That initial exchange set the tone for the hearing as several Democrats seized the opportunity to draw a parallel between Donald Trump administration's shifting explanations justifying the strike that assassinated Iranian commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani earlier this year and the US president's foreign policy more broadly, prompting backlash from Republicans, CNN reported.
This year, the US president authorized the attack that killed the Iranian top counter-terrorism commander, prompting Iran to vow retaliation. A week later, Iran launched strikes against the US military base in Iraq, causing dozens to experience brain injuries.
Tensions between Iran and the US have been increasing since 2018 that Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions against the country.
Iran blamed the US administration for triggering the crisis and said that it was up to Trump to pull back.
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.
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-Asad 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.
"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.