State Department Misled Public, Congress About Revoking Journalist’s Award for Criticizing Trump

An inspector general’s report concludes that State officials nixed a high-profile award out of fear of offending higher-ups—then lied about it.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the 2019 International Women of Courage awards ceremony.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the 2019 International Women of Courage awards ceremony at the State Department in Washington on March 7, 2019. Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration revoked a prestigious award to a Finnish journalist because she had written social media posts critical of the U.S. president, then lied to Congress and the press about the reasons for revoking her award, according to a new report from the State Department watchdog.

Jessikka Aro, a Finnish journalist who has faced online harassment campaigns and death threats for exposing Russia’s disinformation and propaganda machine, was told by U.S. diplomats in January 2019 that she would be honored with the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award. The awards were to be presented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and first lady Melania Trump. Weeks later, before the ceremony, the department rescinded the award, telling Aro it was due to a “regrettable error.”

It wasn’t an error. Rather, State Department officials chose to nix her from the award ceremony for fear of falling afoul of thin-skinned agency and administration officials.

The new State Department Office of Inspector General report outlines how officials revoked Aro’s award after they reviewed her social media posts and found posts critical of U.S. President Donald Trump. State Department officials subsequently gave false statements to both the press and Senate Foreign Relations Committee about why Aro’s award was rescinded, covering up the fact that it was based on her social media posts. 

Foreign Policy first reported on the issue, which launched a probe by Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and prompted the inspector general’s office to conduct its own investigation. 

The new revelations are likely to worsen tensions between the State Department and Democratic lawmakers. The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, said in a statement on Friday that the report shows how department officials misled his staff and allowed “fear and partisanship” to permeate U.S. diplomacy. 

“Secretary [Mike] Pompeo should have honored a courageous journalist willing to stand up to Kremlin propaganda,” Menendez said. “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. The State Department owes Ms. Aro an apology.”

The report also shines a spotlight on the State Department Office of Inspector General, which has found itself at the center of high-profile disputes between Congress and the administration after the agency’s top watchdog was fired while investigating Pompeo for alleged impropriety. His temporary successor then resigned less than three months into the job. 

After Aro was offered the award, officials at the State Department flagged tweets and Facebook posts from Aro that criticized Trump or highlighted the president’s dismissal of the media as “fake news,” according to the inspector general’s office.

“Trump constantly labels journalists as ‘enemy’ and ‘fake news.’ One Trump supporter made threatening calls to Boston Globe reporters and said he was shooting them in the head because they are ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘fake news.’ A search of the house found weapons and ammunition,” read one of Aro’s tweets from September 2018 that officials in the State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues flagged. 

Another of Aro’s tweets flagged by State Dept. officials read: “Russian troll factory organized pro-Trump protests in US soil. In July Trump and Putin will meet in Helsinki, Finland, and Finnish people can protest them both. Sweet.”

Trump’s ambassador to Finland, Robert Pence, during internal discussions on whether to revoke her award, said that “although he appreciated Ms. Aro’s work, the risk of embarrassment to the First Lady and the Department was too great to have her appear on stage at the awards ceremony,” according to the report. Another official, the acting director of the Office of Global Women’s Issues at the time, cited past instances in which the award was revoked based on a nominee who allegedly made anti-Semitic remarks.

Aro was informed she would receive the award and was sent an official invitation from the State Department to attend the March 7, 2019, ceremony in Washington. She was informed the award was revoked after she booked her travel to Washington. 

“In my heart I feel like an international woman of courage. That the Trump administration can’t take away from me,” Aro said in an interview after the report’s release on Friday.

Publicly, the State Department did not acknowledge that her social media posts had anything to do with her award being rescinded. At the time, a State Department spokesperson said: “Due to a lack of coordination in communications with candidates and our embassies, a regrettable error was made and a candidate was incorrectly notified that she had been selected as a finalist.”

Other officials, including officers at the U.S. embassy in Helsinki, pushed back on these justifications, arguing that Aro deserved the award and disagreeing with “the comparison of ‘legitimate political speech’ to anti-Semitic remarks,” according to the OIG report. 

The decision to revoke Aro’s award left some officials fuming. “It created a shitstorm of getting her unceremoniously kicked off the list,” one U.S. diplomatic source said at the time of the internal discussions. “I think it was absolutely the wrong decision on so many levels.”

The State Department declined to comment on the inspector general report, instead referring to a memorandum from the current ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, Kelley Currie, that was included in the report. 

The office “shares the OIG’s concerns regarding the process and procedures of the 2019 International Women of Courage Award (IWOC) selection process,” Currie wrote. 

“While there are no formal recommendations from the OIG, I have reinforced the Department of State Ethos in all aspects of [the Global Women’s Issues office] work to uphold not only the tradition and integrity of the IWOC Award but also the Department’s commitment to the sacred trust placed in this institution by the American people.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer