Senators Accuse State Department of 'Using Political Fealty' to Trump as Criteria for Courage Award

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President Donald Trump speaks alongside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo prior to signing a proclamation on the Golan Heights in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, on March 25. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have questioned the State Department's credibility following an investigation into the agency's withdrawing an award to an investigative journalist who had criticized President Donald Trump.

Earlier this month, Foreign Policy reported that Finnish journalist Jessikka Aro had initially been notified that she'd be honored with a prestigious International Women of Courage Award from the State Department. She was nominated for her work covering Russian propaganda and the infamous Internet Research Agency, which interfered in the 2016 presidential election, largely to Trump's benefit.

She was later notified that she'd received the award in "error." But sources with knowledge of the internal discussions told Foreign Policy that the decision to take back the award had been made after staff reviewed Aro's social media accounts and noted she'd been a harsh critic of the president. Although there was no indication that Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aware of the issue, lower-level State Department staff reportedly decided that images of Pompeo handing an award to a critic of the president would be bad optics.

EXCLUSIVE for @ForeignPolicy: Finnish journalist @JessikkaAro was to receive the State Department's “Women of Courage” prize, then officials rescinded the award because she had criticized Trump on social media.

— Reid Standish (@ReidStan) March 7, 2019

According to a statement that Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee sent to Newsweek, their "preliminary review" of the matter appeared to contradict the State Department's official response.

"If the Department canceled the award because of public criticism of the President, it would be an affront to U.S. values and our tradition of promoting and defending freedom of speech around the world," Senators Bob Menendez, Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, Ben Cardin, Jeanne Shaheen, Chris Coons, Ed Markey and Cory Booker said in the statement. "Such action would be particularly troubling against the backdrop of President Trump's frequent, well-documented and corrosive attacks on the media."

Menendez, who is the ranking Democrat on the committee, went further in his criticism, suggesting the State Department appeared to be "using political fealty to the president as an eligibility criteria for receiving a government award designed to highlight courage."

The senator also argued that "misleading the public and Congress about the true reasons behind its actions would harm the department's reputation here in the United States and around the world, and undermine its credibility regarding future pronouncements from the press podium."

A spokesperson for the State Department told Newsweek: "We will fully cooperate with any OIG [Office of Inspector General] investigation. We are already taking steps to ensure that this does not happen again, and we would welcome additional recommendations from the OIG to improve our processes."

A spokesperson had previously told Foreign Policy that the department regretted the "error."

"We admire Ms. Aro's achievements as a journalist, which were the basis of U.S. Embassy Helsinki's nomination," the spokesperson said, adding that Aro had been "incorrectly notified." The State Department said this was because of "a lack of coordination in communications with candidates and our embassies."

Despite the State Department's initial explanation, the senators said they had "seen evidence" that "officials requested Ms. Aro to provide her social media handles after she had been accepted for the award program and prior to the Department's revocation of her participation in the award ceremony." They added that they found "this allegation both potentially credible and disturbing."

Aro previously told Foreign Policy that she was "appalled and shocked" when she learned the award had been rescinded. "The reality in which political decisions or presidential pettiness directs top U.S. diplomats' choices over whose human rights work is mentioned in the public sphere and whose is not is a really scary reality," she said.