US reporter barred from Pompeo Ukraine trip

28 Jan 2020

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In a statement on Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also accused Kelly of lying to him, twice. — Photo courtesy NPR website
In a statement on Sunday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also accused Kelly of lying to him, twice. — Photo courtesy NPR website

A correspondent for National Public Radio in the United States has been excluded from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's plane for a trip this week, after a tense exchange between him and another NPR journalist.

The association that represents correspondents covering the State Department reported on Monday that Pompeo, the top US diplomat, had removed NPR's Michele Kelemen from his trip which begins on Wednesday in Britain. He will also visit Ukraine and other countries.

“We can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of Pompeo's exchange with the other NPR journalist," the State Department Correspondents' Association said, protesting the decision.

It came after NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly, in an interview, pressed Pompeo about the Ukraine issue at the heart of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

According to Kelly, after the interview a staffer invited Kelly to Pompeo's private living room, without her recorder.

There, Pompeo “was waiting and [...] he shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself lasted,” Kelly said.

“He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine,” Kelly said, adding that the secretary asked her, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” in an exchange peppered with profane words.

She said he also asked her to point to Ukraine on a map, whose countries were not labeled.

Kelly said she did, but Pompeo later implied she had pointed to Bangladesh.

Holding governments accountable

In a statement on Sunday, Pompeo also accused Kelly of lying to him, twice.

The first time was “in setting up our interview.” He also alleged that the post interview “conversation” was supposed to be off the record and therefore not reportable.

The secretary did not deny making the aggressive comments reported by the journalist.

Kelly said she was not told the conversation would be off the record, nor would she have agreed to those terms if she were asked.

She also said Pompeo's staff were aware she'd ask about both Iran and Ukraine.

Shaun Tandon, president of the State Department Correspondents' Association, called NPR reporter Kelemen “a consummate professional” with two decades' experience covering US diplomacy.

“We respectfully ask the State Department to reconsider and allow Michele to travel on the plane for this trip,” wrote Tandon, who is also an AFP correspondent.

“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.

He added that the State department has defended journalists around the world, and at the same time the department's own professional ethos commits its employees to “serve with unfailing professionalism [...] even in the face of adversity.”

In a statement, NPR said Kelemen “was informed that she would not be traveling. She was not given a reason.”

Trump is on trial in the US Senate accused of pressuring Kiev to investigate his potential election challenger Joe Biden, and of blocking congressional efforts to probe that abuse.

Pompeo, a close associate of Trump, has himself been criticised for failing to defend Marie Yovanovitch, Washington's former ambassador to Ukraine.

She was abruptly called home last spring after being subjected to what she called a “smear campaign” led by Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer.

The secretary was also one of the senior administration officials listening in on a phone call between Trump and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, which is at the centre of the impeachment allegations.