Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fiercely defended his management of the State Department in a combative Senate hearing on Thursday, two days after a Democratic report said his leadership had left the department “decimated and demoralized.”
Pompeo’s appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was his first on Capitol Hill in more than a year and it got off to a combative start when ranking Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez said the State Department was “at risk of catastrophic failure” due to the secretary’s management.
“Under your watch, the United States has faced setback after setback on the world stage, ceding leverage and influence to our stated adversaries,” Menendez told Pompeo.
Democratic lawmakers grilled the top US diplomat on several issues. Among them: Pompeo’s decision in May to fire the State Department’s inspector general, who was investigating whether he misused department resources and his push to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, and the Trump administration’s decision on Wednesday to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany. Menendez said the reduction “abetted” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
(On Thursday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Russian media that “the fewer US soldiers are on the European continent, the calmer it is in Europe.”)
In his opening statement, Pompeo detailed what he said were several Trump administration achievements.
“We are the toughest administration ever on Russia,” Pompeo said. “We’ve supplied Ukraine with lethal military hardware. We’ve sanctioned more than 360 Russian targets for everything from human rights abuses, to supporting the murderous Assad regime, to operating mercenaries and proxy forces around the world.
“Most importantly, on China, we see the Chinese Communist Party also for what it is: the central threat of our times,” Pompeo added, also praising the closure of China’s consulate in Houston, which he called “a den of spies.”
But Menendez argued that Pompeo’s policies toward China had not stopped its “march in the South China Sea” or its “suppressing and oppressing its own people” in Hong Kong.
The stated purpose of Thursday’s hearing was to discuss the proposed spending cuts in the fiscal year 2021 State Department budget. But Democratic senators, in particular, mostly pressed him on an array of other issues.
Questioned by senators, Pompeo said he and his team had warned Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, about threats from Russia against Americans in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
But he refused to say whether he had specifically raised allegations that Moscow was paying bounties to Taliban fighters to kill US troops in Afghanistan.
“We’ve made very clear our expectations,” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, pressed Pompeo to explain his decision to recall former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and asked him whether he believed she was effective in her role and a valuable part of the State Department. But Pompeo declined to comment on the issue, saying the decision was Trump’s to make and that he carried out the order “appropriately.”
When Pompeo cracked a smile and dismissed the questioning, Kaine responded: “It may be just a big joke. I mean hey, look at you smiling and laughing — I don’t think it’s silly to Marie Yovanovitch and the people who work for you.”
Pompeo said he hoped Keith Dayton, a retired US Army lieutenant general and Trump’s nominee US ambassador to Ukraine, would soon be confirmed.
He also addressed the firing of Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general who was ousted in May while leading two investigations into the secretary’s potential misuse of department resources and his effort to push billions of dollars worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The secretary denied knowing about the investigations and said they were not part of his decision to oust Linick.
Not everyone was hostile toward Pompeo. Senate Republicans defended him and the foreign policy record of the Trump administration.
Sen. Ron Johnson said that under Trump, “We’ve started no wars. We’ve destroyed ISIS.” Johnson blamed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine on the Obama administration.
One exception among Republicans was Sen. Mitt Romney. He criticized the president for praising China President Xi Jinping and ordering the withdrawal of troops in Germany.
Romney said he had heard “from the highest levels of the German government” that the pullout was seen as an insult to a key European ally.