WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about the president’s inflammatory election tweets on Thursday during a combative Senate hearing that also touched on Russian bounties, China’s global ambitions and other foreign policy flashpoints.
Pompeo was ostensibly called before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to discuss President Donald Trump’s State Department budget request for the next fiscal year. But there were no questions about that document, which one Democrat declared “dead on arrival” because it calls for a 34% slash in funding.
Instead, lawmakers pressed Pompeo on everything from Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to his “fawning praise” for China’s Xi Jinping.
Here are four takeaways from Thursday’s hearing:
A delay in the 2020 election? ‘I don’t think that’s a hard question’
Pompeo – a Harvard educated lawyer – was grilled about the president’s tweets on Thursday in which he floated delaying the 2020 presidential election and claimed that mail-in ballots were vulnerable to foreign interference. Trump has no power to delay the Nov. 3 contest, and experts have debunked Trump’s claims of foreign meddling in mail-in ballots.
But Pompeo refused to refute the idea that Trump could delay the election.
“I’m not gonna enter a legal judgment on that on the fly,” Pompeo responded when pressed on the matter by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “The Department of Justice and others will have to make that legal determination.”
Kaine expressed disbelief that Pompeo ducked the question, noting it is clearly established that Trump does not have that power.
“I don’t think it’s that hard a question … that should lead to any equivocation by somebody who’s fourth in line of succession to be president of the United States,” the Virginia Democrat said.
Pompeo also seemed to lend credence to Trump’s allegation that mail-in ballots could be subject to fraud – even though many of the State Department’s diplomats and other staff vote this way and even though Pompeo himself said he had voted absentee in past elections.
“Having a small group of people vote by absentee ballot is very different than deciding that you’re going to conduct a full” vote-by-mail program, Pompeo said.
“Those are two fundamentally different beasts. I’ll leave to the professionals to identify the level of risk associated with that,” Pompeo said, adding that it was “a difficult task” to change voting rules close to an election.
Trump’s China policy: ‘Fawning praise’ or hard line?
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was one of the only GOP senators to criticize Trump’s foreign policy during the hearing, and he did not hold back. He called Trump out for his “fawning praise” of Xi, blasted the president’s decision to reduce U.S. troop levels in Germany, and slammed the White House for picking fights with European allies.
But Romney started out with a soft touch – praising Pompeo’s recent speech casting China as a threat to U.S. democracy and national security.
“It’s a very welcomed assessment, a very clear-eyed evaluation of China’s intent,” Romney said. “It’s also a welcome departure from the president’s fawning praise of Xi Jinping and (his) celebration of agreements that China hasn’t honored. It’s also in my view inconsistent with actions that we’ve taken that have offended our allies at a time we need to be drawing them closer to us.”
Romney cited Trump’s decision to move 12,000 U.S. troops out of Germany, which the president said on Wednesday was tied to his anger over Germany’s failure to meet NATO defense spending goals.
“I have heard from highest levels of the German government that this is seen by them as an insult to Germany,” Romney said. “And I can’t imagine – at a time when we need to be drawing in our friends and allies so that we can collectively confront China – that we want to insult them.”
Other lawmakers called the U.S. withdrawal from Germany a gift to Putin, an assertion Pompeo rejected. He said the decision came out of a “thoughtful process” and expressed confidence that NATO would still be able to deter Russian aggression.
Should Trump tell Putin to ‘back off’ paying bounties for U.S. troops?
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., pressed Pompeo to explain why Trump has not confronted Putin over allegations that Moscow offered bounties to Taliban-linked fighters to kill American troops.
“I have never discussed it with him,” Trump said in a soon-to-be-aired interview with “Axios on HBO.”
Pompeo would not comment on news reports, which cited U.S. intelligence, about the Kremlin’s alleged scheme. But he suggested that he had pressed Russian officials on the matter in multiple conversations.
“Do you think it would be helpful for President Trump to talk to Vladimir Putin and tell him that he needs to back off in terms of paying the Taliban to kill American troops?” Shaheen pressed.
“I always leave to the president what he wants to say to other leaders,” Pompeo responded. “I don’t think there’s any doubt in the mind of every Russian leader, including Vladimir Putin, about the expectations of the United States of America not to kill Americans.”
‘They need to get out more’: Pompeo slams big tech execs on China theft
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., asked Pompeo about Wednesday’s testimony by the CEOs of major U.S. technology companies: Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple.
Gardner noted that they were asked about Chinese theft of American intellectual property. Only Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the threat, saying it was “well documented that the Chinese government steals technology from American companies,” while the others said they had no first-hand experience with the problem.
“They need to get out more,” Pompeo said. “The idea that anyone in the tech space could not know of what the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to steal and the cyberattacks they’re making seems incredulous.”
Romney warned against attacking the U.S. tech giants, saying it could play into China’s hands.
“China has been successful in driving a lot of Western companies out of business … We need to be careful not to flex our muscle and berate those entities that are successful and are beating China,” he said.
“Alibaba would like to replace Amazon. TikTok would like to replace Instagram,” he added, referring to Chinese social media companies that are competing with U.S. firms.