The irony was not lost abroad.
In an interview in Kazakhstan on Sunday, Pompeo waxed rhapsodic about his reverence for human rights and freedom of the press. “I’m sure you know the good work the State Department does to train journalists in press freedoms,” he said, adding that “all of those things that build out civil society ... are things we’re deeply committed to.”
His interviewer, Aigerim Toleukhanova of Radio Azattyq, the Kazakh-language service of U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, noted that Kazakh journalists, including colleagues of hers, have been physically assaulted while doing their jobs. She then drew a direct connection to Pompeo’s clash with Kelly. “Before you departed to this trip you had a confrontational interview with a National Public Radio reporter, and after that trip your department removed another NPR reporter from the press pool,” she asked. “Did you retaliate against NPR?” You could watch America’s moral authority slipping away in real time.
Then Toleukhanova asked the obvious, piercing question: Given Pompeo’s berating of a reporter and apparent retaliation against a news organization, “What kind of message does it to send,” she inquired, “to countries like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Belarus, whose governments routinely suppress press freedom?” Those are the countries where Pompeo has been preaching the virtues of human rights and freedom of the press over the past few days.
“It’s a perfect message,” he declared, “a perfect message about press freedoms.”
If that sounds like an echo of the “perfect call” by President Trump, the one that led to his impeachment, that’s no coincidence. The entire episode of Pompeo and NPR seemed designed to make Trump proud. (Trump publicly praised Pompeo for going after the broadcast journalist.) But the secretary of state does not work for the president. He works for the American people, and it is doubtful they were as pleased.
As the country’s top diplomat, Pompeo’s job is to advance U.S. interests. When his dealings with the press at home undercut his message abroad, he is failing — and the United States pays the price.
Pompeo tried to explain to his interviewer that journalists have to follow certain rules, “telling the truth and being honest,” implying that’s where NPR went wrong, a claim that goes against the evidence. “It’s wide open in America. I love it,” he gushed. “I hope the rest of the world will follow our press freedoms.”
He works for a president who has repeatedly referred to the media as “the enemies of the people,” who once threatened a journalist with prison for taking a photo and who has withdrawn access from critical reporters. The president has also routinely disparaged media workers at his rallies. In one case, after Trump and others riled a rally crowd, a BBC cameraman was attacked by a Trump supporter.
For a variety of reasons — some presumably related to the rhetoric of the current administration — journalists in the United States can no longer feel as safe as they once did.
American journalists still enjoy enormous leeway to do their work. But the latest international ranking of press freedom issued by Reporters Without Borders places the United States at No. 48 — just below Romania, and lower than Botswana, Tonga and Burkina Faso. “Press freedom has continued to decline” in the Trump presidency, the group notes.
As he travels overseas, Pompeo makes the same kinds of statement that his predecessors did. “Wherever we go,” he told Toleukhanova, “we ask for every human being to be treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve.” He was responding to a question about China’s imprisonment of more than 1 million Uighurs. It would have been unremarkable during a normal administration, with a normal president and a normal secretary of state.
Instead, though, people around the world are noticing the gap — wider than ever before — between this administration’s noble claims and the grubby reality. They see how Trump and his followers respond to their critics — from the White House lectern and State Department interviews to Twitter. It’s hard to take the earnest words seriously when you know the truth. We are witnessing a tragic loss of moral authority for the United States. It is a disaster for activists and reporters around the world who once counted on American support.
The days when a politician or government official could say one thing at home and a different one abroad are now in the past. It is unfortunate that Pompeo’s hypocrisy stains not only him but also the United States as a whole.