Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first public appearance of the year before Congress was his most heated and combative yet, with House Democrats frequently raising their voice to sharply rebuke the secretary, who categorically rejected all of their criticisms on the administration’s Iran policy and on its handling of the growing worldwide coronavirus outbreak.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing was nominally about the administration’s policy toward Iran and Iraq and its use of war powers. But Democrats used a good portion of their questioning time to ask about the administration’s response to COVID-19, the new coronavirus that began in late 2019 in Wuhan, China and is a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses.
Rep. Ted Deutch said the Trump administration had a major credibility problem on its hands when it came to its handling of COVID-19.
“The American people are becoming increasingly worried about coronavirus,” the Florida Democrat said. “We get phone calls every minute of every day. People are really concerned and when they hear conflicting messages, they don’t know what to do.”
COVID-19 has killed approximately 2,800 people and infected roughly 81,500 people, including some 60 Americans. At least one of those Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, appears to have been infected via “community transmission” within the United States.
President Donald Trump has been criticized for minimizing COVID-19, contradicting his own public health officials, and mischaracterizing aspects of the science related to the threat.
He has said the virus will likely go away on its own in April when the weather warms and has suggested development of a vaccine is further along than it actually is. While scientists are moving at exceptional speed to develop a vaccine, the National Institutes of Health does not believe a vaccine will be ready until a year from now, at the earliest.
“When the president lied about the size of his inaugural crowd it was embarrassing. It was hard to believe when he falsified a hurricane weather map,” Deutch said. “But now we face coronavirus and the president tells us that a vaccine is all ready and it isn’t. And then he tells us that warm weather will miraculously take care of this, take care of everything and it won’t.”
Pompeo defended the administration’s handling of COVID-19.
“This administration has taken actions that have significantly reduced risks and it will continue to do so,” the secretary said. “It is a very complex problem.”
Few new details emerged Friday related to the original reason for the hearing – the administration’s legal justification and the related-regional fallout of the early January decision to order a fatal drone strike on Iran’s most powerful military commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
When the topic of Iran did come up, Democrats used their limited questioning time to criticize the administration’s actions toward Tehran while Pompeo and Republicans panel members defended them as successful.
The acrimony of Friday’s hearing was remarkable for the setting.
While other congressional committees have long seen their proceedings and legislative work dominated by partisan concerns, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held out longer than others in remaining a lone island of bipartisanship, acting under the old adage that ‘politics stops at the water’s edge.’
One year into Democrats’ takeover of the House and three years into the Trump administration, the last vestiges of that veneer of bipartisanship appeared to die on Friday, as multiple Republicans said during the hearing.
Noting that Pompeo had managed to carve out time in his schedule to speak Friday at noon at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., questioned the secretary why he couldn’t find more than two hours to testify before the committee.
“You, sir, represent all Americans, not a special interest group. It is shameful you can’t answer basic questions,” Lieu said, after Pompeo declined to answer questions on whether he disagreed with acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s recent minimization of the coronavirus threat.
“I’m not going to comment on what other people say,” Pompeo said. “We’re taking it seriously.”
The abbreviated nature of the hearing, which started at 8:30 a.m., meant that members had their traditional five minutes of question time cut down to half that, a fact that Democrats dwelled upon.
“Reclaiming my time,” was the most frequently heard phrase of the morning. Democrats used it vigorously to limit Pompeo’s opportunities to talk at length, which they argued the secretary, a former three-term House lawmaker from Kansas, did not deserve since he was not using the time to answer direct questions.
Democrats also repeatedly unfavorably compared Pompeo to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who famously testified in 2015 for over 11 hours before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
“I can’t help but think about when you were on this side of the dais,” said Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y. “I can remember you vividly thundering away at Secretary Clinton. She showed up voluntarily, sat here for 11 hours. We had to move heaven and earth to get you here today to sit just for 2 hours.”
Pompeo, who was a member of the Benghazi committee, is widely seen to have used that perch and his scathing criticism of Clinton to catapult himself to the attention of Trump, who nominated him to serve as CIA director for the first year of his term.
The secretary only agreed to testify before the committee after House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York threatened to subpoena him.
Democrats said they would be willing to let Pompeo have more time to speak if he would agree to extend the length of the hearing by a few minutes, to which he demurred.
Republicans uniformly defended Pompeo and attacked their Democratic colleagues for refusing to give the secretary time to speak.
“This hearing has been a joke. My colleagues on the other side of the aisle are choosing to answer the question for you. Or if you attempt to answer, they cut you off to reclaim their time,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y. “You’re doing a great job. I’m proud to have you as secretary of State.”