WASHINGTON – The State Department has blocked an NPR reporter from taking a scheduled trip with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in apparent retaliation for the public radio station’s handling of an explosive interview conducted with Pompeo on Friday.
The move ratchets up Pompeo’s public fight with the news outlet – and with the media more broadly – amid growing scrutiny of Pompeo’s role in President Donald Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign. The decision drew immediate rebuke from those who said it sent the wrong message about America’s commitment to freedom of the press.
“It’s difficult to see this move as anything other than petty & retaliatory,” tweeted John Kirby, a retired rear admiral in the Navy who served as a State Department spokesman in the Obama administration. He called the move “short-sighted, self-defeating, small-minded,” adding it was “beneath the office” of America’s chief diplomat.
The move to bar Michele Kelemen, NPR’s diplomatic reporter, from Pompeo’s flight to Ukraine and several other countries, came after NPR host Mary Louise Kelly conducted a contentious interview with Pompeo on Friday. Pompeo grew extremely irritated by Kelly’s questions about Ukraine, as evidenced in his tone and answers.
After the interview, Kelly said she was invited to Pompeo’s private living room, where he shouted and cursed at her.
“‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?'” Pompeo apparently shouted at Kelly after the interview.
“He used the F-word in that sentence and many others,” Kelly said. “He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes, and he called out for aides to bring us a map of the world with no writing. I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away.”
Pompeo said Kelly had agreed to have their post-interview conversation off the record and “lied” to him when setting up the interview. He did not dispute that he cursed and shouted at her.
In a statement Monday, NPR said Kelemen “was informed that she would not be traveling. She was not given a reason.”
The State Department’s correspondents’ association blasted the decision to remove Kelemen from the trip to Europe and Central Asia, which is scheduled to begin on Thursday.
“We can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of this exchange,” said Shaun Tandon, president of the association. He said Kelemen was in rotation as the radio pool reporter for the trip. In that role, she would send dispatches to other radio reporters who are not traveling with the secretary.
Tandon called Kelemen “a consummate professional who has covered the State Department for nearly two decades” and said he hoped the State Department would reconsider its decision.
“The journalists who cover the State Department are dedicated to informing the public and holding this and every administration accountable by asking questions about the issues of the day,” Tandon said.