WASHINGTON, D.C. – State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner — a holdover from the Obama administration — told reporters that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been busy meeting with his global counterparts.
Toner tried to convey to skeptical reporters on Tuesday, during the first daily briefing at the agency since Donald J. Trump was elected president, that Tillerson had taken an active role in managing the agency.
In response to a reporter questioning the delay of daily briefings under the Trump administration, Toner said that Tillerson held 14 bilateral meetings at the recent G20 in Germany and will soon travel to Japan, South Korea, and China.
The reporter said:
There has been criticism today on the Hill, as there has been in past weeks from other venues, that this department has been silent in the face of a number of threats – in Ukraine, in North Korea, and elsewhere from other adversaries – that the State Department has not had a voice, both from the podium and hearing from the Secretary. Is diplomacy taking a second seat or backseat in the National Security Council?
Toner, who was named by the Obama administration to be deputy spokesperson in June of 2015, said:
Many of you know that I’ve been in this job for a number of years, so obviously, I respect what this briefing is about and what it accomplishes. And of course, I appreciate the patience of all of you over the past month or so as this new administration got its sea legs underneath it and were able to come back out here and brief to the public, because we do take this very seriously, I can assure you.
With respect to the State Department’s voice in this new administration, I can also assure you that Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the President, speaks to him frequently, was over there I believe just yesterday for a meeting. And I can assure everyone that the Secretary’s voice – or the State Department’s voice – is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.
The Secretary himself has been hard at work and focused on, I think, in his early days in establishing the relationships that he feels are absolutely vital with his key counterparts. He was at the G20. He held, I think, some 14 bilateral meetings and, I think, three multilateral meetings, including one with the Republic of Korea and Japan to talk about North Korea’s continued threat to the region’s stability.
Toner said that in addition to meeting with Russian and Chinese officials at the G20, Tillerson traveled to Mexico with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, where a “productive” meeting with Mexican officials took place.
“And now, next week, he’ll be going to Asia, again, visiting with China – visiting in China, rather – then going to South Korea, as well as Japan,” Toner said. “These are important visits. They’re important trips.”
“They’re important meetings that he’s having, I think, again, to just establish the relationships that he needs to have to be an effective secretary of state,” Toner said. “I think going forward, he’ll be clarifying his priorities as the Secretary.”