Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to tell lawmakers Wednesday what exactly President Trump discussed in private with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week in Helsinki, adding to tension and uncertainty on Capitol Hill over the administration’s Russia policy.

Pompeo’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee grew heated at times as he tangled with lawmakers over what the two leaders talked about during a one-on-one meeting that lasted about two hours with only translators present.

{mosads}Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said at the top of the hearing that Congress had “little idea” of what agreements were reached in Helsinki “even though the president has already extended an invitation to Putin to come to Washington to discuss the ‘implementation’ of these undefined agreements.”

A top concern of senators on both sides of the aisle is whether Trump talked about relaxing sanctions on Russia, which could have bearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 election.

Pompeo insisted that U.S. policy on Russia sanctions has not changed since Helsinki, but he refused to say whether Trump and Putin mulled the possibility of easing penalties Congress imposed last year in response to Russia’s election interference.

His back-and-forth with Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, was particularly tense.

“The presidents have a prerogative to choose who’s in meetings or not,” Pompeo said. “I’m confident you’ve had private one-on-one meetings in your life as well. You’ve chosen that setting as the most efficient way — ”

Menendez cut Pompeo off immediately.

“I just asked a simple question,” Menendez said. “You can’t eat up my seven minutes. Did he tell you what happened in those two hours?”

Pompeo said he had a number of conversations with Trump about the president’s private meeting with Putin and was present at a briefing the two leaders gave afterward about their one-on-one talk.

But Pompeo acknowledged he did not speak to the translator who was in the room during the private meeting, nor did he review the translator’s notes.

When asked by Menendez whether Trump discussed relaxing sanctions, Pompeo said, “U.S. policy with respect to sanctions remains completely unchanged.”

He declined to say if the two leaders discussed changing it in the future.

“Presidents are entitled to have private meetings,” Pompeo insisted, talking over Menendez at times.

The hearing was also a showcase for Democrats on the panel, such as Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Chris Murphy (Conn.), who are possibly angling for presidential runs in 2020.

Cable news channels aired the hearing live, giving White House hopefuls a chance to grill the man in charge of implementing Trump’s foreign policy toward Russia.

Booker charged that Trump invited Russian interference during the 2016 campaign by calling on Russian hackers to help find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails, though Trump later dismissed his own remarks as a joke.

Booker also slammed Trump for failing to fully implement the sanctions passed by Congress and for criticizing the legislation before he signed it into law.

Murphy accused Trump of “making up foreign policy on a day-by-day basis,” and he criticized the president for characterizing Russian interference in the 2016 election as “a big hoax.”

He also challenged Pompeo about Trump raising doubts in an interview over whether the United States would defend Montenegro, a NATO ally, if it’s attacked.

Members of the committee on Wednesday were also frustrated by Pompeo declining to reveal whether Trump and Putin discussed the possibility of changing the U.S. force structure in Syria, which Putin regards as within his country’s sphere of influence.

“Presidents are permitted to have conversations with their Cabinet members that aren’t repeated in public,” Pompeo said.

That answer left Menendez fuming.

“You’re not going to answer any of the questions that would get us to the truth,” he said.

Pompeo said he could share Trump’s warning to Putin not to interfere in future U.S. elections because that’s something the president himself has already revealed. 

“The president disclosed what he said to Vladimir Putin about Russian interference in our elections and he said that he is confident that as a result of that conversation that Vladimir understands it won’t be tolerated,” Pompeo said.

Menendez shot back: “I wish he had said that in public in Helsinki.”

Trump caused an international uproar last week when he said at the joint press conference with Putin that he didn’t “see any reason why” Russia would interfere in a U.S. election. He later amended that statement, asserting that he meant to say he didn’t see any reason why Russia “wouldn’t” meddle in the election.

Pompeo was no more forthcoming about Trump’s private conversation when grilled by Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), one of Trump’s loudest critics in the Senate GOP conference.

Flake noted that Russian officials have characterized the summit as a big win for Putin, and that it has been difficult for U.S. officials to counter that because “we have no readout to dispute any of it.”

Pompeo argued that it’s essential that private conversations remain private so that they can be used to build future diplomatic progress.

“You may have an expectation that you may have another private conversation one day,” he said, warning that if negotiators worry that future talks won’t stay private, they’ll have less freedom to explore options.

Pompeo’s reluctance to share details about what Trump and Putin discussed privately might fuel support in the Senate for the Democrats’ demand that the White House turn over contemporaneous notes from the meeting.

Corker said last week that he might support asking for the translator’s notes, though he was not excited about the idea.

“I’d rather address it after the Pompeo hearing on Wednesday and see how transparent that ends up being,” he said at the time, while admitting that requesting the notes “feels a little out of bounds.”

Pompeo tried to slam the door on that possibility Wednesday.

“I’ve been in lots of meetings, I’ve had lots of notetakers and lots of translators. I’ve never relied on the work that they did to understand what took place in that meeting and it does not need to be done here and it won’t be,” he said as Menendez tried to interrupt him during another heated exchange.

Senators found their sense of uncertainty over the meeting was heightened when Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov said last week that both sides had reached “important verbal agreements.”

Pompeo said there’s an agreement to establish business-to-business exchanges between Russia and the United States that had existed in the past but had faded in recent years.

He said there was also talk about “re-establishing a counterterrorism counsel that was held at the level of the deputy secretary of many years” but eventually stopped functioning.

The leaders also agreed to see what can be done in Syria to resettle million of displaced refugees who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other countries, according to Pompeo. He said they decided that should be done “through the political process in Geneva.”

Pompeo said Trump wants to “get Russia to be more cooperative in terms of driving toward a political resolution that will take down the violence levels.” 

After almost three hours of testimony, Menendez said one of the main takeaways is that “this administration is increasingly not transparent.”

“It’s not transparent as to what takes place at these summits,” he said. “I hear there’s not an effort to have readouts when the president has conversations with foreign leaders.”

Pompeo fired back, accusing Menendez of making a “political soliloquy” and Democrats of political “silliness.”

That sparked an explosion from Menendez, who slammed Pompeo for “demeaning” senators on the committee.

“Please don’t talk to me about politics,” he shouted. “If President Obama did what President Trump did in Helsinki, I’d be peeling you off the Capitol ceiling.”

Tags Bob Corker Bob Menendez Chris Murphy Cory Booker Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Jeff Flake Mike Pompeo Robert Mueller

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