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Emails support NPR host after Pompeo calls her a liar in setting up contentious interview

NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly said Jan. 24 that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shouted at her after she asked him about the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. (Video: Reuters)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says an NPR host lied in setting up an interview with him on Friday, but email records support the journalist’s account of how the contentious exchange came to be.

The emails, obtained by The Washington Post, indicate that Pompeo’s staff was aware that NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly would ask Pompeo about several topics in the interview and raised no objections, contrary to Pompeo’s characterization.

In an extraordinary statement issued on State Department letterhead on Saturday, Pompeo blasted Kelly for repeatedly asking him why he refused to express support for the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Kelly said afterward Pompeo berated her using profanity and challenged her to locate Ukraine on an unmarked map, which Kelly said she did.

“NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly lied to me, twice,” Pompeo said in his statement. “First, last month, in setting up our interview and, then again yesterday, in agreeing to have our post-interview conversation off the record. It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency.”

Pompeo’s statement implied that Kelly had agreed before the interview to confine her questions to developments in Iran and that he would not be asked about other subjects. He made the same claim during the interview but Kelly pushed back, telling him she’d worked out a different arrangement with his staff.

But emails between Kelly and Pompeo’s press aide, Katie Martin, a day before the interview show that there was no such agreement and that Kelly made clear her intention to question Pompeo about other topics.

“Just wanted to touch base that we still intend to keep the interview to Iran tomorrow,” Martin wrote. “Know you just got back from Tehran so we would like to stick to Iran as the topic as opposed to jumping around. Is that something we can agree to?”

Kelly responded, “I am indeed just back from Tehran and plan to start there. Also Ukraine. And who knows what the news gods will serve up overnight. I never agree to take anything off the table.”

Martin replied, “Totally understand you want to ask other topics but just hoping . . . we can stick to that topic for a healthy portion of the interview . . . Wouldn’t want to spend the interview on questions he’s answered many times for the last several months.”

Kelly: “My plan is to start with Iran and, yes, to spend a healthy portion of the interview there. Iran has been my focus of late as well. And yes — I also would not want to waste time on questions he’s answered many times in recent months.”

Martin, whose official State Department title is deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, did not respond to a request for comment. Kelly declined to comment.

Kelly, a veteran journalist who is a co-host of NPR’s signature news program, “All Things Considered,” said on the program on Friday that neither Pompeo nor his aides made any request that his post-interview comments be kept off the record. She said she would not have agreed to such terms if they had.

President Trump weighed in to the controversy on Sunday, replying “A very good question!” to a tweet by conservative radio and Fox News host Mark Levin in which Levin asked, “Why does NPR still exist? We have thousands of radio stations in the U.S. Plus Satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big-government, Democrat Party propaganda operation.”

Conservatives have tried to cut federal support of NPR and public broadcasting in general for decades, but have never succeeded in eliminating funding. The Trump administration proposed doing so in 2018, but was turned back by Congress.

Washington-based NPR receives less than 1 percent of its annual budget directly from the federal government, but relies on annual dues from hundreds of member stations around the country. These stations receive an average of about 15 percent of their budgets from the federally chartered Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Five Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rebuked Pompeo for his response to Kelly in a letter to him on Saturday. “At a time when journalists around the world are being jailed for their reporting — and as in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, killed — your insulting and contemptuous comments are beneath the office of the Secretary of State,” read the letter from Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Cory Booker (N.J.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Tim Kaine (Va.).

NPR has stood by Kelly since the dispute with Pompeo arose. “Mary Louise Kelly has always conducted herself with the utmost integrity, and we stand behind this report,” said Nancy Barnes, NPR’s senior vice president of news, in a statement Saturday.

Pompeo has occasionally bristled when asked questions he doesn’t like by reporters.

In October, he told a reporter for a Nashville TV station, Nancy Amons, that it “sounds like you’re working, at least in part, for the Democratic National Committee” after she asked him about the circumstances surrounding Trump’s withholding of military aide to Ukraine.

He made a similar comment to PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff when she broached the same topic a few days earlier.