State Department darkens the briefing room again amid search for new spokesperson

PHOTO: It was standing room only for a news breifing with State Department acting spokesman Mark Toner, the departments first on-camera briefing since President Donald Trump was inaugurated, March 7, 2017 in Washington. PlayChip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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Less than three weeks after resuming, the State Department has once again stopped holding press briefings while the agency searches for a new spokesperson.

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For at least two weeks, officials at the State Department will not hold a public briefing, according to officials with the department. After that, it is unclear if briefings will resume immediately and what form they will take. In the meantime, the State Department have been briefing reporters on background only, which means officials cannot be quoted by name in any news stories.

The briefings, traditionally televised daily, have been a fixture since the Eisenhower administration, and are watched closely in Washington, D.C., and around the world for guidance on the United States' foreign policy and reaction to world events.

The State Department did not hold briefings for its first six and a half weeks after Trump took office. Once it did, the department eschewed tradition and held only four each week, two on camera and two over the phone.

Mark Toner, a career foreign service officer who often briefed reporters under the Obama administration, stayed on as acting spokesperson when Trump took office. But now, Toner is transitioning to a new assignment, with no announced replacement.

Fox News anchor Heather Nauert was in talks to come on board and was being vetted, a source told ABC News earlier this month. A State Department official would only confirm this week that a new spokesperson is in the process of being vetted and approved.

Alex Howard, deputy director of transparency advocate the Sunlight Foundation, expressed concern about the lack of briefings, calling it “an unfortunate continuation of what we’ve seen from the very top of this administration.”

“This is a great briefing that has a different quality and depth than any you’ll see in government. ... It contains the U.S. position on foreign policy issues that span the world,” he said, pointing out that embassies take their cues from them and that foreign governments watch for changes in America’s position. “These are not just Kabuki sessions.”

Michael Abramowitz, president of the independent watchdog group Freedom House, agreed. “In many ways, with the possible exception of the White House spokesperson, the State Department spokesperson is perhaps the most important in the entire U.S. government because the State Department spokesperson is basically sending out what U.S. foreign policy is to the whole world,” he said.

But Abramowitz noted that it does take some time to train a new spokesperson. “[These briefings] are very complicated, and it’s easy to make mistakes,” he added. No one is yet undergoing training for the role, State Department officials said.

Whoever is behind the podium will be speaking on behalf of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has avoided the press and expressed his desire to stay out of the spotlight, drawing a barrage of criticism citing the importance of public diplomacy and advocating for transparency and press access.

Since he was sworn in on Feb. 1, Tillerson has so far only granted one interview, with a reporter from the conservative site Independent Journal Review who was also the only journalist allowed to travel with the secretary on his trip to Asia earlier this month.

On other past trips, the State Department has limited the number of reporters on the secretary’s plane to just a pool reporter -- a journalist there on behalf of all news organizations who shares their reporting.

According to Howard, limiting press access to Tillerson and the State Department threatens America’s ability to influence other countries on the world stage.

“Tillerson is still acting like a corporate CEO. ... By not having press with him, by not having briefings, or really embracing the role the media plays, you’re actually diminishing the impact of American soft power around the world,” he said.

If the trend continues, there is reason to be concerned, said Abramowitz. “The secretary will find that not only is it his responsibility to explain U.S. policy to the American public and the press corps directly, but it’s also in his interest,” he said.

“A lot of the great secretaries of state of the last 25 years spoke to the press all the time,” Abramowitz added, referencing James Baker and Henry Kissinger in particular. “It’s part of the job.”

Tillerson defended himself in his interview with IJR, arguing that he believes it is better to come to the press once the department has fully formulated policy. When he has something to share, he said, he will.

When Toner was pressed last Thursday about press access, his first response was to cite the briefing itself as a sign of the administration's commitment.

"This is a forum where we can talk about foreign policy. I have to answer your questions, I have to defend our policy decisions across a broad spectrum of issues, and that is, I think, a testament to our commitment to a free press," he said.

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