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Pompeo defends U.S. summits with North Korea, Russia at Senate hearing

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participated in three hours of sometimes adversarial questioning on Wednesday during testimony to the Senate's foreign relations committee.

The majority of the questions focused on President Donald Trump's recent summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.   

During his opening statement, Pompeo said the U.S. is engaged with "patient diplomacy" with North Korea but won't let negotiations "drag out to no end."

He also said the Trump administration's goals on North Korea are unchanged and the "objective remains the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea as agreed to by Chairman Kim Jong-un."

Pompeo dodged questions about specifics on how North Korea defines "complete denuclearization" but said he "will concede there is an awful long way to go" following a summit between Trump and Kim.

When asked to detail verifiable evidence of progress toward denuclearization, Pompeo stated, "We are sitting at the table having conversations."

Pompeo maintained the goal for ongoing meetings with North Korea is to reach 'fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.' (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Pompeo also pointed to a report this week from an American research group that the North has begun dismantling its main missile-engine test site. The report was based on an analysis of satellite imagery by the website 38 North.

Following the Singapore summit, Trump declared Pyongyang was already returning long-sought remains of Americans killed during the Korean War, which was not accurate. He later modified his comments, saying North Korea had "already sent back or are in the process of sending back" remains. On Wednesday, Pompeo said the remains would be returned "in relatively short order."

After Pompeo's most recent trip to North Korea, Kim accused the envoy of making "gangster-like" demands.

Tough talk on Crimea

Before the hearing started, the administration tried to get ahead of questions about Trump's relationship with Russia by postponing a second proposed summit with Putin and issuing a statement declaring that the U.S. will never recognize the annexation of Crimea.

Pompeo issued a statement titled the "Crimea Declaration" that said the U.S. will continue to insist that Ukraine's territorial integrity be restored. He said the U.S. would hold to its long-standing principle of refusing to recognize Kremlin claims of sovereignty over territory seized by force in violation of international law. And he called for Russia to respect principles it claims to respect and "end its occupation of Crimea."

"In concert with allies, partners, and the international community, the United States rejects Russia's attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine's territorial integrity is restored," Pompeo said in the declaration, which was released by the State Department shortly before he was to testify.

Even before it was released, Pompeo was taking a tough line on Russia and defending the Trump-Putin meeting as he prepared for his Senate testimony.

'Constructive engagement'

In an interview transcript released ahead of the Crimea statement, Pompeo said Trump and Putin "didn't find much place to agree" on Ukraine when they met in Finland last week. He said Trump made clear to Putin that the so-called Minsk Accords to settle the Ukraine conflict is the right path forward.

He also reiterated U.S. support for an investigation that held Russia responsible for downing a Malaysian airliner over east Ukraine in 2014. Pompeo said that what the Russians did was "deeply immoral" and that those responsible for the MH17 disaster should be held accountable.

Before the Senate hearing began, Pompeo released a 'Crimea Declaration,' which stated the U.S. would not recognize Russia's claims of sovereignty over the territory. (Mauri Ratilainen/EPA-EFE)

Pompeo made the comments in a Tuesday interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in California, where he and Defence Secretary James Mattis co-hosted meetings this week with their Australian counterparts.

In the interview, Pompeo acknowledged he was not in the room when Trump and Putin met for nearly two hours in Helsinki. But he said he had a "good understanding" of what took place based on his presence at a larger meeting between the two sides as well as conversations with Trump and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"It was an incredibly constructive engagement for President Trump and President Putin, an important one for the world," Pompeo said. "These are two nuclear superpowers. They ought to be engaged in conversations, and they covered a wide range of topics. They disagreed on many things but also set forward some constructive paths on important topics."

Earlier Wednesday, national security adviser John Bolton cited special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as the reason for delaying the second summit.

"The president believes that the next bilateral meeting with President Putin should take place after the Russia witch hunt is over, so we've agreed that it will be after the first of the year," Bolton said.

The White House said last week that Trump had directed Bolton to invite Putin to Washington for a meeting in the fall. This came amid the backlash over Trump's performance at a news conference with Putin following their Helsinki summit, and many members of Congress had objected to them meeting again in the fall.

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Trump's 'déjà vu' Eurotrip: Upcoming Putin, NATO summits raise concerns after G7 debacle

There's an old Russian saying that U.S. President Donald Trump might heed as he departs Tuesday for a week of high-level meetings in Europe, including one with a foreign foe. It goes: "Repetition is the mother of learning."

Those words may help him navigate a familiar scenario — a potentially strained meeting with allies just ahead of a tête-à-tête with a major U.S. adversary.

"Déjà vu is one way of thinking about it," said Alina Polyakova, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the D.C.-based Brookings Institution.

It was only last month that Trump travelled abroad to meet, then insult one of his country's closest allies, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, before he departed to laud a Western adversary, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

NATO members "are trying to understand what this president might do, and watching how he's interacted with other authoritarians — Kim being the most prominent recent example," Polyakova said.

"They're trying to take lessons from that."

But if it's solidarity the alliance of 29 North American and European powers is after, Trump seems comfortable playing the role of disrupter, lashing out at members over military spending while treating Russian President Vladimir Putin amicably.

'Europe is almost powerless'

Trump will enter the talks in Brussels amid an already strained relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Last week, the White House sent missives to several NATO leaders, including Trudeau, admonishing the U.S. allies for their defence spending shortfalls, though the spending guidelines are not formal rules, only targets.

This photo of G7 leaders and advisers at the G7 summit was posted to the Instagram account of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, centre, on June 9. (Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government via AP)

Making things more awkward will be the steep tariffs the U.S. is imposing on imported steel and aluminum from the EU, Canada and Mexico.

In June, Trump departed the G7 in Quebec, then rejected a joint communiqué, in order to meet with Kim in Singapore. Now, NATO members are reportedly concerned about whether the president will renege on U.S. commitments to the alliance before his one-on-one with Putin.

The Europeans won't like the sequencing, Polyakova said, especially if a routine diplomatic affair goes off the rails, as the G7 did, leading right into a "glowing meeting of Trump and Putin." 

"It's like Europe is almost powerless as they have to sit by and watch as their fates are decided by two men," she said, the implication being that Russia is back at the table with superpower status.

Putin would likely request a lifting of sanctions, she said.

'Putin's wish list'

Trump reportedly hinted at the G7 that Crimea in Ukraine should belong to Russia, reasoning that most citizens there speak Russian. But legitimization of Russian annexation of Crimea would be a huge win for Putin, possibly incentivizing other land grabs, said Brian Klaas, author of The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy.

"It's not just about Ukrainian territory, it's about a bedrock principle that has created international security and prosperity since World War Two, and that's the principle that you can't divide by force."

The Western world is held together by NATO and the European Union, and Trump is attacking them.– Brian  Klaas , author of  The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy

Alliance members worry that the U.S. would withdraw its forward presence in Baltic states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, leaving them vulnerable to a possible Russian military offensive.

If Trump was distracted during the G7 by his summit with Kim, his planned sit-down with Putin threatens to overshadow NATO discussions set to begin on Wednesday, said Klaas, a comparative-politics fellow at the London School of Economics.

"The Western world is held together by NATO and the European Union, and Trump is attacking them at the same time he's trying to make friends with Putin."

After all, he said, "NATO exists largely to deter Russian aggression."

A weakened NATO and a U.S. president who's seemingly reluctant to criticize the Kremlin "are literally what Putin's wish list has been for the last two decades."

Article 5 'in question again'

How Trump can square his commitments to what the alliance stands for with a cozier relationship with the Kremlin will likely keep NATO members on edge. They will want reassurances from the Americans, Klaas said, and Trump campaigned in the 2016 election as a NATO skeptic.

It took Trump nearly half a year into his presidency for him to formally endorse NATO's Article 5 principle of collective defence, in which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all allies.

"I think that's up in question again," Klaas said.

Polyakova's worry, based on reports of satellite images showing ongoing nuclear activity in North Korea, is what kind of concessions Putin may be able to extract from Trump "without getting much in return, if anything at all."

Kim may have deceived this administration, she said, "but Putin has shown himself to be absolutely untrustworthy as a partner, potentially more so than Kim."

Experts expect Trump to continue pressing NATO allies toward more burden-sharing, in line with a 2024 goal for members to contribute two per cent of their GDP on defence.

Russian matryoshka dolls depicting Putin and Trump are on sale in the Ruslania bookstore in Helsinki Monday. (REUTERS)

In 2014, only four partners were meeting those targets. Trump wants more. His lobbying may have succeeded in that regard: eight countries now meet the spending targets.

"That's already a positive move," said Elena Sokova, a nonproliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in California. "Because no matter how you slice and dice it, there's a need for countries to be stepping up their spending for allocations for the military budgets."

Despite the president's rhetoric, his administration has arguably reinvigorated NATO, hiking spending on European defence by approving $ 6.3 billion.

A more fortified NATO is bad news for Putin, though he's at least scored a win by securing a meeting with Trump.

The president, for his part, said he is "looking forward" to the meeting in Finland, though one of his tweets on Monday raised eyebrows about just how willing he'll be to take the Russian leader to task.

Following reports that Kim had not honoured what Trump termed a denuclearization "contract," Trump wrote that he remained confident the North Korean would stay true to his word, based on "our handshake."


That reminded Sokova of Trump's rationale for doubting the Russians meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump said he was certain because Putin told him so.

"You could say that's the equivalent of a handshake," Sokova said.

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