The State Department not only barred reporters from nonreligious outlets from covering a briefing call about international religious freedom with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday but also refused to release a list of people who participated in the event or even a transcript of what Pompeo said, according to CNN.
CNN reported that only “faith-based media” were allowed to take part in the event and that the State Department wouldn’t answer questions “about whether a range of faiths was included.” Pompeo adheres to a fervent brand of evangelical Christianity and once characterized politics as “a never-ending struggle ... until the rapture.”
Monday’s briefing call came ahead of Pompeo traveling to the Middle East. During his most recent trip to the region in January, Pompeo raised eyebrows when he ended a major speech by saying, “May the Lord bless each and every one of you.”
In a statement to CNN, a State Department spokesperson justified barring reporters from Monday’s event by characterizing it as “designed” for “audience-specific media,” as opposed to “[d]epartment press briefings, teleconferences on a myriad of policy issues, briefings and sprays by the Secretary of State and other officials” that are open to all media outlets.
On Tuesday, the Religion News Service (RNS) published a report about Pompeo’s comments during the call. According to RNS, Pompeo defended the State Department’s recent move to drop the word “occupation” from its description of the Golan Heights and Palestinian territories, and took questions from a number of faith-based or faith-affiliated outlets, including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and a newspaper associated with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. RNS reports that participants “were not told that the call was limited to faith-based media.”
It’s true that government officials will often hold small roundtables with only a few relevant outlets. But when it concerns Cabinet-level officials like Pompeo, reporters who cover them normally get a transcript of meeting remarks and a list of who attended.
The State Department’s unusual move comes amid the Trump administration’s war on the press. Less than 12 hours after CNN’s report was published, President Donald Trump posted his latest tweet blasting the “Fake News media” as “the absolute Enemy of the People and our Country itself!”
The Fake News Media has NEVER been more Dishonest or Corrupt than it is right now. There has never been a time like this in American History. Very exciting but also, very sad! Fake News is the absolute Enemy of the People and our Country itself!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 19, 2019
Pompeo’s recent attempts to interact with the mainstream media haven’t gone great, either. During an interview on NBC’s Today last month, Pompeo, who was CIA director when the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump in May 2017, refused to answer whether he knew about the inquiry. In a bizarre twist, he referred further questions about it to Vladimir Putin.
Days later, Pompeo did an interview on CNN’s State of the Union in which he denied that Trump said things he had tweeted for the whole world to see.
Incredible exchange between @jaketapper & Pompeo— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 24, 2019
TAPPER: Do you think North Korea remains a nuclear threat?
T: But POTUS said he doesn't
P: That's not what he said
T: He tweeted, 'there's no longer a nuclear threat from NK'
P: Not quite
T: It's a direct quote! pic.twitter.com/hqwdhvuKHO
Still, the State Department’s move to ban nonreligious journalists from covering Pompeo was denounced by former department spokesperson John Kirby.
This is absolutely not OK. Cabinet officials are public servants. They work for us. When they speak to reporters on the record everything they say — in its entirety — needs to be released at the earliest appropriate time. That’s proper accountability. That’s what we deserve. https://t.co/OBJht2BaAK— John Kirby (@johnfkirby63) March 19, 2019
And that decision — along with similar moves made by the Pentagon, the end of regular White House press briefings, and the president’s regular attacks on the media — signifies the extent to which the Trump administration is willing to ostracize outlets that cover it critically.