Several Republicans responded by accusing their Democratic colleagues of grandstanding and, on several occasions, the conversation in the room devolved into a shouting match between lawmakers on opposite sides of the aisle.
Rhode Island Democrat Rep. David Cicilline led off the hearing by linking the administration’s conflicting explanations for the Iran strike to its public messaging related to the coronavirus, claiming that the American public has “lost trust in their government.”
Cicilline’s line of questioning prompted a testy response from Pompeo who was quick to point out that he was appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee to discuss Iran, not coronavirus.
“Mr. Chairman, just so you know, we agreed that I would come here today to talk about Iran, and the first question today is not about Iran,” he replied before telling lawmakers that the US has offered to help Iran deal with the increasing number of coronavirus cases there.
“We have made offers to the Islamic Republic of Iran to help, and we’ve made clear to others around the world and the region that assistance, humanitarian assistance to push back against the coronavirus in Iran is something the United States of America fully supports. We will continue to support. That’s true for every nation,” he said.
Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch also pressed Pompeo on the administration’s coronavirus preparations, claiming President Donald Trump’s “pattern of misinformation undermines our entire system.”
He cited specific instances when Trump has made incorrect statements in the past, to make his point. He also referred to Trump saying “the vaccine is almost ready, when it isn’t.”
Deutch said that these statements impact everyone in America, not just Trump’s supporters, and said the administration “must do better.”
Pompeo asked to apologize on Trump’s behalf
Perhaps the most heated exchange occurred when Pompeo was pressed by Rep. Brad Sherman to apologize on Trump’s behalf for his comments downplaying the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries suffered by US service members at al-Assad airbase in Iraq when it was attacked by Iran in response to Soleimani’s killing.
“Mr. Secretary, do you want to take the opportunity — it’s a yes or no question — do you want to take the opportunity here today to apologize to those service members for trivializing their injuries?” the California Democrat asked.
Pompeo said he had never trivialized any injuries, so Sherman asked if he would like to apologize on behalf of the administration in which he serves.
“We take seriously every American service member’s life. It’s why we’ve taken the very policies in Iran that we have,” he said.
Pompeo was also asked about other issues related to the strike that killed Soleimani, including the administration’s repeated insistence that the action was justified because the Iranian commander posed an imminent threat to American lives.
“After the strike, you were the administration’s point person making the case that we had to kill Soleimani at that moment on January 3rd,” Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat from Virginia, said, citing Pompeo’s own comments about an imminent threat and noting the fact that a White House report sent to Congress outlining the legal rationale for the operation did not include the phrase.
“Your own report directly contradicts what you and the President told the American people over and over. You said there were imminent threats to American lives. And that’s not true. And when the administration was constrained by the law to tell the truth, you abandoned the talking points,” she added.
Pompeo pushed back on Spanberger’s assertion that administration officials failed to provide lawmakers with any evidence of an imminent threat in classified briefings. “We absolutely did,” he said.
A number of Democratic lawmakers also voiced complaints that Pompeo was appearing before the committee for two hours.
The State Department announced on Friday morning — as the hearing was underway — that Pompeo would speak at CPAC at 12:15 p.m. ET Friday, just a few hours after the hearing is expected to wrap.
“Sir, you limit us to two hours. Secretary Clinton spent 11 hours. You must adhere to the rules of this committee just as you enforced them as you were sitting in this room,” a visibly irate Sherman said as he reclaimed his time.
“What’s really an embarrassment is that we couldn’t get more than two hours from the Secretary of State,” Chairman Eliot Engel said when Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin called the hearing “an embarrassment.”
Pompeo countered that the US government “has briefed Congress over 70 times on the issue of Iran.” CNN has asked the State Department for more details on those 70 briefings.