In a break with decades of precedent, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opted against allowing a press pool on his plane during his first trip to Asia as America’s top diplomat.
Instead, the former ExxonMobil CEO took a single reporter from the conservative Independent Journal Review (IJR) website — the same publication that brought you fawning coverage of President Trump’s “secret dinner” in his swanky Trump International Hotel late last month.
Reuters reports that the State Department’s rationale ostensibly has to do with space on Tillerson’s plane. But that hasn’t been an issue going all the way back to the Nixon years.
“State Department Acting Spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement that there was only one seat available on Tillerson’s plane for media,” Reuters reports. “The department had previously told reporters covering Tillerson’s trip to South Korea, Japan, and China that he would not be taking reporters on his plane and that they would have to fly commercially, breaking with decades of precedent stretching back to Henry Kissinger.”
Toner added that IJR’s inclusion is about promoting a diversity of viewpoints in the media.
“It was decided to take a journalist from an outlet that doesn’t normally travel with the Secretary of State, as part of an effort to include a broader representation of U.S. media,” he said.
Pool reporters gather news that can be used by other outlets. Though she wasn’t allowed to travel with the secretary of state, the pooler during Tillerson’s Asia trip is Pamela Boykoff of CNN.
There’s a good reason why pool reporters normally travel with the secretary of state. Diplomatic trips like Tillerson’s visit to Asia can turn into matters of war and peace, with life-or-death implications for Americans and people living around the world.
On Friday, Tillerson was in South Korea, where he offered remarkably bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea.
During a news conference in Seoul, Tillerson said “the policy of strategic patience has ended,” adding that preemptive war against North Korea is on the table “if they elevate the threat of their weapons program.”
Tillerson also traveled up to the demilitarized zone that marks the border between South and North Korea. While at the DMZ, Tillerson granted an exclusive interview to Fox News, which has distinguished itself in recent weeks for its fawning, uncritical coverage of Trump. Trump, in turn, has praised the network and even live-tweeted its morning show.
While at the DMZ, Tillerson floated the idea of nuclearizing South Korea and Japan in response to the threat from Kim Jung-un’s regime.
According to a pool report filed by a reporter who isn’t traveling with Tillerson, while Tillerson chatted with an American military official at the border, three North Korean soldiers watched him from their side of the border, snapping photos and videos.
Rear Window: North Korean soldier takes a photo of Rex Tillerson at the DMZ pic.twitter.com/EHCIR3Fjo6
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) March 17, 2017
The secretary of state then took Fox News’ team into a building on the border for an exclusive interview.
“Fox unilateral network team was allowed into this meeting — pool asked for access and was blocked,” the pool report says. “Local embassy official told the pool it was ‘the Secretary’s decision.’”
“Pool watched the Secretary depart at shortly at 1,” the pool report adds. “Of the entire visit, network pool only given access to photo opps on conference Row and no meetings or troop lunch.”
In short, North Korean soldiers got more access to the American secretary of state as American journalists trying to cover him.
And what did Tillerson say during the Fox News exclusive? On Twitter, the network framed their scoop in an extremely alarmist fashion.
NUCLEAR OPTION? Tillerson issues ultimate warning to North Korea https://t.co/o0AUwzzaPG
— Fox News (@FoxNews) March 17, 2017
Tillerson, who earlier in the day refused to rule out the possibility of preemptive military strikes against North Korea, reiterated to Fox News that no option is off the table.
Following his DMZ trip, Tillerson declined to dine with South Korean leaders, citing “fatigue.”
South Korean officials say Tillerson declined to dine with the country's leaders because of his "fatigue." https://t.co/CiEWyGDdaH
— Yaroslav Trofimov (@yarotrof) March 17, 2017
Meanwhile, back in the states, Trump took to Twitter to echo his secretary of state’s aggressiveness.
North Korea is behaving very badly. They have been "playing" the United States for years. China has done little to help!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 17, 2017
As Tillerson rests up ahead of heading to Beijing for the last leg of his Asia trip, Center for American Progress Senior Fellow Rudy deLeon questioned the timing of Tillerson’s bellicose rhetoric toward North Korea, coming just days after South Korean President Park Geun-hye was removed from office amid a corruption scandal.
“[Tillerson’s] not dishonest in his assessment, but with South Korea just having their president impeached, is South Korea going to elect a leader who negotiates or continues the security alliance with the US?” deLeon, who studies defense policy in the Asia-Pacific region, told ThinkProgress. “The secretary of sate injected a huge security question. It’s not the right time.”
Tillerson’s threats against North Korea stand in contrast to earlier this week, when he said he supported the drastic cuts to the state department the Trump administration is proposing because he anticipates the US will be involved in fewer wars.
During a news conference in Japan, Tillerson said, “on a go-forward basis, what the president is asking the State Department to do is… reflective of a couple of expectations. One is that as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in. And second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.”
Without an robust, independent press around to cover him, Tillerson isn’t being forced to explain the disconnect between what he said in Japan and North Korea himself to the American people.
Remarkable amount of news coming out of Tillerson's trip—N.K. military action remarks, fatigue rpts—& there's no pool reporter documenting.
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) March 17, 2017
The early weeks of Tillerson’s tenure at state been characterized by a distant relationship with the press. As Poynter notes, the state department only recently “broke a a six-week hiatus in press briefings, an unusual drought for an agency which traditionally fields questions from reporters on a daily basis.”
Justin Salhani contributed to this report.