Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has famously declared himself “not a big media press access person,” isn’t alone in President Donald Trump’s Cabinet. But it’s too early to call him a trendsetter, either.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Cho, both with extensive private sector backgrounds, have similarly been press-averse at the beginning of their tenures. Others seem to be following the leads of predecessors. In some cases, it’s just too early to tell.
Tillerson’s decision not to make room for reporters on the plane for his first major overseas trip earlier this month drew scrutiny because his job is generally considered the most important in the Cabinet and there’s a rich tradition of secretaries of state keeping the public informed of foreign policy objectives. He’s had little visibility so far and the plane decision is more than symbolic; many of his predecessors and their staffs used that time to answer reporters’ questions.
In an interview with the one journalist allowed on the trip, from the right-leaning web site Independent Journal Review, Tillerson said he personally doesn’t need media attention.
“I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out,” the former Exxon Mobil CEO said, “but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done.”
With attention paid to Trump’s declaration of some media organizations as enemies of the American people, and reporters’ jousting with White House press secretary Sean Spicer a near-daily television event, access to Cabinet-level officials can be overlooked.
Precisely because they don’t get as much attention, it’s important for journalists to understand and explain the work being done, said Nikki Usher, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.
“These offices have tremendous power and most people don’t know what goes on in there,” she said.
Cabinet secretaries with a private sector background need to understand that they now work on behalf of the people, who have a right to know what these officials are doing in their names, she said.
“Corporate folks are used to not having to account for any kind of public conversations or talk to reporters with the exception of crisis communications or quarterly earnings calls with assessments of the health of their corporations,” Usher said. They’re used to being insulated.
The billionaire philanthropist DeVos’ background is more private sector than public. She was the chairman of Michigan’s Republican Party and her husband is the co-founder of Amway. Her lack of education background and support of school choice made her the most controversial Cabinet pick, and she needed the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Mike Pence to be confirmed.
Perhaps as a result, she’s not been shy about avoiding the media.
The department did not announce it when she visited her first school as education secretary. Reporters showed up anyway, tipped by advocacy organizations, but were not allowed in the school. DeVos does not take reporters’ questions after speeches and her few interviews were with conservative news outlets. Her public schedule is often not released ahead of time.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has both a public and private sector background, as a banker, former Labor Secretary, director of the Peace Corps and CEO of United Way. She hasn’t held a meeting or news conference with reporters since her Jan. 31 Senate confirmation, and hasn’t spoken to reporters following public appearances.
Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx, the two transportation secretaries under former President Barack Obama, met frequently with reporters.
How the Trump appointees interpret their boss’ attacks on the press will be watched closely. “The press is not the enemy,” said Peter Cook, a former reporter and spokesman for the Department of Defense during the Obama administration.
It’s also common for top executives in many fields, for reasons of ego or message control, to keep a tight rein on underlings. Requests to speak to agency heads in the administration of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, have to go through the governor’s office.
Here’s how some of the other Cabinet offices have been working:
– Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other senior defense and military leaders continue to take media contingents with them overseas. Mattis and the others hold media availabilities on the trips, although Mattis has not yet gone to the Pentagon briefing room.
-Trump’s Homeland Security Department has operated the way others have in the early stages. Its Immigration and Customs Enforcement branch uses Twitter to defend enforcement actions; under Obama, the feed was largely confined to news releases.
-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs manager, took reporters on his plane to the Group of 20 meeting with finance officials in Germany earlier this month. He’s done interviews with business news networks, the Wall Street Journal and the news site Axios.
– The Justice Department under Jeff Sessions, a U.S. senator before his appointment, has handled media interactions much like prior administrations. Sessions’ public events are disclosed ahead of time to reporters, and he usually takes questions afterward. He appeared before reporters on the most significant day of his tenure, when he recused himself from any investigation into Russia’s influence on the presidential election.
– Former presidential candidates Rick Perry, the new energy secretary, and Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, also are accustomed to dealing with the media. It remains to be seen how being used to – or needing – media attention will play into their new roles.
-Trump imposed a media blackout on the Environmental Protection Agency after taking office that has since been lifted. Top administrator Scott Pruitt has generally tightened media access, although he made news in a CNBC interview this month when he questioned the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary driver of climate change.