The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Mike Pompeo is getting testy with reporters

Then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 13. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

The Post reports:

Questions about perceived gaps in the joint statement signed by President Trump and Kim Jong Un are “insulting and ridiculous and frankly ludicrous,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Wednesday in Seoul, where he is briefing South Korea on Tuesday’s U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore.
Asked specifically about verification of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and whether it will be irreversible — objectives outlined by Trump but unmentioned in the statement — Pompeo said: “The modalities are beginning to develop. There will be a great deal of work to do. There’s a long way to go. There’s much to think about.”
But don’t say silly things,” he said. “No, don’t. It’s not productive.”
Pompeo said the statement’s reference to “complete” denuclearization “encompasses verifiable and irreversible.”

There is good reason for Pompeo to get irritated. If you have told the world you will get “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization” (now a term of art, CVID) and the document to sign doesn’t have all those parts, you have to explain why. Saying it’s implied is not an answer; if it was discussed and not put in the agreement, that’s actually worse. North Korea can maintain the position that it agreed only to what is in the document — no verification, no irreversibility — and the rest was simply discussion.

Pompeo insisted, “Not all of that work appeared in the final document. But lots of other places where there were understandings reached, we couldn’t reduce them to writing.” Really? Why not?

The Post also reports:

North Korea’s state-controlled media provided its version of events Wednesday, saying that Trump had promised to end joint military exercises with South Korea and to eventually lift sanctions. It said that he had also agreed to “step by step” denuclearization, rather than the rapid and irreversible process the administration said it was demanding.

Ending joint military exercises was not a concession the Trump team had voiced previously. Now that Trump gave it away, Pompeo says the exercises won’t take place if North Korea is negotiating in good faith. Really? That’s the oldest trick in the book — stall and when the United States says it will resume exercises, cry foul and blame the United States for the blowup. We are, quite frankly, giving away leverage before future negotiations.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Trump was prepared to provide North Korea with security assurances if the regime takes steps to denuclearize. (Video: Reuters)

North Korea has zero incentive to give up anything anytime soon. It has gotten legitimacy, it has gotten rid of the military exercises, and it has gotten Trump to purr like a kitten. (There is no nuclear threat from North Korea anymore, he announces, raising the question then as to why any more negotiations are needed.) This has become a caricature of the Iran negotiations with a sometimes prickly Secretary of State John F. Kerry insisting — wrongly, it turned out — that he was getting everything he wanted.

Congress has a role to play here, just as Republicans insisted during the Iran deal. The House and Senate foreign relations committees need to summon Pompeo to Capitol Hill to grill him. They can start with these questions:

  • Why was CVID as a complete phrase not in the deal?
  • Did North Korea object to CVID? If so, why did we relent?
  • Why did we present the repressive, barbaric ruler as a regular, even praiseworthy leader? Have we given up on human rights?
  • If we are negotiating for two years, are we holding off on new sanctions? Isn’t that what North Korea wants?
  • Is China loosening sanctions? Is that acceptable?
  • Did North Korea destroy that testing site?

Some of these questions need to be posed in closed session, but they still must be asked and answered. If lawmakers are kept in the dark or suspect Trump is caving, they can pass new sanctions over his veto threat. Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) introduced an amendment on Wednesday to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that would “help prevent the president from making a rash decision about troop reductions on the Korean Peninsula that would harm our national security.” In a written statement, Murphy said, “I’m freaked out that the president will order troops out of South Korea only for North Korea to, once again, break their word.” He added, “I’m all for bringing troops home when North Korea no longer poses an existential threat to our friends, but that day is a long time from now – and Congress needs to have a say.”

Deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl says the best way to negotiate with North Korea on nuclear weapons is to bring up human rights. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Congress should take the same approach with military exercises — if they are to be halted, the administration must report to Congress on the progress of the talks and on the security and diplomatic consequences of suspending exercises. Congress should also pass a resolution indicating its standards for confirming a North Korea deal. The administration is acting like irresponsible, giddy schoolboys. Ironically, it is Congress who must be the adults in the room.