The U.S. State Department held its first, much-anticipated briefing Tuesday since President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, and faced a lot of reporters’ pent-up questions about the forging of American foreign policy in the new administration.
Journalists and other long-time observers of the State Department have been asking when daily news briefings would resume, why they have heard so little from new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and why so many senior positions— including Tillerson’s deputy — have not been filled in the department.
Acting Spokesman Mark Toner rejected suggestions that the State Department has been marginalized in the new Trump administration:
“Secretary Tillerson is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the president — speaks to him frequently, was over there just yesterday, I believe, for a meeting. And I can assure everyone that the secretary’s voice, the State Department’s voice, is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.”
WATCH: Toner Talks about Tillerson, Budget Challenges
Toner is a career State Department officer. His replacement, Tillerson’s own new spokesperson, has not been announced. Toner rejected criticism that the new secretary has been keeping a low profile, minimizing contact with reporters and ignoring their questions. Rights groups criticized Tillerson for not presenting the State Department’s annual human-rights report last week — instead having it announced through a telephone conference call.
Toner pointed to the former ExxonMobil CEO’s trips last month to Bonn, Germany, where he met with his Russian counterpart, and to U.S. neighbor Mexico. The spokesman said Tillerson is cultivating the relationships he needs to represent the U.S. successfully.
Drastic budget cuts feared
Even more worrisome to some analysts are documents circulating that indicate Trump’s proposed budget would cut State Department spending and U.S. foreign aid by up to 37 percent, while at the same time dramatically boosting military spending. The official budget has not been released, but is expected this month.
Asked about budget cuts, Toner said nothing is final yet, but that Tillerson is consulting with senior staff members about the department’s priorities.
“I think there is also a period, within any transition, of reassessment,” Toner said. “It’s one of the reasons he’s meeting with and talking to senior staff. He’s talking to various leadership at different levels, to try to get their feedback on what their priorities are, and how we can reconfigure and look at resources.”
Some former State Department officials and analysts have expressed concern about the impact steep budget cuts would have on foreign service officers in consulates and embassies around the world. Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor during the Obama administration, told VOA the proposed cuts, if implemented, would be devastating.
“The budget, at least on paper, would slash State Department programs by historic amounts, especially when you consider that there are certain programs that Trump would see as untouchable, such as aid to Israel and Egypt,” he said. “That would require virtually everything else [be cut] by unheard-of amounts.”
Malinowski said such drastic cuts would not pass in Congress.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, agreed that such cuts would and should not pass, saying a strong U.S. diplomatic presence is more essential today than ever.
“We need to do more in Africa in promoting democracy. We need to do more in the Middle East in promoting good governance and inclusive government, so we don’t have to have as many wars,” Cardin said. “We need to do things in our own hemisphere. … There’s a lot of work for America to do.”
For now, Tillerson has more immediate concerns than budget cuts. He is traveling to China, South Korea and Japan next week, at a time of heightened concerns about North Korea’s missile program.