State Dept. kicks NPR reporter off trip after Secretary Pompeo berates her colleague

It appears to be retaliation by Pompeo, according to the press corps' president.

January 27, 2020, 7:14 PM

A National Public Radio correspondent was kicked off of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's upcoming trip to Europe and Central Asia, days after the top U.S. diplomat berated another reporter at the news organization, called her a liar and demanded she find Ukraine on a map.

Removing NPR's Michele Kelemen from the trip was seen as further retaliation by the State Department Correspondents' Association, according to its president Shaun Tandon of Agence France-Presse.

"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. 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," Tandon said in a statement.

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On Saturday, Pompeo released a blistering statement that accused NPR's Mary Louise Kelly of lying, but did not dispute her account of his expletive-laden tirade against her in his office after Kelly interviewed him.

Kelemen, who has covered the State Department for two decades, was scheduled to be the radio pool reporter on the secretary's trip, and with her removal, there will be no radio pool traveling with Pompeo. Like other senior administration officials, including the president, the secretary of state generally travels with a group of reporters covering the trip, but that access has been restricted under the Trump administration, as has the number of public on-camera briefings by spokespersons at the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House.

File photo of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifying before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill, Nov. 15, 2019, in Washington.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Kelly interviewed Pompeo on Friday morning at the State Department in Washington, pressing him on the Trump administration's Iran policy before turning to Ukraine and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. The career diplomat who still works under Pompeo was reportedly surveilled and possibly threatened by associates of President Donald Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, but Pompeo has never issued a public statement of support for her.

That line of questioning angered Pompeo, according to Kelly, who stared her down after the interview was ended by a staffer and then called her back to his office.

There, he berated her using the f-word, asked whether Americans cared about Ukraine and demanded that she find the eastern European country on a map, she reported Friday on NPR's "All Things Considered."

After pointing it out, she said Pompeo abruptly dismissed her, and she thanked him for his time.

The encounter was not off the record, according to Kelly, who said she wouldn't have agreed to it being so if anyone asked her.

Pompeo disputed that fact, claiming Kelly "lied to me, twice."

"First, last month, in setting up our interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record," he said Saturday in a statement.

He went further, saying it was "another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration."

"It is no wonder that the American people distrust many in the media when they so consistently demonstrate their agenda and their absence of integrity," he said.

His statement didn't dispute any of the contents of their tense, post-interview exchange, including his use of expletives or him asking about American interest in Ukraine.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with reporters at the State Department in Washington, Jan. 17, 2020.
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

But he insinuated that Kelly, who was born in Germany and has a masters in European Studies from Cambridge University in the U.K., misidentified Ukraine on an unmarked map as Bangladesh.

"It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine," he concluded in his statement.

NPR's senior vice president for news Nancy Barnes stood by Kelly in a statement sent to ABC News over the weekend.

"Mary Louise Kelly has always conducted herself with the utmost integrity, and we stand behind this report," Barnes said in the statement.

A group of Senate Democrats blasted the secretary on Saturday for his response to Kelly, expressing their "profound disappointment," in a letter addressed to Pompeo.

"At a time when journalists around the world are being jailed for their reporting -- and as in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, killed -- your insulting and contemptuous comments are beneath the office of the Secretary of State," the senators wrote in the letter. "Instead of calling journalists 'liars' and insulting their intelligence when they ask you hard questions you would rather not answer, your oath of office places on you a duty and obligation to engage respectfully and transparently."

Pompeo has a history of berating reporters whose questions he dislikes.

In October, he told Nancy Amons, a correspondent with Nashville's WSMV television station, that she has her "facts wrong" and "sounds like you're working, at least in part, for the Democratic National Committee" when she asked whether Trump's hold on security assistance to Ukraine was contingent on Ukraine's president announcing an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.

He also used that attack -- of working for the DNC -- against PBS Newshour anchor Judy Woodruff in October, when she asked similar questions about whether it was appropriate for Trump to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden.

ABC News' Mariam Khan contributed to this report.

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