Pompeo to Downplay Concerns Over Trump’s Russia Stance in Senate Testimony

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will seek to tamp down concern about Donald Trump’s stance on Russia, telling lawmakers that the president fully understands the scope of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, according to his prepared remarks ahead of Senate testimony.

“He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened,” according to a draft of Pompeo’s opening statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee obtained by Bloomberg News. “This is perfectly clear to me personally based on the many hours I have spent briefing President Trump on Russia-related issues.”

The statement marks an effort by Pompeo to quell bipartisan frustration and concern among lawmakers over what happened when Trump met President Vladimir Putin for more than two hours behind closed doors in Helsinki last week and later appeared to discount his own intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the election.

Pompeo’s statement addresses a number of key issues that senators have raised warnings about based on Trump’s comments in Helsinki and his earlier trip to a NATO summit in Brussels, including his expressed skepticism about the U.S.-led military alliance and fears that he’s willing to ease sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea. It also gives them an update on the progress of his talks with North Korea.

On Russia, Pompeo will tell senators that “I personally made clear to the Russians that there will be severe consequences for interference in our democratic process.” He doesn’t say what those consequences would be, but he goes on to list “a staggering number of actions to protect our interests,” including sanctions that were essentially forced upon the White House by Congress. He leaves open the question of whether Trump delivered a similarly tough message to Putin.

Blaming Obama

The secretary of state will attempt to end speculation that Trump, who has blamed former President Barack Obama for letting Russia annex Crimea, might accept Russia’s control of the peninsula. The U.S. “does not, and will not, recognize the Kremlin’s purported annexation of Crimea,” and won’t lift sanctions related to that action until control of Crimea is returned to Ukraine, according to the remarks.

On North Korea, Pompeo plans to tell senators that progress on talks continues. Many lawmakers were skeptical about the chances for a successful denuclearization following Pompeo’s most recent trip to Pyongyang to meet with senior adviser Kim Yong Chol, after which North Korea released a fiery statement that appeared to cast doubt on the chances of success.

“We are engaged in patient diplomacy, but we will not let this drag out to no end,” Pompeo will say, according to the prepared remarks. “I emphasized this position in the productive discussions I had with Vice Chairman Kim Yong Chol.”

Shrinking GDP

While the international sanctions regime against North Korea is weakening, the secretary of state can point to some recent successes: Newly released satellite photographs suggest that North Korea has begun to dismantle a satellite launch site that was considered a cover for its ballistic missile program. And estimates from South Korea’s central bank show the gross domestic product in North Korea contracted 3.5 percent in the 12 months through December, the biggest drop in two decades.

In other areas, Pompeo will say that NATO “will remain an indispensable pillar of American national security” and he’ll repeat the president’s claim that allies have stepped up their defense funding as a result of U.S. pressure.

Senators from both parties are likely to be skeptical of Pompeo’s arguments, particularly on Russia. From the moment Trump’s July 16 news conference alongside Putin in Helsinki ended, Republican and Democrats have found common ground in efforts to rein in the president’s apparent desire to forge better ties with Russia without confronting Moscow over election meddling.

While the president tweeted as recently as Tuesday that “no President has been tougher on Russia than me,” Congress passed the most severe sanctions yet against Russia with veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate. Trump’s initial willingness to entertain having Russian investigators visit the U.S. to watch interviews of American officials -- including a former ambassador to Moscow -- was so roundly opposed that the Senate passed a resolution 98-0 expressing its disapproval.

Even as Trump continues to proclaim the Helsinki summit a “great” success, his top aides haven’t explained what was agreed to when the president met alone with Putin, leaving Russian officials to fill the vacuum. And he’s been almost alone in defending remarks -- since walked back -- that he viewed Putin’s denials of interfering in the 2016 election as more credible than evidence compiled by U.S. intelligence agencies.

In a sign of the frustration in Congress over Russia policy, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Bob Menendez have said they’ll introduce legislation to increase U.S. sanctions against Russia that would target its sovereign debt as well as the country’s energy and financial sectors.

Pompeo’s earlier appearances before lawmakers weren’t so fraught. The former CIA director and House member was greeted with relief because he replaced Rex Tillerson, who had little support in Congress or his own department by the time Trump fired him via Twitter in March. And Pompeo, who took over at the State Department in April, had some early successes engaging with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and winning freedom for three Americans detained there.

Lawmakers will be less accommodating at Wednesday’s hearing.

“I’d like to find out what if anything was said in the meeting with Putin,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said. “There’s so many issues, though.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.