Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testified on Capitol Hill last week regarding the State Department’s nearly $41 billion 2021 budget request.
Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) serves as the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. His opening statement for the 2021 State Department Budget Request hearing set the rhetorical tone of dismissal from the beginning. Chairman Risch began by saying that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was before the committee today to answer questions regarding the State Department’s 2021 budget request. Mr. Risch added, “…though if history is any judge…you will face a wide variety of questions that extend beyond the department’s budget, which I know you can handle.”
This seemingly minor addition speaks volumes. By nature it assumes that any questions that stray from the strict topic of the 2021 fiscal budget for the State Department are somehow invalid. However, it should be easy to understand why Congressional fiscal budget hearings would inquire into previous actions of the department they are funding. No one continues to give an organization money without question if they are concerned that such funding is being mismanaged. If re-election was not the top priority of our elected officials and if their political rhetoric was founded solely in fact, these hearings likely would never stray far from boring questions about fund allocation. However, the United States is rigidly split between two seemingly distinct, but eerily similar, political parties.
Chairman Risch further asserted that China and Russia are our greatest competitors and have been actively working to sow discord within our country and have committed heinous acts abroad.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), eviscerated the actions of Pompeo and the State Department over the past year, noting that, at best, they have failed to use the tools available to them to seriously address threats of Russian subversion, at worst, they have simply abetted Putin’s efforts. He then went on to list a number of concerning issues regarding the State Department:
- Withdrawing forces from Germany
- Failing to take action when evidence emerged that Russia was paying bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan
- Twice redirecting funds from the European Deterrence Initiative to pay for President Trump’s wasteful border wall in September, 2019 and April, 2020
- Failing relations with China from political blustering
- The “flat-lining” of our North Korean diplomacy, “leaving North Korea with a more capable nuclear and ballistic missile program.”
- The State Department’s woeful absence on “issue, after issue, after issue” in Africa
- Xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria and the “gutting of our institutional capacity to deal with the root causes of migration.”
- The response, or lack thereof, to the mass of Venezuelan exiles and refugees
- Proposals to cut our international narcotics and law enforcement in the midst of an opioid epidemic
- Actively undermining international efforts to address climate change
- The erosion of our reliability to our allies
Sen. Menendez summarized, “…the result is an exodus of expertise.” If that isn’t the entire theme of the Trump administration I am not sure what is. Despite claims of “draining the swamp” the Trump administration has done wonders to fill crucial government roles with family members, friends, and fellow business associates. Seven percent of the department staff left in the first year and a half of the administration and there remains persistent vacancies. So far, Congress has confirmed over 190 nominees to the state department. However, Sen. Menendez noted that so many of the people put forth as nominees for positions that remain vacant are simply unqualified or under-qualified for those positions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened his request for nearly $41 billion for the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to enable both agencies to “protect U.S. citizens, increase American prosperity, and advance the development of democratic societies.”
In his opening remarks Secretary Pompeo referenced the report from the State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights to note that, “The Trump administration places our founding principles at the very core of American diplomacy.” He went on to list three areas to highlight how they have accomplished that aim:
- “Securing the American people’s freedoms against authoritarian threats”
- “Securing American lives during the pandemic”
- “Helping friends across the world secure those very inalienable rights”
Pompeo then expounded on the efforts of the State Department to halt the march of authoritarian threats. In doing so he agreed with Chairman Risch that China and Russia are our primary adversaries and pose legitimate threats to our nation. Some quotes have been highlighted below from Secretary Pompeo’s remarks:
- “We’re the toughest administration ever on Russia.”
- “We see the Chinese Communist Party also for what it is: the central threat of our times.”
- “The Department of Justice is cracking down on Chinese IP (intellectual property) threats, we’ve sanctioned Chinese leaders for their brutality in shinjong, and imposed export controls on countries that support it, and warned U.S. businesses against using slave labor in their supply chains.”
- “We’ve terminated special treatment agreements with Hong Kong in response to the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) actions to deny freedom to the people of Hong Kong.”
- “We closed our consulate in Houston because it was a den of spies.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD): Strayed away from mere political rhetoric long enough to ask a couple of very relevant questions relating to the State Department’s budget request. Sen. Cardin noted that the department’s budget includes a “…a decline of 35% in Democracy funds,” he went on to say that he doesn’t understand how such a cut in funding for supporting democracies around the world aligns with State Department’s mission “if we’re going to be the leader in democratic values” as Secretary Pompeo asserted in his opening statement.
Cardin added that he appreciated how Pompeo’s remarks opened with “human rights” but was disappointed that the Commission on Unalienable Rights was used as the example. Numerous organizations, scholars, and activists have questioned the sincerity of the commission and its underlying purpose. Rob Berschinski of Human Rights First put out a statement to the unveiling of the commission’s draft report. In it, he opened, “From the beginning, the Commission on Unalienable Rights has been an unnecessary political exercise designed by Sec. Pompeo to provide intellectual cover to an effort to recast American foreign policy in the mold of his personal religious and political views.”
When talking about the commission Pompeo outlined its purpose, “I wanted to go back and talk about how do we more American foreign policy and American human rights policy in the traditions of the United States, so that’s what the commission was asked to do.”
However, the problem can be summarized with Berschinski’s response to Pompeo’s claims, “His notion that religious liberty and property rights are inherently more important than other rights is dangerous. And his assertion that President Trump stands opposed to those fomenting division in American society, rather than as a leading agitator of societal discord, is simply absurd.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado): Began his questions by recognizing the very real threat that North Korea’s nuclear program poses, as well as raising concerns about Chinese aggression. He went on to say, “It’s more important than ever that the United States maintains a presence in the Indo-Pacific region, reaffirms alliances, encourages economic cooperation, and promotes human rights and the rule of law.”
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH): Her line of questioning picked up on the themes that Sen. Menendez opened up with earlier. She inquired about the analysis that occurred regarding the decision to withdraw a large number of troops from Germany. She also continued to press Secretary Pompeo regarding the allegations that Russia had put out bounties on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and what the State Department was doing to intervene against Russia.
Pompeo was quick to respond that the considerations to alter troops levels in Germany were taken from a wide variety of officials and that most of the military decisions there came directly from the Pentagon. He also assured the Senator that the State Department has been utilizing its tools in intelligence, diplomacy, and our greater foreign policy to work diligently against against our soldiers.
Despite Secretary Pompeo’s relatively decent, albeit vague, answers to her questions, Sen. Shaheen pressed on and asked, “Do you think it wold be helpful for President Trump to talk to Vladimir Putin and tell him that he needs to back off in terms of paying the Taliban to kill American troops?”
This is the type of questioning that gives the Democratic Party a bad name. It seeks to place all of the blame of Trump’s administration squarely at his feet, when that is simply not the case. Especially when much of the work that is done regarding diplomacy is implicit or indirect by nature. A simple phone call from our president to Vladimir Putin to ask him to “stop killing our troops” is not the proper way to think about foreign relations or diplomacy. As Secretary Pompeo rightly pointed out, “I don’t think there is any doubt in the mind of every Russian leader, including Vladimir Putin, about the expectations of the United States of America not to kill Americans.”
He also added, “I can promise you that the 300 Russians who were in Syria and who took action that threatened America, who are no longer on this planet, understand that too.” However, this aggressive posturing by Secretary Pompeo may do very little to ease concerns that President Trump is fully bending to his will.
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) opened his questions by praising Secretary Pompeo’s recent statements for calling out China’s “predatory behavior, economic, military, geopolitical…we have to confront China with our friends and allies if we’re going to be successful in diverting them from their course of predation.” Sen. Romney called the assessment of China clear-eyed and a “welcome departure from the president’s fawning praise of Xi Jinping and celebration of agreements that China hasn’t honored.”
Sen. Romney further asserted that the State Department’s addresses on China are “inconsistent with actions that we’ve taken that have offended our allies at a time we need to be drawing them closer to us.” He cited the steel and aluminum tariffs against our friends and allies as “misplaced” and expressed concern that the withdrawal of troops in Germany has been done alongside the rhetoric of “expressing an intent to punish Germany.”
Finally, Sen. Romney asked Secretary Pompeo, “What actions will the administration take to bring our allies together in a way that’s different than what we’ve done in the past?” He noted that the secretary had previously alluded to the idea that perhaps a new alliance of democratically minded nations needed to be created. Romney then reemphasized his question of what new and drastic measures are being taken to bring our allies together to address the threat that China poses. Unfortunately, Secretary Pompeo offered very little in terms of details regarding these efforts. Instead he focused on the efforts undertaken to “awaken the world” to the Chinese threat and how he spent the first “year and change” traveling the world to do just that.
Pompeo began defending his answer immediately after giving it by saying, “I think that’s new and different, you may say it’s not enough, but it wasn’t happening before.” Frankly, this is a weak answer that simply and conveniently ignores history. China has long been on the list of United States’ adversaries and the threats that it poses regionally and internationally to democracy and human rights has not gone ignored, despite Secretary Pompeo’s assertions. The timeline of U.S. relations with China began tenuously and has evolved into a complex mix of economic interdependence and political tension. He ended the defense of his answer by musing that, “There’s lots of spade work that goes into what seems pretty simple I suppose.”
Sen. Romney then moved on to the recent conversations regarding technology companies. He noted that, “I know there’s great interest sometimes politically to go after some of the Big Tech companies…and berate them for their market power…but I would note that we’re in a global competition and China has been successful in driving a lot of Western companies out of business, they’ve not been successful in driving companies like these out of business…the last thing we ought to be doing is trying to knock down businesses in the United States that are succeeding on a global stage.”
The Senator from Utah ended on a final question regarding the ever-evolving situation in Hong Kong. Romney asked, “Were you surprised by the fact that 53 other countries supported China’s crackdown on Hong Kong? Did that shock you as it did me?” Secretary Pompeo responded that he was “surprised and dismayed.”
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) began his line of questioning by referencing the bi-partisan work that he and his colleagues are doing “to resolve terrorism related claims against Sudan which is in the middle of a critical democratic transition” and asked Secretary Pompeo if he has been personally involved in this matter and if he was willing to work openly and transparently with Congress to resolve this issue. Sen. Coons also noted his concern that senior levels of the State Department are woefully homogeneous and require more attention to ensure greater diversity going forward.
Secretary Pompeo agreed that much work needs to be done to make the State Department more diverse. However, he was quick to note that it is “diversity and inclusion that is broad-based. We need to make sure that we have people from all across America with all viewpoints, every idea from all across America.” Pompeo further claimed that, “We have been very narrow in how we have recruited from a certain set of institutions and certain universities and we don’t get a full spectrum of understandings of America or of the world if we are too narrow in how we think about diversity and inclusion.”
Again, we see this rhetoric that seeks to normalize “every idea” from all across America. This rhetoric goes back to the very genesis of the Commission on Unalienable Rights and its purpose to serve as an intellectual backing for the reshaping of our foreign policy. This move will also undeniably seek to use this shift in our foreign policy to inform major changes that we are likely to see in the next decade.
Sen. Coons followed up with a brilliant question, “How do you think our own failure to address structural racial inequality impacts our diplomacy overseas and impacts our ability to advocate around human rights?” Unfortunately, Secretary Pompeo’s answer here fell flat. He noted that it’s “important to get it right at home” and that we are a “beacon for that around the world,” noting that the United States is such a highly sought after destination for so many immigrants around the world. Such a deflection is a disappointment in the face of the real racial disparities that we see in the data across the board in the United States from the criminal justice system to healthcare outcomes.
The last question posed to Secretary Pompeo from Sen. Coons merely asked if he had voted by mail in the past and if he had any concerns about election security in November. Pompeo admitted that he had likely voted by mail a few times in the past, but that election security was not the primary focus of the State Department and that he would leave such oversight to the agencies that do focus on our election integrity. However, Sen. Coons continued to push on the topic and asked if “there was any reason for us to be concerned that those votes are fraudulent or somehow ineligible to be counted if cast by mail or by absentee ballots by our diplomats?” Secretary Pompeo retorted that there is a major difference between a small group of individuals voting by mail and the entire country having that option, but he would “leave to the professionals to identify the level of risk associated with that.” However, the professionals and experts that researched the topic overwhelmingly found no solid evidence to support the myth of “rampant voter fraud.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL): centered his questions on China’s capabilities to run disinformation campaigns in the United States. He characterized the so-called “Big Tech” companies (Twitter, Google, and Amazon) as “afraid” to answer questions in yesterday’s hearing regarding allegations of Chinese theft of Intellectual Property (even though the answers they gave merely indicated no personal knowledge of such things). Regarding these companies Sen. Rubio further added that some of them “take it upon themselves to ‘censor’ truth versus what’s not true…” Someone needs to break to Sen. Rubio that there is only one truth, despite what his political party would like us to think.
Watching these hearings play out in real time without being first filtered through the media, can make it much easier to see how clearly the party lines are drawn. Despite whichever label you claim for yourself, it is important to remember that your political affiliation should never be etched in stone. Blind adherence to a political party is a form of so-called “identity politics” that one party so often rages against.
Politics aside, every human should be concerned about and wary of disinformation campaigns. However, we cannot assume that China, or even Russia, is the only potential source of such propaganda.
Sen. Rubio then spoke at length about China’s overt aims to identify and dominate key industries for the 21st century while diminishing the capacity of others to do the same. When asked if this was an accurate assessment, Secretary Pompeo answered in the affirmative. He further drew stark contrasts between the way Western democracies operate and how China does things, “We train our people, we build our businesses, we invest capital in the market. They run state-sponsored enterprises, they steal intellectual property, and then they endeavor to undermine the companies and threaten and bully companies around the world into buying their products.”
Whereas President Trump’s rhetoric is often dangerous due to its simplicity, Secretary Pompeo’s rhetoric is dangerous for a different reason entirely: it seeks to create false associations for a political purpose. On one hand you have the good guys, us, the United States. We do things the right way, by investing capital in the market, training our people, and building our businesses. On the other hand you have the bad guys, them, China. They do things the wrong way, because they have “state-sponsored enterprises.” By comparison. they do not train their people or build their businesses. Instead they steal intellectual property, something I am sure the United States has never done. They also threaten and bully companies around the world into buying their products, something that the United States has certainly never done. If the sarcasm wasn’t apparent here, that should be a red flag.
Unfortunately, this type of rhetoric from Secretary of State Pompeo simplifies long and complex debates about government and economic systems. His language attempts to associate negative things such as intellectual property theft or economic bullying with “state-sponsored enterprises.” He doesn’t center these actions in the realm of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Instead he falsely connects these negative actions to the notion of a non-market economy, which is almost always the underlying basis of argumentation anyway.
Sen. Rubio’s final question asked for clarification regarding negotiations with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, to which Secretary Pompeo noted that, “Our policy is not to negotiate with him for anything other than his departure from ruling that country.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) prefaced his question by citing the various times that President Trump has cast doubt on the integrity of our elections. He referenced a recent Fox News interview in which Chris Wallace asked President Trump if he would give a direct answer to if he would accept the results of the November election. President Trump responded, “I have to see…” He also noted that the president has repeatedly called mail-in voting “rigged” or riddled with “fraud.”
He then asked, “Will you respect the results of a certified election, as the State Department typically does throughout the world?” Secretary Pompeo responded, “I am not going to speculate yet about 15 ‘ifs’ in there…I will follow the rule of law, I will follow the constitution.”
The president’s rhetoric is seemingly trying to undermine the results of the November election, not because he is worried about election security, but because he is afraid he will lose if he makes voting easier for more Americans.
However, it goes even further than that. The very topic is divisive simply because President Trump made the declaration that voter fraud is a major problem and concern. The media outlets that report on him favorably, his rabid supporters, and even some people on the so-called Left, took this as an opportunity to report on and amplify those remarks. In doing so they are a part of the mechanism of division that has been seemingly running in the background for who knows how long. The process of attempting to prove one’s own position correct, or another’s incorrect, in the hopes that it will sway them to your side. is folly. It becomes a political and social wedge that more often than not further entrenches people in their beliefs, even if they are founded on false pretenses or misinformation.
Sen. Udall noted, “We need to set a good example about the peaceful transition of power or else we undermine our entire foreign policy.”
He added, “I can imagine few scenarios that would endanger our society more than a presidential candidate who refuses to accept the outcome of an election.” Going on to say, “Trump’s most effective ploy has been to destroy the credibility of the press, dangerously undermining truth and consensus.”
Later in the hearing Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) referenced the president’s Tweet about potentially delaying the election that occurred while the hearing was taking place.
Kaine: “Can a president delay the November presidential election?”
Pompeo: “I’m not going to enter a legal judgement on that on the fly this morning.”
Kaine: “Mr. Secretary you are an Honors graduate of West Point, you are a graduate of the Harvard Law School, you were on the Harvard Law Review…you are one of the most highly trained and accomplished lawyers who are part of this administration…can a president delay a presidential election?”
Pompeo: “Senator, in the end, the Department of Justice, others, will make that legal determination.”
Kaine: “Are you indifferent to the date of the election?”
Pompeo: “It should happen lawfully.”
Kaine: “For the record, because you may not want to comment on it, but I do think it’s important, a president cannot delay an election. The date of the election is established by Congress, it was established in 1845, there is no ability for a president to delay an election.”
Kaine: “I don’t think it’s that hard a question or one that should lead to any equivocation by somebody who’s fourth-in-line of succession to be president of the United States.”
Sen. Kaine then moved into questions regarding the removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who the president warned would “go through some things” on a call with the Ukrainian President and Pompeo. Secretary Pompeo refused to comment on “personnel matters” while chuckling at Sen. Kaine’s questions and responses.
Sen. Kaine noted that his time was up but ended by denouncing Secretary Pompeo’s derisive attitude. “You might think this is silly, you might think these questions are silly, but when somebody works for their entire career for the State Department and they are slandered with lies and sacked for no good reason, that sends a message that could not be clearer to other State Department officials.”
Secretary Pompeo tried to laugh off the questions and continued to laugh while giving his answers, which Sen. Kaine noted, “And it may be just a big joke, hey look at you smiling and laughing and calling it silly. I don’t think it’s silly to Marie Yovanovitch or the people that work for you.” Although Pompeo pushed back that what happened was entirely appropriate and within the president’s power and rights, that was never the crux of the questions.
Sen. Kaine’s line of questioning opens up other concerns that we all should have regarding our government agencies and institutions. Yes, it is within the rights and powers of the president to remove any U.S. Ambassadors at any time for any reason if they feel that they are not meeting expectations. The difference between this and previous administrations seems to be the impulsivity of those decisions and the scrambling that has taken place to justify the removal of not just Yovanovich, but dozens of positions in various agencies.
You can watch the hearing in its entirety here.