Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will travel to China, Japan and South Korea next week for what would ordinarily be viewed as an early-term showcase of the United States' top diplomat in action. Instead, the trip looks more like an effort to run away and hide.
Tillerson plans to leave the U.S. media behind, a break from precedent that has news outlets up in arms. Editors from The Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press, NPR, BBC and CNN are among those who have signed a letter to the State Department, saying they are "deeply concerned" about the decision and requesting a meeting to discuss press access in general. Here's an excerpt:
Not only does this situation leave the public narrative of the meetings up to the Chinese foreign ministry as well as Korea’s and Japan’s, but it gives the American people no window whatsoever into the views and actions of the nation’s leaders. And the offer to help those reporters who want to travel unilaterally is wholly unrealistic, given the commercial flight schedules, visa issues and no guarantee of access once they are there.
But the issues go beyond just the March 14-19 trip and affect the day-to-day coverage of the nation’s top diplomat and U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
Not bringing press on a trip like that is unusual & insulting to any American who is looking for anything but a state-run version of events
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) March 9, 2017
Tillerson's State Department has been largely walled off from the press. The department finally held its first briefing on Tuesday, and Tillerson has refused to take questions from reporters in his few public appearances.
When NBC's Andrea Mitchell attempted to ask questions during a photo op involving Tillerson and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin this week, she was escorted out of the room.
— NBC Nightly News (@NBCNightlyNews) March 7, 2017
Tillerson's media stiff-arm is not shocking, considering how noncommittal he was when Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) asked him about traveling with the press, during a confirmation hearing. This was their exchange:
BOOKER: You will bring press corps with you as you travel overseas, and you will commit to having those regular interactions with, uh, with the press?
TILLERSON: If confirmed, I will look into what would be appropriate to take. I've not — I've not gotten that far in my thinking.
BOOKER: Okay. And, and, uh, so you haven't thought through about issues of accountability and transparency.
TILLERSON: I have thought through issues of accountability and transparency. Your question was the size of my press corps, I think.
BOOKER: No, sir, it was not. My question was access of the media and the public to the work of the secretary of state.
TILLERSON: We want to ensure at all times, if confirmed, that the secretary of state and the State Department is fully transparent with the public.
Ditching the media on a trip to Asia is at least somewhat surprising, however, because just a couple weeks ago Tillerson appeared to be preparing to step into the spotlight more often. Politico reported Feb. 22 that Tillerson had asked aides to draft a plan for him to engage with reporters and raise his media profile, after being sidelined during the first month of Trump's presidency.
What happened to the plan?
Stepping out does carry some risk for Tillerson. Trump pays very close attention to media appearances by members of his team. He can be generous with praise, when pleased, but he is also known to be a harsh critic in private, when less than impressed. And, in this leak-prone White House, private reproaches don't always stay private.
Plus, Tillerson and Trump are not always on the same page. The president's rejection of Tillerson's pick for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams, was a prime example. Answering questions about disagreements isn't easy. Be too candid, and you'll generate headlines about dysfunction in the new administration; lay on the positive spin too thick, and you'll be criticized for denying obvious realities.
Basically, there are lots of ways for Tillerson to create bad press for himself. It appears he has decided not to take the chance, for now.
Then again, ducking the media tends to generate negative coverage, too.