Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will embark on his first trip to Asia next week, visiting Japan, South Korea, and China. In what some journalists are calling an unprecedented move, he will not travel with members of the press.
"Not only does this situation leave the public narrative of the meetings up to the Chinese foreign ministry as well as Korea's and Japan's, but it gives the American people no window whatsoever into the views and actions of the nation's leaders," a dozen Washington bureau chiefs from major news organizations wrote in a letter to the State Department earlier this week.
CNN's Brian Stelter reported:
On Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that Tillerson was looking to save money by taking a smaller plane without room for reporters.
However, news outlets normally pay for their reporters' seats, compensating the government for the expenses.
Past secretaries normally flew with the so-called press "pool" as a matter of course, but the Trump administration seemingly wants that to stop.
Journalists "are strenuously objecting to the plan," Stelter reported, while Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wrote to Tillerson on Friday also voicing his concern.
"Your decision to travel without reporters sends a dangerous signal to other countries about the U.S. commitment to freedom of the press," Markey, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter (pdf) to Tillerson. "The presence of a traveling press corps is vital for keeping the American people informed about a trip with significant implications for U.S. national security and economic prosperity."
Stelter noted that "Tillerson was similarly press-averse while running ExxonMobil," citing Steve Coll, who authored Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. He has yet to name a press secretary. The State Department held its first on-camera press briefing just this week—and Tillerson was not in attendance.
On Tuesday, NBC's Andrea Mitchell was swiftly ushered out of the room when she tried to get answers from Tillerson on foreign policy matters after a photo op with Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin:
— NBC Nightly News (@NBCNightlyNews) March 7, 2017
Former Reuters correspondent Carol Giacomo, who now sits on the New York Times editorial board, wrote on Friday:
It’s not that previous secretaries didn't sometimes duck questions. But Mr. Tillerson has been shockingly inaccessible since he was sworn in last month. On top of questionless photo ops, there have been no news conferences and no Sunday talk show appearances. Compounding the problem, Mr. Tillerson silenced the State Department's institutional voice for six weeks by suspending the press briefing, which had been conducted by a spokesperson on a regular basis (usually daily) for decades. The briefings resumed Tuesday after an internal debate over their value; plans are to hold two public briefings and two conference calls per week.
This retreat could have profound implications, she continued:
Past secretaries of state realized that their ability to speak authoritatively about America's interests strengthened the boss's message. [President Donald] Trump's ideas, as far as they are known, are deeply problematic. Yet they need to be heard not just by other world leaders, but also the American people. Inevitably, when some crisis boils over, the president and his secretary of state will need to garner public support. Unfortunately, they may find they don't know how it's done.
Meanwhile, there are other signs that Tillerson is being sidelined. Senate Democrats sent a letter to the secretary of state this week warning that his department is near a "tipping point."
"The Department of State is experiencing significant management challenges, being cut out of important administration foreign policy decisions, and facing potentially devastating budget cuts," wrote Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), and Chris Murphy (Conn.). "The department has reportedly been excluded from calls and meetings with key foreign leaders, and critical policy discussions are occurring without meaningful input from the Department of State."
The Hill reported that the letter came "amid multiple reports speculating that Tillerson is being overshadowed on foreign policy decisions by some in the president's inner circle, including White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law."
Indeed, Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray reportedly met Thursday at the White House with Kushner, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and top economic aide Gary Cohn—without the State Department's knowledge.