It has been more than a month since President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin behind closed doors in Helsinki. But lawmakers still have no idea what the two leaders discussed, and they have little hope of ever finding out.
“The only place they could get it from would be the president himself, it sounds like,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said bluntly in an interview just hours after the State Department’s Europe and Eurasia chief testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The Tuesday hearing was intended to examine potential new punishments against the Kremlin for election interference and other destabilizing behavior. But senators also used the occasion to press A. Wess Mitchell, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, for information about the Helsinki summit—which lawmakers were previously unable to fully obtain from Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, at a separate hearing last month.
“To date, we have received no real readout, even in a classified setting, of this meeting,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the foreign relations committee, said in his opening statement. Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), a top Democratic member of the panel, told The Daily Beast that the committee still has “shockingly little information” about the summit.
Lawmakers left the hearing disappointed but unsurprised. And for the first time, they appeared to be giving up on their intense bipartisan crusade to find out what the two presidents may have discussed or agreed to during their two-hour, one-on-one sit-down with only translators present.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) asked Mitchell whether he was aware of what the two presidents discussed in private, particularly with regard to U.S. sanctions targeting Moscow. Mitchell did not directly answer the question, only saying: “I have been briefed on the appropriate information I need to carry out my job with relation to Russia.”
While Corker and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle commended Mitchell for the State Department’s tough policies on Russia, such as the implementation of sanctions, he said it was clear to him that Mitchell “had instructions” on what to say about the Helsinki summit and was following those instructions closely.
“I think they made it really clear they just had no knowledge. No, the question wasn’t answered,” Corker said in an interview. “I don’t think they know what happened in that meeting. So they’re unable to answer the question.”
Faced with the reality that top State Department officials, including Pompeo, appeared to have not been fully briefed on what happened in private in Helsinki, lawmakers are skeptical that they will ever receive that information—unless, as Cornyn suggested, it comes from the president directly. Republican and Democratic senators said the Trump administration has effectively shunned the basic, long-standing practice of sharing information with relevant congressional committees—even in a classified setting.
“They’re not saying what happened there [because] they don’t know what commitments were made and what was said. That remains a concern,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), a member of the foreign relations panel, said in an interview. “The secretary of state couldn’t provide that either.”
But even though that information now appears unattainable, some senators are keeping the pressure on the Trump administration.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the foreign relations committee, said he would be sending a broad request to the State Department this week for information, including diplomatic cables, related to the Helsinki summit. It is unclear if Corker will join Menendez. But the chairman was critical of the president during the hearing on Tuesday, accusing Trump of advancing Russia’s goal of helping to “create additional disunity with the west” when he makes “undisciplined comments” about the Kremlin’s election interference.
Lawmakers also remain skeptical about the purported agreement reached between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at their summit in Singapore more than two months ago, in which the two leaders vaguely committed to denuclearization. On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said Pyongyang is pressing forward with its development of nuclear weapons, adding that it saw no indications that North Korea’s nuclear program had been stopped or slowed down.
The IAEA report came as no surprise to lawmakers, who have been prying for information about the Singapore summit, too. The State Department has, to date, kept Congress in the dark. Pompeo abruptly canceled an all-senators briefing in the aftermath of the Singapore agreement and has yet to reschedule it.
“The announcement in Singapore was obviously a vast overstatement as it relates to optimism. It’s the beginning point,” Corker told The Daily Beast. “And hopefully Secretary Pompeo and others can make something of that. But I think we all know that the program has continued on as it was.”