The U.S. Congress tends to tread lightly with CIA directors, and Mike Pompeo was no exception. In the year that he led the clandestine organization, he was mostly shielded from the kind of criticism and scrutiny that President Donald Trump’s other top aides regularly faced.
But Pompeo went before lawmakers in his relatively new role as secretary of state on Wednesday and received a fierce tongue-lashing from both Republicans and Democrats for the administration’s slapdash approach to foreign relations, from Russia to North Korea and elsewhere.
His testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee included a vigorous defense of Trump’s policies. But the angry reception from lawmakers underscored divisions within the Republican Party over Trump’s oddly congenial relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“You come before a group of senators today who are filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct with American foreign policy,” said Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in one of the sharper exchanges.
“The administration tells us, ‘Don’t worry, be patient, there is a strategy here.’ 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,” he said.
The senators focused their criticism on Trump’s one-on-one meeting with Putin in Helsinki on July 16, details of which remain murky even to administration insiders.
They also took Pompeo to task for the apparent lack of progress in nuclear negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, more than a month after a summit meeting that Trump hailed as a resounding success.
Pompeo returned fire during more than three hours of testimony—his first open exchange with lawmakers since Trump’s meetings with Putin and Kim.
“I understand the game that you’re playing,” he told Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the committee, during a line of questioning about Trump’s private meeting with Putin, which raised deep concerns among lawmakers and national security experts.
Menendez cut him off and shot back: “No, no, Mr. Secretary. With all due respect, I don’t appreciate you characterizing my questions. My question is to get to the truth. We don’t know what the truth is.”
Pompeo, who is just three months into his tenure as secretary of state, struggled to maintain composure during several heated exchanges. He provided some information on Trump’s conversation with Putin but not enough to satisfy the committee.
He also offered a full-throated defense of the president and his foreign policies.
“This same president with which you seem to express such a deep concern is engaged in a massive defense buildup, which threatens Vladimir Putin’s regime,” Pompeo told Democratic senators.
He cited the administration’s decision to impose harsh sanctions on Russia (though they were mandated by Congress), expel 60 alleged Russian spies from the United States, and close the Russian consulates in San Francisco and Seattle. He said the United States had also boosted the U.S. military presence in Europe with 150 military exercises and more than $11 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative—a program first set up under former President Barack Obama.
Pompeo also addressed concerns over Trump’s refusal in remarks after the summit to acknowledge the threat of Russian election interference, though he later attempted to walk back some of those comments.
“I personally made clear to the Russians there will be severe consequences for interfering in our democratic process,” Pompeo said.
He insisted that Trump had actually stood up to Putin at the meeting.
“Somehow there’s this idea that this administration is free-floating,” Pompeo said. “This is President Trump’s administration—make no mistake who is fully in charge of this and who is directing each of these activities that has caused Vladimir Putin to be in a very difficult place today.”
Corker accused Pompeo of sidestepping questions after asking what motivated the president to “purposefully create distrust” in U.S. institutions and allies.
“I notice that you are not responding to what I am saying,” Corker said.
“I think I responded to everything,” Pompeo responded.
“No, you didn’t,” Corker challenged. “You just didn’t.”