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Pompeo clashes with lawmakers over troop withdrawal in Germany and watchdog firing

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on July 30. (Greg Nash/AP)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clashed bitterly with Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday in his first visit to the panel in more than a year.

Lawmakers grilled the nation’s top diplomat about an array of issues, including the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany and Pompeo’s firing of the department’s internal watchdog, who had been investigating alleged wrongdoing by him and his wife.

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), said the administration had “abetted” Russian President Vladimir Putin by withdrawing the troops from Germany. He also took aim at the central focus of Pompeo’s tenure, Iran, noting that the country “is much closer to a nuclear bomb than when you came into office,” and criticized Pompeo’s “maximum pressure campaign” for failing to stop Iran’s aggressive actions in the Middle East.

Speaking in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the "tide is turning" on China July 30. (Video: Reuters)

Menendez said that for all of Pompeo’s “bluster against China,” it has not stopped Beijing’s “march in the South China Sea” or its “suppressing and oppressing its own people” in Hong Kong.

“Under your watch, the United States has faced setback after setback on the world stage, ceding leverage and influence to our stated adversaries,” Menendez said.

Pompeo flatly rejected that the administration had helped Putin in any way, saying no U.S. administration in history has been tougher on Russia and boasting that “300 Russians who were in Syria” are “no longer on the planet,” in reference to a 2018 skirmish in Syria that resulted in the United States’ killing of dozens of Russian military contractors.

“This administration has acted to protect our interests and our friends,” Pompeo said in his testimony.

On the U.S. withdrawal in Germany, which President Trump has complained has not paid its fair share for its own defense, Pompeo noted that U.S. troops would be moved to other areas in Europe, including closer to Russia’s border. U.S. forces will move to Italy, Belgium and back to the United States, according to the Pentagon.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) noted that Russia was the only country that “publicly supported” the removal of troops. Pompeo responded that the U.S. troops would be “fully available” to be redeployed if needed, and noted the Kremlin was irritated that some troops would be moved closer to the Russian border.

In underscoring his knowledge of the issue, Pompeo said, “I fought on the border of East Germany” during his service in the Army during the Cold War. Shaheen shot back, noting that “your unit is coming back to the United States” as a result of the policy change.

Menendez asked Pompeo if he pressed Russian officials about allegations that Moscow offered bounties to the Afghan Taliban to kill U.S. and coalition soldiers there. Pompeo refused to say if he specifically brought up that allegation but said he broadly raises U.S. concerns with his Russian counterparts on a regular basis.

This week, Trump told an Axios reporter that he did not raise the bounty issue in his discussions with Putin because he questioned the intelligence.

Pompeo also acknowledged that he recommended that the State Department’s internal watchdog be fired. The inspector general, Steve Linick, was looking into allegations that Pompeo and his wife, Susan, inappropriately had staff and diplomatic security do personal chores for them, such as picking up takeout and other errands, and whether Pompeo improperly pushed through arms sales packages to Saudi Arabia over the objections of Congress.

Pompeo denied any knowledge of Linick’s investigations, with the exception of the Saudi arms probe, but said that wasn’t the motivation for his decision.

Republicans broadly defended the Trump administration’s record on foreign policy, with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), who criticized Trump’s “fawning praise” of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the troop withdrawal in Germany. Romney said he had heard “from the highest levels of the German government” that the decision was seen as an insult to an important ally.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) asked Pompeo about the appropriateness of Trump’s suggestion on Twitter on Thursday that the U.S. presidential election in November should be delayed. Pompeo declined to say if that would be illegal or wrong, merely noting that the election “should happen lawfully.”