WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo escalated his clash with a respected NPR journalist Saturday, lashing out at her and what he called the “unhinged” news media in an extraordinary statement. A day earlier, he abruptly ended an interview with her and delivered what the news outlet described as a profanity-laced rant.
The statement, which used the fiery language to attack the news media that has become a regular trademark of President Donald Trump’s, ignited outrage online among foreign policy experts, scholars of diplomacy and press freedom advocates.
Pompeo violated the goals and nonpartisan nature of his office, whose core mission is to promote American values worldwide, including freedom of the press, they said.
The interview between Pompeo and the reporter, Mary Louise Kelly, circulated widely after it published Friday night. Describing a tense exchange after a taped part of the interview, Kelly said that Pompeo shouted at her repeatedly, using the “F-word,” and challenged her to find Ukraine on an unlabeled map that his aides pulled out, which she did.
In his statement, released Saturday morning by the State Department, Pompeo said: “It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency. This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this administration.”
He added, “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.”
Pompeo also said Kelly, a veteran reporter who is a host of “All Things Considered,” had lied in “setting up our interview” and in agreeing to have the “post-interview conversation” off the record.
On the program, Kelly said Katie Martin, an aide to Pompeo who has worked in press relations, never asked for that conversation to be kept off the record, nor would she have agreed to do that.
Pompeo’s statement did not deny Kelly’s account of obscenities and shouting. NPR said Saturday that Kelly “has always conducted herself with the utmost integrity, and we stand behind this report.”
Pompeo has occasionally issued statements calling on authoritarian governments to respect press freedoms. But he has insulted journalists and has even cursed at diplomatic reporters in private meetings.
His Saturday statement was notable for the public — and broad — denunciation of the news media.
The fact that it was released by his office, at the head of a department known for its decorum, made it even more galling to many observers.
Five Democratic senators sent a letter Saturday to Pompeo denouncing his “irresponsible” comments and the “corrosive effects of your behavior on American values and standing in the world.”
“The unavoidable reality is Pompeo never would have been in contention for a senior-level appointment in a normal GOP administration,” Thomas Wright, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said on Twitter. “He was promoted beyond his abilities because so many people were ruled out. The delta between what’s required & what he has is now on full display.”
Pompeo, a hawkish evangelical Christian who is a former Republican congressman from Kansas, tries hard to display loyalty to Trump and reiterate the president’s positions on issues. Pompeo has aspirations to run for president in 2024, his associates say, and he ties his political future to Trump’s support.
The Saturday statement was the clearest echo yet of Trump, who frequently attacks the news media as the “enemy of the people.”
Some journalists pointed out that Pompeo appears to erupt more often at female reporters. In an interview with Deirdre Shesgreen of USA Today last year, Pompeo at one point repeated her name nine times: “No, not OK, but. Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre. Not OK, but.”
For some, Pompeo’s treatment of Kelly underlined a persistent hostility toward women. Cathryn Clüver, executive director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School, said, “This secretary of state is a bully and a misogynist.”
Pompeo’s statement included a puzzling reference to Bangladesh: “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.”
The line implied, though did not specifically assert, that when Pompeo challenged Kelly to identify Ukraine, which is in Eastern Europe, on an unlabeled map, she had mistakenly pointed to Bangladesh, in South Asia. Kelly, who has a master’s in European studies from Cambridge University and has worked abroad, said Friday that she correctly identified Ukraine.
Pompeo has been widely criticized both within the State Department and outside for failing to defend veteran diplomats who testified last fall in the impeachment inquiry and who have been attacked publicly by Trump.
Last April, Pompeo played a pivotal role in Trump’s political plans involving Ukraine — at the heart of the impeachment charges — by ousting Marie L. Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine and an anti-corruption advocate. After Kelly had asked whether he owed Yovanovitch an apology and whether he had tried to block Trump’s shadow Ukraine policy, Pompeo cut off the interview after nine minutes.
“I’ve defended every single person on this team,” Pompeo said.
When Pompeo objected to the Ukraine questions, Kelly said she had told an aide a day earlier that it would be a topic of discussion.
Kelly said Pompeo leaned toward her and glared at her before leaving with his aides, one of whom later asked her to accompany her to Pompeo’s private living room, but without the recorder. There, Pompeo, “shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted,” Kelly said.
“He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine,” Kelly said. “He asked, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ He used the F-word in that sentence and many others.”
That statement could complicate Pompeo’s planned trip to Ukraine this week, which comes as Trump’s impeachment trial is underway. Pompeo plans to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy after arriving in Kyiv on Thursday, making him the first Cabinet official from the Trump administration to meet with Zelenskiy since the impeachment inquiry began in the fall.
Pompeo has canceled planned trips to Ukraine twice since November.