Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Picture: REUTERS/AARON P. BERNSTEIN
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Picture: REUTERS/AARON P. BERNSTEIN

Washington (Bloomberg) — Secretary of State Michael Pompeo confronted harsh bipartisan questioning at the start of a Senate hearing dominated by legislators’ ire over President Donald Trump’s policies towards Russia and his trade strategy.

"You come before a group of senators today who are filled with serious doubts about this White House and its conduct of American foreign policy," Republican Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in his opening statement. "I can’t say it more forcefully. We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on."

Corker also slammed the administration’s trade war with China and allies in Europe. White House briefings on trade policy have left senators without "a sense that there’s a coherent strategy driving these policies", said Corker who is retiring from the Senate and has had a contentious relationship with Trump.

"The administration tells us, ‘Don’t worry, be patient, there’s a strategy here,’ but from where we sit it appears that in a ready-fire-aim fashion the White House is waking up every morning and making it up as they go," he said.

Private meetings

During a combative back-and-forth with Senator Bob Menendez, the panel’s top Democrat, Pompeo defended Trump’s decision to meet one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their summit last week in Helsinki. Pompeo said the president "is entitled to have private meetings" and that Trump and Putin gave a summary of their talks in a subsequent meeting with aides. "I think I have a pretty complete understanding" of what was discussed, he said.

Pompeo later added that he had been asked to follow up on a number of general agreements with Russia from the summit, including establishing business-to-business leadership exchanges, re-establishing a counterterrorism council held at the deputy secretary of state level and trying to get "Russia to be more co-operative" in finding a solution to the crisis in Syria.

Pompeo arrived at the hearing seeking to quickly tamp down concern about Trump’s stance on Russia, telling lawmakers that the president fully understands the scope of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US election. But he added, "President Trump believes that two great nuclear powers should not have such a contentious relationship."

House arrest

The top US diplomat touted a State Department proclamation just before the hearing emphasising that the administration remains opposed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Pompeo also praised Turkey’s decision to put a US pastor who had been jailed under house arrest instead.

But senators pushed back, seeking assurances that the president would not ease sanctions on Russia and that North Korea remains committed to complete denuclearisation after talks Pompeo held with a top aide to leader Kim Jong Un this month in Pyongyang seemed to stall.

In a sign of the frustration in Congress over Russia policy, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democrat Menendez have said they will introduce legislation to increase US sanctions against Russia that would target its sovereign debt as well as the country’s energy and financial sectors.

Pompeo’s earlier appearances before legislators were not so fraught. The former CIA director and House member was greeted with relief because he replaced Rex Tillerson, who had little support in Congress or his own department by the time Trump fired him via Twitter in March. And Pompeo, who took over at the State Department in April, had some early successes engaging with North Korea and winning freedom for three Americans detained there.