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Why a question about Ukraine sent Mike Pompeo into a rage

The secretary of state screamed profanities at NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly after abruptly ending an interview.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disembarks from a State Department plane during a visit to Costa Rica in January 2020.
Ezequiel Becerra/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo allegedly verbally harassed an NPR reporter for having the audacity to ask him about his leadership ... of the State Department.

During a Friday interview with Pompeo on US policy toward Iran, All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly asked the secretary of state whether he owed an apology to Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine who was subjected to a smear campaign led by Rudy Giuliani and unceremoniously removed from her post in April, bringing an abrupt end to her 33-year career as a foreign service officer.

Pompeo was not pleased with the change in topic or the question. “You know, I agreed to come on your show today to talk about Iran,” Pompeo replied. “That’s what I intend to do.”

Kelly, noting that she’d confirmed with Pompeo’s staff that Ukraine would be part of their discussion, didn’t give up — and Pompeo abruptly ended the interview.

But that’s not where the story ends. Shortly after the interview aired, Kelly revealed what happened after she turned off her recorder:

On Saturday, Pompeo issued a statement in which he wrote, “NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice. ... It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency.”

Pompeo also claimed that the outburst Kelly reported was off-the-record and that the NPR reporter could not find Ukraine on a map, writing, “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.”

Follow the statement’s release, many of Kelly’s colleagues were quick to come to her defense. NPR’s Melissa Block wrote on Twitter, “The notion that [Kelly] would confuse Ukraine with Bangladesh on a map is so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit comment.” Block made this assertion because, as many journalists noted Saturday, Kelly is an expert on the region, having earned a master’s degree in European studies at the University of Cambridge.

Kelly and NPR itself have also rebutted Pompeo’s claims, with Kelly saying she never agreed to an off-the-record session with the secretary and NPR president and CEO John Lansing telling the network’s Michel Martin: “Let me just say this: We will not be intimidated. Mary Louise Kelly won’t be intimidated, and NPR won’t be intimidated.”

Five Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — Sens. Cory Booker, Tim Kaine, Ed Markey, Bob Menendez, and Jeff Merkley — wrote a letter to Pompeo rebuking him for his statement, impugning “the corrosive effects of your behavior on American values and standing in the world.”

“Your insulting and contemptuous comments are beneath the office of the Secretary of State,” the senators wrote. “Instead of calling journalists ‘liars’ and insulting their intelligence when they ask you hard questions you would rather not answer, your oath of office places on you a duty and obligation to engage respectfully and transparently.”

This isn’t the first time Pompeo has lashed out at those asking him questions he’d rather not answer. He has demeaned a reporter’s question about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities as “insulting,” taken Fox News’ Chris Wallace to task for asking questions he characterized as almost “ridiculous,” and even attacked members of Congress, like when he angrily lectured Sen. Tom Udall over a question about Trump’s foreign business interests.

But Pompeo’s fury this time seems directly related to the growing controversy around the treatment of Yovanovitch.

Why the question about Marie Yovanovitch matters

Yovanovitch was removed from her post as ambassador in April 2019; it later surfaced that President Donald Trump had smeared the ambassador during a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, describing her as “bad news.” On the same call, he intimated to Zelensky that Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.”

In November, the former ambassador testified under oath in the House impeachment inquiry, saying that Trump’s comments “sounded like a threat.”

Since then, new evidence has emerged suggesting that associates of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, had Yovanovitch under surveillance in Ukraine.

In WhatsApp messages sent to indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, Republican congressional candidate Robert F. Hyde not only provided details about Yovanovitch’s movements but also told Parnas, “If you want her out, they need to make contact with security forces.”

On Friday, ABC News reported the existence of a tape on which the president ordered Yovanovitch’s firing. A voice that sounds like the president’s can be heard saying: “Get rid of her! ... Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Okay? Do it.”

Following the release of Parnas’s WhatsApp messages by the House Intelligence Committee as part of a larger documents trove last week, Ukraine announced it had opened a criminal investigation into the purported surveillance of Yovanovitch.

Pompeo, meanwhile, cast doubt on the allegations in an interview with right-wing radio host Tony Katz, saying, “I suspect that much of what’s been reported will ultimately prove wrong.”

In the same interview, Pompeo conceded it was his “obligation as secretary of state” to open an investigation into claims that Yovanovitch had been surveilled.

However, he failed to offer any defense of Yovanovitch, a veteran of the State Department who has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

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