Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continues to avoid the media, and Andrea Mitchell, NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, has a message for the United States' top diplomat and the president he serves: You are only hurting yourselves.
Attempts by news outlets to pressure the State Department into granting more access have not worked. Tillerson will travel to Moscow this week and, just as he did on his first major trip, to Asia last month, he will not bring his press corps along.
Like other journalists hoping to cover Tillerson's visit to the Kremlin, Mitchell will attempt to keep up by making her own travel arrangements.
Tillerson's stonewalling represents a break from precedent. In an interview on Politico's “Global Politico” podcast, host Susan Glasser asked Mitchell whether President Trump is “just another outsider” who will eventually discover that his administration cannot defy the ways of Washington forever.
Mitchell replied that she believes Trump and his team can win their battle against the Washington establishment and its conventions, but she included a major caveat:
They can win if their goal is to keep us from covering the secretary of state and if their goal is to diminish the secretary of state and not have a viable, you know, a diplomat who can go around the world and be credible. If that's what they want, they can do that to him. He is a very smart man and has a lot of relationships, and I think that they should take advantage of that. That's why they brought him in, and I think he needs people around him. I think it's almost criminal negligence to not have nominated people and to then complain that the Democrats are slow-walking.
See what Mitchell did there?
She suggested that restricting media access to Tillerson has the effect of lowering his standing on the world stage — of harming his credibility. She has a point.
When a secretary of state keeps as low a profile as Tillerson has in his first few months on the job, it can appear that the president does not trust him to be the public face of U.S. diplomacy. It doesn't help that Trump has included some foreign relations assignments in the expansive portfolio of his senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Last week, as Kushner traveled to Iraq, The Washington Post described him as a “shadow secretary of state.”
As Mitchell suggested, a foreign leader might observe the situation and reasonably wonder whether Tillerson has real clout.
Also worth noting: Mitchell did not blame Tillerson directly. Instead, she portrayed him as “a very smart man” being let down by Trump, who is neither taking advantage of Tillerson's relationships nor providing the support staff he needs.
At this point, it is clear that the Trump administration is unmoved by the argument that it should grant more access to the State Department on principle or precedent. Perhaps another argument — Mitchell's contention that Tillerson's credibility is in jeopardy — will prove more convincing.
And if that doesn't work, maybe the ego of “a very smart man” will prompt him to demand a bigger, more visible role.