The State Department broke its silence on Thursday, holding its first public press briefing of 2019.
The number of briefings at the agency have plummeted since the Trump administration came into office, plunging from what was a near-daily occurrence in past administrations to a sporadically scheduled event that regular watchers say offers a truncated and less substantive version of past practice.
The State Department gave a mere 61 briefings in all of 2018 — compared with more than triple that in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration– with 219 briefings.
Deputy Spokesperson Robert Palladino on Thursday attempted to explain the lack of these public question-and-answer sessions by citing the recent government shutdown. But that doesn’t explain why the number of briefings throughout last year remained very low, with, for example, only four briefings in April, five in May and three in June.
Palladino responded defended the approach in answer to a question from CNN on Thursday.
“Since Secretary Pompeo assumed leadership last April, he really has taken a lot of steps to increase media engagement here at the State Department, across the United States frankly, and around the world,” he said. “We remain committed to doing all that we can to provide transparency for the American people and to explain our foreign policy around the world … we always want more.”
He cited the number of interviews and smaller scale information sessions Pompeo and his department have given, though that was standard practice under previous administrations in addition to almost daily briefings for the entire State press corps.
John Kirby, a CNN analyst who served as State Department spokesperson from 2015 to 2017, said of the changes, “This breaks my heart. The briefing was literally the best part of my day, no matter how contentious it got at times. I looked forward to it. I believed it was important and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really provide as much context as journalists desired. And even if the policies were difficult to defend. We embraced the chance to explain ourselves. This just smacks of fear and irresolution and contempt, not just for the hard-working bullpen, but of the responsibility of the administration to hold itself to account.”
State Department Correspondents’ Association President Lesley Wroughton said “the facts speak for themselves” on the diminishing briefings.
“There are fewer daily press briefings, which is a disservice to both the press and the public,” said Wroughton, a foreign policy correspondent for Reuters.
“The daily briefing cannot be replaced by tweets. It’s a venue for reporters covering foreign policy issues, whether it’s Syria, Iran, or North Korea, to ask questions about US decisions affecting lives at home and abroad,” she added.
The silence, at an agency whose core mission is about outreach, diplomacy and talking, has been particularly striking given the range of foreign policy challenges facing the US.
Washington is confronting Iran, sparring with China over trade, negotiating with an unpredictable North Korea, pushing the ouster of Venezuela’s leader, sparring with Germany and other European allies over issues ranging from extradition to Iran and climate change and engaging in a face-off with Moscow over nuclear arms treaties.
Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who was undersecretary of state for political affairs during the George W. Bush administration as well as spokesperson prior, said via tweet, “In most Administrations, the State Department Spokesperson conducted a press briefing every day of the week. That was my practice in the Clinton Administration when I held that position. We saw it as the best way to get our message out to the public and foreign governments.”
President Donald Trump’s decision to nominate State spokeswoman Heather Nauert to be the next ambassador to the UN could be a factor in the muting of the department.
Nauert hasn’t been seen at the podium since November. State Department sources have told CNN she is preparing for a confirmation hearing, though she still has yet to be formally nominated.
Thursday’s briefing, conducted by Palladino, comes six weeks into the year and puts the agency behind even last year’s sparse 61-briefing schedule.
There’s been a similar dearth of briefings at the White House, where sightings of spokeswoman Sarah Sanders at the podium have become increasingly rare. Sanders briefed reporters once in September, twice in October, once in November, once in December — for only 15 minutes — and twice in January.
Like briefings at the White House, the State Department interactions with the press were generally a daily occurrence under previous administrations and were seen as serving more than one purpose. They provide an opportunity for an administration to answer questions about its foreign and domestic policy from US and overseas press.
But the appearance of the spokesperson — livestreamed on the State Department website for maximum access — also gives an administration a platform to send a message to the world about US priorities and concerns through statements, the release of reports or special announcements.
In the past, State Department spokespeople have used the first few minutes of a briefing to flag issues that are of concern or cause for optimism, including human rights, press freedom, elections around the world that are seen to have gone badly or well.