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State Department removes NPR reporter from trip with Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo begins a five-country trip this week that includes a visit to Ukraine. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

The State Department has barred an NPR reporter from traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week on a trip that will take him to Ukraine, days after Pompeo got into a nasty dispute with another reporter from the news organization.

Michele Kelemen, a veteran State Department correspondent for NPR, was scheduled to be one of a handful of reporters flying on Pompeo’s plane to report on his week-long trip to Europe and Central Asia starting Wednesday. It was Kelemen’s turn in a rotation for a “pool” seat on the plane representing radio reporters, and she got the needed visas.

But according to people familiar with the situation, Kelemen was notified Sunday that she would not accompany Pompeo on his trip to five countries including Ukraine, which is the focus of impeachment hearings. Kelemen was given no formal reason for being kicked off, the people said. State Department officials did not return emails seeking comment on the decision.

The State Department Correspondents’ Association, in a letter of protest asking the State Department to reverse its decision, noted the timing of Kelemen’s removal. She was dropped after Pompeo got into a contentious exchange with NPR host Mary Louise Kelly and issued a statement accusing her of lying to him.

“The removal of Michele, who was in rotation as the radio pool reporter, comes days after Secretary Pompeo harshly criticized the work of an NPR host,” wrote Shaun Tandon, the Agence France-Presse reporter who is president of the correspondents’ association. “We can only conclude that the State Department is retaliating against National Public Radio as a result of this exchange.”

Reporters have routinely traveled abroad with the secretary of state, with their news organizations paying the cost of commercial airfare and other expenses. The Trump administration has dramatically cut back the number of seats allotted to reporters from the mainstream media, necessitating the use of a rotation in which the traveling journalists file “pool” reports to their colleagues.

Pompeo’s relations with some reporters have been fraught with tension. The State Department has temporarily banned reporters from Pompeo’s plane for reporting he ate processed cheese in North Korea and for reporting a planned trip before it was officially announced.

Pompeo sometimes displays his irritation with reporters who press him for more detailed answers on some topics. He has berated their questions as “ridiculous” and “ludicrous,” and dismissed them as not worthy of an answer. The friction has taken on a sharper tone in recent months, as Pompeo has faced a stream of questions about the diplomats who testified openly about an environment in which Pompeo did not defend them publicly.

But even in this combative atmosphere, Pompeo’s reaction after Friday’s NPR interview with Kelly stands out.

After asking him several questions about the effectiveness of the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, Kelly moved on to Ukraine. She repeatedly asked Pompeo whether he owed an apology to Marie Yovanovitch, the recalled U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. When he said he had defended every diplomat, she pressed him for an example.

After the interview, an aide to Pompeo beckoned Kelly to join Pompeo in the sitting room of his outer office. The aide specified to Kelly to leave her tape recorder behind. Kelly said she was not told explicitly that the conversation would be off the record. She later reported that Pompeo had launched into an expletive-filled rant against her and demanded she point to Ukraine on a map with no borders or country names on it.

Pompeo issued an unusually harsh and personal statement Saturday morning saying Kelly had “lied” to him twice — once in setting up the interview that he thought would be just on Iran and again in reporting the contents of the exchange that he considered off the record. He said it exemplified how “unhinged” the news media had become in general in covering the Trump administration.

Tandon asked officials to reconsider and allow Kelemen on the plane.

“Michele is a consummate professional who has covered the State Department for nearly two decades,” his statement said.

“The State Department has courageously defended journalists around the world through statements under its seal,” Tandon continued. “The State Department’s professional ethos commits employees to ‘serve with unfailing professionalism in both my demeanor and my actions, even in the face of adversity.’ We are committed to do our part to preserve a respectful, professional relationship with the institution we cover.”