WASHINGTON (CN) — As stock markets quake and anxiety over the coronavirus spreads, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo worked in a deeply contentious hearing Friday to assure lawmakers that the Trump administration is capable of handling an outbreak in the U.S.
Pompeo was slated to focus his comments before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on President Donald Trump’s decision two months ago to assassinate Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the country’s Quds force.
Tensions remain high, though no longer considered to be on the brink of war: In addition to having sold arms recently to U.S. adversaries in the Middle East, Iran has indicated that it will not resume nuclear nonproliferation negotiations until after the U.S. election in November.
Further complicating matters, the World Health Organization reported Tuesday that the coronavirus has killed at least 26 in Iran, with another 245 infected. This makes Iran’s virus death toll second only to the death toll in China where the virus originated.
During a briefing at the State Department this week, Pompeo claimed both Iran and China suppress data on infections and may be underselling the spread of the virus.
Seeking answers, Representative David Cicilline, D-Rhode Island, asked Pompeo what his role, as the nation’s chief diplomat, would be in managing the global response to coronavirus. The secretary immediately rebuffed Cicilline and set what would become the acrimonious tone that dominated Friday’s testimony.
“We agreed I would come here to talk about Iran, and the first question today is not about Iran,” Pompeo bristled.
Cicilline pushed back sharply and demanded to know whether Pompeo consulted with anyone inside the Iranian government to coordinate a response to the virus.
“We’ve 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.
The secretary was light, however, on those assistance details Friday. When asked whether Iran’s infrastructure allowed it to handle the outbreak unassisted, Pompeo was not confident.
“Their health care infrastructure is not robust and information about what is going on inside their country has been limited to U.S. officials,” Pompeo said.
Nonetheless, Pompeo praised the State Department for its work addressing the coronavirus and said he was confident that the department would handle its response to possible global pandemic appropriately.
Representative Dean Phillips, D-Minnesota, seemed flabbergasted at the suggestion.
How, Phillips pressed, did Pompeo plan to address infectious disease when the Trump administration for the last two years cut a litany of related programs and, in the 2021 budget, has already proposed a 50% cut to the World Health Organization and a 40% cut to the CDC’s budge for global health security?
“We’ll have plenty of money,” Pompeo said before noting that if additional resources were required, the State Department would simply ask for them.
Phillips pointedly asked Pompeo if he understood why the public or Congress may consider his answers suspect in light of the Trump administration’s penchant for circulating misinformation.
“I don’t understand that,” Pompeo said, smiling broadly. “I have great confidence in our resources.”
The hearing was often fraught with crosstalk, and Pompeo stoked the tensions with Democratic members further when told New York Representative Elliot Engel, the committee chairman, that he would not stay a few extra minutes this afternoon to answer more questions.
The secretary had imposed a strict two-hour time limit on his testimony Friday because he had another engagement: to deliver remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference unfolding just miles away from the Capitol.
Representative Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, wanted Pompeo to field questions about the lack of permanent U.S. infrastructure to deal with pandemics. In previous administrations, a structure to handle ebola was set up and then dismantled after the outbreak subsided, he noted. No such structure currently exists.
Additionally, last May, the Trump administration dismantled the global health security director position on the National Security Council. Connolly asked Pompeo Friday if he felt Trump’s abolishing of the role may have weakened the U.S position to tackle emerging health crises.
Pompeo hedged again, saying that he has watched the role CDC officers and other officials have played behind the scenes since news of the coronavirus first began to surface.
“We ought to focus on actions and activities not organizational charts,” Pompeo retorted.
Arguing that the secretary wouldn’t dare criticize Trump, the Virginia Democrat offered a compromise when he asked Pompeo if he would directly answer a question so long as there was the situation that “every decision made by this president is considered beyond reproach.”
“So stipulated,” Pompeo quipped.
He then went on to offer vague assurances that the department was “working closely” with the World Health Organization and others in the international health community on the front lines.
Another Virginia lawmaker on the committee, Representative Abigail Spanberger, returned focus to Iran when she grilled Pompeo about conflicting details shared by him and the president on separate occasions in the weeks after the Soleimani strike.
Reading from a transcript of Pompeo’s press conference on Jan. 10, just a week after the Soleimani was killed, Spanberger repeated Pompeo’s initial assertion that the U.S. had specific information on an “imminent” threat that included attacks on multiple U.S. embassies.
The alleged imminence factor was totally missing from a classified hearing Pompeo had with the committee that same day, Spanberger, a former CIA case officer, noted.
“I’m very happy Soleimani is dead,” Spanberger said, “but there was no evidence of imminence presented at the closed hearing. … You and I both know the claim of imminence was necessary and pivotal to the administration’s justification of its actions to circumvent Congress.”
The necessity argument isn’t just political – it’s legal.
Section 1264 of the recently enacted 2020 National Defense Authorization Act requires the president to send a report to congress to explain the legal and policy justifications for use of military force.
Following the Soleimani strike, the White House submitted its report on Jan. 31 but it does not mention an imminent attack that was stopped by Solemani’s killing.
“So, your own report contradicts what you told the American people over and over,” Spanberger said. “and when the administration was constrained by law to tell the truth, you abandoned the talking points.”
Another report on Iran is due to Congress this Sunday.
Pompeo said he expected the administration to submit it on time.
A representative from the State Department did not immediately respond to request for comment Friday.