WASHINGTON — The State Department said on Thursday it erred in notifying a Finnish journalist she was a finalist for an award recognizing courageous women, but it characterized as "speculation" a report that the prize was rescinded over her criticism of President Donald Trump.
"What I would say is that we made a mistake. This was a regrettable error," State Department spokesman Robert Palladino told a briefing when asked about a report in Foreign Policy magazine that the award to Finnish investigative journalist Jessikka Aro had been withdrawn.
"We incorrectly notified this individual that she'd been selected as a finalist. This was an error. This was a mistake," Palladino said, adding that she had not been selected as a finalist and "we regret the error."
Aro, who has faced intense harassment for her work to expose Russia's propaganda operations, had been nominated by the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki for the International Women of Courage Award.
The awards were presented to 10 women by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday in a ceremony attended by first lady Melania Trump.
Foreign Policy magazine, citing U.S. officials familiar with the internal deliberations, reported that the department revoked the award after officials went through her social media posts and discovered she had often criticized the U.S. president.
It said lower-level officials were wary of presenting the prize to someone who had often been critical of Trump.
Aro, in posts on Twitter, pointed to the Foreign Policy story, saying "this happened to me" and calling it "unbelievable but true." The decision to rescind was "such a disgrace and violates freedom of speech," she added.
"I've seen that speculation," Palladino told reporters. "I'm not going to be able to go further into weighing the merits of who was selected, whether one person had more merit versus the other. That's internal. But I can say we regret the error and we've got to do better in that regard.
"To be clear," he added, "we admire this journalist's achievements as a journalist and that was the basis of her nomination by Embassy Helsinki."