- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2017

The State Department is pushing back against criticism from former senior officials and journalists over the lack of press conferences and other media access at the department since Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was sworn in three weeks ago.

“The Department of State continues to provide members of the media a full suite of services,” acting department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday night, asserting that the department had “answered 174 questions from reporters in the [U.S.] and around the globe in the past 24 hours alone.”

Mr. Toner also said “regular press briefings” will “soon” be resumed at Foggy Bottom, where officials are exploring ways to try and open the briefings digitally to a wider group of reporters than the regular State Department press corps, although he offered few other details.

His comments were circulated hours after former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who left Foggy Bottom at the end of the Obama administration, sharply criticized the Trump administration and Mr. Tillerson Wednesday for dramatically reducing the State Department’s media operations over the past month.

While Mr. Blinken said Mr. Tillerson had given a positive first impression on arrival at Foggy Bottom on February 2, he lamented that, “since then, it’s pretty much been radio silence.”

“There hasn’t been a State Department briefing in this administration,” Mr. Blinken told CNN. “That’s a terrible loss for U.S. diplomacy. This is one of the most important vehicles we have for explaining our policies [and] for holding ourselves accountable to the media and to the world.”

Mr. Tillerson, he added, “hasn’t been in key meetings, whether it’s at the White House or even abroad.”

The assertion dovetailed with a report Wednesday night by The Washington Post, which said the administration, in its first month, had largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the preeminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.

The Post article came a day after The Washington Times reported that Mr. Tillerson’s visit to Mexico City this week was occurring at a moment of tremendous uncertainty inside the department, where more than dozen key assistant secretary positions are still without even a proposed nominee from the White House.

There is still no deputy secretary of state and no clear sign of when that and other high-level diplomatic positions will be filled. The department’s press office and Mr. Tillerson’s office have declined to comment on the more than 100 management posts and foreign ambassadorships awaiting even a nominee, let alone a Senate confirmation. Just three ambassadors — to China, Israel and Britain — have been named.

Among the most notably change at Foggy Bottom, meanwhile, has been the halt of daily press briefings, which, while not as theatrical as the highly publicized and televised White House briefings, have been held on a near-daily basis on weekdays since the 1950s, when John Foster Dulles was secretary of state.

Since 2012, the briefings have been live-streamed on the department’s website and are known to be watched closely by allies and adversaries alike as the central public conduit through which official American foreign policy is projected. The daily briefing is also often the first place to hear any changes or subtle adjustments to those policies in the careful answers prepared by the department’s various agencies and embassies.

The absence of briefings since Jan. 20 has prompted unease among some of the reporters who regularly cover the department. By comparison, 18 daily press briefings were held in same period after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was sworn in under President Obama in 2009.

In private conversations, reporters have also expressed frustration over Mr. Tillerson’s unwillingness so far to allow a group of journalists to travel with him abroad. Media access on his visits to Germany and Mexico has been dramatically limited compared to past secretaries of state — Democrat and Republican — who regularly welcomed groups of about a dozen reporters to travel and interact directly with the secretary on foreign trips.

Mr. Toner dismissed the concern over the limited access in his statement Wednesday night.

“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,” he 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,” Mr. Toner said. “The Department is also exploring the possibility of opening the briefing to reporters outside of Washington, D.C., via remote video capabilities.”

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