After weeks of self-imposed silence, the State Department finally held its first press briefing on Tuesday, a lengthy back-and-forth that managed to avoid the testiness typical of the Trump administration’s White House briefings.
Facing a barrage of questions that have piled up over the six-and-half weeks since the inauguration, State Department acting Spokesperson Mark Toner sought to clarify a series of Trump administration policies, but also struggled to explain some of the president’s most controversial moves. Those included Trump’s revised executive order banning immigration from six Muslim-majority countries, and a proposal to slash the State Department and foreign aid budget by 37 percent.
Toner pointedly pushed back against reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson holds little clout in the administration, and that the State Department’s role has become diminished in the Trump era. The White House had barely consulted, if at all, the State Department before holding phone calls with foreign leaders or while drafting the initial travel ban. The White House also nixed Tillerson’s pick for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams, and Foggy Bottom has lots of vacancies at senior levels.
“Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the president, [and] speaks with him frequently,” said Toner. “I can assure everyone that the State Department’s voice is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.”
He pointed to recent activity by Tillerson such as his trip to Bonn, Germany in mid-February for the G-20 and exchanges with his Chinese and Korean counterparts.
The eagerly awaited briefing was a first for a State Department that seems unwilling or unable to embrace the traditional role of public diplomacy that has characterized U.S. efforts to shape opinion and policies around the globe. Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, seems inclined to favor the same closed-door approach to doing business as the country’s top diplomat as he did while running the oil major.
Breaking with decades of past practice, for example, Tillerson allowed very few journalists to accompany him on trips to Germany and Mexico. On Monday, while helping present the new travel ban, Tillerson scurried away from reporters’ questions, as did the secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General.
Toner, who led the briefing, is a career diplomat who served as deputy spokesperson under the Obama administration. He was watched from a distance by Trump’s State Department aide Jennifer Hazelton.
Toner was pressed on reports that the Trump administration wants to gut State Department funding, and has apparently found a willing ally in Tillerson. On the proposed cuts, which would force a massive overhaul of the department and elimination of numerous foreign aid programs, Toner at first suggested that the 37 percent figure would not hold.
“This is still just early on in the process,” said Toner. “I would stress that Secretary Tillerson understands the vital work that his department does.” However, he also warned that the department was undergoing a “period of reassessment.”
An Associated Press report said the secretary agreed in principle to the 37 percent figure but preferred that it be spread out over three years.
On the new executive order on immigration, which bans citizens from a half-dozen Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, ostensibly on grounds of national security, Toner struggled to explain the criteria used by the administration. It remains unclear if Iran was included on the list because of Tehran’s ties to terrorist groups such as Hezbollah, or because there are ongoing issues related to the proper vetting of incoming travelers. That made it hard for Toner to say if, when, why, or how Iran could get off that list.
Despite the confusion, Toner conducted a cordial and professional briefing that isn’t likely to become fodder for Saturday Night Live, or become must-see television, like the contentious White House briefings led by Sean Spicer.
Fear of such a dynamic is one of the reasons Tillerson had little desire to restart the daily briefings, despite a wave of criticism from press advocates and human rights organizations who view them as a crucial tool of U.S. foreign policy. Many U.S. diplomats posted overseas rely on the briefings to understand the administration’s stance on a range of issues.
After the briefing, when asked if fielding questions from American and foreign journalists was such a harrowing experience, a senior administration official acknowledged: “No, it wasn’t.”
Officials said the next televised briefing would be Wednesday followed by a phone briefing on Thursday. Traditionally, the State Department holds on-camera briefings every weekday.