Why Tillerson Needs the Media


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Washington And The World

The secretary of state seems to think the press is his enemy. He’s got it all wrong.

With his unorthodox approach to the presidency, especially his use of Twitter and his frequent diatribes against the press, Donald Trump has radically altered the U.S. approach to public diplomacy. Unfortunately, his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, seems to share his low opinion of the media’s responsibility to report on American foreign policy.

The latest incident saw Secretary Tillerson and the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al Jubeir, taking questions about the president’s visit to Saudi Arabia from a group of international journalists that did not include members of the American press corps. U.S. journalists complained that they weren’t even given a head’s up about the briefing, a shocking breach of norms that took place in one of the least press-friendly countries on Earth—a place where a servile media parrots the government’s line at almost all times and where bloggers are given lashes for speaking out.

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This is becoming a painful pattern for the diplomatic press corps at the State Department, as Tillerson is the first secretary in recent memory not to invite a press corps to accompany him on his international travel. Nor does he give many interviews, explaining, “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it.”

It is probably no accident that this incident occurred in Saudi Arabia. Saudi leaders are famously press-shy and baffled by the American concept of freedom of the press. This was brought home to me back in 1998, in the run-up to the U.S. bombing of Iraq known as Desert Fox. One night, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called me into the desert tent of the late Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who was then the Saudi crown prince. After many hours of intense late night negotiations over U.S. military access to airfields in the kingdom, Albright wanted an update on the latest news. When she introduced me to Prince Abdullah and explained my job to him, his reaction was to offer me his condolences, saying, “You poor man, you have to deal with the press all the time. Oh you poor, poor man.”

I didn’t consider myself unlucky—dealing with the press goes with the territory in a democracy. But the Trump administration evidently sees things differently. Secretary Tillerson has institutionalized this new diminished cooperation with the media by freezing the State Department’s daily press briefing, which has not been held for the entire month of May and seems to be suspended indefinitely. Beyond the question of the signal this sends to the world about America’s attitude towards transparency and press freedom, this is short-sighted.

I was the State Department spokesman for almost four years, from 1997 through the middle of 2000. And while the daily briefing is no doubt a significant commitment of time and effort, I believe it served the media and the Clinton administration well. Now, in an era of Google, smartphones, and Twitter, the rationale for a daily authoritative articulation of U.S. policy seems even more compelling. If anything, given the speed of change in today’s world and the real-time dissemination of information available from all corners of the planet, it would seem that the administration’s views should be made available more often rather than less.

A regular briefing serves a variety of purposes. For a new administration, a regular public vetting of U.S. policies inspires confidence in Congress and in allied capitals that Washington is on top of the key international developments

In addition, given the speed of modern communication, some 10,000 American diplomats around the world often take their cue from statements in the daily briefing regarding the inclinations or analysis of top officials. Formal transmission of official policy statements is usually much slower. In a new administration, a spokesperson who can reflect the views of a new secretary of state is especially valuable, because Foreign Service officers, anxious to get a feel for their new leadership, will be able to quickly determine the underlying premises and the thinking of a new team from even short exchanges with the diplomatic press corps.

Those utterances aren’t just useful for American diplomats. Despite some backsliding in the recent years, nearly all U.S. friends, partners and allies are democratic governments, which by definition seek the consent of their populations to their foreign policies. As a practical matter, the specific elements and arguments used by the spokesman (or woman) to justify these policies can also serve as the underlying arguments for diplomats, commentators and opinion leaders to persuade publics in those other democratic countries of the wisdom of U.S. stances. Whether it is the need for Germany to spend more on defense or South Korea’s new president to remain vigilant against the North, a key function of American diplomacy is to persuade foreign publics, which in turn will bolster U.S. diplomacy with the governments in those same countries.

Furthermore, if the coherence and consistency of an administration view is able to withstand extensive questioning from the diplomatic press corps, which is widely regarded as the most knowledgeable and professional in Washington, then those policies are likely to be sustainable over the long haul. In which case (Trump aides, take note), top officials are far less likely to go off in different directions on Sunday talk shows, since the fuzziest parts of a policy have already been explored and adjusted as a result of regular briefings.

The briefings can serve the secretary’s personal interests, too. The fact that the government will have to answer international questions every day from the State Department podium also creates a requirement that other agencies accept the department’s leading role. Given the difficulty Secretary Tillerson has had establishing his primacy on foreign policy, a daily briefing can only help him within the administration.

In terms of bureaucratic politics, a daily briefing has real value. During the Asian Financial Crisis in 1998, for instance, this bureaucratic advantage proved a sore point as each day Treasury would provide our economic bureau with detailed language, but State officials would be out front. When a mistake was made on one occasion, the frustration at Treasury boiled over. Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin decided to join an inter-agency conference call with lower-level officials in order to complain angrily that the mistake that day was because State did the briefing. The irony, of course, was that later it turned out that a Treasury official made the original mistake and then passed on the faulty language to State, but that wasn’t the point at the time.

A daily briefing is obviously not the only way to marshal support for administration policies or to conduct public diplomacy. But the downgrading of the daily briefing hasn’t happened in isolation. On the contrary, it appears to reflect Secretary Tillerson’s narrow conception of the department’s role. He has argued that behind-the-scenes diplomacy with his counterparts from Europe, Asia and the Middle East is his job, until such time as a new agreement or new policies are ready to be rolled out. Then and only then are public pronouncements useful. He seems to believe his predecessors were often driven more by the size of their ego than a sense of responsibility to the public.

In this respect, Tillerson may be relying too heavily on his background as an oil executive, where little is said publicly until an agreement is hammered out, at which point negotiating skills and discretion are the keys to success. But that model bears little resemblance to the art of international diplomacy and high politics on behalf of the world’s only superpower. Applying public pressure and explaining yourself is part of the job, too. And Tillerson’s hostility to the press is surely inappropriate for a moment in history when America’s leadership role is under challenge, thanks to the self-isolating label “America First” and to candidate Trump’s repeated criticisms of international institutions as bad deals for the United States.

When it comes to the public aspects of the job, Tillerson would be better off learning from two of his most successful Republic predecessors, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Both understood the importance of public opinion and public diplomacy in ensuring American leadership, in increasing their personal clout overseas and at home, in protecting the important prerogatives of the State Department, and in preventing adversaries like Russia from filling a vacuum in international affairs left by America’s absence. Indeed, Secretary Kissinger’s famous shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East included shuttling journalists from country to country so that America’s role was publicized while Moscow’s meddling in the region was downplayed.

At a minimum, Tillerson should consider the fact that there are important substantive reasons why, in a democracy, a global power with global responsibilities should articulate its international policies every day. And that it has nothing to do with the ego of the secretary of state. In fact, what’s arrogant is thinking you don’t have to explain yourself at all.

James P. Rubin is a former assistant secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration.


Judge won’t move libel suit against BuzzFeed over Trump dossier

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith is pictured.

BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief Ben Smith asked that the case be relocated to New York City. | Getty

A federal judge has turned down BuzzFeed’s request to move a libel suit over its publication of a dossier contained unverified allegations against President Donald Trump.

BuzzFeed and its editor-in-chief Ben Smith asked that the case be relocated to New York City, but Miami-based U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro issued a ruling Monday refusing to give up the case filed by Russian tech executive and entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev.

BuzzFeed took the controversial step of publishing the 35-page dossier in January, after press reports said it was mentioned in reports U.S. intelligence agencies circulated to top officials in the Obama administration and the incoming Trump team. Smith acknowledged that his reporters could not verify the accuracy of the facts in the dossier, but he said the public should be able to see it since it had circulated widely in Washington and was affecting policy discussions.

However, Gubarev — owner of a Dallas-based web hosting firm called Webzilla — sued in February over the inclusion of a reference to Gubarev and his companies using “botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” (The report actually called him “GUBAROV.”)

BuzzFeed apologized to Gubarev around the time the suit was filed. The news outlet also redacted the references to Gubarev from the version of the report currently accessible on its site.

However, the Russian venture capitalist pressed on with his suit, targeting BuzzFeed and Smith over what Gubarev’s attorneys caustically branded “one of the most reckless and irresponsible moments in modern ‘journalism.'”

Gubarev’s lawyers initially filed the case in Broward County, Florida, citing the fact that Webzilla is incorporated in Florida. A few weeks later, BuzzFeed moved the case to federal court in Miami and then sought to transfer it to federal court in Manhattan.

In a 30-page ruling, Ungaro waded through a complex set of factors used to assess such transfer motions and concluded that it made more sense to keep the case in Florida.

Like other media lawyers, BuzzFeed’s attorneys warned that allowing the plaintiffs in the case to use the fact that news is distributed through the internet to pick virtually any forum in the country to bring the suit gave them an unfair advantage. However, the George H.W. Bush-appointed judge concluded that BuzzFeed’s ties to Florida are “extensive.”

“Based upon the evidence proffered by the parties, it is clear that Defendants do not passively operate a website that is merely accessible in Florida; rather, Defendants’ connections to Florida are extensive – Defendants regularly send reporters to Florida to cover Florida-based stories … regularly author and publish articles that are aimed at a Florida audience … and Defendants derive revenues from Florida-based advertising client, including VisitFlorida.com, which is the Official Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation,” the judge wrote. “Thus, the Court finds a direct relationship between Defendants, the State of Florida, and Plaintiffs’ defamation claims.”

Ungaro also noted that the federal courts in Manhattan are notably slower than those in South Florida, with the Florida cases reaching trial “in half the time” of those filed in New York.

A spokesman for BuzzFeed said the outlet expects to prevail despite Monday’s setback.

“While we are disappointed in the judge’s ruling, we’re confident that Mr. Gubarev’s suit will be dismissed wherever we are forced to fight it,” BuzzFeed spokesman Matt Mittenthal said.

An attorney for Gubarev did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Josh Gerstein is a senior reporter for POLITICO.


Ryan bucks White House, setting up clash on taxes

Paul Ryan and the White House are barreling toward a tax reform show-down — a faceoff that’s becoming all but inevitable as the speaker continues selling a tax plan rejected by Trump officials.

At issue is a controversial pillar of the House GOP tax plan that effectively hikes taxes on imports.

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Top administration officials from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to chief economic adviser Gary Cohn have warned the speaker that they’re not exactly fans of the so-called border adjustment tax — hoping Ryan would take a hint and change direction.

But the Wisconsin Republican is refusing to back off, arguing in recent days that it’s “the smart way to go.” And over the weekend, his key ally on the matter, Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas), began circulating talking points encouraging panel members to sell the scheme.

The document, obtained by POLITICO, tries to tap into populist sentiments that carried Donald Trump to the White House, arguing that the provision would end a “Made in America tax” that hurts U.S. manufacturers. It even claims that 80 percent of Trump supporters back the Ryan idea, which the president himself has never fully embraced and even criticized at times.

“I obviously think border adjustment is the smart way to go,” Ryan said at a press conference last Thursday. “I think it makes the tax code the most internationally competitive of any other version we’re looking at. And I think it removes all tax incentives for a firm to move… their production overseas.”

Technically the House, not the White House, has the authority to write tax legislation. But White House officials who say Ryan fumbled the Obamacare repeal bill by not getting enough member input fear the same thing could happen with tax reform. Senate Republicans, after all, have panned border adjustment, and more than a few House Republicans have also voiced concerns.

“There is a piece of BAT that is appealing in theory but we don’t really feel like it is something in its current form that works in tax reform or is worth the gamble with the economy right now,” said one senior administration official. “Mnuchin has been very clear, in its current form [it] does not work — end of story.”

Ryan’s office declined to comment for this story. But the speaker’s refusal to relinquish his idea is making for mixed messaging to say the least.

Cast in point: Cohn and Mnuchin have been assuring skeptical lawmakers that the controversial proposal, known by its acronym BAT, is dead, sources told POLITICO. Just last week, Mnuchin bashed the idea while huddling with centrist Republicans in the Tuesday Group.

Contrast that with the Ways and Means talking points first circulated to members Friday ahead of what’s likely to be a heated Tuesday hearing on the proposal. The document encourages members to pitch BAT as “ending the ‘Made in America Tax’” that “helps American workers and job creators.”

“Our current tax code favors foreign workers and products over American workers and products. It puts special interests before the best interests of hardworking American families,” read the talking points. “By eliminating the “Made in America” tax, our Blueprint ends the penalty on work that’s done in the U.S.—and stops rewarding work that’s outsourced to other countries.”

Under the BAT change to the tax structure, businesses could shield exports from taxation but could not deduct expenses on imports from their tax bills. Ryan and Brady argue this change will stop companies from shipping manufacturing’s jobs overseas by giving them tax incentives to make products here.

A Ways and Means spokesperson noted that committee staff “regularly prepare messaging documents for members on a range of pro-growth tax reform ideas.” The committee did the same last week before its first hearing on tax reform.

But the discussion on the BAT stands out because Republicans are extremely divided on the idea, even some GOP members on the tax committee. While most have tempered their criticism publicly to give Ryan and Brady space to maneuver, a handful are privately worried and hoping the duo drop the idea altogether.

The talking points also caused a small uproar on K Street Monday, as lobbyists trying to defeat the measure realized they still had work to do. Brad Anderson, the former CEO of Best Buy, a company that opposes a BAT, released a statement clarifying his position on the tax after the committee packet quoted him saying that “I’m not sure that the full impact [of border adjustability] would get passed along to the consumer.”

Anderson said his once-supportive remarks were made after “having been given inaccurate information” about the tax. He reaffirmed his current opposition: “The BAT is a new tax on everyday items purchased by hardworking consumers which would lead to significant price increases on essential products and job losses for the retail industry, an industry that is responsible for 42 million jobs in the U.S.”

Critics, which also include big retailers like Walmart and Target, have echoed those very concerns. They argue that consumers will ultimately pay for the tax when retailers raise prices to cover their higher tax bill.

Ryan’s allies argue that their proposal will look more palatable after Republicans go through the painful exercise of trying to find other pay-fors that don’t frustrate some industries. A major perk of the proposal is that it would haul in $1 trillion over a decade — money that can be used to lower tax rates.

Where else, Ryan’s allies ask, will they find those kinds of savings?

Ryan has said he’s open to considering other options to offset the cost of the bill, but for now he’s forging ahead.

“Tax reform is a process,” Brady told reporters last week when asked why the committee was still talking about border adjustment. “And so, I’ll continue to bring to the table our solutions on how to address that challenge in the current tax code.”

GOP insiders say the speaker is the one driving the continued push for a border adjustment tax. The former Ways and Means Chairman has dreamed for years of writing his own tax proposal, but less than 10 months after he finally got his chance, the conference plucked him up to replace ex-Speaker John Boehner.

Sources say he’s taking a very active role on tax issues, more so than he has with other committees.

By some token, the White House shares responsibility for Ryan’s continued push. While Trump initially said “I don’t love” the BAT proposal, and it’s “too complicated,” he later signaled he was open to the idea. That gave Ryan an opening to keep working the idea.

The White House has also, notably, failed to blast the idea publicly, preferring instead to whisper criticism.

Still, some Ryan allies are wary of a tax fight. They say the speaker has latched onto the idea and doesn’t look inclined to let go, even though it may not be worth the political capital.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.


Branstad confirmed as ambassador to China

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad attends a federalism event with governors and President Donald Trump in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The 82-13 vote makes Gov. Terry Branstad just the fifth confirmed ambassador in the Trump administration. | AP Photo

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is headed for Beijing after the Senate voted on Monday night to confirm his nomination to become U.S. ambassador to China.

The 82-13 vote makes Branstad just the fifth confirmed ambassador in the Trump administration and hands the Iowa Republican the complicated job of serving as liaison between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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Branstad, who has a long-standing relationship with Xi and has twice hosted him in Iowa, will be tasked with dealing with areas ranging from the U.S.-China 100-day economic dialogue to tensions over the South China Sea.


Poll: Democrat up 7 points in Georgia House race

Democrat Jon Ossoff is 7 points ahead of Republican Karen Handel in the race for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District seat, according to a SurveyUSA survey released Monday

Fifty-one percent of likely and actual voters in Georgia say they would vote for Ossoff if the election were held today. Forty-four percent say they would vote for Handel, while 6 percent are undecided.

The runoff will be held June 20 and is being closely watched by both parties as a potential bellwether for how President Trump could affect the 2018 midterm elections. 

Trump won Georgia’s 6th District by 1.5 percent in November despite the district typically voting for the GOP. 

The Georgia seat was formerly held by Republican Tom Price, who is now Trump’s secretary of Health and Human Services.


The SurveyUSA poll found that one issue Republicans have sought to make an issue in the race — Ossoff’s current residency outside the district — is not catching on with voters. 

Fifty-one percent say the location is “not an issue,” while 21 percent call it a “minor issue” and 27 percent call it a “major issue.” Another 2 percent are unsure.

Ossoff’s race with Handel is the most expensive House battle in history, with outside groups having poured more than $18 million into the race so far.

Democrats are casting the race as a referendum on Trump’s presidency, aiming to pick up a House seat once thought safely Republican.

Trump nominated Price in November, with the Senate ultimately confirming the pick in February.

SurveyUSA conducted its latest survey of 549 likely and actual voters in Georgia via cellphone and landline telephone interviews from May 16 to 22. It has a 4.3 percentage point margin of error.