Following an unusually acrimonious exchange between Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and a senior journalist with National Public Radio, the State Department has barred the broadcaster’s representative from traveling with him as part of a reporting pool on his next trip abroad.
The association that represents correspondents who report on the State Department late Monday issued a stinging protest.
“We can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of this exchange,” the State Department Correspondents’ Assn. said in a statement.
“The State Department press corps has a long tradition of accompanying secretaries of State on their travels and we find it unacceptable to punish an individual member of our association.”
NPR’s veteran diplomatic reporter Michele Kelemen was scheduled to join the reporters traveling with Pompeo, America’s top diplomat, as part of a pool of print and broadcast journalists who take turns accompanying the secretary during official trips, flying on his Air Force jet. They report on his activities for the broader press community. The media companies pay for the flights.
Pompeo plans to depart this week for several countries including Ukraine. He will be the first senior U.S. official to travel to its capital, Kyiv, since President Trump’s dealings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky led to his impeachment and ongoing Senate trial on accusations of pressuring the government to investigate his political rivals.
NPR was informed on Monday that Kelemen would not be allowed to join the reporting trip. The correspondents’ association asked State Department officials to reverse the decision.
State Department spokespeople did not immediately respond Monday evening to a request for comment.
On Friday, in an interview with NPR host Mary Louise Kelly, Pompeo grew testy when Kelly asked him why he hadn’t done more to defend Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was smeared by Trump allies and abruptly removed from her post last year.
Kelly broadcast the interview and disclosed that, when it was over, Pompeo unleashed a profanity-laced tirade, asking, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
Kelly also said that Pompeo asked for a map without country names and demanded she locate Ukraine. She said she did. On Saturday, Pompeo issued a strident statement, saying Kelly had lied about her plans for the interview and blasting her as “shameful” for disclosing the subsequent conversation, which he claimed was off the record. Kelly said Pompeo’s aide never asked for that stipulation, nor would she have agreed to it.
Pompeo, in the department’s statement, did not deny having said the things she disclosed. On official State Department letterhead, Pompeo described a media “unhinged” in its determination to “hurt” Trump and his administration.
He ended the statement with an insinuation that Kelly had not, in fact, correctly identified Ukraine on the map, which only seemed to confirm that he indeed had demanded she do so. “It is worth noting Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine,” he said.
Pompeo seemed to continue the recriminations on Sunday, when he used his personal Twitter account to post a biblical passage about liars and fools.
Yovanovitch’s ouster occurred last year at Trump’s direction because he believed her to be an impediment to his efforts to pressure Zelensky into announcing corruption investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, and of a debunked conspiracy theory that a prior Ukrainian government, not Russia, hacked the Democratic Party during the 2016 election campaign. Neither Trump nor anyone else in the administration has alleged any specific wrongdoing by the Bidens. Yovanovitch’s recall from Kyiv has been a central piece of the case House Democrats have presented in the president’s trial.
Pompeo has come under criticism from within his department and from former diplomats for failing to publicly support Yovanovitch and other foreign service officers who come under attack.
The correspondents association noted that the department also has stood up for press freedoms in the past. “The State Department has courageously defended journalists around the world through statements under its seal,” it said. “We are committed to do our part to preserve a respectful, professional relationship with the institution we cover.”