US President Donald Trump on Wednesday delayed a second summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while his top diplomat insisted that there was no let-up against Moscow following the two leaders’ controversial meeting in Helsinki.
Facing mounting calls to release the details of Trump’s closed-door talks with Putin, the US administration stepped up its damage control operation, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo going before the US Congress to defend his boss.
Trump himself, under fire for plans to invite Putin to the White House in the fall, opted to delay the meeting until next year — pushing the talks back until US special counsel Robert Mueller has completed his probe into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election, trump’s national security advisor John Bolton said.
Pompeo also went on the offensive to stress the steps Trump had taken to show resolve against the Kremlin, stepping into a white-hot spotlight during a three-hour grilling by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The top diplomat said that he would back bipartisan efforts in Congress to slap new sanctions on Russia in response to its meddling in the election and as a deterrent against meddling this year or in 2020.
“I personally made clear to the Russians that there will be severe consequences for interference in our democratic processes,” he said in his opening statement.
However, Pompeo remained vague about perhaps the biggest question of all: What transpired in the private meeting between Trump and Putin?
Pompeo reaffirmed as official policy that the US “rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea” — an issue on which Trump had appeared to waver.
And with the US president accused — including by members of his own Republican Party — of casting doubt on NATO’s founding principle of mutual defense, Pompeo sought to smooth ruffled feathers.
“NATO will remain an indispensable pillar of American national security,” he said. “We know weakness provokes our enemies, but strength and cohesion protect us.”
On the North Korea front, Pompeo also struck a resolute tone, warning that Washington would not let nuclear negotiations drag on with no success, amid criticism that Trump’s summit in Singapore last month with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has so far yielded few results.
“We are engaged in patient diplomacy, but we will not let this drag out to no end,” Pompeo said.
However, while he said that North Koreans “understand precisely our definition of denuclearization and have agreed to denuclearize,” Pompeo also confirmed in the hearing that Pyongyang continues to make nuclear fissile material.
Pompeo also said he believes that North Korea remains the most urgent national security threat to the US.
Lawmakers — and the US’ allies around the world — have been eager to learn the details of Trump’s one-on-one July 16 meeting with Putin, including whether Trump made any secret promises to Putin or as-yet-undisclosed verbal agreements.
US Republicans and Democrats alike have described Trump’s performance as a betrayal of US interests and too conciliatory toward Putin.
The hearing quickly turned testy as lawmakers sought details on what exactly transpired in the Finnish capital.
“I don’t think that’s unfair to know,” US Senator Robert Menendez, the panel’s top Democrat, told Pompeo. “Did he tell Putin that he’ll release or ultimately relax sanctions?”
“Senator, what you need to conduct your role, your appropriate role, I will provide you today,” a steely Pompeo shot back, without answering the question.
While Pompeo gave no hints of any secret promises or deals between the presidents, the US Department of State has said that three “modest proposals” emerged from the summit: a high-level business leaders’ working group; a council of US and Russian political experts, diplomats and military officials; and discussions between the two presidents’ national security staffs.
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