Fassihi’s Gray Lady colleagues Chris Buckley and Javier C. Hernández report similar kinds of opacity in China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak centered in Wuhan: “The images in Wuhan offered a jarring contrast to the attempts by Chinese leaders in Beijing to project confident composure.” Their story contains an astonishing number of Chinese citizens and experts making on-the-record statements critical of both the regional and central government responses to the outbreak. The initial response by Chinese officials was to play down the severity of the possible pandemic. The parallels to the 2003 SARS epidemic, as well as the disease that devastated China’s pig population last year, are strong.
This behavior from authoritarian regimes is unsurprising. Autocracies will minimize negative information because to acknowledge mistakes is to acknowledge the regime’s fallibility. Governments that lack legitimacy and accountability are compelled to project invulnerability. Admitting error undercuts the stability of an authoritarian regime.
This should be a point that democracies, led by the United States, can trumpet. The United States is far from a perfect form of government. In the past month alone, we have learned the degree to which the FBI abused its authority in securing FISA warrants, and the extent to which U.S. officials responsible for the war in Afghanistan have lied to the American people. In both instances, inspectors general exposed problems, but news coverage helped, too. (This doesn’t even mention the role the free press has played in exposing corruption and human rights abuses in foreign governments.)
A free press is one way democracies can learn about failures and try to improve from those mistakes. If there is one idea that united foreign policy observers, from the neoconservatives at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies to the liberals at the Center for American Progress to the noninterventionists at the Quincy Institute, it is that U.S. foreign policy benefits when the country shows the rest of the world how important it is to value a free press.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo knows all about this. Less than a week ago, he gave a rah-rah campaign-style speech in Bushnell, Fla., that was more about the United States than the rest of the world. Nonetheless, he said, “Make no mistake about it: The world knows what you stand for, what we stand for, what our country stands for. And they want it, too. They want to have the freedom and liberty and democracy that our founders gave to us.”
This makes it all the more puzzling that Pompeo cannot seem to go a season without blowing up at a reporter for doing her job. His approach to the news media has baffled even his own staff at times. Reporters have gone on the record to discuss how Pompeo has tried to bully their bosses to thwart unflattering stories. There has been bipartisan condemnation of his treatment of reporters. In October, Pompeo lost his cool with Nancy Amons, an investigative reporter in Tennessee, and left in a huff after getting some difficult questions.
This time, Pompeo got into it in a contentious interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly for “All Things Considered.” After Kelly asked many questions about Iran, she pivoted to Ukraine and asked why Pompeo had refused to publicly defend Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, despite false accusations made against her by the president’s compatriots. Pompeo did not take kindly to the questions, as the full interview makes clear.
What happened next, however, was a new low for Pompeo, according to NPR’s follow-up report:
Kelly told her All Things Considered co-host Ari Shapiro on Friday that Pompeo, who had walked out of the interview only after “he leaned in, glared at me,” was waiting for her in his private quarters."He shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the [9-minute] interview itself had lasted," Kelly told Shapiro. "He was not happy to have been questioned about Ukraine. He asked, 'Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?' He used the F-word in that sentence and many others."Pompeo then had a pop quiz for Kelly, a veteran national security correspondent who has reported from China, Russia and, most recently, Iran."He asked if I could find Ukraine on a map; I said yes," she continued. "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.' "Contrary to Pompeo’s claim, Kelly said she did not agree that their conversation would be off the record. She said that while the staffer who led her to Pompeo’s private quarters had stipulated that she not bring a recorder, “she did not say we were off the record, nor would I have agreed.”
Pompeo responded to this story with a statement so laughable that it embarrassed diplomats at the State Department. He did not deny anything that he said or did after the interview was over. Rather, he claimed without foundation that Kelly had lied to him about the subject of the interview. This is false: As my Washington Post colleague Paul Farhi reports, the email correspondence clearly shows that Kelly agreed to no restrictions in her interview.
Pompeo also absurdly implied that Kelly, a longtime reporter with a master’s degree in European studies, somehow mistook Bangladesh for Ukraine. As the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood notes, “By implying this lie rather than stating it, Pompeo sounds like exactly the type of coward who would whine that he had been wronged, to shirk responsibility for his unforced errors.” Some might call this slander.
At a moment when the United States should be promoting transparency, the secretary of state decided instead to browbeat a reporter for doing her job. When it comes to their respective reputations, there is little reason to believe Pompeo and every reason to believe Kelly. Pompeo has survived this long by demonstrating complete fealty to President Trump at the expense of any other virtue. It is entirely plausible that he would dissemble to maintain the support of his boss.
“This goes well beyond tension — this goes toward intimidation,” NPR president and chief executive John Lansing said. “And let me just say this: We will not be intimidated. Mary Louise Kelly won’t be intimidated, and NPR won’t be intimidated.” No news organization should have to describe an American reporter covering the federal government as being intimidated — and yet here we are.
In his Florida speech, Pompeo also said, “You can’t pretend, you can’t wish; you have to work within the world in which we live, in which it exists.” On that, we are in agreement. And the world in which we live is the one in which the secretary of state is a liar, a coward and a hack who has lost whatever honor he might have earned from matriculating at the U.S. Military Academy. Like authoritarian rulers, he seems unable to admit fallibility because he fears the repercussions. He should resign.