The State Department is committed to training journalists in press freedoms, Secretary Mike Pompeo said on Sunday in comments that come directly on the heels of his feud with NPR.
While in Kazakhstan, Pompeo told the journalist Aigerim Toleukhan that freedom of the press helps “build out civil society inside of countries.” “We’re here, we’re here to help, and we’ll continue to do that,” he said.
But Pompeo also said journalists were expected to behave a certain way, “telling the truth and being honest.” When asked about a combative interview with an NPR reporter last week and the State Department’s barring another reporter from the public radio network from traveling with his press pool on a trip to Ukraine, Pompeo suggested it was because of this lack of honesty.
“I didn’t have a confrontational interview with an NPR reporter any more than I have confrontational interviews all the time,” he said. “We take hundreds and hundreds of questions. We talk openly.”
Pompeo continued: “With respect to who travels with me, I always bring a big press contingent, but we ask for certain sets of behaviors, and that’s simply telling the truth and being honest. And when they’ll do that, they get to participate, and if they don’t, it’s just not appropriate.”
Last week, the secretary had a testy conversation with NPR host Mary Louise Kelly. In an interview, Kelly asked Pompeo probing questions about his role in the Ukraine scandal at the heart of President Donald Trump’s impeachment proceedings. Pompeo answered curtly.
He reportedly met with Kelly behind closed doors afterward, shouting and swearing at the “All Things Considered” host and challenging her to point out Ukraine on a blank map. (She did.)
Pompeo issued a statement accusing Kelly of lying about the premise of the interview and implying that the journalist said the post-interview conversation would be off the record. However, a colleague of Kelly’s later said that NPR had emails documenting that Pompeo was aware that she would be asking him about Ukraine and Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed as U.S. ambassador to the country last May.
Within days, Pompeo had also barred NPR veteran reporter Michele Keleman from flying on his plane for a trip to Ukraine, a move the State Department Correspondents’ Association concluded was retaliation.
On Sunday, Toleukhan asked Pompeo what kind of message his exchanges with the NPR reporters would send to countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Belarus, whose governments routinely suppress press freedom.
“It’s a perfect message about press freedoms,” he replied. “They’re free to ask questions … there’s a reporter from that very business who was at a press conference just yesterday. I hope the rest of the world will follow our press freedoms and the great things we do in the United States.”