Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday reaffirmed U.S. policy toward the disputed Ukrainian region of Crimea and defended President Donald Trump’s approach toward Russia.
The president has been under fire from critics in both parties for not forcefully confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference following the summit in Helsinki, Finland, last week.
But Pompeo (pictured above) testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Trump’s actions toward Russia have been far more aggressive than the policies former President Barack Obama pursued.
“He’s taken a staggering number of actions to protect our interests,” he said.
Pompeo said those actions include imposing sanctions on 213 Russian citizens and entities, expelling 60 Russian spies from the United States, closing Russian consulates in Seattle and San Francisco, and reducing the U.S. diplomatic staff in Russia by 70 percent.
He added that the United States has led 150 military exercises in Europe this year alone, and sold weapons to the nations of Georgia and Ukraine, including — in the latter case — 210 Javelin anti-tank missiles that represent a formidable threat to invading tanks and mobile artillery units.
Since the Helsinki summit, Pompeo said, the United States provided $200 million in security cooperation funds for Ukraine.
“None of this happened in the eight years that preceded President Trump,” he said.
And lest there be any ambiguity, Pompeo made clear that the United States “does not and will not recognize the Kremlin’s purported annexation of Crimea.” Russia unilaterally seized the region from Ukraine in 2014.
Democrats on the panel, and even Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), remained skeptical. The panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, focused on Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin during the summit.
“We don’t know what the truth is, because nobody else was in the room where it happened,” he said. “The American people expect — and I believe they deserve to know — what happened.”
Pompeo said Trump has fully briefed him on the meeting, but he declined to provide details except on matters that the president has spoken about publicly.
“I’m confident you’ve had private one-on-one meetings in your life as well,” Pompeo told Menendez.
The secretary of state testified that Trump and Putin agreed on three points — restarting business-to-business leadership exchanges, which had fallen away; re-establishing a counterintelligence council; and exploring cooperation with Russia on the return of Syrian refugees who fled during that country’s civil war.
Democratic senators kept pressing Pompeo for details of the Trump-Putin meeting.
“Other than the brief description you just gave us, we really don’t know what was discussed in that meeting,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said.
She asked if the two leaders had discussed changes to U.S. military policy in Syria. Pompeo said U.S. policy has not changed. Shaheen asked if Trump discussed reducing the U.S.military footprint in the war-torn country. Pompeo gave the same response, prompting Shaheen to complain she was interested in what Trump and Putin said, not the policy.
“It’s what matters,” Pompeo answered. “What matters is what President Trump has directed us to do.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) quoted the Russian ambassador to the United States that Trump made “important verbal agreements” to Putin.
“He seems to know more about Helsinki and what happened there than the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” Udall said.
Udall asked if Pompeo believed that the president should release his tax returns.
“Senator, I’m gonna try to stay out of the same political circus that you and I ended up in the last time I was sitting here and simply respond by saying this same president with which you seemed to express such concern is engaged in a massive defense build-up, which threatens Vladimir Putin’s regime,” Pompeo answered.
The secretary of state also touted Trump’s efforts to strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He noted that eight countries in the alliance will reach the target of spending 2 percent of national income on defense this year. Another 18 are on track to reach the goal by 2024, Pompeo added.
The $14.4 billion in new military spending is up 5.1 percent from last year, the “largest in a generation,” Pompeo said.
“NATO will remain an indispensable pillar of American national security,” he said. “We know weakness provoke our enemies.”
But Corker, a senator not running for re-election who has been highly critical of Trump, offered a reminder that the president does not only face opposition from Democrats. He told Pompeo that senators were not concerned about the president’s team or the policies the secretary of state articulated.
“It’s the president’s public statements that create concerns among senators on both sides of the aisle,” he said.