Updated at 8:30 p.m. ET
NPR is asking the State Department to explain its decision to deny an NPR reporter press credentials to travel with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on an upcoming trip to Europe, NPR President and CEO John Lansing announced Tuesday.
“We have sought clarification from the State Department regarding Michele Kelemen being dropped” from the trip, Lansing wrote in an email to employees. He added, “We have also asked what it means for future trips.”
Saying the State Department has not responded to NPR’s initial attempts to communicate, Lansing added, “Our SVP of News Nancy Barnes and I are now sending the attached letter to the State Department demanding answers.”
NPR will continue to pursue the issue, Lansing said, adding that access to people in power is fundamental to “the role of journalism in America.”
Last week, Pompeo became upset when questioned about Ukraine by NPR host Mary Louise Kelly. After the interview was cut off, Kelly was called to Pompeo’s private living room where he cursed at her and challenged her to find Ukraine on a map.
Lansing concluded his note to NPR staff by acknowledging the support the network has received: “Over the past several days, listeners far and wide have taken the time to write to us with praise for Mary Louise, Michele, and your collective work. They want us to keep going and not give up. I can tell them and all of you, that we are committed to supporting the great journalism and ethical values of NPR News.”
The letter laid out NPR’s version of events and asked the State Department to explain its justification for barring Kelemen.
Earlier Tuesday, President Trump waded into the controversy between Pompeo and NPR, appearing to publicly praise the secretary for berating Kelly and for denying Kelemen’s credentials.
Kelemen, NPR’s diplomacy correspondent, was barred from joining Pompeo’s trip, days after he publicly accused Kelly of lying to him about the topic of the interview and the episode following it.
Pompeo has said Kelly had agreed to discuss only Iran but has not offered any evidence to support that assertion. Kelly says she confirmed with Pompeo’s press secretary that she intended to ask Pompeo about both Iran and Ukraine, a country that is key to Trump’s impeachment trial. Kelly has produced emails that reflect those conversations.
At a White House event that touted his administration’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan, Trump acknowledged the teams that worked on the plan, and his mention of Pompeo’s name touched off a prolonged round of applause.
After the crowd’s ovation, the president smiled as he told Pompeo, “Wow, that’s impressive. That was very impressive, Mike. That reporter couldn’t have done too good a job on you yesterday.”
As many in his audience laughed, Trump added, “Think you did a good job on her, actually.”
The reference appeared to be about Pompeo’s yelling at Kelly and subsequent statement calling her a liar.
Some in the crowd then applauded as Trump continued, “That’s good, thank you, Mike. Great.”
Trump then asked Pompeo, “Are you running for Senate? I guess the answer’s no, after that, huh?”
It was not clear whether the president was referring to Pompeo’s interactions with NPR reporters or to the warm applause he received.
Kelemen had been slated to cover the secretary’s trip as the radio pool reporter, a position that rotates among journalists from different news organizations covering the State Department.
After Kelemen was denied a spot on Pompeo’s plane, NPR’s Lansing said via Twitter on Tuesday morning, “I stand behind the NPR newsroom, which has some of the most respected, truthful, factual, professional and ethical journalists in the United States.”
I stand behind the NPR newsroom, which has some of the most respected, truthful, factual, professional and ethical journalists in the United States. Our mission is to serve the American public by seeking and reporting the truth.
— John Lansing (@johnlansing) January 28, 2020
He added, “Our mission is to serve the American public by seeking and reporting the truth.”
The State Department’s action against Kelemen prompted a protest from the State Department Correspondents’ Association.
“Michele is a consummate professional who has covered the State Department for nearly two decades. We respectfully ask the State Department to reconsider and allow Michele to travel on the plane for this trip,” said the association’s president Shaun Tandon, in a statement on Monday.
“The State Department press corps has a long tradition of accompanying secretaries of state on their travels and we find it unacceptable to punish an individual member of our association,” Tandon added.
Noting that in the past, the State Department has “courageously defended journalists around the world through statements under its seal,” Tandon said, “We are committed to do our part to preserve a respectful, professional relationship with the institution we cover.”
The White House Correspondents’ Association also issued a statement Tuesday supporting Kelemen and NPR.
“The State Department’s apparent attempt to take punitive action against a news outlet for its reporting is outrageous and contrary to American values,” said the association’s president, Jonathan Karl. “The WHCA calls on the State Department to reverse this ill-conceived decision. We stand with our colleagues at NPR and the State Department Correspondents’ Association.”
In his contentious interview with NPR on Friday, Pompeo had spoken to Kelly first about Iran before she asked the secretary whether he owes an apology to Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. A Pompeo aide cut off their discussion. The All Things Considered host was then summoned to the secretary’s private living room.
“He shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the [9-minute] interview itself had lasted,” Kelly told her co-host Ari 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.”
Kelly continued, “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.’ “
In email conversations with Pompeo’s staff on the eve of the interview, Kelly mentioned two potential topics: While Iran would be a big part of the discussion, she also wanted to talk about Ukraine, Kelly told Pompeo aide Katie Martin, a deputy assistant secretary who has worked in media relations.
“I am indeed just back from Tehran and plan to start there. Also Ukraine,” Kelly told Martin in a Jan. 23 email. She added, “I never agree to take anything off the table.”
Martin responds, “Totally understand you want to ask other topics but just hoping we can stick to that topic [Iran] for a healthy portion of the interview.”
Kelly then replied in part, “My plan is to start on Iran and, yes, to spend a healthy portion of the interview there. Iran has been my focus of late as well.”
On Saturday, Pompeo issued a statement accusing Kelly of violating “the basic rules of journalism and decency.”
NPR’s SVP for news, Barnes, responded to Pompeo’s statement by stating, “Mary Louise Kelly has always conducted herself with the utmost integrity, and we stand behind this report.”
In an opinion piece published in The New York Times on Tuesday, Kelly defended her actions in the interview with Pompeo. She wrote that “people in positions of power — people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations — [need to] be held to account.”
“The stakes are too high for their impulses and decisions not to be examined in as thoughtful and rigorous an interview as is possible,” she said.
“Journalists don’t sit down with senior government officials in the service of scoring political points,” Kelly added. “We do it in the service of asking tough questions, on behalf of our fellow citizens. And then sharing the answers — or lack thereof — with the world.”