In an interview with the right-leaning Independent Journal Review — the only press outlet selected by the State Department to travel with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on his recent diplomatic trip to Asia — Tillerson defended limiting press access to his trip, telling the reporter “I’m not a big media press access person.”
On his first tour as Secretary of State in Asia — Tillerson visited South Korea and Japan — the new secretary chose not to bring a traveling press corps in a move that Vox described as “unusual” and “[bucking] State Department tradition.” Following the decision, 12 bureau chiefs from major news organizations, including the New York Times, Fox News, and CNN, sent Tillerson a letter expressing their concern with the decision.
Ultimately, the State Department invited one reporter, Erin McPike of the Independent Journal Review, to travel with Tillerson. On Saturday, the Independent Journal Review published an interview with Tillerson, his first since becoming Secretary of State.
Tillerson defended his choice not to bring press along on the trip, suggesting it would be something the State Department could do on later trips. After claiming the decision was made to save costs — by allowing Tillerson to travel on a smaller plane — Tillerson told McPike that in his view, he would prefer to only talk to press on his own terms.
“We have a lot of work to do, and when we’re ready to talk about what we’re trying to do, I will be available to talk to people,” Tillerson said. “But doing daily availability, I don’t have this appetite or hunger to be that, have a lot of things, have a lot of quotes in the paper or be more visible with the media.”
McPike pressed Tillerson further, noting that a key component of press availability is to ensure transparency and accountability for U.S. officials. McPike then brought up the fact that Tillerson had used an email alias when he was CEO of Exxon. Tillerson used the alias “Wayne Tracker” from at least 2008 to 2015 to discuss climate change, according to filings submitted to a court on Monday by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Tillerson did not answer any questions about the alias, however, telling McPike and the press to direct any questions to Exxon:
EM: And I appreciate that, but there is another element to press access, which is accountability of U.S. government officials, and one thing in particular that the media took note of over the past week was this report that you had used an email alias at Exxon, and there has been some assumption of why you did that in terms of talking about climate change outside of your normal email address, and hiding that in some way and, given that one of your predecessors had serious email issues, obviously, I think the press really took note of that story.
RT: The press needs to go ask Exxon Mobil about it and that’s been answered. And it is a very simple explanation but I don’t work, I mean, but it came up in the course of some litigation or potential litigation, I can’t comment on it and I can’t speak for Exxon Mobil either, so if you directed all questions about it back to Exxon Mobil.
It’s a similar tactic to one Tillerson used in his confirmation hearing, when asked about a report from InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times released in 2015 that found Exxon internal scientists knew about the connection between fossil fuels and climate change for decades. Despite that internal knowledge, Exxon continued to fund climate misinformation campaigns aimed at muddying the scientific consensus on climate change.
When asked about that by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Tillerson refused to answer, instead telling Kaine to direct those questions to Exxon.
“Senator, since I am no longer with ExxonMobil I am not in position to speak on its behalf, I would have to defer to them,” he said.
Kaine pressed further, asking if Tillerson was refusing to answer because he didn’t know the answer, or because he did not want to.
“A little of both,” Tillerson responded.
Exxon is under investigation by the attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts, as well as at the federal level by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The investigations are seeking to discover whether the company properly disclosed risks posed by climate change to investors.