By Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department removed a National Public Radio reporter from the press pool for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s upcoming foreign trip, a press association and NPR said on Monday, days after Pompeo angrily responded to another NPR journalist’s interview with him.
The removal of NPR reporter Michele Kelemen, who was part of the traveling pool of correspondents with Pompeo on his planned trip to the UK, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia, can be seen only as retaliation for her colleague’s interview, the State Department Correspondents’ Association (SDCA) said.
“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,” Shaun Tandon, the head of the association, said in a statement.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Pompeo was interviewed on Friday by NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly, and was asked repeatedly about Ukraine and ousted U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch during a testy nine-minute exchange.
Yovanovitch’s removal was a key event in the actions that prompted the impeachment of President Donald Trump by the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives last month.
Following the interview, Kelly said Pompeo cursed at her and repeatedly “used the F-word” and asked her: “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
In a statement on Saturday, Pompeo said the reporter had lied in setting up the interview and in agreeing to conduct the post-interview conversation off the record. His statement did not dispute what she said about the content of the post-interview encounter.
NPR stood by its account by the meeting.
On Monday, NPR confirmed the removal of Kelemen, who has covered the State Department for two decades, and said she was informed that she would not be traveling but she was not given a reason why.
“We respectfully ask the State Department to reconsider and allow Michele to travel on the plane for this trip,” Tandon of SDCA said.
Pompeo, who is due to make an official visit to Ukraine starting on Thursday, will be the most senior U.S. official to travel to that country since the impeachment process began.
His relationship with the press has been tense since his first months in the job, but it has deteriorated since the impeachment inquiry as Pompeo, a former U.S. congressman, expressed dismay over reporters’ insistence to ask about Ukraine.
The House impeached Trump on charges of abuse of power in his dealings with Ukraine and obstruction of Congress, setting up the trial in the Republican-led Senate. Trump, who denies wrongdoing and has condemned the impeachment process, is unlikely to be convicted.
At the heart of the impeachment lies $391 million in aid to Ukraine, which Trump is accused of freezing until Kiev helped with investigations into Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Congress had approved the funds to help Ukraine combat Russia-backed separatists. The money was ultimately provided in September after the controversy spilled into public view.
Pompeo has occasionally snapped back at reporters for asking impeachment-related questions, describing the media’s persistent interest in the issue as “silliness” and “noise.” He has said he supports all State Department employees, but has declined, to date, to publicly offer words of support for Yovanovitch specifically.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler)