The briefings were held almost every day during the Obama administration
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has also stayed largely silent since taking office
The State Department defended its clarity of mission and influence Tuesday at the first press briefing held under the Trump administration.
Reports that the agency was adrift and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s influence marginal have swirled amidst a lack of press outreach and public communication from top officials.
“I can … assure you that Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the President, speaks to him frequently,” acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters, adding that the “State Department’s voice is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.”
Toner also insisted Tillerson would work to ensure personnel have the resources they need “to fully carry out their missions,” even as the Trump administration is considering substantial cuts to the State Department’s budget.
Toner’s briefing ended a nearly two-month silent spell that had vexed the press corps inside the building and diplomats who follow the briefings from afar. Toner, a career official, frequently delivered the press conference in the Obama State Department, when it was held almost every workday.
“I’m glad that we’re back up at the podium,” Toner said Tuesday. “Many of you know that I’ve been in this job for a number of years, so obviously I respect what this briefing is about and what it accomplishes.”
The news conference lasted just over an hour and included pointed questions on North Korea’s recent missile launch, the administration’s updated travel ban and Tillerson’s upcoming travel to Asia.
The lack of briefings over the last two months has not only irritated Washington journalists seeking clarity on the new administration’s foreign policy positions, but also US diplomats and foreign officials who see the briefings as a key source of guidance on the administration’s stances, messaging and priorities.
Tillerson’s own silence since taking office has fueled the perception the State Department is losing influence to the White House, where President Donald Trump has a coterie of political advisers taking a greater role in foreign policy.
The secretary of state has given only a handful of prepared statements to the press and has not taken any questions.
Tillerson has also severely restricted the number of journalists with access to him on foreign trips. No journalists will be permitted to travel on Tillerson’s plane when he takes a newsmaking trip to Japan, South Korea and China in the wake of a series of ballistic missile tests by North Korea.
Although secretaries of state traditionally take journalists on their travels for firsthand access and briefings on diplomatic missions to promote their policy agendas, a senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday Tillerson prefers to travel on a smaller plane and “carries a much smaller footprint.”
Tillerson and his counterparts are expected to focus much of their discussions on North Korea’s recent provocative actions during the trip, according to Toner.
Toner said they hope to “generate a new approach to North Korea.”