Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been maintaining his silence during his first weeks on the job, as has the department he heads. But some of that veil of silence will be lifting early next month.
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The daily State Department briefing -- a fixture at Foggy Bottom since the Eisenhower administration and watched closely in Washington and in capitals around the world -- has not resumed under Tillerson. But "regular" briefings are set to resume on March 6, acting spokesperson Mark Toner said today, though it is unclear if they will still be daily or televised.
Tillerson concluded his second overseas trip last night, this time with Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and he was only spotted in public three times -- getting off his plane Wednesday night, getting on his plane Thursday afternoon, and a three-and-a-half minute public statement that he read in between.
He was heard even less. In Mexico, as in Germany last week, he took no questions. And unlike Germany, there were no photo ops and no "pool sprays" -- opportunities for a small group of reporters or photographers to meet with an official. There wasn't even a read-out -- the official version of the discussion -- of his dinner with the Mexican foreign secretary Wednesday night, let alone of all his meetings Thursday.
Tillerson’s reticence on the trip comes after a wave of negative headlines asking where he is and if he’s being silent, sidelined, or is in over his head.
The bad press finally sparked something else the news media has not gotten a lot of lately -- an official State Department statement. It was a strongly worded comment that came Wednesday night and pushes back hard on those reports, sent on behalf of Toner, a career foreign service officer who assumed the role under President Obama and has so far stayed on for the Trump administration:
“The Department of State continues to provide members of the media a full suite of services. The Department has answered 174 questions from reporters in the United States and around the globe in the past 24 hours alone. The Secretary continues to travel with representatives of the media, the Department continues to provide readouts from the Secretary’s calls and meetings, the Department continues to release statements regarding world events and reporters continue to be briefed about upcoming trips and initiatives,” the statement said.
“In addition to regular press briefings conducted by a Department spokesperson, reporters will soon have access to additional opportunities each week to interact with State Department officials. The Department is also exploring the possibility of opening the briefing to reporters outside of Washington, DC via remote video capabilities," Toner's statement added.
Amid the reticence, here’s what we do know:
As Toner’s Wednesday statement said, “regular” press briefings will be back “soon,” possibly with reporters Skyping in, like the White House briefing now has. Toner said today that those briefing will resume on March 6, but no word yet on whether they will still be televised or happen daily.
Three public statements
After more than three weeks on the job, Tillerson has made only three public statements: His address to the department on his first day here; his 30-second prepared remarks after meeting the Russian foreign minister, and that statement he read Thursday in Mexico.
He has not taken any questions, and he has not granted any interviews. The most the press has heard from him was in response to shouted questions during a marathon day of meetings in Germany last week -- all one-sentence (or half-sentence) responses.
It’s not just that Tillerson has been quiet; the State Department has been unusually silent, too.
It hasn't been providing readouts of the secretary’s calls to world leaders. Without them, the public doesn’t even know that they’re happening. Instead, America is now relying on the Russians or the Iraqis to say when they happen and what they discussed -- even on the most benign topics.
For example, the Russians said Tillerson called to express condolences after the death of their ambassador to the United Nations, and the Iraqis said he called to praise the Iraqi army’s performance in the fight against ISIS. All the State Department would tell the press is that the calls took place. Not even who called whom.
Turnover between administrations is of course common, but a month after inauguration, multiple top roles at the State Department have yet to be filled -- from the secretary’s two deputies, to four out of the six undersecretaries, several assistant secretaries, and many key ambassadorships, including to major allies like Canada, France and Germany.
Conservatives have celebrated the “blood bath," but these positions help keep U.S. foreign policy running. And the lack of personnel has left many at the State Department stretched thin or feeling unsure about what’s to come, sources told ABC News.
Of the two undersecretary positions currently filled, one is also the acting deputy secretary and the other is in an “acting” capacity himself. And on Tillerson’s first trip abroad, five of eight senior officials were in acting roles.