WASHINGTON – After weeks of conspiracy theories and criticism of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for not holding daily briefings since the election of Donald J. Trump as president, an Obama administration holdover attempted to stick to the new administration’s talking points while reuniting warmly with the liberal reporters who routinely cover the agency.
“Good afternoon,” said Mark Toner, a career foreign service officer who was named Deputy Spokesman at State on June 1, 2015. “Feels good to be back up here.”
After announcing that Tillerson will travel to Japan, the Republic of Korea, and China March 15-19 at the Tuesday briefing, Toner took questions from reporters — at least those whom he knew by name and who were seated in the first few rows of the standing-room-only crowd in the briefing room.
When asked by Associated Press reporter Mike Lee about whether Trump’s executive order on immigration called for improvements in vetting refugees because it was not done properly by other administrations, Toner responded quickly.
“Not at all,” Toner said. “And I think the Secretary spoke to this yesterday, when he said that this is – it’s almost impossible – and I’m paraphrasing him – for this to be infallible, this process.”
“But we always have to strive to do so,” Toner said. “And I think past administrations have done so as well.”
“But I think the President clearly identified this as a security issue when he came into office, and now we’ve reissued the executive order yesterday – or issued a new executive order yesterday,” Toner added. “But I can assure you that this is an ongoing process.”
Andrea Mitchell, a reporter with NBC, asked Toner about a report in the New York Times about the Trump administration’s plan to help South Korea obtain a nuclear weapon.
“Is that one of the options being considered and how would that make the peninsula safer?” Mitchell asked.
Toner would only say the Trump administration wants to build on its “defensive cooperation” with South Korea.
Reporters questioned Toner specifically about Iran and it being named one of six countries with terrorist ties where immigration to the U.S. would be temporarily halted.
The State Department has designated Iran as a state sponsor of terror.
“Before all of that we have to put the safety and security of the American people, and it is because of that they have been added to this list,” Toner said.
“Are you saying that until Iran is not a state sponsor of terrorism or cleans up its act in the region or you have less fears about the actions of the Iranian Government, that all of the citizens of Iran will not be able to come here, or ae you saying that they need better vetting procedures?” the reporter asked.
“My answer to that is — part of this review period is looking at where we don’t have sufficient vetting procedures in place — what are those countries? And then following up on that, where we can and are able to talk to those governments and express where there are these disconnects,” Toner replied.
Officials with the State Department said that going forward the agency would have an on-camera daily briefing on Mondays and Wednesdays and conference call briefing on Tuesdays and Thursdays.