By Francesco Fontemaggi
Accused of failing to defend his own diplomats in the Ukraine scandal that led to the impeachment of his boss, Mike Pompeo—who as secretary of state is meant to defend press freedoms around the world—has now waded into a bitter feud with the media.
A key ally of Donald Trump, Pompeo has often echoed the president’s disdain for the media. But on Friday he reportedly lost his temper with a National Public Radio journalist who asked him about standing up for the former US Ambassador to Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch, whose removal was a focus of the impeachment investigation.
Mary Louise Kelly, a distinguished former national security correspondent, said that once her microphone was off Pompeo launched into an expletive-laden tirade, yelling insults and telling her Americans don’t care about Ukraine.
“He shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted,” said Kelly, who hosts an NPR daily news show.
“He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ He used the F-word in that sentence and many others.”
He then had a member of his staff bring in a map of the world with none of the countries named and demanded she point to Ukraine, which Kelly said she did.
Without denying that he had cursed at Kelly, Pompeo later issued a statement accusing her of lying twice, in saying she had agreed only to ask about Iran, and in agreeing that their post-interview conversation would be off the record.
Kelly denied she had agreed to the talk being confidential, and produced an email exchange from before the interview showing that she would not take any subject off the table.
On Tuesday, Trump publicly praised Pompeo’s attack on Kelly, saying he “did a good job on her.”
‘Don’t be such a baby’
The State Department then banned an NPR journalist who wasn’t involved in the spat—veteran diplomatic correspondent, Michele Kelemen —from the secretary’s plane for his latest overseas trip, which includes a meeting in Kiev with Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelensky.
The State Department Correspondents’ Association slammed Kelemen’s removal from the flight, saying it was “unacceptable to punish an individual member of our association,” and noting that the State Department was meant to defend press freedoms around the world.
Perhaps more worryingly for Pompeo, Steve Hilton, a star host on the president’s favorite television channel Fox News, blasted Pompeo for “putting out a ridiculous statement, whining about what questions he’d agreed to answer.”
“For goodness sake, Mr Secretary, don’t be such a baby. You should be able to handle tough questions by now and don’t be such a bully,” he said, calling the secretary’s outburst “an embarrassment to you and the administration” and calling on him to apologize.
Pompeo, speaking to reporters as he left on the trip, recalled that he had a feud with NPR dating from his time as a conservative congressman criticizing Iran policy -- but indicated he was not planning a permanent boycott.
The top diplomat has often made his displeasure known at journalists’ questions in the past: when asked by an AFP correspondent for details on the first meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pompeo fired back: “Don’t say silly things.”
“I find that question insulting and ridiculous and, frankly, ludicrous,” Pompeo said at the time, dismissing AFP’s question about how the United States planned to verify Pyongyang’s commitments on denuclearization as “unhelpful for your readers, your listeners, for the world.”