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March 27, 2019

Five Oversight Questions for Secretary Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will testify twice today in the House of Representatives to justify President Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget plan and answer questions from lawmakers. In the morning he will appear in front of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee, and in the afternoon he will testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Given that lawmakers from both political parties have already declared the Trump/Pompeo budget “dead on arrival,” given that it would gut funding for the State Department and USAID, House members are not likely to spend much time on it. Instead, here are five questions they should ask of the secretary. 

How will the United States “Compete for Positive Influence” and combat authoritarianism with a declining democracy and assistance budget?

For the third consecutive year, the Trump Administration is putting forward a budget for the State Department and USAID that would decimate much of U.S. diplomacy, including with respect to foreign assistance geared toward promoting democracy and defending human rights. This comes at a time when Secretary Pompeo and other members of the administration are trumpeting the need for the United States to compete for influence in the world against increasingly assertive, authoritarian governments like Russia and China. If the United States wants to maintain itself as a leader in supporting and promoting human rights and democratic standards in the face of rising challenges to the rule of law, it must have a strategy and budget for doing so. Will Secretary Pompeo support a budget that will allow the United States to do so? 

How should the United States wield and protect its security interests when it engages with governments that are eroding the rule of law and/or systematically abusing human rights?

The Trump Administration’s National Security strategy states that “[w]hen there is no alternative, we will suspend aid rather than see it exploited by corrupt elites.” Yet American interests are being challenged presently not just by states such as China, Russia, and Venezuela, but also by allies and partner governments —from NATO allies like Turkey, Poland, and Hungary, to Middle East security partners like Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Should the United States seek to ensure that the security sector assistance it provides to foreign governments are not used to commit human rights violations, for example in Yemen? And should this assistance be suspended if it is being exploited to support and commit human rights violations, for example in Hungary? Are there circumstances where sanctions might be appropriate, such as the withdrawal or conditioning of funds based on human rights abuses?

Will the State Department continue to implement the Global Magnitsky Act and work with Congress and the NGO community to identify and sanction human rights violators and corrupt actors?

To date, the Trump administration has sanctioned 99 individuals or entities in 17 countries under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. Despite this promising activity, many in the human rights community were disappointed when the administration declined to issue a set of global designations in December—as has occurred the past six years under the Global Magnitsky Act and Russia Magnitsky Act—and feel that the sanctions authorized under the Act are being under-utilized. Will the State Department designate a global slate of designees in the coming months? Will Secretary Pompeo inform the budgetary committees in the House and Senate if the State Department lacks the resources to carry out robust implementation of the Global Magnitsky Act and Russia Magnitsky Act?

Will the administration admit Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi?

According to reports, the CIA determined with “high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) ordered or was aware of Khashoggi’s murder. In response to the killing, in late 2018 the Senate triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Act that directed President Trump to report on those individuals—up to and including MBS—that the U.S. Government believes had a role in the killing. Despite this legal requirement, President Trump announced that he trusts MBS’s word over that of the U.S. Intelligence Community, and is refusing to comply with the Global Magnitsky Act.

Khashoggi’s premeditated murder violated every conceivable norm of human behavior and acceptable behavior of states. In addition to robbing Mr. Khashoggi and his family of his life, his killing was clearly meant to send a chilling message to Saudi critics and dissidents around the world that they are not safe, even if they flee their home country. That the Saudi government would kill a U.S. resident suggests that it believes it can operate with impunity. Why does the Trump Administration continue to cover for a government that murdered an American resident? Secretary Pompeo stated publicly that the U.S. government is waiting for Saudi Arabia to investigate the crime, yet the State Department’s own Human Rights Report on the country notes that it lacks a justice system that adheres to the rule of law, routinely jails activists, and frequently tortures detainees. How can the State Department place its faith in Saudi leaders to effectively investigate themselves?    

Will the administration explain its sudden cancellation of a grant that would have funded Hungarian independent media, which was cancelled despite an increased need for free press in the country?

Hungary, a member of the EU and a NATO ally, is slipping precipitously from a democratic success story toward autocratic rule. It is severely curtailing judicial independence, consolidating most media into the hands of government-connected oligarchs, limiting academic freedom and kicked out a major American university, and is raiding and harassing NGOs. It justifies these actions in part with reference to antisemitic tropes. At the same time, Hungary is drawing closer to Russia. The Fidesz government blocked Ukraine from negotiating with NATO, refused to extradite two Russian arms dealers to the United States—instead handed them over to Russia—and is pursuing a costly Russian nuclear power plant despite serious concerns by independent analysts.

In 2017, the State Department issued a request for proposals to train independent Hungarian journalists. In early 2018 this request was suddenly cancelled. The State Department is not providing a reason for the cancellation, which occurred as the Hungarian government continued to consolidate media in the hands of government associates. Why was this grant cancelled?  And what is the administration doing to develop a strategy for promoting democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, where governments in both Poland and Hungary are sharply diverging from democratic principles?