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NPR reporter says Pompeo cursed at her, told her to point to Ukraine on map

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, apparently frustrated by questions about Ukraine and former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, launched into a profanity-laced rant against an NPR reporter after an interview, the news organization said.

During the interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly that aired Friday, Pompeo refused to say whether he owed an apology to Yovanovitch, whose firing has featured prominently in President Trump’s impeachment inquiry. An aide ended the interview after Kelly pressed Pompeo for a response.

Kelly recounted what happened next in a report that accompanied her interview. She said a staffer escorted her to Pompeo’s private sitting room, where he was waiting. Although she was not allowed to bring recording equipment into the room, she said there was no request that she keep the exchange off the record, and that she would not have agreed to a conversation if it had been.

“He shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself had lasted,” Kelly reported.

“He asked me, ‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ ” she continued. “He used the f-word in that sentence and many others. He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map. I said yes; he called out for his aides to bring him a map of the world with no writing, no countries marked. I pointed to Ukraine; he put the map away. He said, ‘People will hear about this.’ ”

Kelly said Pompeo was not “not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine,” though during the recorded interview, she told Pompeo that she cleared the topics of Ukraine and Iran with his aides beforehand.

In a remarkable statement released early Saturday, Pompeo confirmed that a conversation had taken place after the interview. But he accused Kelly of having “lied to me, twice,” first in setting up the terms of the interview and then again in agreeing to keeping the “post-interview conversation” off the record.

“It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency,” the secretary said. “This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration. It is no wonder that the American people distrust many in the media when they so consistently demonstrate their agenda and their absence of integrity.”

The statement ended with a vague, unexplained assertion — “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine” — that seemed to imply Kelly, who holds a master’s degree in European studies from Cambridge University, got her geography wrong.

NPR chief executive John Lansing called Pompeo’s statement “blatantly false" and “provably false” in an interview Saturday evening with NPR’s Michel Martin, saying he stood behind Kelly and the rest of the NPR newsroom in their coverage of the conversation.

Kelly, he said, “has an email chain with Katie Martin, an aide to the secretary state, confirming that she would be discussing Ukraine."

Lansing added that “no journalist would agree to go behind closed doors with the secretary of state and to go off the record. That would just be something no honorable journalist would do.”

“Mary Louise Kelly is one of the most respected, truthful, factual, professional and ethical journalists in the United States," he said, “and that’s known by the entire press corps.”

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Nancy Barnes, NPR’s senior vice president of news, also pushed back on Pompeo’s claims. “Mary Louise Kelly has always conducted herself with the utmost integrity, and we stand behind this report,”she said.

Five Democratic lawmakers blasted the secretary’s statement as “irresponsible” on Saturday. In a letter to Pompeo, Sens. Robert Menendez (N.J.), Tim Kaine (Va.), Edward J. Markey (Mass.), Jeff Merkley (Ore.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) said they were concerned about “the corrosive effects of your behavior on American values and standing in the world.”

“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,” they wrote. Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was slain by the Saudi regime.

“Instead of calling journalists ‘liars’ and insulting their intelligence when they ask you hard questions you would rather not answer,” the letter continued, “your oath of office places on you a duty and obligation to engage respectfully and transparently.”

During the interview with Kelly, Pompeo responded to her inquiry about whether he owed Yovanovitch an apology by saying that he was proud of the Trump administration’s work on Ukraine. He added: “The previous administration did nothing to take down corruption in Ukraine. We’re working hard on that.”

Kelly pressed again, pointing out that Pompeo’s former senior adviser, Michael McKinley, had testified that he resigned in part because of the State Department’s failure to support employees caught up in the impeachment inquiry.

“I’m not going to comment on things that Mr. McKinley may have said,” Pompeo responded. “I’ll say only this: I have defended every State Department official. We’ve built a great team. The team that works here is doing amazing work around the world."

Kelly asked where he had defended Yovanovitch and if he could point her to his remarks.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say today, thank you,” Pompeo said. “Thanks for the repeated opportunity to do so; I appreciate that.”

Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.