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How Dems' plan to grill Pompeo on the Soleimani strike fell apart

It's an inside story of how Congress failed to hold the executive branch accountable for a big misstep in US foreign policy.

Reporting | Middle East

Democrats finally had their chance to question Mike Pompeo.

Almost two months after the Trump administration started an armed conflict with Iran, the secretary of state finally agreed to attend a congressional hearing. The House Foreign Affairs Committee would have two hours in February 2020 to grill Pompeo about the U.S. assassination of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani and the retaliatory Iranian missile attack that wounded over a hundred American troops at a base in Iraq.

To his apparent surprise, the first few Democratic questions had nothing to do with the January 2020 near-war in the Middle East. Instead, Democrats on the committee fired off a strange mix of questions about Iran, the coronavirus pandemic, and coronavirus in Iran. “Mr. Chairman, just so you know, we agreed that I would come here to talk about Iran,” Pompeo complained.

Republicans, meanwhile, were consistent in praising Pompeo’s hard line on the Middle East. And they attacked their Democratic colleagues for asking seemingly irrelevant questions. Pompeo smirked as Adam Kinzinger of Illinois denounced the “multimedia dog and pony show” and Lee Zeldin of New York called the hearing a “joke.” 

It was not supposed to be like this. In an unusual step, Democratic committee members had originally planned to choreograph their questioning, so that they could hold Pompeo’s feet to the fire on the reasons for and consequences of the Soleimani strike. But during a secret dress rehearsal, the planning process broke down, forcing Democratic staff to rewrite the script at the last minute.

Responsible ​Statecraft confirmed these details with three congressional staffers who spoke on condition of anonymity, and obtained emails that described the planning process up until the hours before the hearing.

​“As we discussed yesterday, the Committee’s goal for the hearing on Iran/Iraq/War Powers is a coordinated, cohesive narrative,” said a February 20, 2020 email sent from committee staff to different members’ offices, which was obtained by Responsible Statecraft. “In their meeting last week, the majority of our members expressed a strong desire for this strategy.”

A dress rehearsal was held on February 27. But it fell apart when several members argued they would rather ask about the coronavirus instead. After a heated argument, Democratic staff scrambled to rewrite the script the night before the hearing.

Some staffers and advocates were left feeling that Democrats had wasted the opportunity, an unprecedented experiment in congressional oversight, while others said they had made the most of a difficult situation.

“With the benefit of hindsight, that probably wasn't such a bad idea, but it did kind of throw out the tightly scripted approach and Pompeo was able to deflect for the most part,” said Ryan Costello, policy director at the National Iranian American Council, who confirmed by email that “there was something of a revolt right before the hearing” by members who would rather talk about coronavirus than Iran.

Stephen Miles, executive director of the progressive advocacy group Win Without War, noted that Democrats “just didn’t do good oversight over Donald Trump and his national security policy.”

“You can draw a direct line from Democrats’ unwillingness or inability to hold Donald Trump and his administration accountable for their failures in real time, and the way Joe Biden is being blamed for not cleaning up those failures,” Miles told Responsible Statecraft.

It had already been an uphill battle to get the secretary of state to speak under oath. Even before the near-war with Iran, Pompeo had ignored a subpoena related to then-President Donald Trump’s first impeachment hearing. In the days after the Soleimani assassination, Trump administration officials were incredibly evasive in answering Congress’s questions.

And there were plenty of questions to ask. Officials gave conflicting reasons for Soleimani’s assassination, and documents later declassified by the Biden administration showed that the Trump administration had quietly acknowledged the risk of a full-blown war with Iran.

Pompeo had long dreamed of carrying out a “leadership decapitation strategy” against Iran, telling officials “don’t worry about if it’s legal; that’s a question for the lawyers” soon after becoming CIA director in 2017, according to a report from Yahoo News. 

The Trump administration also promised that killing Soleimani would “restore deterrence” against Iran. Not only did Iran retaliate with a massive missile strike against U.S. bases in Iraq, but Iranian-backed militias in the region have continued to harass and attack U.S. forces, occasionally wounding or killing Americans.

Yet the administration was unwilling to answer congressional questions in public. Officials first informed Congress about the attack through a classified memo, and offered classified briefings. One of the briefings was so vague that Republican senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul immediately complained to the press, with Lee calling Trump administration officials’ behavior  “insane” and “insulting.”

In the weeks after the Soleimani killing, the Democratic-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee continued to push for answers. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Pompeo agreed to attend a hearing on February 28, the morning before he was set to attend the Conserverative Political Action Conference. “We had to move heaven and earth to get you here for just two hours,” complained Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York, during the hearing.

A two-hour hearing meant that Democrats and Republicans would each have an hour for their own questions. Democratic members and staff began quietly planning for the hearing. They agreed to choreograph their questions, ensuring that as many members as possible would get a chance to speak, and that the committee could pursue a consistent line of questioning.

On February 27, a day before the hearing, Democrats convened for a dress rehearsal. They even brought in the same consultants who had worked with Democrats on Trump’s first impeachment trial, according to one Democratic congressional staffer. All of this was highly unusual. 

“Everybody has their script, everybody knows what they’re doing,” said one Democratic staffer. “It’s going really well. And then Ted Lieu raises his hand, and the wheels start to come off.”

According to that staffer, Lieu claimed that his constituents only wanted to hear about the coronavirus, which had just reached American soil. Several other members began to agree, and then David Cicilline of Rhode Island argued that Soleimani’s death was not even a bad thing, according to the staffer. The staffer called it an “open rebellion…not just against a Soleimani hearing per se, but against oversight.”

Rep. Lieu’s office declined to comment on “internal committee deliberations.” Rep. Cicilline’s office did not respond to an email request for comment.

Other staffers confirmed the broad strokes of the arguments that were made, although they did not mention specific members by name. In the words of a second Democratic staffer, it would have been “tone deaf” not to talk about the unfolding pandemic. “There’s no doubt it would have been better if it just focused on Soleimani, but some members would have regretted not asking about COVID,” a third Hill staffer said.

On the other hand, the House of Representatives had just held a hearing about coronavirus with several high-level health officials on February 26, and was holding another hearing on the topic with State Department officials — although not Pompeo himself — the afternoon after the dress rehearsal.

The committee eventually came to a compromise. The choreographed questioning would remain. But members would get to ask about either the Soleimani assassination or coronavirus. According to two staffers, committee staff had to stay up late into the night to rewrite the script for the hearing. Committee staff emailed members the order they were scheduled to speak in slightly after 10pm, and promised to send specific questions shortly after.

On the day of the hearing, Cicilline was the first to ask a question. He criticized the “conflicting information from [Pompeo] and other members of the administration about the reasons for the Soleimani strike, and about the details of its impacts,” before segueing into a speech about lack of trust in the Trump administration to handle the coronavirus pandemic.

Pompeo noted that Cicilline’s questions had nothing to do with Iran, so Cicilline asked whether the Trump administration was in contact with the Iranian government to talk about coronavirus. (The answer was no.) Ami Bera of California followed with a question about whether U.S. sanctions would be loosened to help Iran fight coronavirus. Pompeo insisted that sanctions were not a problem to begin with.

Some Democratic members did ask about the Soleimani strike.

Trump had originally claimed that the attack was necessary to stop an Iranian threat against specific U.S. embassies. But the administration’s report to Congress did not mention any specific threats, so Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Andy Levin of Michigan pushed Pompeo on the changing justification.

Brad Sherman of California asked whether the Trump administration would apologize for “trivializing” the injuries of American troops hurt by the Iranian missile attack. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota asked about the likelihood of further Iranian retaliation. And Joaquin Castro of Texas questioned whether “Congress authorized the president to attack Iran.”

But other Democrats did not even try to relate their questions to the Soleimani strike. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey asked whether Pompeo would defend State Department officials who tell the White House unpleasant truths. Adriano Espaillat of New York asked Pompeo whether he believes money should be diverted from building a border wall to coronavirus relief.

Lieu had been scheduled to ask about the Iranian nuclear program, and he did point out that Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material had increased since the Soleimani strike. But then he pushed Pompeo on whether the coronavirus was a “hoax,” as White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had claimed.

Pompeo called the question a “gotcha moment, it's not helpful.”

“There was almost no coverage of the Soleimani oversight, and Ted Lieu got like fifty thousand retweets for that shit,” the first Democratic staffer told Responsible Statecraft. “Pompeo stalling us for eight weeks worked…We were unable to do oversight, because he banked on, ‘if I only give them two hours eight weeks from now, they’ll have moved onto something else.’ And it was right!”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies at a hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 23, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
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