When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, members were champing at the bit to get answers to the burning question in Washington: What did (or didn't) President Trump deliver to Vladimir Putin in their one-on-one meeting in Helsinki, at which only interpreters were present?
The question is hot because Trump was so deferential at the infamous joint news conference, where he said he trusted Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies. With acquiescence like that, who knows what Trump might have given away, since he didn't brief his intel chiefs — or much of anyone else. Yet the Russians have been leaking claims that the leaders made "important verbal agreements," perhaps on Syria or Ukraine or nuclear accords.
"We have no idea what these [agreements] might be," Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) said in frustration to Pompeo. "We hope you can convince us that those in the White House know what they are doing and you know what they are doing." The secretary insisted U.S. policies didn't change in Helsinki and revealed nothing. (He dodged the question of whether Trump had even briefed him.)
An angry Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) retorted, "When the president speaks, it is the policy of the United States." Indeed, the problem lies not with confusing White House policies, but with an ill-informed president who trusts despots more than his allies.
It is up to the Senate – where several senators are drafting bipartisan bills to crack down further on Russia – to rein this rogue in.
Pompeo's performance was part of a mammoth damage-control effort underway after the summit. Just before he testified, the White House announced that a second summit with Putin – proposed suddenly by Trump last week – would be postponed until next year. Criticism was mounting of the president's hasty decision to invite the Russian leader to Washington just before midterm elections, in which U.S. officials know the Russians are planning to meddle.
At the hearing, the secretary announced a new Crimea doctrine: the United States will refuse to recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, and sanctions won't be lifted until Ukraine's territorial integrity is restored. But why is this doctrine being unveiled four years after Russia seized Crimea? Answer: Trump indicated before Helsinki that he thought Crimea was Russian, so speculation had risen that he might have conceded Crimea to Putin.
Trump's trust in Putin also leaves open the possibility that the president might have accepted the Russian claim that their troops and proxies never invaded eastern Ukraine. Or Putin's denial that a Russian missile shot down a Malaysian Airlines flight over Ukraine, killing nearly 300 civilians.
After all, if Trump could accept Putin's proposal that Russian intelligence agents be allowed to interrogate a former U.S. ambassador, what wouldn't he agree to?
The problem is not that a U.S. president talks to a Russia leader, but that this U.S. president doesn't know how to deal with an ex-KGB officer. It beggars believe that Trump was enticed by Putin's proposal for U.S.-Russian cooperation on cyber security. That would be like inviting the hackers into our National Security Agency.
More Trump naivete: Putin now says our two countries could work together on humanitarian aid in Syria, and Trump appeared willing. But humanitarian aid is the main U.S. lever for getting Bashar al-Assad to engage seriously in U.N.-led peace negotiations. "Russia would like to get our troops out and get us to shoulder the burden of reconstruction while Putin controls the entire process," says Stephen Blank, a Russia expert and longtime professor at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. We don't know if Trump gave away that lever for naught.
And even if Trump told Pompeo some details about his tete-a-tete with Putin, we can't be certain he wasn't lying. After all, the White House is even trying to whitewash what was said at the joint news conference on July 16.
Putin was asked whether he had wanted Trump to win the 2016 election, and answered, "Yes, I did." But the White House has excised that question and Putin's response from the White House transcript. They have doctored an official document, even though anyone can watch the original press conference on YouTube.
No surprise, Trump has started tweeting that the Russians "will be pushing very hard for the Democrats" in the U.S. midterm elections, claiming, "They definitely don't want Trump." That lie is so blatant, why expect Trump to tell anyone what went down at the Helsinki meeting?
It's time for GOP senators like Corker to call Trump's translator to testify. And to move forward with bipartisan legislation that will tighten sanctions on Russia and force the White House to organize a government-wide pushback against Russian cyber espionage. Waiting for Trump truth about Helsinki is like waiting for Godot.