President Donald Trump’s team on Wednesday rolled out an argument that it is standing up to Russia in the face of bipartisan criticism of the president’s apparent attempts to cozy up to the Kremlin.
At a contentious Senate hearing, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured lawmakers that the U.S. will keep pressuring Russia to avoid interfering in American elections, shortly after he released a statement calling on Russia to leave Crimea, the region Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Separately on Wednesday, national security adviser John Bolton said Trump’s plans to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the White House have been pushed back till at least next year. And White House officials also said Trump will chair a National Security Council meeting this week focused on election interference, which likely will tackle Russia’s role in 2016 and this year’s election.
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Taken together, the actions were seen as an attempt to calm both critics and allies alike who have expressed concern over the president’s performance at a summit with Putin earlier this month. Trump drew widespread condemnation for failing to say, over Putin’s denial, whether he believed the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election over Putin’s denials.
“They needed to do this,” said James Carafano of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “They’ve been giving fodder to the critics and people are confounded enough, and this helps deal with that. But they didn’t shift policy to reassure people. What they did was they turned the flashlight on things that they’re doing which reflect the larger policy.”
Pompeo led the way in mounting a defense of Trump’s policy during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Facing questions from skeptical senators, Pompeo insisted that Trump — despite his own suggestions otherwise — fully accepts that Russia interfered in the 2016 campaign.
“He has a complete and proper understanding of what happened. I know, I’ve briefed him on it for over a year,” said Pompeo, who became secretary of state earlier this year after a stint as Trump’s CIA chief.
The secretary of state repeatedly urged lawmakers to pay attention to the administration’s policies as opposed to what the president may be implying through public comments.
“There’s a narrative that’s somehow developed that President Trump is weak on Russia when in fact the converse is true,” Pompeo added, pointing out that the administration has implemented many sanctions on Russia while kicking out dozens of Russian diplomats in response to various Russian actions.
Pompeo specifically highlighted Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. He stressed the importance of the State Department’s declaration Wednesday of “non-recognition” when it comes to the Kremlin’s claims on Crimea.
“The United States does not and will not recognize the Kremlin’s purported annexation of Crimea,” Pompeo said. “There’s no relief of Crimea-related sanctions until they return [it to] Ukraine.”
Pompeo’s comments were striking considering that just weeks ago Trump indicated he might be open to letting Russia keep Crimea. And they were harder-edged than Trump has been in public when it comes to Russia.
Pompeo insisted, however, that the administration will not stop trying to find common ground with Russia. The Kremlin can help the United States on a number of fronts, including bringing to an end the conflict in Syria, he said.
“We can’t make progress on issues of mutual concern unless we’re talking about them,” Pompeo said.
Such caveats came with other steps taken by the administration Wednesday. Bolton, for instance, couched the decision to push back a Putin visit to the United States as being prompted by a desire to avoid a conflict with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
Bolton used a favorite phrase of Trump’s in describing Mueller’s investigation, which has no firm deadline.
“The president believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we’ve agreed that it will be after the first of the year,” Bolton said in a statement.
And White House officials who confirmed that Trump will chair an NSC meeting later this week on election interference did not specifically say it will focus on Russia.
Pompeo tried to strike a balance in dealing with tough questions from senators, many of whom wanted specifics about what Trump and Putin spoke about in Helsinki, where the pair held a face-to-face meeting with only translators. Pompeo mostly side-stepped the queries about the Trump-Putin tête-à-tête.
“Presidents are entitled to have private meetings,” he said at one point.
Some senators wondered out loud why they should accept what Pompeo says about Trump’s positions when the president himself so often indicates he believes something else.
On Russia, for instance, Trump recently suggested on Twitter that the intelligence community’s assessments of Russian election interference were a “hoax.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker was frank in his frustration about what appeared to be a lack of information coming from the White House about Russia and a number of other sensitive topics, such as North Korea’s nuclear program.
“I can’t say it more forcefully. We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on, what our president is agreeing to, and what our strategy is on a number of issues,” said the Tennessee Republican, who is not running for re-election.
As Pompeo kept urging lawmakers to consider the administration’s policies, he got push back from senators. Some of the lawmakers noted, for instance, that it was Congress that passed a bill imposing sanctions on Russia, and that Trump, reportedly, was unhappy about it.
At one point, Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M) asked Pompeo whether Trump and Putin discussed any investments in Trump properties and the president’s past attempts to pursue a real estate project in Moscow.
A grim-looking Pompeo was unwilling to engage on that front.
“I’m going to try to stay out of the political circus,” Pompeo replied.
Several Senators sympathized with Pompeo, saying they understood the difficult situation he is in, serving as secretary of state to a capricious commander in chief.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said Pompeo has a “tiger by the tail.”
“The president is making up foreign policy on a day-by-day basis,” Murphy said. “I think you have been dealt a tough hand and you do a credible job with it.”
Murphy then pivoted to what he called “less adversarial questions” about North Korea, drawing a chuckle from Pompeo.