In Bitter Exchange, Pompeo Defends His Concerns for Diplomats’ Security


WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo skirmished with a senior House Democrat on Wednesday in a bitter back-and-forth over his years-ago treatment of Hillary Clinton in the aftermath of a 2012 deadly attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.

The striking exchange in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — over the security of diplomats abroad — came during Mr. Pompeo’s first Capitol Hill appearance since taking over the State Department.

It bared the simmering but fierce partisanship on a House committee that prides itself on being among the most evenhanded panels in Congress. And it was a reminder that while Mr. Pompeo now largely projects an image of moderation as the nation’s chief diplomat, he was once one of the most partisan warriors in Washington.

The hearing touched on a range of foreign policy issues and hot spots, from North Korea to Iran to South Sudan, and Mr. Pompeo displayed a deep knowledge on most subjects and candidly admitted when he did not know an answer.

He came to the hearing with a “to-do” list of 22 items that photographers captured. Ninth on the list was “Call Lavrov,” likely referring to Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia. “Carlos Slim,” the Mexican billionaire, was the 11th item.

Last was “PC on Iran.” That presumably referred to a cabinet-level meeting to discuss Iran policy following the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and 12 new demands that Tehran must meet before sanctions can be lifted.

Mr. Pompeo also promised that the Trump administration would soon respond “proportionately” to the Venezuelan government’s decision this week to expel the top two American diplomats from Caracas. President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela earlier this week accused both diplomats of conspiring against his government.

But it was an exchange with Representative Gregory W. Meeks, Democrat of New York, that drew the most drama of the hearing.

Mr. Meeks asked why Mr. Pompeo had not mentioned the issue of diplomatic security during his Senate confirmation hearing last month. He asked if that meant that Mr. Pompeo did not value diplomatic security.

Defending his own record, Mr. Pompeo angrily responded that diplomatic security was one of his priorities.

“I’ll take a back seat to no one with respect to caring about and protecting the people,” he said.

“Nor did Hillary Clinton take a back seat to no one for what she did,” Mr. Meeks shouted back, an exchange that led others on the committee to intervene in hopes of lowering the hearing’s temperature.

In 2015, Mr. Pompeo, then a Republican congressman from Kansas, treated Mrs. Clinton with thinly-veiled contempt, pointing out that the executive summary of a routine State Department review had failed to even mention the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, suggesting she did not make the bureau a priority.

That review was released after the 2012 attacks that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, at diplomatic outposts in Benghazi. At the time the review was released, Mr. Pompeo was a member of a House committee investigating the attack.

Under Mr. Meeks’s pointed questioning, Mr. Pompeo offered that his very first briefing as secretary of state had been from his head of diplomatic security.

“I’m taking him at his word,” Mr. Meeks said — undercutting Mr. Pompeo’s earlier criticism of Mrs. Clinton by agreeing that certain omissions should not always signal the importance of certain topics.

Far more important, Mr. Meeks said, is funding commitments by presidential administrations. He then noted that the State Department’s budget for diplomatic security has been cut by 45 percent since the end of the Obama administration — from over $3 billion to a proposed $1.6 billion for fiscal year 2019.

“So where is the concern now — other side of the aisle, of this administration — about diplomatic security?” Mr. Meeks asked.

“Diplomatic security is not about dollars expended,” Mr. Pompeo answered that, adding that how the money is spent is more important.

Despite the testy exchange, Mr. Pompeo once again showed himself to be the straight-talking, forthright diplomat he had promised to be, often answering questions with simple declaratives. Among the only moments in the hearing when he became visibly uncomfortable was when he was asked to explain President Trump’s possible financial conflicts and allegations of a “deep state” conspiracy.

The term generally refers to bureaucrats who undermine or otherwise challenge elected governments. Representative Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, noted that Mr. Trump had excoriated what he described as a “Criminal Deep State” in a Wednesday morning Twitter post.

“I haven’t seen the comments from the president,” Mr. Pompeo said, looking down. “I don’t believe there’s a deep state at the State Department.”

Mr. Lieu asked then asked about a deep state at the C.I.A. “I would say this,” Mr. Pompeo responded with apparent discomfort. “The employees that worked for me at the C.I.A. nearly uniformally were aimed at achieving the president’s objectives and America’s objectives.”

He then agreed that the employees he had known from the F.B.I. and Justice Department were also loyal.

At another moment, Mr. Pompeo was asked whether Mr. Trump’s personal financial interests may have played a role in his recent effort to reach a deal to suspend penalties on the Chinese telecom firm ZTE. “I’m confident that the president will comply with the ethics rules that are in place,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Source : Nytimes