In case you haven’t heard enough about Vladimir Putin, get ready for more Moscow talk on Wednesday when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gets grilled by the U.S. Senate on foreign policy — in particular Russia and North Korea.
Sometimes Pompeo sides with President Donald Trump; sometimes not. Which secretary of state, will show up during the Congressional hearing? And how will Pompeo — a master of not answering questions — answer these questions?
Members of Congress want to know what Trump and Putin spoke about during their two-hour meeting in Helsinki last week. They will press Pompeo to share details. With only interpreters in the room when the two leaders met, it falls to senior administration officials like Pompeo to interpret the meeting and to reassure the public that nothing untoward was agreed to by the United States.
Moreover, Pompeo will have to defend why another summit with Russia is a good idea. Pompeo has said Trump’s invitation to Putin to visit the White House in the fall is a positive development in that it promotes good relations with an important country. But others, including some Republican members of Congress, don’t agree because they see Putin as the major meddler in the 2016 presidential election and a bad actor on the world stage — one who doesn’t deserve the honor of being wined and dined in Washington.
Pompeo is likely to be met with resistance by Democratic senators but also by a growing chorus of Republican ones who want to see Russia punished with more sanctions for its annexation of Crimea and its interference in U.S. elections.
Pompeo will be asked about the June meeting with North Korea President Kim Jong Un. Pompeo is a hard-liner when it comes to Pyongyang and recently called on the United Nations to impose more sanctions on North Korea because it is smuggling in refined petroleum products, thus violating the current sanctions regime.
While Pompeo shares the Trump policy of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, he is suspicious of Kim’s commitments. Members of Congress will want to know exactly what has been accomplished from Trump’s outreach to North Korea. The answer? Not much.
Our Twitter-in-Chief has been busy this week railing against Iranian leaders. Iran is an issue on which Trump, Pompeo and most of the administration agree. Pompeo has sided with Trump on the decision to rip up the nuclear deal with Iran.
Going one step further, Pompeo recently told an audience in California, a state that has a large Iranian-American community, that he would like to Iranians who live in the United States to engage in the campaign to discredit the government in Tehran. But would he go far enough to call for regime change in Iran? Probably not, but the question will get asked.
It’s unclear how Pompeo feels about the increasing number of Chinese goods subject to tariffs by the U.S. government, but he has repeatedly taken China to task on such issues as freedom of religion.
At the same time, Pompeo has been accused of having had business dealings with China prior to government service. Most of his rhetoric on China, however, is consistent with Trump’s anti-China positions, including viewing the nation as a national security threat.
Where Trump and Pompeo wildly disagree is on the strategic importance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Within weeks of being confirmed as secretary of state, Pompeo flew to Brussels to assure NATO allies that America is in its corner. According to some reports, he charmed European leaders. Yet Pompeo’s embrace of strong sanctions against Iran has not gained him many European friends who want to do business with Tehran.
As the need for Trump to have cheerleaders inside government increases against the roar of dissatisfaction with his foreign policy, Pompeo is someone the American president relies on to support him. How Pompeo walks the line between criticism of his boss and cozying up to him will be the most interesting wild card to watch during Wednesday’s hearing. For sure, Putin will watch closely to see whether Trump has managed to sway public opinion in his favor.
If Putin plans to visit Washington in the fall, this hearing might change his mind.
Tara D. Sonenshine served as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She covered Russia for ABC News and is career adviser at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.