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Pompeo clashes with lawmakers over coronavirus and Iran in tense hearing

Posted February 28, 2020 10:26 a.m. EST

— Appearing before House lawmakers for a long postponed hearing on Iran Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared irritated as Democrats used their very first question to grill the top US diplomat on the administration's handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

That initial exchange set the tone for the hearing as several Democrats seized the opportunity to draw a parallel between the Trump administration's shifting explanations justifying the strike that killed Iranian commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani earlier this year and the President's foreign policy more broadly, prompting backlash from Republicans.

Rhode Island Democrat Rep. David Cicilline led off the hearing by drawing a parallel between the administration's conflicting explanations for killing Soleimani earlier this year and its public messaging related to the coronavirus, claiming that the American public has "lost trust in their government."

"So 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," Pompeo replied before telling lawmakers that the US has offered to help Iran deal with the increasing number of coronavirus cases there.

Florida Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch also pressed Pompeo on the administration's coronavirus preparations and claimed that 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."

But 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," Pompeo 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.

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