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Rex Tillerson's silent treatment puts U.S. State Department spokesman in press's crosshairs

Rex Tillerson's silent treatment puts U.S. State Department spokesman in press's crosshairs
Acting State Department spokesperson Mark Toner takes a question during the first State Department briefing of the Trump administration on Tuesday. The briefing occurred in a rare packed room after a nearly seven-week break from daily department updates.
It took 47 days for the new Trump administration to convene its first U.S. State Department daily briefing. Judging by the media response it unleashed on Tuesday, it was well past due.

Reporters who usually occupy third-row seats jockeyed for spots in the seventh. A State Department official chided people for standing in the aisles. One late arrival with Breitbart nabbed a chair left unattended by an NPR journalist, disregarding the jacket he'd draped over it.

"Six weeks without a briefing. All of a sudden, it's full in here," a camerawoman muttered.

It took 47 days for the new Trump administration to convene its first U.S. State Department daily briefing. Judging by the media response it unleashed on Tuesday, it was well past due.

The State Department press corps walked into an unusually packed Carl T. Rowan Briefing Room amid a swirl of geopolitical concerns but few answers from the new tight-lipped secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who did not attend Tuesday's presser.

Even so, it was the first time some reporters had seen a capacity crowd there as they waited for acting department spokesman Mark Toner to take the lectern with his binder of briefing notes.

Rex Tillerson
Rex Tillerson sits in on his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State on Jan. 11. A month into his post, America's top diplomat has been media-averse, and is still without a fully staffed team. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A correspondent with the Russian news agency Sputnik watched from the back as the room filled.

"Guess I'm not getting any questions in today," he quipped.

No shortage of pressing issues

This, apparently, is what happens when the new secretary of state leaves his press corps in the dark. Barely a month into his new post, America's top diplomat is still without a fully staffed team or a deputy. But his silence on key foreign-policy matters has been a source of hand-wringing as his department flails in choppy diplomatic waters.

North Korea has been test-firing missiles not far from U.S. bases in Japan. The conflict in Syria remains a conundrum. And President Donald Trump's freelance musings about befriending Russia and withdrawing the U.S. from NATO have clashed with his cabinet picks.

Koreas Tension THAAD
In this image made from video released by KRT on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, North Korea launches four missiles in an undisclosed location North Korea, the type of event that typically would elicit a public response from a U.S. Secretary of State. (KRT/Associated Press)

Meanwhile, Tillerson's lack of media availability is troubling an already antsy diplomatic press corps.

The first briefing of a new administration typically picks up in January when the new administration takes over, "but the challenge for the spokesman is obviously the fact the Trump administration is still trying to define what its foreign policy is," says former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

"And if you don't know what your foreign policy is, it's hard to talk about."

Looking to 'take their cues'

The opening question at Tuesday's briefing included a preamble from the Associated Press's Matt Lee reminding Toner of the importance of the State Department updates.

"Foreign publics, the American people and the men and women who work here and in embassies abroad, they all look to this briefing," said Lee, the unofficial dean of the State Department's press corps. "They take their cues from it."

The weekday rundowns have long served as a regular forum through which the world can view how U.S. policy potentially affects every square inch of territory on the planet, adds Crowley, now a professor at George Washington University who served as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs between 2009-2011.

PJ Crowley
Former U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley, centre, now a professor at George Washington University, attributes the long delay before the first Trump-era State Department press briefing to unfilled roles in the department as well as a lack of clarity on the administration's stance on certain issues. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

They are by their nature "almost all geopolitics and substance," he says.

Toner capably answered questions on geopolitics on Tuesday. He reiterated the Trump administration's commitment to the one China policy, explained the updated travel ban as it pertains to Iranians, clarified Trump's position on the expansion of Jewish settlements, and defended the U.S.'s controversial Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea.

Steep budget cuts proposed

Toner was also grilled on politics at home.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, for one, recognizes the value of a well-funded State Department and the role soft power plays in winning or avoiding armed conflict. "If you don't fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition," Mattis has said.

But Tillerson's department faces a dramatic 37 per cent slash in its budget, including to foreign aid, as part of the administration's proposal to bleed out some agencies and pump $54 billion more into military spending.

Has State been shunted aside?

"Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the president. Speaks to him frequently," Toner assured.

reporters state dept
Reporters at the State Department's first press briefing of the Trump administration fill the 56 seats at the Carl T. Rowan Briefing Room in Washington, D.C. (Matt Kwong/CBC)

NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell — who last week was escorted out of a room while trying to buttonhole a silent Tillerson as he met with his Ukrainian counterpart — asked Toner if Tillerson would fight for his workforce in the face of looming cuts.

"The short answer is the budget process is still, as you well know, is still in the early days," Toner answered. He gave a nervous laugh.

She pressed him on Tillerson's relative "silence" on foreign-policy matters. Toner acknowledged the press corps has exhibited a lot of patience "as this new administration gets its sea legs underneath it."

Asked about the many unfilled roles within the State department, Toner said transitions are tough.

trump-tillerson.jpg
More than one observer has wondered if the State Department is on the backbench in Donald Trump's administration, given the president's domineering personality and a budget proposal that would see State suffer steep cuts. (Reuters)

"Take a deep breath. Because this is always an ongoing process and we're … trying to fill [positions] as quickly as possible."

Crowley allows that Tillerson, a former oil executive, may still be adjusting to political life, and all the media responsibilities that go along with it.

"As chairman of Exxon Mobil you could frequently travel under the radar, that's very hard to do when you are the Secretary of State."

Leaving on a jet plane (without press)

Critics are looking for small gestures to show good faith. They point out that unlike his predecessors, Tillerson didn't personally unveil the State Department's annual human-rights report this week. As a PR move, announcing the report is considered low-hanging fruit, allowing the secretary to trumpet the department's commitment to human rights.

That break from tradition prompted Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary for human rights under the Obama administration, to comment that Tillerson was "MIA."

Tuesday's briefing may have been the first for the new administration, but it's clear that until Tillerson stops ducking media questions, the press corps won't stop chasing him for answers.

After the cameras were packed up Tuesday and Toner convened a small scrum at the podium, reporters questioned him about why a government jet Tillerson was taking for an upcoming Asia tour wouldn't accommodate accredited media.

Someone noted that it's impossible to book a commercial flight between three cities listed on Tillerson's itinerary.

"If we manage to get there," another reporter persisted, "will he hold a press conference?"

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