U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo defended the Trump administration’s response to the spreading coronavirus and faced contentious questions from Democrats about an airstrike that killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Soleimani.
Democrats on the House’s foreign affairs committee expressed frustration that the panel was afforded only two hours to question Pompeo, who until Friday had gone months without a public appearance on Capitol Hill, a period that included the dramatic escalation in hostilities with Iran as well as questions about the treatment of State Department officials who criticized President Donald Trump as part of the impeachment investigation.
“Mr. Secretary, it shouldn’t have been so difficult to get you here, and your appearance here today is far too short,” Eliot Engel of New York, the Democratic chair of the committee, said at the outset of the hearing. He later called it an “embarrassment” that the hearing was so short.
Minutes later, Democrat Gregory Meeks, also from New York, recalled Pompeo’s “thundering” while in Congress about the need for testimony from one of his Democratic predecessors, Hillary Clinton, about the 2012 attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi.
“But with you, sir, we had to move heaven and earth to get you here today for just two hours,” Meeks said. “To me that shows disregard for the oversight responsibilities of the United States Congress.”
Pompeo, a close ally of Trump, noted that he had briefed Congress more than 70 times on the administration’s dealings with Iran and sought to keep his testimony focused on that subject — the stated focus of the hearing.
As he entered the room and took his seat, he smiled broadly as a group of demonstrators protested the administration’s Iran policy before being ushered out.
Republicans unconcerned about Soleimani killing
Pompeo repeatedly defended the administration’s January strike against Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force, saying he was “100 per cent” confident that the military commander had plans to kill more Americans and was “actively plotting” to do so.
“His death reduced the risk to our personnel overseas, both my diplomats and our military, and made clear that we are willing and able to impose costs on our adversaries if they threaten or attack us,” Pompeo said.
Republicans defended the strike, with Adam Kinzinger of Illinois describing Soleimani as a “demon” and Brian Mast of Florida challenging Democrats on the committee to say they’d have preferred that the general was alive rather than dead. But Democrats were skeptical of Pompeo’s arguments, with Andy Levin of Michigan at one point showing Pompeo a blank map and asking him to pinpoint the embassies that were under threat of attack before Soleimani’s death.
“I’m never willing to disclose classified information. I assume you’re not either,” Pompeo responded.
Democrats also pointed out that the killing of Osama bin Laden and other high-profile Islamist militants had the authorization of Congress, in contrast to the Soleimani example.
Pompeo also defended the administration’s response to the coronavirus, saying he was “incredibly proud” of the work the State Department had done in getting American civilians and diplomats out of China, where the illness first surfaced. He also said the administration had been in touch with Iran, where new cases have been reported, and is prepared to help with medical and technical assistance.
“I am confident that this administration has taken actions that have significantly reduced risk, and will continue to do so,” Pompeo said.
The COVID-19 illness caused by a new coronavirus that emerged in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan has stretched well beyond Asia. The global count of those infected as of Friday exceeds 83,000, with China still by far the hardest-hit country. Dozens of cases but no deaths have been confirmed in the United States.
Status quo on proposed Taliban deal
In other matters, Pompeo said the U.S. had seen a significant reduction in violence in Afghanistan during the past six days, one day before a proposed U.S.-Taliban deal signing in Qatar on an American troop withdrawal.
“We are watching closely to see if the Islamic Republic of Iran begins to take even more active measures, that undermine our efforts at peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan and just as importantly put our American soldiers who are on the ground … at risk as well,” Pompeo said.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement would begin a phased withdrawal of American and coalition forces. It would also require the Taliban to initiate a formal dialogue with the Afghan government and other political and civil society groups on a permanent nationwide ceasefire and power sharing in postwar Afghanistan.
Currently, the United States has roughly 13,000 service members stationed in Afghanistan. Trump has made the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan a major foreign policy objective.
Pompeo’s testimony came three weeks after the conclusion of the Senate impeachment trial against Trump, who was accused of abusing his office by withholding aid from Ukraine while he was seeking an investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden. Trump, who denied doing anything wrong, was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.
The inquiry before House lawmakers featured the testimony of several foreign service officers, including some who’d been enlisted with trying to carry out the Republican president’s wishes and expressed concerns over it.
Though Pompeo was not a central figure to the impeachment inquiry, he’s faced criticism for not doing more to stand up for a workforce that’s been attacked by the president — including Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was ousted last spring after a push by the president’s allies.