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Secretary Of State Pompeo Faces Questions From House Foreign Affairs Committee

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Coronavirus, Iran and a tense NPR interview - those were some of the topics that came up during a long-awaited congressional hearing today with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Democrats were furious that he limited his time with them, and Republicans described the hearing as a circus, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: In a highly charged hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, New York Democrat Gregory Meeks was quick to point out that Pompeo once sat on the other side of the dais, as a congressman from Kansas.

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GREGORY MEEKS: I can remember vividly you thundering away at Secretary Clinton during the Benghazi hearing. You know what? She showed up voluntarily, sat there for 11 hours. But with you, sir, we had to move heaven and earth to get you here today for just two hours.

KELEMEN: The hearing was supposed to focus on Iran. Meeks accused the administration of being reckless and impulsive on that front. Secretary Pompeo insisted that America is safer after a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

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MIKE POMPEO: His death reduced the risk to our personnel overseas, both my diplomats and our military.

KELEMEN: Pompeo justified the killing by saying there were imminent threats against U.S. interests, but Virginia Democrat Abigail Spanberger says he did not back that up in a classified briefing. Republican Brian Mast questioned whether she should be talking about a classified briefing and claimed that Democrats wished that Soleimani were still alive. Spanberger fired back.

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ABIGAIL SPANBERGER: There was no evidence given in the classified briefing - none, none of imminence, none. And as a former CIA case officer, I am very happy that Soleimani is dead.

KELEMEN: Iran retaliated for Soleimani's killing by firing missiles at a base in Iraq. At the time, President Trump said no American was harmed; now the Pentagon acknowledges that 110 service members suffered traumatic brain injuries. California Democrat Brad Sherman got into a heated exchange with Pompeo about that.

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BRAD SHERMAN: Mr. Secretary, do you want to take the opportunity - this is a yes-or-no question. Do you want to take the opportunity here today to apologize to those service members for trivializing their injuries?

POMPEO: Mr. Congressman, I've never trivialized the injury of any...

SHERMAN: Do you want to apologize on behalf of the administration for trivializing...

KELEMEN: Another Democrat, Dina Titus of Nevada, brought up Pompeo's interview with NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED when he accused Iran of blustering on its nuclear program and confidently said that the U.S. will stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Titus called that a bumper sticker, not a policy.

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DINA TITUS: Frankly, Mr. Pompeo, I agree - blustering is dangerous, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons development. But today, you're just blustering.

KELEMEN: Republicans, including Ron Wright of Texas, complained that Democrats weren't allowing Pompeo to respond.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON WRIGHT: Ringling Bros. has nothing on this committee. Rarely have I seen adults behave in such a despicable and rude manner as they have today.

KELEMEN: Democrats said Pompeo should have given more of his time and noted that he found time to speak to a Conservative Political Action Conference today. Trump's acting chief of staff also addressed that conference, describing the way the media have covered coronavirus as the, quote, "hoax of the day." Democrat Ted Lieu questioned Pompeo about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED LIEU: Do you believe the coronavirus is a hoax?

POMPEO: We're working to keep people safe from the coronavirus.

LIEU: You can't even answer that question?

POMPEO: Yeah, I...

LIEU: It's a very - it's not even a gotcha question.

POMPEO: Look - you're...

LIEU: Do you believe the coronavirus is a hoax?

POMPEO: It is. It's a gotcha moment. It's not useful.

KELEMEN: Pompeo also faced questions about the administration's proposed budget cuts to global health programs as the U.S. tries to contain the outbreak of the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POMPEO: We'll have plenty of money.

KELEMEN: Democrats questioned whether the administration can be trusted with telling the truth about the virus.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.