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Mike Pompeo faces skeptical lawmakers about coronavirus response

Response to coronavirus whistleblower

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced questions from lawmakers skeptical about the administration's response to the coronavirus threat in a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The hearing was ostensibly about the strike that killed Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani last month, but Pompeo just as often fielded questions about the administration's preparedness for dealing with the health crisis.

"We agreed that I was going to come here today to talk about Iran and the first question is not about Iran," Pompeo said testily when Democratic Representative David Cicilline kicked off the hearing by asking about the coronavirus, setting the tone for future contentious back-and-forth between lawmakers and the Secretary of State. Cicilline noted that Iran had reported several cases of the coronavirus.

Pompeo said that the U.S. has "made offers to the Islamic Republic to help" with the response to the coronavirus, but added that health care infrastructure in Iran is "not robust," and that the U.S. is concerned Iran is not sharing all information it has on the virus.

Democratic Congressman Dean Phillips asked Pompeo about his level of confidence in the administration's response to the coronavirus, noting that the White House's proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 would cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department contributions to the World Health Organization.

"I am confident that this administration has taken actions that has significantly reduced risk," Pompeo replied.

Pompeo was less than forthcoming in response to some of the more aggressive questions from Democrats. When asked by Congresswoman Adriano Espaillat if he would support diverting funds from building the border wall to the coronavirus response, Pompeo responded, "That's a straw-man argument."

Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu also asked Pompeo if he believes coronavirus is a hoax. Pompeo didn't answer directly, calling the question a "gotcha moment," and adding that the State Department is taking coronavirus "seriously."

Engel told Pompeo at the conclusion of the hearing that he was "always welcome" to testify before the committee, but Pompeo did not seem eager to schedule another appearance soon. When asked if he would agree to brief the committee on the coronavirus next week, Pompeo demurred, saying: "I'm happy to work with you to find a time that works with everyone's schedule."

Meanwhile, Democrats expressed some frustration after an unclassified briefing with White House officials on the coronavirus earlier Friday morning.

"The president and vice president don't inspire confidence and because the president has made so many false statements about so many things," House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a frequent Twitter target of the president, told reporters after the briefing. "But thankfully we have good career people at agencies, and we are going to rely on them to be candid with us, and make sure they feel comfortable speaking truth to power in an environment that shuts down any voice that isn't consistent with their narrative."

Representative Julia Brownley said members were "frustrated" with the briefing they received this morning. 

"We want the truth, and we want all of the facts, and there is some skepticism," Brownley said.

Meanwhile, Republicans complained that Democrats had made the briefing too "political."

"This is not a political issue. This is not a partisan issue. We've got public health concerns," Republican Congressman Paul Mitchell said, adding that Democrats had turned the briefing into a "political circus."

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