State Department pushes back against suggestion of diminished role in Trump admin

The State Department held its first briefing in a while.

— -- After 46 days and heavy criticism, the Trump administration held its first State Department briefing today and the department pushed back on the notion that it's been diminished in the administration.

Acting spokesperson Mark Toner, a career foreign service officer, who may be replaced by the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, took the podium and answered six weeks of pressing questions on a host of issues.

On the new travel ban, for example, he was asked repeatedly about the criteria for the six countries that remain on the list. Was Iran on there for being a state sponsor of terror or for not having robust vetting procedures? Was Iraq removed because its government is an important partner against ISIS or because it enhanced security measures? “Both” seemed to be the answer for both, leaving questions lingering.

Toner was also pushed on why so many senior State Department positions are still vacant or how the Department will work on Middle East peace with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, whom the president has touted as his special envoy for Israel and Palestine.

He said only that the selection process is ongoing to the first issue, and that the State Department and White House are working closely on the second. It’s still unclear if those roles will ever be filled, and who’s in charge of executing a new peace plan.

If there was one thing Toner tried to make clear, it’s that Tillerson’s State Department rejects the idea that it’s been diminished.

“Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the President, speaks to him frequently,” he said. “I can assure everyone that the Secretary’s voice, or the State Department’s voice, is heard loud and clear in policy discussions.”

That contrasts in some ways with what’s unfolded so far, with Tillerson absent from meetings with world leaders or reportedly not consulted before major decisions like the first travel ban or a change in Middle East peace policy.

And fueling the image of a sidelined State Department are reports that the budget could be cut by one-third. Toner refuted that number, but made clear that while it’s early in the budget process, changes are in the works.

“What his goal, what senior staff’s goal here at the State Department is to say, OK where can we possibly move resources to, reevaluate resources, reassess, perhaps make cuts if we feel that’s necessary,” he said of Tillerson.

In particular, he said the new administration will review “who receives foreign assistance, how much they receive, whether that much is still needed,” and after the briefing, a senior administration official said the administration believed there were too many special envoys -- a prime target for cuts.