Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters

Mike Pompeo came to Congress on Wednesday to brief members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Donald Trump’s recent summits with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un. But the appearance turned into something far more fundamental and extraordinary: an investigation into whether, on foreign policy, the current president of the United States speaks for the U.S. government, and whether U.S. officials such as the secretary of state speak for the president. Senators of both parties questioned what the Trump administration stands for, and whether Trump and his administration stand in the same place.

“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,” the Republican chairman of the committee, Bob Corker, told Pompeo as he began the hearing. The president, Corker noted, is “placating” adversaries such as North Korea and Russia with praise and mysterious pacts while “antagonizing” allies in Europe with tariffs and “false” statements about their contributions to NATO. “We really need a clear understanding as to what is going on, what our president is agreeing to, and what our strategy is on a number of issues.”

Pompeo stuck to policy, but in doing so he often exposed tensions between those policies and the positions staked out by the president presiding over them. In the case of Russia, for example, he issued a declaration that the United States would not recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea or lift sanctions on Russia until the peninsula is returned to Ukraine. Trump, however, has called for Russia to be readmitted into the Group of Seven industrialized nations despite its military intervention in Ukraine, and occasionally declined to rule out easing sanctions or recognizing Crimea as Russian territory. Pompeo boasted that in response to Russian bad behavior the Trump administration had imposed hundreds of sanctions, expelled dozens of Russian spies, and invested billions of dollars in defending Europe. Trump, however, has blamed poor relations between Russia and the United States entirely on American “foolishness” and U.S. government investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Pompeo stated that Trump “accepts our intelligence community conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.” Trump, however, in making the same statement last week after suggesting the opposite during his meeting with Putin, added, “Could be other people also; there’s a lot of people out there.”

At times, Pompeo appeared to be clinging to U.S. policy as if it were a life vest in waters churned up by the president’s words and actions. Grilled by the Democrats Bob Menendez and Jeanne Shaheen on what Trump discussed with Putin during their private one-on-one meeting in Finland, the secretary of state again and again pointed out that the summit had resulted in no change in U.S. policy on matters such as relieving sanctions and withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria. Deflecting questions about what had transpired between Trump and Putin behind closed doors, Pompeo argued, “What matters is what President Trump has directed us to do.”

At one point, Corker applauded the Trump administration’s policies and described Pompeo as a “patriot” but added, “It’s the president [who] causes people to have concerns.” Citing recent statements such as the equivalence Trump drew between the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community and denials from Putin, and the president’s suggestion in a recent interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson that he might not honor America’s commitment through NATO to defend Montenegro from attack, Corker asked, incredulously, “Why does he do those things?”

Pompeo registered his disagreement with Corker. “You somehow disconnect the administration’s activities from the president’s actions,” he responded. “They’re one and the same. Every sanction that was put in place [against Russia] was signed off by the president of the United States. Every [Russian] spy that was removed was” ejected by Trump. “This is President Trump’s administration. Make no mistake who is fully in charge.”

In perhaps the most revealing exchange of the hearing, the Democrat Chris Murphy pressed Pompeo about Trump’s tweet earlier this week stating that Russian meddling in the 2016 election was “a big hoax,” notwithstanding the prepared remarks he had delivered just days earlier admitting that it was not a hoax. “We focus on words from the president because our allies and our adversaries listen to those words and they calibrate their actions based upon those words,” Murphy said. “Why shouldn’t we accept this most recent statement from the president as U.S. policy?”

Pompeo pointed to several times in the past in which Trump had acknowledged Russia’s intervention in the U.S. presidential race, explaining, “I am laying out for you American policy.”

Murphy then asked whether Trump’s comments to Carlson about the folly of coming to Montenegro’s defense were also U.S. policy. “I know you are going to tell me today that the official policy of the United States is to defend Montenegro and our NATO allies,” Murphy noted, but Trump’s statements may send a signal to Putin that a “hybrid … disguised attack” against NATO’s newest member wouldn’t invite U.S. retaliation.

“Senator, the policies are themselves statements,” Pompeo responded. “Indeed, they’re the most important statements that the administration makes.”

“Policies are statements and statements are policies,” Murphy shot back.

“No, that’s not true,” Pompeo said. “I make lots of statements” that don’t become U.S. policy. While the president “says things” and “makes comments in certain places,” he explained, the administration has a formal process for developing and implementing policies.

“How do I know the difference between a presidential statement that is not a policy and a statement that is?” Murphy inquired.

The question was never really answered.

By the end of the hearing, Pompeo was backtracking from the distinction he’d drawn between the president’s remarks and U.S. policy.

“I misspoke,” Pompeo told the senators. The president’s “statements are in fact policy. It’s the case that when all of us speak in informal settings in response to questions, we’re not covering the full gamut of things that impact the world. That’s what I intended to say … This president runs this government.”

That same day, after news broke of Pompeo’s declaration that the U.S. government would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russia’s Foreign Ministry agreed with Pompeo that it was ultimately Donald Trump who was in charge. Staying in the Paris climate-change accord and Iran nuclear deal were also once U.S. policies, the ministry’s spokeswoman observed, but Trump “decided in a different way.”

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