One salient characteristic of Secretary Rex Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department is the scarcity of the globally watched daily press briefings that for decades have been considered routine.
“State Department press briefings go dark," read the headline on a June 5 “Secrecy News” blogpost by transparency activist Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. “Core practices of open government are eroding in the Trump administration, with new limitations on the ability of the press to effectively question officials on U.S. foreign policy.”
Tillerson has also curbed the practice of bringing reporters on foreign trips. (During last month’s visit by President Trump to Saudi Arabia, Tillerson even spoke to foreign reporters without American participation—though staff later said they lacked time to make preparations.)
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Aftergood compared the frequency of State’s daily press briefings in May 2016 under Obama with last month under Trump. “In May 2016, the State Department held a press briefing nearly every weekday of the month, with only two exceptions, he wrote. “In May 2017, by contrast, there was not a single State Department press briefing.”
Most days the Bureau of Public Affairs website says, “There will not be a press briefing today.”
But on June 6, press spokeswoman Heather Nauert held one, and the former journalist asked reporters for patience. “During this time, we’ve tried to fulfill your insatiable appetite for news with other news items of great interest,” she said. “We have brought in some of our acting assistant secretaries to speak about Venezuela, to speak about North Korea, to speak about Syria, and other issues. Some of these have been on camera, as you know; others have been phone briefings. One of the phone briefings had nearly 100 reporters on that call, so thank you for your participation in that. We look forward to bringing you more, as news warrants, with those events.”
Asked to explain the irregular briefing schedule, a State spokesperson told Government Executive, “There has been no break in the State Department’s commitment to providing relevant and timely information and access to the press. Staffing turnover from the transition between administrations and the departure of political appointees, as well as routine summer transfer, resulted in an interruption in the daily press briefings that had been held under the previous administration.”
The statement continued:
During the period between the departure of the former spokesperson and the selection and preparation of his successor, the department held regularly scheduled conference calls and on-camera briefings that focused on breaking news or news that warranted additional exposition. Participation in these briefings was open to all members of the press, both domestic and international. The department remains responsive to media requests and breaking news on an ongoing basis, with media officers available to the press every day of the week, on a near round-the-clock basis.
Another briefing is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. on June 8.