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An Undiplomatic Diplomat

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
photo of Mike Pompeo by Gage Skidmore

There are innumerable ways Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could have responded to an irritating line of questioning from a journalist. Pompeo chose the dumbest and most offensive one.

When Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” asked whether he owed an apology to a former subordinate who was recalled from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Pompeo could have calmly explained that he did not. Marie Yovanovitch, a career State Department diplomat, already had acknowledged to Congress that she served at the pleasure of the president. Once President Donald Trump lost confidence in her willingness to faithfully advocate his administration’s goals, Yovanovitch – who was appointed envoy to Ukraine during Barack Obama’s administration – had every reason to expect he would replace her.

Pompeo could have responded to Kelly that Yovanovitch was entitled to keep her job (which she did) but not her posting. He might have explained that bureaucrats and journalists alike are misguided if they believe a Cabinet secretary’s job is to run interference for them with the White House. This is particularly the case when the secretary shares the president’s policy views. Pompeo might also have pointed out that discussions about removing Yovanovitch began many months before former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy to oppose Trump’s re-election bid. Yovanovitch’s views on Trump’s call for Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son’s dealings in the country were hardly the only reason the administration recalled her to Washington.

Or Pompeo might have simply declined to answer Kelly’s questions about Ukraine and Yovanovitch. Journalists are paid to ask questions, but public officials can choose which ones they want to address. Pompeo could rightly have stated that, with Trump’s impeachment trial underway in the Senate and with Ukraine a central issue in that trial, he thought it appropriate to confine his remarks to the ongoing tensions with Iran, which he understood to be the agenda for the interview.

Pompeo could have said “no” when Kelly asked if he owed an apology to Yovanovitch and “next topic” if she tried to get him to elaborate. After all, if he thought he owed Yovanovitch an apology, presumably he would have already delivered it.

Instead, Pompeo terminated the interview. Not the best move, since it permitted Kelly – a seasoned correspondent whom Pompeo likely sees, along with most of the Washington press, as hostile to this administration – to portray him as behaving in an undiplomatically childish way. But walking away was within the envelope of acceptable behavior.

Pompeo’s next move was in no way acceptable, however. Reportedly “silently glar[ing] at Kelly for several seconds before leaving the room,” he retreated to his private quarters in the State Department. (Certain big shots get to have private quarters, not just an office, in the departments they run.) Then Pompeo had an aide escort Kelly to join him there, admonishing her to leave her recorder outside. He thus set himself up in a “he said, she said” situation without witnesses. In 2020, after years of #MeToo attention, that’s a dumb move.

What followed was not sexual harassment, but it certainly was abuse. According to Kelly’s account, which Pompeo has not disputed, the secretary launched into a profanity-laced rant. He demeaned the Harvard- and Cambridge-educated journalist by challenging her to locate Ukraine on a map. (She did not have trouble doing so.) He also accused her of violating ground rules for the interview by bringing up the topic of Ukraine, as though it was too much for the poor little secretary of state to handle. Pompeo’s account of the ground rules makes little sense. In his version of events, there would have been no reason to put the topic off-limits ahead of time at all. (NPR CEO John Lansing backed up Kelly’s on-air claim that she did discuss her plans to ask questions about both Iran and Ukraine with Pompeo’s staff in advance, citing an email chain between Kelly and one of Pompeo’s aides.)

After Kelly went public with an account of his tantrum, Pompeo again accused her of lying, saying she had agreed that this private encounter was off the record. She denies making any such agreement, and I don’t doubt her in the least. No reporter – especially not one with Kelly’s credentials – would have let Pompeo storm out of a scheduled interview, then agree to be off the record about whatever he chose to say in his private apartment. Pompeo might have told his aide to demand that the encounter be off the record, but if he did, the aide apparently had more sense than to even try.

Instead, Pompeo behaved like a bully and a jerk. Here’s the big fellow summoning the reporter to his professional man-cave to listen to his verbal abuse as if she owed him something. Here’s America’s top diplomat, blowing his cool over someone who was just doing her job, however imperfectly or unfairly he thought she was doing it. Here’s the elder statesman, dropping a load of F-bombs on a respected professional who is a daily companion to millions of Americans. About the only good thing to be said for Pompeo’s behavior is that he kept his pants on. The absence of overt sexual harassment or assault is not where anyone ought to be setting the bar.

Of course everyone is aware that the president Pompeo serves has himself been known to speak publicly in a crude and inappropriate manner to and about women, and has been accused of worse behavior in private. Whatever license Pompeo thought he may have had as a result, the secretary of state did his boss no favors by his conduct.

Sometimes a journalist crosses a line of professional conduct that warrants being rebuked or even excluded. But such checks should not come in the form of a profane personal attack, and not behind closed doors. Pompeo may not owe Yovanovitch an apology, but he certainly owes one to Mary Louise Kelly.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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