WASHINGTON (CN) – Appearing before a Senate panel on Wednesday afternoon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed little about what happened during President Donald Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month.
Pompeo said he has a “pretty complete understanding” of what Trump and Putin discussed in their private meeting in Helsinki, but often declined to answer directly when senators pressed him on whether the two leaders raised specific issues behind closed doors.
Pompeo did say Trump and Putin discussed a business-to-business leadership exchange, cooperation on counterterrorism efforts, and the countries’ policies in Syria. When senators asked about other issues, such as sanctions, he simply offered that official U.S. policy has not changed since the meeting.
“What matters is what President Trump has directed us to do following his meeting with Vladimir Putin, what he has told his senior leadership team to do and how he wants us to deploy his foreign policy strategy,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also pushed back against senators who accused the Trump administration of being soft on Russia, pointing to sanctions, the sale of weapons to Ukraine and the expulsion of Russian spies as evidence of the White House’s stance against the Kremlin.
“The policies are themselves statements as well,” Pompeo said. “Indeed they’re the most important statements that the administration makes.”
Senators of both parties on Wednesday expressed disappointment with Trump’s comments following the meeting with Putin and with the limited information that has come out in the week since it took place.
Multiple senators raised concerns about Russia’s request to speak with former Ambassador Michael McFaul and other Americans in exchange for allowing U.S. investigators to talk with accused Russian hackers. While Trump called the offer “incredible” during the Helsinki press conference, Pompeo assured senators Wednesday no such exchange will occur.
“Let me make clear: the United States will defend our team in the field and the team that’s been in the field when it retires and leaves the field,” Pompeo said. “We understand that Americans deserve the protection of the United States of America both during their time in service and thereafter.”
Senators also had questions about the Trump administration’s negotiations with North Korea, specifically whether North Korea’s definition of denuclearization is the same as the United States’.
Pompeo assured senators he believes the two countries are working with the same meaning of the word and was optimistic about the prospects of the negotiations going forward.
“We made clear what we view as the scope of denuclearization – it’s not dissimilar to how the U.N. has characterized it and how South Korea has characterized it, and when we did that the North Koreans said yes, we agree to denuclearize,” Pompeo said.
While Pompeo’s testimony gave insight into some of the administration’s most prominent and controversial foreign policy efforts, it also gave senators the opportunity to publicly voice their concerns.
Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, assured Pompeo that most of the concerns senators raised during the hearing were not directed at him, but rather at the president and his public comments, which Corker said often have not matched the administration’s official policy.
“Is there a strategy to this?” Corker asked. “What is it that causes the president to purposefully create distrust in these institutions and what we’re doing?”
Senator Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, expressed frustration that Pompeo’s testimony did not reveal much about the summit he didn’t already know.
Menendez further said that Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, would have been furious if President Barack Obama had conducted himself like Trump did in Helsinki.
“If President Obama did what President Trump did at Helsinki, I’d be peeling you off the Capitol ceiling, please,” Menendez said.