Reporters crowded into the briefing room at the State Department’s Harry S. Truman building Tuesday for the long awaited first news briefing since inauguration. But after more than an hour of peppering acting spokesman Mark Toner with questions of all sorts, they left with barely any more information than they had Monday.
The first question by the dean of the diplomatic press corps, Matt Lee of the Associated Press, was following up on the State Department’s own statement in January that it is reevaluating former secretary of state John Kerry’s last minute decision to release more than $220 million in funding for nongovernmental organizations that work in the Palestinian territories.
“I don’t have a status update on that assistance,” said Toner. He also declined to comment on why the State Department’s statement on that assistance referenced only Gaza, when they money would mostly go to the West Bank.
The next question focused on the administration’s decision to impose a version of what’s known as the Mexico City rule, which now bars the State Department from using U.S. taxpayer dollars to support any international organizations that provide services related to abortion. How much actual money does that affect?
“I don’t have that specific figure,” Toner said.
What is the status of the review of vetting and screening procedures for refugees and immigrants? Has any progress been made since the first executive order was issued in January? “I can’t get into too many specific details . . . the process is ongoing,” he said.
Is the State Department taking a back seat, considering that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has barely appeared in public?
“I can also assure you that Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the president, speaks to him frequently,” Toner said. “I can assure everyone that the State Department’s voice is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.”
What about the fact that the White House has proposed slashing the State Department and foreign assistance budgets by 37 percent? Does Tillerson intend to fight back? What would be the impact of such drastic cuts?
“This is still very early on in the process,” Toner explained. Tillerson wants to make sure the State Department is “properly resourced” but is also “reassessing” the budget. “I don’t have many specifics to add.”
On policies that the president has spoken out on, Toner was much more comfortable giving details — by repeating what the president has said. For example, Toner articulated U.S. policy on Israeli settlement activity by referring to the president’s news conference.
President Trump “said he would like to see Israel hold back on settlement activity, and we are in discussions with Israel as to what that would look like,” Toner said.
But when asked how the administration intends to get from that statement to an actual peace process, Toner returned to form.
“We are working closely with the White House on evaluating where we stand,” he said. “At this point we are still at a stage where we are looking at the situation and formulating next steps.”
As the briefing dragged on, Toner’s predicament became more apparent. He can’t elaborate on the details of policies where such details may not exist. For example, reporters repeatedly asked Toner why Iran was included on the list of countries where immigration is now paused and he pointed to their sponsorship of terrorism abroad.
“This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror and plays a destabilizing role in the region . . . and it’s because of that they are in this category,” he said.
But is there also a vetting problem with Iran, reporters pressed? Toner said yes. So does that mean the United States will engage with Iran to improve their vetting?
“I can’t speak to that at this time,” Toner said.
On why Syrian refugees were permanently barred from entry under the first executive order but not under the second:
Toner: “I’m not certain about why the rationale to shift them.”
On what the United States is considering to do about North Korea, beyond pressing China to implement sanctions:
Toner: “I don’t want to get into specifics of all the options we are looking at with respect to North Korea.”
On why the State Department has nobody nominated for senior leadership positions:
Toner: “We’re working on identifying qualified candidates for senior department positions and trying to fill them as quickly as possible.”
CNN’s Elise Labott asked about the State Department’s activity regarding Andrew Brunson, an American Christian pastor being held on terrorism charges in Turkey. Anticipating the State Department’s go-to response on such cases, she obtained a signed privacy waiver from the pastor, which allows the U.S. government to comment about his case. But she had no luck.
“We are of course aware of U.S. citizens detained in Turkey and this case in particular. I’ll try to see what additional information we can get,” Toner said. “We take very seriously this case and all cases of detained citizens overseas.”
There were some small bits of news from the briefing. Toner volunteered that Michael Ratney, the State Department’s Syria envoy, is also now in charge of the Middle East peace process file as well.
Toner also said that U.S. sanctions on Russia regarding its aggression in eastern Ukraine and Crimea would not be lifted until Russia complies with the Minsk agreement. On that he was confirming the Ukrainian government’s readout of Tillerson’s meeting with its foreign minister.
The scarcity of substance in Tuesday’s State Department briefing was not Toner’s fault. The problem was never a lack of press opportunities. It was and remains a lack of policies.