After bullying reporter, Pompeo basks in presidential praise

The message from Trump yesterday wasn't exactly subtle: in this White House, those who abuse journalists can expect to be rewarded.
Image: Spokesperson Heather Nauert while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dialogues with reporters in his plane while flying from Panama to Mexico
Spokesperson Heather Nauert (L), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R)Brendan Smialowski / Pool via Reuters
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By Steve Benen

Everything about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's recent antics toward NPR was wrong. His on-air comments were a mess; his off-air bullying was offensive; his accusations were discredited; and his retaliatory efforts against the news organization were indefensible.

Donald Trump, however, was apparently delighted.

President Donald Trump took a moment from presenting his plan for peace in the Middle East on Tuesday to praise his secretary of state -- for blasting an NPR reporter.

"That reporter couldn't have done too good a job on you yesterday. I think you did a good job on her, actually," Trump told a chuckling Mike Pompeo during his speech at the White House alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

It's worth noting for context that Trump's praise came immediately after he briefly referenced Pompeo by name, which generated enthusiastic applause from the officials in attendance at the White House event. Referring to the boisterous response to the secretary of State, the president said, "Whoa. Oh, that's impressive. That was very impressive, Mike."

The message wasn't exactly subtle: in this White House, those who abuse journalists can expect to be rewarded.

For her part, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, who was on the receiving end of Pompeo's tantrum, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, which appeared eager to shift the public discussion in a more constructive direction. The NPR host noted, for example, that she's had the opportunity in recent weeks to interview the top diplomat of Iran and the United States.

I write about all this now to refocus attention on the substance of the interviews, which has been overshadowed by Mr. Pompeo's subsequently swearing at me, calling me a liar and challenging me to find Ukraine on an unmarked map.

For the record, I did. That's not the point. The point is that recently the risk of miscalculation -- of two old adversaries misreading each other and accidentally escalating into armed confrontation -- has felt very real. It occurs to me that swapping insults through interviews with journalists such as me might, terrifyingly, be as close as the top diplomats of the United States and Iran came to communicating this month.

There is a reason that freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution. There is a reason it matters that people in positions of power -- people charged with steering the foreign policy of entire nations -- 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.

Journalists don't sit down with senior government officials in the service of scoring political points. 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.

As part of his tirade over the weekend, Pompeo indicated the importance he places on "integrity." As the dust settles on his tantrum, I think someone has acted with integrity, but it's not Pompeo.

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