Pompeo clashes with Democratic lawmakers in testy Capitol Hill hearing

February 28, 2020
In The News

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly clashed Friday with Democratic lawmakers who criticized him for taking weeks to appear before Congress following the killing of Iran’s top military commander and then truncating his time on Capitol Hill to speak to a conservative political conference.

“We had to move heaven and earth to get you here for just two hours,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.), who noted that Pompeo used to berate the Obama administration about the need to hear testimony from former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

“It is shameful” that “you are going to talk to a special interest group,” while only giving two hours to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.). Pompeo is expected to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual meeting.

Committee chairman Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) called it an “embarrassment,” while Republicans fired back, saying their colleagues were being disrespectful to the secretary of state.

“This is exhausting,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who accused Democrats of trying to get a “YouTube moment” out of the hearing.

Until Friday, Pompeo had not made a public appearance on Capitol Hill for months. The shortened appearance resulted in Democrats trying to maximize their time through the use of yes or no questions, a format Pompeo refused to acquiesce to, resulting in combative, interruption-laden exchanges.

“That’s a straw-man argument,” Pompeo told Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who tried to pin him down on a yes or no question related to the border wall and the coronavirus.

 

When Pompeo avoided one-word responses, Democrats attempted to reclaim their time to move to another question. Republicans accused them of failing to let the secretary speak, while Engel said they would not have to resort to the simplistic format if Pompeo would agree to stay longer, a request Pompeo rejected.

“I will not agree to stay for a few extra minutes,” Pompeo said.

 

The result was exchanges that were light on substance but heavy on conflict. Democrats questioned the Trump administration’s Iran policy, which they noted has resulted in more attacks on American interests and an expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. On the latter point, Pompeo conceded Iran has “enriched to a higher level than they did when we took office.”

 

But on the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Pompeo insisted the decision has made Americans more safe, despite State Department warnings about traveling to Iraq, the addition of thousands of more troops in the Middle East and beefed up security for U.S. diplomats around the world.

“It’s undoubtedly the case they are more safe,” Pompeo said.

The original topic of the hearing was to discuss the U.S. killing of Soleimani, but lawmakers peppered Pompeo with questions about the coronavirus, which has spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan to nearly every continent, with more than 83,000 infections globally.

Pompeo said he was confident the United States is reducing the threat to Americans but expressed irritation at receiving questions about the outbreak when the purpose of the hearing was to discuss U.S.-Iran policy.

 

“Just so you know, we agreed that I would come here to talk about Iran,” Pompeo said. “The first question today is not about Iran.”

Secretaries of state typically field a variety of questions during visits to Capitol Hill, even if they stray from the scheduled topic.

Some lawmakers attempted to combine the two topics, asking if the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran were inhibiting the country’s ability to respond to the coronavirus crisis, a charge Pompeo rejected.

Pompeo criticized Iran for suppressing information about the virus and said the United States was willing to help it handle the outbreak.

“We have made offers to the Islamic Republic of Iran to help, and we’ve made it clear to others around the world and in the region that assistance, humanitarian assistance to push back against the coronavirus in Iran is something the United States of America fully supports,” Pompeo said.