06:05 GMT +322 October 2018
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    July 16, 2018. President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of the US Donald Trump, left, during the joint news conference following their meeting in Helsinki

    Pompeo Tight-Lipped in Senate Grilling, Defends Trump’s Right to Private Talks

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    US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was grilled before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday over US President Donald Trump’s private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

    As is often the case for politically contentious Congressional testimonies, the substance of the senators' questioning was divided along party lines. But Republican senators didn't completely tow the line of the Trump administration: in opening statements, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), who chairs the committee, bemoaned "the lack of information the administration has provided to this committee." 

    Later, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), said he supported the Trump-Putin summit but objected to the fact that it took place privately, arguing that Russian media have been able to do far more reporting on the summit's details than US media. Pompeo countered by citing closed-door conversations with North Koreans he had. "We didn't issue a readout on the conversations, quite intentionally, and the North Korean press chose to characterize those conversations. We thought it was in America's best interest not to respond tit-for-tat about the nature of that conversation… it's the North Korean press," Pompeo said, laughing. "I assume that most reasonable people will discount it fairly significantly, the same way one might the Russian press."

    Pompeo stressed that in private talks, you get to "have the chance to do that again because you thought you could make real progress with that person."

    In his opening statements, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) appeared to contradict himself in bemoaning various US posturings. "All we've come to expect is a sabre-rattling president who embraces and provides legitimacy to some of the world's most notorious bad actors and who denigrates our closest allies," he said. "We've not seen any substantive deals… we've seen our president look weak as he stands beside our adversaries."

    When Pompeo's turn to open came, he assured the committee that Trump was being tough on Russia, announcing that the US will never recognize Crimea as part of Russia, and proceeding to cite a number of policies Trump has enacted that are hostile to Russia.

    Menendez and Pompeo went through heated back-and-forths over what was discussed in the Helsinki meeting, with the secretary seeking to protect the privacy of the talks. "I understand the game you're playing," Pompeo said.

    Later, Pompeo highlighted the previously disclosed topics discussed between the world leaders: increasing business-to-business exchange between nationals of the two countries; options for collaboration in Syria in terms of ensuring the ability of "externally displaced people," i.e. refugees to return through a political agreement in Geneva; and an agreement to disagree on Ukraine. 

    Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) took most of his allotted five minutes — in fact, he used up seven — to complain about China, but also stressed the importance of a bill to "define interference, okay? So it's not just five Russian guys on Twitter," underscoring the obfuscated nature of the meddling allegations against Russia. Other measures would be intended to ensure that the US is better prepared to retaliate should Russia or any other country interfere in US democratic processes, as has been alleged following the 2016 presidential election.

    Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked Pompeo about whether Trump and Putin discussed decreasing the US presence in Syria, and Pompeo said that there had been no change in US policy since the summit. He kept his lips pressed on whether Iran's presence in Syria was discussed, saying that it was "not for me to disclose," but conceded that Iran has been central to US positioning in Syria and that he was "confident" it would remain so. Pompeo did confirm that issues with Syria as they relate to Israel were, in fact, discussed.

    Pompeo told Flake that he wouldn't characterize North Korea as having "walked back on commitments" made to the US and would not disclose agreements with them made in private. In addition, he noted that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed orally to things that weren't in the written agreement concluded with Trump in June, such as the disassembly of a missile engine test site which Pompeo confirmed is underway.

    Pompeo told Menendez earlier in the hearing that North Korea "understands the US' definition of denuclearization" and has agreed to follow through on it. However, he later told Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) that North Korea "continues to produce fissile material."

    When asked by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) whether North Korea is making advancements in their nuclear program, Pompeo asked to take the question behind closed doors. 

    Flake also referred back to Trump's floating of the idea of allowing former US Ambassador to the UN Michael McFaul to be interviewed by Russian officials in a criminal investigation. "It took the White House a full three days" to decline, he noted, "but the State Department quickly said that that was inappropriate."

    "You give me a little bit too much credit," Pompeo replied. "I'm doing my level best every day to implement the president's policies. That statement was from the United States' president's State Department."

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    Tags:
    Russiagate, North korea, Trump, Putin, Mike Pompeo
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