Senators rapped Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Wednesday for being less than forthcoming on a series of issues, as the top US diplomat sidestepped questions on Washington’s support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi and why Washington is treating Mexico like an “enemy of the United States.”
One lawmaker described the top US diplomat’s approach to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as “silence with a dash of obfuscation,” as senators on both sides of the aisle expressed frustration.
Republicans and Democrats started by pressing Pompeo on the State Department’s failure to disclose information on “an important issue” they couldn’t even name in public.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said the committee wouldn’t have learned about the issue “that had not previously been shared with us, would not in fact have been shared had we not raised it with you” in a classified briefing. The disclosure “may have made the difference in how Senators voted on a particular matter,” added Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the committee.
’A closer bond’
“That’s simply unacceptable,” Menendez said during a hearing on the agency’s budget. “If this committee is to be able to function – if Congress is to play its constitutionally-mandated role – your department needs to do a better job of engaging with us, briefing us and responding to our requests.”
Committee chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican, echoed the charge in gentler fashion. “Senator Menendez is correct that there are items we need a closer bond on,” he said.
Pompeo didn’t engage on the mystery issue, but it set the tone for a hearing in which senators repeatedly pushed him to clarify the administration’s policies and questioned his refusal to respond clearly on issues ranging from Afghanistan to Iran and human rights.
The top US diplomat refused to answer direct questions from Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, on whether the administration still upholds the principle of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “I’m kind of shocked that cannot be stated clearly,” Kaine said.
’Only Congress can declare war’
The day before, Pompeo had refused to tell Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen whether the US would oppose the plan Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed to unilaterally annex all or parts of the West Bank.
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, asked if Pompeo thought the 2001 authorization to go to war with those who attacked the US on September 11 applies to Iran or its Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the administration will designate as a foreign terrorist organization starting April 15th. “I’d prefer to just leave that to lawyers,” Pompeo said.
“I am troubled that the administration can’t unequivocally say that you haven’t been given power” to go to war with Iran, Paul said. “If you want a war in Iran, you have to come to us,” Paul said. “Only Congress can declare war,” he said. “You do not have our permission to go to war in Iran, and that should be very explicit.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, asked whether the Trump administration had reached an agreement with Pyongyang on “what the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula would look like.”
’I can’t answer’
“I can’t answer that question yes or no,” Pompeo said. “We’ve had extensive conversations with the North Koreans about what the full, final denuclearization as verified by the international community would ultimately look like. It would look like the fully denuclearized North Korea. That’s what it would look like.”
Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts announced that he, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Kaine will introduce legislation to mandate that the administration disclose authorizations for the sharing of sensitive nuclear power information. The Trump administration has riled lawmakers by not disclosing information about transfers to Saudi Arabia.
“There’s a bipartisan concern on this committee that we don’t have enough information about these potential nuclear deals between the United States and Saudi Arabia in an already volatile area of the world,” Markey said, describing the administration’s approach on the matter as “silence with a dash of obfuscation.”
’A complicated question’
Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, described a US southern border that looks like “a war zone,” with the military present. “This is reminiscent of how enemies treat one another,” Udall said. “Is Mexico the enemy of the United States?”
Instead of offering a “yes” or a “no,” Pompeo told Udall that “this is a real crisis.” While the Mexican foreign minister has been “a great partner,” the flow of migrants hasn’t stopped.
Sen. Cory Gardner, the Colorado Republican who chairs the chairs the Subcommittee on East Asia, asked if the US would ever consider legitimizing a leader to follow the current Dalai Lama if that person was chosen by China, which has worked to repress Tibetans and vilify their leader. The Dalai Lama, 83, was hospitalized in India Wednesday.
“I hope the answer is no,” Gardner said, after Pompeo hesitated.
“It’s a complicated question,” Pompeo said.
The top US diplomat similarly refused to pledge to go beyond rhetoric and use sanctions to punish China for its massive detention camps used to hold and indoctrinate Uyghur Muslims – including some US residents reportedly being held there.
And he wouldn’t commit when New Hampshire’s Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen asked if the US would pressure Afghanistan to let women be part of talks on any peace settlement with the Taliban. Previous Republican administrations had championed the cause of Afghan women who were brutally repressed under the Taliban.
“What I am asking is that we put pressure on the Afghan government and the Taliban to ensure that women are part of the negotiations,” Shaheen said, adding later that “it doesn’t sound to me like you’re willing to commit to that though.”
Pompeo said he hoped Afghan women would raise the issue with their government. “We want every woman’s voice to be heard,” he said. “I hope they’ll all do that.”
’Shall is shall’
At one point, Menendez told Pompeo that the administration’s refusal to offer a straight answer amounts to a violation of the law. He pointed to a requirement under the Global Magnitsky Act that the administration determine whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is responsible for Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s premediated murder.
“You’re still not in compliance with the law,” Menendez said. “Nor has the administration provided a justification for its lack of respect for the law.”
When Pompeo declared that he was confident they are complying with the law, Menendez interrupted him to read the law which declares the President “shall” submit a report to Congress within 120 days.
“The president shall, shall,” stressed Menendez. “Not may, not could. He shall determine …. shall is shall. It means you must and yet you refuse to give us – even if you if your determination is that he hasn’t. But you refused to give us a determination.”
The message that sends globally, Menendez said, is that “you can do anything with impunity just because you have some sort of strategic interest with the United States.”
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Jamie Crawford and Naome Seifu contributed to this report