mike pompeo FILE
Washington CNN  — 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the first time in more than a year, was grilled by lawmakers on events that ranged from President Donald Trump’s apparent threats against a US diplomat in 2019 to Trump’s suggestion just minutes after the hearing began that November’s elections be delayed.

Throughout, the Secretary of State defended the President or provided cover for decisions and policies that have drawn bipartisan concern and anger – most recently Thursday morning, when Trump, who is down in the polls and facing devastating economic figures, floated the idea that Americans delay their trip to the polls. The tweet triggered criticism from some Republicans.

Again and again, on policy decisions that have drawn charges the Trump administration is undermining US national security – from the administration’s announcement Wednesday that it will pull troops from Germany to the President’s refusal to discuss alleged Russian bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan – the top US diplomat either offered a robust defense or simply refused to answer.

As Pompeo’s hearing began, Trump had tweeted, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

Absentee ballots

CNN has previously fact checked claims by Trump that there is a distinction between mail-in voting and absentee voting – and experts say those voting systems are essentially the same thing. There is also no widespread fraud in US elections.

When asked if the President can delay the election, Pompeo, a Harvard-trained lawyer, said the Justice Department and others would make that determination, though the Constitution gives that power to the Congress. And when asked if he was indifferent to the date of the election, Pompeo only said it “should happen lawfully.”

Pompeo declined to give a direct answer when asked if he has any concerns about the security of voting by mail, a common way overseas US diplomats and service members cast a ballot, saying he would leave it to those in agencies where election security is the “primary focus.”

The top diplomat also told lawmakers that, “I believe I have voted by absentee ballot, I think while I was a soldier and I also think when I was a member of Congress I did a couple times as well.”

“I must say having a small group of people vote by absentee ballot is very different than deciding that you’re going to conduct a full in-mail balloting – an in-mail balloting program,” he said. “Those are two fundamentally different beasts.”

Pompeo also refused to respond to a question about whether the State Department will accept the certified results of the US presidential election even if Trump doesn’t, saying “I’m not going to speculate about fifteen ‘ifs’ in there.”

Some of Pompeo’s testiest exchanges were with the ranking Democrat on the committee, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, who accused the secretary of “failing to take action when evidence emerged that Russia was paying bounties to kill US troops.”

Pompeo refused to say whether he had brought up the issue with his Kremlin counterpart or comment on the fact that Trump did not bring the issue up in calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Senator, I’m gonna be more careful than you’re being with respect to the intelligence,” Pompeo said. “I’m going to tell you that, make no mistake about it: the proper people have been aware of every single threat to our soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan.”

Menendez asked how Pompeo would have reacted “to such behavior from a Democratic president if you were sitting in your old House seat? Would you be okay with a president who abandoned our troops by not even raising this with the Kremlin?”

No support

“I don’t spend much time thinking about what I would have done were I still in the House of Representatives. I’m very focused on my job as Secretary of State today,” Pompeo replied.

The top US diplomat argued that Russia is worried about the administration’s announcement Wednesday it will pull some 12,000 troops from Germany, a decision that drew bipartisan condemnation and criticism from former senior military officials.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah captured a common criticism in describing the move as “a gift to Russia.” Earlier Thursday, a Russian government spokesman had applauded the drawdown saying Europe was calmer with fewer US troops present.

But Pompeo insisted that he had seen comments from Russia that “viewed the actions that we took as threatening, because we will have soldiers that are deployed closer to the Russian border.” Some US troops will be moved from Germany to Belgium and Italy, according to the administration plan. None appeared set to move closer to Russia.

Some questions touched on less recent events.

Even months after the end of the impeachment saga, Pompeo still would not offer a word of support for Marie Yovanovitch, the retired ambassador ousted from her post in Kyiv after a smear campaign led by the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Yovanovitch became a key witness in the proceedings which examined Trump’s effort to force Ukraine to help his re-election campaign in exchange for military aid.

Throughout the impeachment process, Pompeo chose not to defend the career diplomat as she was repeatedly maligned by Trump and his allies. On Tuesday, the Democratic staff of the Foreign Relations Committee had released a report based on State Department employee surveys that showed staff angry and demoralized about Pompeo’s failure to speak up for his diplomats.

At Thursday’s hearing, as Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia pressed the top US diplomat on Yovanovitch, Pompeo remained evasive.

“I didn’t interact with Ambassador Yovanovitch,” Pompeo said, adding that he was “confident every action we took with Ambassador Yovanovitch was completely appropriate.”

Pompeo refused to say whether he sought clarification from Trump on his threat, delivered during his now-famous call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, that Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.”

At the end of the questioning, the exchange become heated, and after Pompeo criticized Kaine for “silliness” in his line of questioning, Kaine chastised Pompeo for his expression and tone.

“You might think these questions are silly. But when somebody works for their entire career for the State Department, and they are slandered with lies and sacked for no good reason that sends a message that could not be clearer to other State Department officials,” Kaine said. “I don’t think it’s silly to Maria Yovanovitch and the people who work for you.”

CNN’s Jamie Crawford and Michael Conte contributed to this report