Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking out three months after a foundation decided to rescind an honorary award for working to free hostages, is accusing “pressure applied by the media” for the rebuff.
In two interviews Friday, Pompeo criticized the decision by the James Foley Legacy Foundation, named after an American journalist who was beheaded in 2014 by Islamic State militants in Syria. Pompeo was notified mid-November that he would receive the foundation’s Hostage Advocate Award in recognition of the Trump administration’s priority in freeing Americans imprisoned abroad, an honor bestowed in a gala dinner Tuesday night at the National Press Club.
But on Jan. 11, Pompeo was informed that the foundation had withdrawn the award and the dinner invitation. The award was instead given to Brett McGurk, who negotiated the release of four Americans from Iran in 2016, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian.
“We ultimately decided we could not present the award as planned due to the dramatic change in circumstances when the Administration did not press for genuine accountability from the Saudi government for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the Foley Foundation said in a statement.
Pompeo, however, repeatedly insisted the award was taken away from him and the State Department because of a potential boycott by some media sponsors at the dinner, where tables cost from $5,000 to $50,000 each.
“This is not partisan,” Pompeo said in an interview on Fox and Friends about the work of getting Americans out of foreign prisons. “And yet, it sounds like some in the media who were underwriting this event, sponsors for the event, said, ‘If Pompeo is there, we won’t be.’ ”
In another interview with Maria Bartiromo on the Fox Business Network, Pompeo said he regretted that “there was pressure applied by the media for that award to be withdrawn.”
The foundation said Pompeo is mistaken and that it respects his and the State Department’s efforts to free Americans unjustly imprisoned abroad.
“Our decision had nothing to do with whether we received media pressure,” the foundation’s statement said. “In addition to advocating for the safe return of American hostages abroad, the protection of free speech and promotion of journalists’ safety is a key pillar of our foundation and this award would have been in conflict with that key principle.”
Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist, was killed Oct. 2 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The Saudis, after initially insisting he left the building unharmed, eventually admitted that government agents had killed him and are trying 11 suspects in a secret proceeding in Riyadh. Though the CIA has moderate to high confidence Khashoggi was killed on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the White House and Pompeo have withheld judgment, saying they are still investigating.
Two weeks after Khashoggi was killed, President Trump sent Pompeo to Riyadh, where he was photographed smiling and shaking hands with the crown prince.
Pompeo wrote a letter to James Foley’s mother, Diane, expressing regret he would not be able to accept the award on behalf of the State Department.
“How sad is it that base politics and hatred have been allowed to creep into even this sphere of our national activity?” he wrote in the letter, which was first published by the Washington Examiner and confirmed by the State Department. “The safe recovery of Americans held hostage overseas should be beyond politics and must enjoy the support of all Americans. I regret that pressure of such a cynical and abominable nature was brought to bear on you and John.”
Pompeo also alluded to a decision by the Obama administration to give Iran $400 million to settle a lawsuit it expected to lose, paid in cash at the time the Americans were freed and the Iran nuclear deal took effect.
“This work has been accomplished without the concessions that only encourage more hostage-taking by the kidnappers and terrorists,” he wrote.
Families of Americans held prisoners abroad have praised the Trump administration’s special envoy for hostage affairs — a position created by President Obama and beefed up under Trump.
Despite the tiff over the award, Pompeo said he “loves” the Foley family, and the Foley Foundation had praise for Pompeo.
“We thank Secretary Pompeo for his extraordinary efforts to bring Americans home and are grateful for all that he and this administration have accomplished to prioritize the return of our citizens,” the foundation said.