We know where Pompeo’s propensity for bullying comes from

January 30, 2020 12:05 am

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses to military personnel and their families Sunday, June 30, 2019, at Osan Air Base, Korea, while President Donald Trump looks on. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Here’s a piece of advice for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of President Donald Trump’s chief sycophants and enablers: Get an extra layer or two of skin. You’re definitely on the thin side.

And bone up on the ground rules that journalists use. You’re way too ignorant of them.

Pompeo — who’s obviously in need of a timeout  — is at the center of a very public brouhaha with NPR journalist Mary Louise Kelly, who hosts “All Things Considered.” Pompeo comes off as whiny, unhinged and dishonest. Kelly appears professional, no-nonsense and toiling to do a job made more difficult by an administration that repeatedly attacks reporters. 

Kelly agreed to interview Pompeo last week about Iran. She had also told his aides, beforehand, she would ask about Ukraine. 

The latter country, of course, is at the center of the current impeachment proceedings against the president. (The New York Times said it obtained emails between Kelly and an aide to Pompeo that said she would start with questions about Iran, and then pivot to Ukraine.)

Pompeo was evasive during the interview regarding questions about Ukraine. He seemed hostile to inquiries regarding his shabby treatment of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Kelly specifically asked whether Pompeo owed an apology to the 33-year diplomat for not defending her; Trump fired Yovanovitch last spring. 

Trump is accused of trying to leverage nearly $400 million in security aid to prompt Ukraine to investigate his political rivals, including Joe Biden, a top Democratic presidential candidate. Witnesses have said Pompeo knew about the scheme and a shadow foreign policy undercutting his own diplomats. 

After Kelly’s nine-minute interview of Pompeo ended, things got really bizarre.  

One of the secretary’s aides asked Kelly to accompany her without Kelly’s recorder. She then went to Pompeo’s private living room, where Kelly said the secretary shouted and cursed at her, using the F-word. Pompeo then challenged her to find Ukraine on a map with no writing or countries marked. 

Kelly, whose reporting has included coverage in Russia, North Korea and elsewhere, said she did — and why would anyone conclude otherwise? This isn’t her first rodeo, and she does the grunt work necessary to be informed. 

Why does Pompeo have such maps anyway? To try to belittle reporters? Maybe he and his staffers need tutorials. But I digress.

Pompeo also suggested Kelly didn’t locate Ukraine correctly. I’m betting on the veteran reporter over the newbie secretary of state.

The State Department didn’t respond to my emailed questions about the NPR-Pompeo dispute as of midday Wednesday. 

Let’s unpeel some of the craziness.

No journalist worth his or her salt will agree to interview a newsmaker while placing key issues off-limits. Pompeo wasn’t going on NPR without fielding questions about Ukraine — especially as the impeachment process continues in the U.S. Senate. Otherwise, NPR would’ve passed on the interview.  

Pompeo, in a fit of pique, then escalated things. He issued a statement Saturday saying Kelly lied twice, first in how she set up the interview, and then by agreeing to an off-the-record interview afterward. (Kelly said there was no agreement that Pompeo’s harangue was off-the-record, nor would she have allowed such ground rules.)

Pompeo suggesting the reporter is a prevaricator is especially rich, given his boss’ penchant for lies and misleading claims. The Washington Post says Trump has made more than 16,200 such claims in his first three years in office.

Besides, Pompeo’s confrontation was a punk move. He wanted to attack behind the scenes without having to own up to the encounter. Such bullying is lousy form. It’s also petulant. 

Kelly doesn’t need my defense. She did quite well by herself on The New York Times’ op-ed page this week. She focused on why journalists do their jobs, and she cited her recent interviews of Pompeo and Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, as examples. 

Reporters prefer not to become part of the story. But if we don’t put tough questions to people in power, and demand responses, who will? Otherwise, we’re shirking our responsibilities. 

We’d prefer to get along with sources, but we know we’ll elicit blowback sometimes. Comes with the territory, in Ukraine, Washington and the commonwealth.

The State Department now says it won’t allow NPR’s diplomatic correspondent on Pompeo’s government plane for a trip that includes a stop in Ukraine. The president this week also praised the secretary for attacking Kelly, saying: “You did a good job on her.”

At least we know where Pompeo gets it from.

Though it’s no excuse.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]