The Trump administration rescinded an award recognizing the work of a journalist from Finland last year after discovering she had criticized President Trump in social media posts, then gave a false explanation for withdrawing the honor, according to a report by the State Department’s internal watchdog.
The report tracks how the discovery of the journalist’s remarks worried senior U.S. officials and prompted a decision to withdraw the honor to avoid a possible public relations debacle.
The report’s release is likely to worsen tensions between the department’s leadership and the inspector general’s office, which has undergone several shake-ups following the firing of Inspector General Steve Linick in the spring at the request of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“The Inspector General’s report is another somber example of how fear and partisanship have permeated our nation’s foreign policy and diplomacy under the Trump administration,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who along with seven other senators requested the investigation.
According to the report, the journalist, Jessikka Aro, was selected for the State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards for her reporting on Russian propaganda activities dating back to 2014. Aro endured death threats and cyberattacks for her work, which helped expose Russian troll factories.
After she was informed of her selection and offered flight options, State Department interns discovered her Facebook and Twitter posts, including one from September 2018 in which she noted that “Trump constantly labels journalists as ‘enemy’ and ‘fake news,’ ” said the report. In another tweet, she noted that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Helsinki, where “Finnish people can protest them both. Sweet.”
According to meeting notes obtained by the inspector general, senior U.S. officials, including the acting director of the Office of Global Women’s Issues, argued that Aro’s invitation should be withdrawn. The director’s concerns included the possibility that the “media could highlight the tweets and Facebook posts during the ceremony,” which could cause “potential embarrassment to the Department, particularly given the involvement of the Secretary and the First Lady,” referring to Melania Trump.
After the State Department withdrew Aro’s invitation and the story became public in a report by Foreign Policy magazine, the department’s press office told reporters that Aro had been “incorrectly notified” that “she’d been selected as a finalist,” adding: “This was an error. This was a mistake.”
The department also told Congress that Aro “ultimately was not selected to receive the award, due to the highly competitive selection of candidates.”
But the inspector general ultimately found that the decision to give her the award was not a mistake and was included in a memo approved by Pompeo.
The report also noted that the decision to withdraw the award stemmed from the discovery of the social media posts, despite public claims otherwise. “Every person OIG interviewed in connection with this matter acknowledged” that had her social media posts not been flagged, “Ms. Aro would have received the IWOC Award,” the report said.
Critics of the department’s handling of the matter say the actions of U.S. officials contradicted the spirit of the Courage awards, which since 2007 have honored women who “have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice,” according to the State Department’s website.
“Secretary Pompeo should have honored a courageous journalist willing to stand up to Kremlin propaganda. Instead, his department sought to stifle dissent to avoid upsetting a president who, day after day, tries to take pages out of Putin’s playbook,” Menendez said. “The State Department owes Ms. Aro an apology.”
The State Department’s ambassador at large for global women’s issues said her office shares the inspector general’s concerns and has implemented a “robust examination of office policies and procedures to ensure consistency, transparency, and accountability.”
In response to the report, Aro told The Washington Post that in her heart, “I feel like an international woman of courage. That, the Trump administration can’t take away from me.”