Listening to Tuesday’s first ever State Department briefing by new spokeswoman Heather Nauert, one might get the impression that the United States is conducting traditional, balanced and even somewhat nuanced foreign policy on the world stage. The problem is, of course, that President Trump’s own statements on foreign policy destroy that image and there’s no effort by either side to address the resulting contradictions.
Nauert, a former Fox News host, waited five weeks before taking to the lectern to meet the State Department press corps, which is filled with seasoned diplomatic reporters steeped in the nuances of international issues. She was well prepared, firm but not combative and began by praising the diplomatic corps and the media for doing their jobs in service to the United States and the ideals America represents.
The press corps, in turn, treated her with respect without pulling punches, a clear effort to set the relationship on the right foot and give her time to adjust to the new spotlight. But as the briefing wore on, the sheer disconnect between what Nauert was explaining as State Department policy and what the White House and Trump have said was striking.
The first example was when Nauert was asked why the State Department issued a statement Monday praising the work of Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), who died this week. The White House’s proposed budget would zero out U.S. funding for UNFPA.
“We sent out that announcement because he passed away … We wanted to express our condolences to his family,” Nauert said. “I’m not going to characterize whether [UNFPA] does good work or does not do good work.”
How can the State Department praise Osotimehin for being a “tireless advocate for the health of women and girls, pressing for stronger, more affordable and accessible maternal health and reproductive health care services for millions of women in the developing world,” while the White House advocates pulling support for that very mission? Nauert had no real answer.
“Some of the priorities of this president remain our national security and protecting Americans first,” she said.
The pattern became more evident when reporters tried several times to understand how the State Department viewed Trump’s tweet storm against U.S. ally Qatar. Trump said that the crisis between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors was evidence that his meetings with Arab states last month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, were “paying off,” and he called out Qatar for financing terrorism.
Those tweets seemed to directly contradict Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s call on all parties to work together to resolve their differences and his offer to help mediate the crisis. Interestingly, Nauert’s prepared answers from her briefing book expressed support for Qatar, not for Trump’s tweets.
“We recognize that Qatar has made some great efforts to stop financing of terror groups … more work needs to be done,” she said. “Our relationship with Qatar is strong.”
Nauert also revealed that the United Arab Emirates only informed the U.S. government of the decision by four Gulf allies to sever ties with Qatar “immediately prior” to the decision being announced, which detracts from Trump’s assertion that this is good news for U.S. leadership in the region.
Nauert attempted to square that circle by saying that the meetings in Riyadh produced progress in cooperation among regional actors in the fight against terrorism. One reporter bluntly pointed out that a major rift with Qatar only two weeks after Trump’s visit is actually evidence that the trip had the exact opposite effect.
Nauert went off book to argue that this was simply a temporary bump in the road.
“The meeting was about cooperation … that still holds,” Nauert tried to explain. “This is a rift right now that is taking place. The secretary and other countries have offered to get involved to mend this rift.”
As she continued to read from her briefing book, Nauert criticized Chinese human rights abuses, called on Russia to join international pressure on North Korea and defended the rights of diplomats abroad to use their own social media to express positions using their own judgment. It became clear by the end of the briefing that the State Department was in a way conducting its own foreign policy, which may or may not line up with what the commander in chief believes or says.
Multiple times Nauert fell back on a prepared line, quoting Tillerson saying that the State Department would just not weigh in on what Trump is saying about U.S. foreign policy.
“The president has his own unique ways of communicating with the American people and that has served him pretty well,” she quoted Tillerson as saying.
Trump’s tweets may in fact serve him well, but when the president creates diplomatic crises on a regular basis for no apparent reason, that doesn’t serve the country well. Nor does it allow for the U.S. government to have any coherent message that American citizens, foreign countries or even his own staffers can understand.
If Tuesday’s briefing is any indication, the State Department’s plan is to push forward with its own policies and pretend they don’t contradict Trump. It’s an untenable strategy that will only serve to further confuse, and thereby harm, U.S. foreign policy.