New House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Vows Pompeo Investigations Will Continue
Rep. Gregory Meeks, who took the gavel this week, also urged the State Department to reverse its decision to close the last two U.S. consulates in Russia.
Rep. Gregory Meeks, a senior New York Democratic congressman, is taking the helm of a powerful congressional oversight committee that has clashed repeatedly with the Trump administration over impeachment, arms sales, the management of the U.S. State Department, and other issues in the past four years.
Now, as Meeks takes over, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is preparing to transition to a Democratic White House, setting the stage for the congressman to be an important ally on Capitol Hill for the incoming Biden administration.
But, even aside from President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated challenges to the certified election results, Democratic committee members will already have their hands full in the first days of the new Congress with a slew of eleventh-hour policy decisions from the outgoing administration that could box in the Biden administration. That includes troop drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, doubling down on the “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, a renewed trade offensive against European allies, and a redoubled effort to cut economic ties with China.
In an interview with Foreign Policy, Meeks said he would make cybersecurity a top priority, particularly in the wake of a massive cyberattack that targeted U.S. government agencies and private companies last year. Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, is believed to be behind the attack. Some experts describe the data breach as potentially the largest-ever espionage operation against the United States.
Meeks criticized Trump for downplaying the massive data breach. “It doesn’t surprise me that the current president has always covered for Russia. It seems as though whatever Russia does, no matter what the evidence shows, he’s going to cover for Russia,” he said.
The congressman also vowed to continue the Democratic-led committee’s investigations into allegations of mismanagement at the State Department under outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, even after Pompeo leaves office later this month. The committee has investigated whether Pompeo misused department resources for personal use and election-cycle politicking, including hosting lavish State Department dinners with top Republican donors as well as foreign dignitaries and addressing the Republican National Convention during official State Department travel to Israel.
“I think that it’s important for the full committee to be looking at … what took place in what we do to remedy it so that it will never happen again,” he said. “I’m looking at how do we move forward, and how do we make sure that we don’t have the same kind of thing happen again? We’ve got to continue those investigations.”
Pompeo has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, and his allies in the White House, as well as Republican lawmakers, have accused the Democrats of launching investigations to score political points.
One of the biggest challenges for the incoming Biden administration—and for Congress—will be U.S.-Russia policy, which has cast a shadow over Trump’s White House for years.
In the final weeks of the Trump administration, the State Department has announced it would close the last two U.S. consulates in Russia, news that came within days of revelations about the massive data breach that implicated Russian intelligence services.
Meeks rebuked the move and urged the State Department to reverse course and keep the consulates open, even amid heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow.
“I generally, as a rule, want to see consulates open. I believe in diplomacy,” Meeks said. “Diplomacy means that you still … need to talk and you need to know what’s going on on the ground. If you remove your eyes and ears on the ground, I think that makes it harder to get it done.”
Former diplomats who served in Russia told Foreign Policy that consulates don’t just handle routine consular work like issuing visas but serve as valuable political and diplomatic antennae to advance U.S. interests in other countries outside their capitals.
The State Department issued a notice to Congress last month that it would be shuttering the remaining two U.S. consulates in Russia—one in Vladivostok, a major port city in Russia’s far east, and one in Yekaterinburg, a city east of the Ural Mountains. This would leave only one diplomatic outpost in Russia, the embassy in Moscow, for diplomacy and American citizen services as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to enter office.
Meeks said now was not the time to shrink the United States’ diplomatic “footprint across the globe,” particularly as China’s diplomatic reach is expanding. “To have relationships, I think, with allies and adversaries means that you have to have a footprint on the ground,” he said.
In the notice to Congress, dated on Dec. 10 and obtained by Foreign Policy, the State Department said the consulate closures were the result of “ongoing staffing challenges” created by Russia’s 2017 cap on U.S. diplomatic personnel. The notice did not give a time frame for when the consulates would be closed, and the State Department did not respond to additional requests for comment on whether the closures would happen before or after Biden took office.