As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kicks off his Asia trip Thursday, one of his loudest messages could be one that goes unspoken.
State Department officials said Tillerson’s focus during meetings in Japan, South Korea and China will be on North Korea’s nuclear threat, as well as trade and economics. But his aversion to dealing with U.S. journalists — and his decision to initially bar them from his traveling party before granting a seat to a reporter for a conservative website at the last minute — have added to growing questions about the Trump administration’s commitment to a free press and transparent government.
For the nation’s top diplomat, the approach cuts sharply against the practice of his predecessors, in Republican and Democratic administrations, who have allowed reporters on their planes as an expression of American values — and as a tool to help pressure authoritarian regimes toward greater openness.
Tillerson’s abrupt change of direction comes at a time when his boss, President Trump, and other senior White House officials have referred to mainstream media outlets as “fake news,” “the opposition party” and “the enemy of the people” and restricted access to some news briefings.
Foreign capitals have taken notice.
“There is an element of concern in the Japanese media about that level of control” that Trump is trying to exert on the U.S. news media, said Tamaki Tsukada, spokesman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington.
The Trump administration’s posture also has been noted in Beijing, where Communist Party leaders have appropriated Trump’s rhetoric as they continue a years-long effort to tighten government control of news and information. That effort has included restricting public access to the Internet, jailing Chinese journalists and denying visas to American reporters.
This month, Xinhua, a state-run news agency, a ttacked foreign news outlets for writing “fake news” full of “cleverly orchestrated lies” in their reports on the alleged torture of a human rights lawyer by government agents.
“We’re in a period where Chinese government pressure on journalists is as great as it’s been since the 1980s, so having a secretary who raises the importance of a free press and the treatment of journalists is important,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a former journalist based in Beijing who oversees a project at the New America think tank that examines digital privacy rights and free expression.
“It’s been a key part of our foreign policy for decades for Republicans and Democrats,” MacKinnon said. “If that changes or if the message is not conveyed … that sends a message not just to the world and the Chinese government but also to Chinese journalists, human rights lawyers and activists.”
Tillerson, who regularly traveled with a single aide while serving as chief executive of ExxonMobil, is said to be uncomfortable with the large entourage of U.S. officials, reporters and security personnel that typically accompanies the secretary of state. This is his third trip abroad on a small plane, with less space for staff and for reporters. State Department officials have characterized it as a cost-cutting measure, though news organizations pay for their own expenses.
Tillerson’s aides emphasized that they have made arrangements to permit American reporters, who travel on their own or are based abroad, to cover his stops in each capital. And they said he will participate in his first news conference during a joint appearance with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Thursday.
The only journalist on the plane is Erin McPike, a reporter for the Independent Journal Review, an Alexandria, Va.-based website founded by two former Republican operatives.
“We take this responsibility seriously,” publication co-founder Alex Skatell said in a statement, expressing confidence in her coverage. McPike, who is listed on the website as a White House correspondent, was invited by the State Department to cover the trip, Skatell said.
Trump administration officials rejected the suggestion that the Chinese would view Tillerson’s exclusion of other reporters as a signal that the administration would tacitly endorse — or choose to overlook — intimidation tactics against journalists.
“Taking the American press corps to Beijing has not over the course of 40 years, to my knowledge, particularly changed the conditions for Chinese media,” said Victoria Coates, a senior director for strategic communications at the National Security Council. “It demonstrates solidarity, but it does not achieve anything.”
Nevertheless, Tillerson is being watched closely at home and abroad for signals of how the Trump administration, which has proposed slashing the budget of the State Department, intends to engage the world. His early approach represents a sharp departure from his predecessor, John F. Kerry, who served as secretary of state during President Barack Obama’s second term.
In private meetings and in public, Kerry often spoke out about the values of a free and independent press. During a visit to Beijing in 2014, he met with Chinese bloggers in a roundtable arranged by the U.S. Embassy and photographed by American journalists traveling with him.
It came at a time when Beijing was clamping down on political dissent, and the bloggers asked Kerry to help “tear down” the “Great Firewall” of censorship blocking what citizens can read online. Kerry told them he had raised the matter with Chinese officials, prompting the foreign ministry to label his views “naive.”
Kerry was not the only Obama administration official to pressure the Chinese. Vice President Biden met with a group of Beijing-based reporters from the New York Times and Bloomberg News during a trip to China in December 2013.
Those organizations were being threatened by the government after stories that exposed the secret wealth of relatives of Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Communist leaders. Biden said he raised their concerns in a private meeting with Xi.
“Media organizations that were having difficulties with visas sought assistance, and we were open to that because we always seek fair treatment for U.S. journalists working abroad,” said Jeff Prescott, a former Obama and Biden aide who helped arrange the vice president’s Asia trip. “In-depth reporting is critical to how Americans understand developments in a place like China. The fact that journalists faced visa challenges at the time of a high-level visit presented an opportunity to highlight the issue and provided leverage to help address it.”
A year later, during Obama’s state visit to Beijing, the U.S. delegation negotiated with the Chinese to ensure that Xi took a question from an American reporter at a news conference. Obama used the opportunity to call on a New York Times correspondent, who promptly asked the Chinese leader about his efforts to deny visas to foreign reporters.
Former Obama aides acknowledged that their efforts paid limited dividends in China. But they emphasized that the messaging resonated throughout the region, including in Southeast Asia, where the United States had positioned itself as a democratic alternative to China’s growing influence.
It is not known whether Tillerson will raise human rights, including press freedoms, during his stop in Beijing. A State Department official who briefed reporters before the trip did not mention it being on the agenda.
“I’m just always wary of predicting exactly what will be on the agenda of any meeting, but I can guarantee that it is a concern,” said Mark Toner, the agency’s acting spokesman. “We recognize there are challenges there. Human rights is one of those challenges, and freedom of the press is an essential part of that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Tamaki Tsukada, spokesman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington, as saying there is “elevated concern” among the Japanese media about the White House's attempts to control the U.S. news media. Tsukada said there is “an element of concern.” The quotation has been corrected.