May 15, 2019

Menendez Slams Trump Admin Official for Dodging Questions on Russia’s Nuclear Capabilities to Target U.S.

“I’m not asking Russia about our national defense, I’m asking you,” Senator tells State Department Official

WASHINGTON – Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, confronted Trump Administration officials at a committee hearing this morning titled, “the Future of Arms Control Post-Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.”

In his questioning of Andrea Thompson, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the State Department, Menendez blasted the Trump Administration for skirting Congress’s oversight efforts around their strategy for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). New START is a critical post-Cold War nuclear arms control agreement with Russia and President Trump has announced he will withdraw from the Treaty.

Menendez: If New START expires, could Russia target the United States with hundreds or perhaps thousands of additional nuclear warheads?

Thompson: That is a great question for Russia, Senator.

Menendez: No, that is a great question for you. The disdain that the State Department shows when they come here, I do not appreciate. I am asking legitimate questions, [seeking] answers so that I can make policy decisions. I am not asking Russia about our national defense, I am asking you! 

Is it possible that if there was no New START, Russia could in fact aim hundreds or thousands of new weapons? Is that possible?

Thompson: That is a hypothetical, senator, and I am not going to answer.

Menendez: Oh my God.

Below are Senator Menendez’s full opening remarks as delivered:

“Mr. Chairman, thank you for convening this hearing today on the future of arms control.  It seems especially appropriate to hold this hearing on a day we are honoring Senator Richard Lugar, whose civil and effective leadership of this committee is a model we should all strive to follow in our efforts to advance U.S. interests around the world.  Our country and the entire world are safer thanks to Senator Lugar, as well as his ranking Democratic colleague, Senator Sam Nunn, and their collective efforts to promote sustained, tough diplomacy that led to the destruction of thousands of nuclear warheads in the former Soviet Union.

Under Secretary Thompson and Deputy Under Secretary Trachtenberg, I want to welcome you back to the committee, but I hope you will be more forthcoming than you were the last time you visited.   In September, you testified that Russia continued to violate the INF treaty.  You provided no indication the United States was immediately considering withdrawing from the treaty nor that there were any near-term military operational benefit for doing so.  Yet, just one month later - after a campaign rally - President Trump suddenly announced - without any notice or consultations with the Senate, that the United States was unilaterally withdrawing.  

Unfortunately, this is part of a troubling pattern of the State Department failing to comply with fundamental legal Congressional requirements.  

Just last month, the Administration submitted an unclassified version of the annual arms control reliance report, ‘which assesses U.S. and other nation’s compliance to all arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament agreement that United States is a party to.’  This year’s report fails to even mention a variety of critical arms agreements and was only 12 pages long in comparison to last year’s report which was 45 pages.  In your submission to Congress the Department promises to provide a longer version of the report after a declassification process has occurred.  That’s unacceptable; the Administration has legal requirements it must fulfil. 

Given the lack of strategic forethought and planning apparent in the administration’s hasty decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, it is vital the U.S. government re-emphasizes effective arms control as an integral part of nuclear deterrence and strategic stability.  That is why I, along with Senator Reed and Senator Warner, introduced the New START Policy Act of 2019 which calls for a five year extension of the treaty until February 2026 unless the President determines Russia is in material breach of treaty. 

I was very pleased to see a similar bipartisan bill introduced in the House cosponsored by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Engel and his Republican counterpart, Ranking Member McCaul.  I am hopeful we can forge a similar bipartisan approach to arms control here in the Senate.

Extending New START should be, in my mind, an easy decision. 

Intelligence Officials have explained how the Treaty's verification regime, including short-notice, on-site inspections at military bases and facilities, provide the United States with important insight into Russia’s core capabilities including its strategic nuclear delivery systems, warheads, and facilities.  The Commander of the United States Strategic Command, General John Hyten testified that he was a ‘big supporter of New Start’ and that the treaty ‘provides insights into the Russians capabilities which are hugely beneficial to him.’

It is very difficult to understand why the administration would discard the robust constraints, transparency, and verification measures of New START with nothing to replace them.

Finally, I am looking forward to hearing additional details on two other, important issues.  First, we continue to wait for the imposition of chemical weapons sanctions on Russia for the assassination attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the United Kingdom.  These sanctions are more than five months overdue. And I would like to know why.

Second, I was pleased to hear that the Secretary raised election meddling in his recent meeting with President Putin and I hope you provide some insights into whether the Secretary discussed the Administration’s new initiative to bring both China and Russia into a new arms control effort.

To be clear - I welcome the administration’s efforts to expand the scope of arms control negotiations.

However, given the challenges inherent in reaching new agreements with Russia and China, I strongly believe the limitations and verification measures of New START must remain in place while any such negotiation occurs, and this new initiative must not serve as an excuse for suddenly withdrawing from another international agreement.  If new agreements can reached they should add not subtract from our existing arms control architecture.    

I look forward to the witnesses testimony and our discussion today.”


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