helsinki. The New Jersey Democrat pointed out that American citizens and lawmakers have heard more about what transpired in the meeting from Russia than from their own president.

Additionally, Menendez pressed Pompeo if Trump and Putin talked about relaxing American sanctions on Russia. Putin stated that the U.S. policy on sanctions remains the same.

"Presidents are entitled to have private meetings, I'm telling you what U.S. policy is here," Pompeo said, noting that "the U.S. policy with respect to sanctions remains completely unchanged."

Pompeo added that Trump was "very clear with Vladimir Putin about U.S. positions," and accused Menendez of playing "a game" with his questions. He also defended the United States' decision not to provide a public readout on Trump's private conversation with Putin because it may open the door for similar talks with Russia that could lead to progress. He also indicated revealing the contents of the private conversations could set an unfavorable precedent for future encounters with world leaders.

Pompeo said he had similar private conversations with North Korean officials, which he said are necessary to help build trust. He also criticized the way the North Korean press characterized those meetings.

"I had a private conversation with North Koreans," Pompeo revealed. "We didn't issue a readout on the conversations quite intentionally, and the North Korean press chose to characterize it."

"We thought it was in America's best interest not to respond tit-for-tat about the nature of that conversation," he added. "We knew the truth, we knew what had taken place there, and you know, it's the North Korean press, and so I assume that most reasonable people will discount it fairly significantly, the same way that one might the Russian press."

"We don't know the truth of what transpired in those two hours, because nobody else was in the room when it happened," Menendez shot back.

The two continued by arguing over if Pompeo talked to the American translator who was present at the meeting between Trump and Putin and if he was briefed on any notes taken during the world leaders' discussion. Pompeo revealed that he had not spoken with the translator who was in the room with the two world leaders and that he did not see the translator's notes. Trump has yet to publicly discuss what he and Putin talked about during their one-on-one meeting with translators.

Trump recently asked his national security adviser, John Bolton, to invite Putin to Washington for another meeting. The second summit, which was scheduled for this fall, will now take place "after the Russia witch hunt is over," Bolton said in a statement, using Trump's controversial term for the ongoing investigation into Russian election interference.

Speaking about election interference, Pompeo told lawmakers that the president fully accepts the findings that Russian engineered a series of cyberattacks that targeted Americans during the 2016 presidential election.

"I want you to know, President Trump has stated that he accepts our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election," Pompeo said.

"He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened," he added. "I know, I briefed him on it for over a year."

Pompeo also said that he "personally made it clear to the Russians that there will be severe consequences for interfering in our democratic process."

In a statement ahead of his congressional testimony Wednesday, Pompeo reaffirmed the United States' refusal to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea and called on Russia to end its occupation of Crimea.

"No country can change the borders of another by force," Pompeo said in a statement. "The United States rejects Russia's attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine's territorial integrity is restored. The United States calls on Russia to respect the principles to which it has long claimed to adhere and to end its occupation of Crimea. ... Through its actions, Russia has acted in a manner unworthy of a great nation and has chosen to isolate itself from the international community."

Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded on Twitter to Pompeo's declaration today that the United States' does not recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

"We welcome the #US position on territorial integrity of #Ukraine and non-recognition of Russia’s attempt to annex Crimea," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tweeted. "No one has the right to change the borders of free sovereign states by force."

In a second tweet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "It is a strong message of int. community on illegal and aggressive actions of #Russia in the territory of #Ukraine aimed at disruption of European and global security."

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By Shira Tarlo

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