Yesterday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bungled an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly and stormed out instead of answering her last questions. (You can listen to their exchange here.) Then Pompeo’s aide made one of the most desirable entreaties a journalist can hear after an interview: Would Kelly speak with the secretary again, and leave her recording device behind? This invitation is always attractive, because it often means that the interview subject is emotional, bereft of judgment, and ready to say something even he knows he shouldn’t say. According to Kelly, who is a contributor to The Atlantic, Pompeo berated her, used profanity, and at one point directed his aide to get a map. He challenged Kelly to identify Ukraine, the largest country wholly within Europe. Pompeo issued a statement today all but confirming Kelly’s account.
Pompeo’s only substantive complaint was that Kelly “lied” to him by saying they could speak off the record after their interview. This accusation is almost certainly nonsense.
To nonjournalists unfamiliar with the press, the accusation probably sounds plausible—that Kelly betrayed Pompeo or, at a minimum, that she allowed him to think they had agreed that their conversation was off the record, and is now cravenly abusing a technicality to expose that conversation to the world. Under the latter theory, a journalist might let a source think he is off the record (perhaps because he has invited her to a private space, or asked her to leave her recorder behind), but because he never secured an explicit agreement, the journalist keeps the whole conversation on the record. Call it the “You didn’t say ‘Simon says’” theory.