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Pompeo promises ‘zero concessions’ to North Korea until ‘credible steps’ are made

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to testify at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prepares to testify at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought Wednesday to mitigate lawmakers’ concerns that President Trump’s diplomatic venture with North Korea is faltering, stressing that the United States has not made any concessions to the regime and will continue to hold firm until Pyongyang takes “credible steps” toward denuclearization.

“We have made zero concessions to Chairman Kim to date, and we have no intention of doing so,” Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday during his first congressional grilling as secretary of state, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Pompeo’s trip to Capitol Hill came as the White House has signaled doubts about its timeline for talks with North Korea on scaling back its nuclear ambitions in exchange for the mitigation of sanctions. On Tuesday, Trump said there was a “substantial chance” that the summit would be canceled as it emerged that North Korean officials skipped a planning meeting in Singapore last week. 

Pompeo told lawmakers Wednesday that plans are in place to hold the historic meeting on June 12, although he added, “That decision will ultimately be up to Chairman Kim.”

Trump suggests N. Korea summit could fall through

Pompeo assumed a similarly hard line on resuming talks with Iran, promising to “apply unprecedented financial pressure” and suggesting that economic sanctions are just one of several measures the United States will use against the regime in Tehran. To achieve a new nuclear deal, he added, Iran “simply needs to change its behavior.”

He did not back off the Trump administration’s threat to apply sanctions to European companies that do business with Iran, saying companies must wind down operations in Iran or face penalties, and promised lawmakers that “we will come back to you seeking further authority” for additional measures to squeeze Tehran.

The hearing turned combative as Democrats challenged Pompeo for presenting Congress with a State Department budget that maintains deep cuts to diplomatic and developmental activities — a budget that Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, called “insulting” and predicted that Congress would reject.

Pompeo told lawmakers that he stood behind the administration’s $39.3 billion request for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development — more than $16 billion less than was budgeted for the fiscal cycle — even though Congress rejected a similar cut to State Department coffers last year.

“I will ensure that the State Department has every dollar it needs to achieve its mission around the world . . . and not one dollar more,” Pompeo told lawmakers.

The comment stands in sharp contrast to the stance Pompeo took during his confirmation hearing last month, when he told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he would “take the extra dollar” if Congress offered him more money for the State Department.

Pompeo had indicated to lawmakers that he would attempt to revive the State Department after many accused his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, of starving it through budget cuts and hiring freezes. Pompeo said Wednesday that “the freeze is no longer” and hinted that the administration would soon announce nominees to fill several lingering vacancies.

“I’m looking forward to getting the whole team built back,” he said.

But lawmakers expressed alarm that Pompeo doubled down defending budget cuts almost as draconian as the ones the administration had proposed under Tillerson. 

Tillerson “said almost exactly the same thing that you said,” Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) told Pompeo. “I’m worried about that aspect of it.”

Pompeo refused to give direct answers when Democrats challenged him to articulate whether the Trump Organization’s financial dealings in countries with which the United States was locked in negotiations, or whether Trump’s apparent eagerness to help China save the technology firm ZTE despite security concerns, were appropriate.

Rep. William R. Keating (D-Mass.) asked whether Pompeo would at least be willing to tell the president not to use a ZTE phone — in line with a government-wide ban on ZTE products that lawmakers are trying to impose as part of the annual defense authorization bill. 

“You can’t do that for America?” Keating asked.

Pompeo said he would not comment on personal conversations with the president.

Pompeo also offered only measured assurances to Democrats who said the Trump administration had given Russia “a pass” after its interference in the U.S. electoral process. Pompeo said the Trump administration would take “appropriate countermeasures” to fend off “continued efforts” by Moscow to interfere in the coming 2018 congressional midterm elections, but he did not specify what those actions would be.

Pompeo also struck a tone similar to Trump’s when it came to NATO and Europe, echoing the president’s increasingly ascetic posture toward U.S. allies by saying it was “time for other nations, especially those with high GDP, to assume greater responsibilities and devote greater resources toward our common objectives.”

“We expect good help, good financial support from our partners and allies,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo also had particularly harsh words for NATO member Turkey, which has been criticized for making alliances, including signing arms deals, with Russia and Iran.

“We need them to be a NATO partner. . . . We need their behavior to reflect the objectives of NATO,” said Pompeo, who met last month with his Turkish counterpart to express frustration with Ankara’s decision to buy a Russian surface-to-air missile system that is not compatible with NATO’s defenses.

Pompeo said Turkey needs to participate in NATO “in a way where their actions are consistent” with the alliance’s values “and not take actions that undermine its efforts.”

On Venezuela, Pompeo promised that the United States would respond “reciprocally” to the recent expulsion of the top U.S. diplomat in Caracas.

On Tuesday, the government of President Nicolás Maduro expelled Todd Robinson, the U.S. charge d’affaires, and his deputy, Brian Naranjo, accusing them of conspiring against the socialist government. On Wednesday, the State Department responded by ordering the chargé d’affaires of the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington and the deputy consul general of the consulate in Houston to leave the country within 48 hours.

Tensions have heightened between the two governments after Maduro’s victory Sunday in the presidential election, which the White House has called a “sham.”

Pompeo said Wednesday that the United States is watching Maduro “continue to engage in destructive behavior for the Venezuelan people.” 

Pompeo will return to Capitol Hill on Thursday to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has said that the hearing also will function as a chance to hear the administration’s position on new congressional efforts to pass a new authorization for the use of military force against extremist groups.

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