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NBC’s Andrea Mitchell being shut down for asking questions is just the most visible of a media shutdown at the State Department. Why is Rex Tillerson so scared of the spotlight?
The 70-year-old journalism workhorse, a skillful creator of viral video moments during her long network television career, failed to get answers as frantic aides firmly ushered her out of the secretary of state’s ceremonial seventh-floor office.
But the confrontations produced some gripping optics that MSNBC, where Mitchell hosts a weekday show, deftly deployed in a promo touting her intrepid reporting style.
It was only this week—nearly 50 days into Donald Trump’s administration—that deputy state department spokesman Mark Toner, a career foreign service officer, starting holding a regular on-camera briefing for correspondents, an event that occurred daily during past administrations. The new plan is to hold two televised briefings and two conference calls a week for beat reporters.
But after six weeks on the job since being confirmed by the Senate, Tillerson—who as chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil for a decade met the media only in highly controlled and orchestrated circumstances—has yet to answer a single question from the press corps at Foggy Bottom.
And when he leaves next Wednesday for a critical four-day trip to Japan, South Korea and China—a series of crucial consultations overshadowed by North Korea’s nuclear saber-rattling—Tillerson will not even be taking a single pool reporter with him on the secretary of state’s plane.
P.J. Crowley, Barack Obama’s former assistant secretary for public affairs in charge of the state department’s media relations, drew a sharp intake of breath when informed of Secretary Tillerson’s travel arrangements.
“That,” he said after a lengthy pause, “is a very significant break with tradition.”
“It’s actually totally bizarre,” said the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, the newspaper’s state department correspondent during the tenures of Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. “Watching this beginning by Tillerson, I’m actually pretty appalled by it.”
New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, who covered the state department under comparatively press-friendly Secretary Hillary Clinton, speculated that Tillerson might be staying out of the spotlight so as not to risk eclipsing a president who needs to be the center of attention.
“You have to wonder if there isn’t an element of worry that too high a profile, working for a president named Donald Trump, is a hazardous place to be,” Landler said. “Maybe he’s concluded that being low-profile is a wiser move. Don’t compete with the boss.”
Former Time managing editor Richard Stengel, who served as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs during the Obama administration, cautioned that beyond risking negative media coverage—of which Tillerson has had plenty in recent weeks portraying him as a marginal foreign-policy player compared with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon—the secretary of state’s press-averse M.O. is sending a dangerous signal to the world at large.
“It’s unfortunate for American policy, and it’s not just an American audience that’s looking at this,” Stengel told The Daily Beast. “It emboldens autocrats and dictators who don’t believe they ever have to talk to the press. ‘See? The Secretary of State of the United States doesn’t need to talk to the press, so why do I have to?’ It’s an unfortunate image that projects something that we don’t want to project around the world.”
In an embarrassing illustration of Stengel’s warning, Tillerson found himself being lectured on press freedoms during a visit to Bonn, Germany, last month by none other than Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the foreign policy czar of journalist-snuffing strong man Vladimir Putin.
“Why did you shush them out?” Lavrov demanded after Tillerson’s handlers ejected reporters from a bilateral meeting as the Secretary of State began to speak; Lavrov, who frequently travels with a full complement of journalists on his official plane, had already taken a press question. (Due to lack of witnesses from the Fourth Estate, Tillerson’s reply, if any, went unrecorded.)
“Seasoned diplomats like Lavrov are more likely to get the best of a diplomatic encounter with Rex Tillerson, and to sandbag him in some way, if there is no American press present or within earshot,” said Anne Gearan, the Washington Post’s current state department correspondent. “That means the first account of some of those meetings is going to be presented to the press of another country, and that might not go the way the U.S. wants it to go.”
Crowley, meanwhile, told The Daily Beast that a Secretary of State’s public engagement with journalists “is a very important dimension of American diplomacy, so that we are seen as practicing what we preach, that we value the First Amendment, and that the relationship between the United States Government and a free and vibrant media is essential to government accountability and transparency.
“But when we have a president who calls the media ‘enemies of the people,’” Crowley continued, “that is damaging to America’s standing in the world. And when we have a senior leader in government who appears to be retreating from this relationship, that gets noticed and it will have an impact.”
State Department Senior Adviser R.C. Hammond, a veteran Republican operative who describes his job as “chief cat-herder,” rejects the notion that Tillerson has confused his priorities by keeping the press at arm’s length.
Hammond said, however, that Tillerson intends to take questions from the press for his first time as secretary during next week’s Tokyo stop, and added many state department correspondents are arranging to fly commercial to be on hand for Tillerson’s visits to Japan, South Korea and China.
He added that U.S. reporters on the ground will be traveling in the secretary’s motorcade, with access to the department’s briefers, within the security bubble.
But why no pool reporter on the secretary’s plane?
“He’s traveling on a smaller plane this time, which won’t accommodate a pool,” Hammond said. “The pool can be accommodated as long as the plane is large enough; we cannot put them in luggage.”
But doesn’t the secretary of state normally fly in a government Boeing 757 that would have seated several journalists in the back—and wouldn’t such an aircraft have been available if requested?
“Not necessarily,” Hammond replied, adding that he isn’t sure what sort of plane the secretary is using.
Tillerson had a very brief off the record meet-and-greet with State Department correspondents last month, when he dropped by the “Bullpen,” as their cramped office space is nicknamed, and departed after around 10 minutes.
“Zero reporters asked him any significant questions about foreign policy,” Hammond said about that encounter. “They took their first opportunity to introduce themselves by making sure not to ask him anything about his job.”
Hammond, who displayed a taste for combat and a saturnine sense of humor when he was Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign press secretary during the 2012 primary race, denied making a quip after Tillerson left that a witness confirmed to The Daily Beast.
“All you guys seem to care about is getting a lift on a government plane,” Hammond is alleged to have retorted to journalists who were pressing him for more access.
“Every reporter is entitled to his gripes,” Hammond told The Daily Beast. “Some reporters are more interested in reporting about themselves than the issues that people care about. That’s true for Washington.”
Hammond went on: “In the long run, what you’ll see is a state department that is making an adjustment to increase broader access; more reporters will have access to the department than they had before. Relying on a D.C-centric system that only answers questions from a briefing is not serving the needs of the entire media.”
Hammond said that instead of focusing mainly on members of the State Department Correspondents Association—many of whom have been covering U.S. diplomacy through several administrations and bring institutional memory and historical perspective to their reporting—the department will be reaching out especially to media outlets that serve the 14 million people who live within 100 miles of the southern border with Mexico.
“The department will be building a stronger border relationship with our neighbor, Mexico, and for a lot of people this is a local issue,” Hammond said. “The local news outlets that don’t usually have access to the state department will be getting new opportunities, and we will have information to help them on their local reporting.”
Ironically, at the same moment that Hammond was talking about Mexico, that country’s foreign minister was reportedly meeting at the White House with Kushner, Bannon and others, but apparently saw no need to see his American counterpart. It was yet another indication that Tillerson’s low profile is damaging at least the perception of his influence.
As for Andrea Mitchell, who declined to comment for this story, she was kicked out of Tillerson’s meeting with Yukiya Amano, director of International Atomic Energy Agency, when she pressed the Secretary on the department’s staffing problems--"Do you think you'll have a deputy anytime soon, sir?"—and the draconian 30 percent budget cuts President Trump wants to impose on American diplomacy.
The scene was replayed on Tuesday when Tillerson and his guest, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin, pretended not to hear her as she shouted questions about threats from China and the Trump administration’s ambiguous stance concerning Ukraine’s arch adversary, Putin.
“Do you think this gets better?” Brian Williams asked Mitchell Thursday night on his MSNBC program.
“I worry that it doesn’t,” she answered. “And I don’t think it’s good for the country.”