Tillerson’s State Department Rebuts Claims He's Lost His Voice

  • Daily press briefing resumes with defense of department’s role
  • Spokesman Mark Toner emphasizes Americans’ safety and security

The State Department used its first press briefing in seven weeks to push back against claims that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is out of touch with his building and shut out from President Donald Trump’s White House on foreign policy.

Before a packed briefing room on Tuesday, acting spokesman Mark Toner said Tillerson has focused his first weeks in office on building relationships at home and abroad and cautioned people to “take a deep breath” over the slow pace of hiring top deputies, suggesting it was a normal part of any transition.

"I can also assure you that Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, is very engaged with the president, speaks to him frequently,” Toner said. “I can assure everyone that the State Department’s voice is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.”

U.S. allies and adversaries have questioned the new administration’s foreign policy positions as Trump’s Cabinet officials seemed to espouse policies at odds with the president’s statements during and after last year’s presidential campaign. A lack of regular State Department press briefings and availabilities -- Tillerson took just one shouted question while on a trip to Germany last month -- compounded doubts about the administration’s priorities.

The State Department last held what traditionally has been a briefing each weekday on Jan. 19, the day before Trump’s inauguration. In the weeks since, the prevailing narrative of Tillerson has been that of an official cloistered with a small group of advisers, cut off both from the White House and the bureaucracy he leads.

Budget Cuts

Concern was exacerbated last week after the Office of Management and Budget outlined a plan to top officials that would cut the budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by 37 percent.

Tillerson isn’t ruling out cuts but wants to make sure staff get what they need, Toner said, adding that the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief understands “the vital work that this department does.” He declined to say whether the 37 percent figure was accurate.

One big change under Tillerson has been a more distant relationship with the press, a reflection of his 40 years at Exxon, where he rose to become the media-shy CEO. He has yet to hold a press conference, and the State Department said he won’t take reporters along on his plane during an upcoming trip to Japan, South Korea and China, in a break with decades of practice.

‘Sea Legs’

Nowhere had that break been more evident than in the suspension of the daily press briefings which, while famous for plunging into policy minutiae, are relied on by governments and U.S. diplomats around the world for a sense of where America stands.

“I’m glad that we’re back up at the podium,” Toner said. “I appreciate the patience of all of you over the past month or so as this new administration got its sea legs underneath it and we’re able to come out here and brief to the public. Because we do take this very seriously, I can assure you.”

Aside from the unusually large number of cameras and filled seats in the briefing room, the event fell into its typical rhythm, with reporters pressing Toner to clarify U.S. positions on everything from Syria to North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test and the executive order limiting immigration from six countries. The hour-long session lacked the confrontational fireworks that earned White House spokesman Sean Spicer a recurring parody on the late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live.”

Reflecting the Trump administration’s emphasis on protecting the homeland, Toner’s remarks focused on keeping Americans safe, saying the State Department always needs “to be driven by the safety and security of the American people.”’

He was also harder on Iran than he had been while doing the briefings under Secretary of State John Kerry, who sought to to keep the focus on its compliance with the deal to limit its nuclear program and not its role as a state sponsor of terrorism.

“You have to hold them in a different class,” Toner said of the reason why Iran was included in Tuesday’s executive order limiting immigration from six nations. “Their government unfortunately is a bad actor.”

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