March 7, 2017

As CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson was accustomed to going where he wanted, when he wanted, with whomever he wanted. It comes with being the CEO of one of the most valuable companies in the world.

He doesn’t seem compelled to act much differently as Secretary of State — at least in the early going.

It’s why news bureau chiefs will hold a conference call this morning to discuss Tillerson’s initial decision to not allow press to travel with him on his government plane for an upcoming trip to Asia. On an initial invitation list were the major broadcast and cable networks, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, NPR, BBC, Thomson Reuters and Voice of America, among others.

It could be an early kerfuffle that’s settled shortly, or a hint of a broader Trump administration modus operandi in dealing — or not dealing — with the media.

At the moment, Tillerson does not plan on take the traditional “pool” of reporters his plane to a multi-stop trek to Asia, including South Korea, according to several bureau chiefs and State Department reporters who asked not to be identified while the matter is hashed out.

That would very unusual, if not unprecedented, certainly in recent annals, with substantial access given by recent Secretaries of State, including John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice.

Going back many years beyond that, the Secretary of State and aides have found great utility in bringing a press corps, if at minimum to press the American view, and spin, on frequently complicated international matters. They viewed the press as an important messenger, if not necessarily trusted sounding board.

The department has suggested that part of the problem is that the regular government plane Tillerson would use is being overhauled. But there are many other planes that could fit his needs in the sprawling federal fleet.

As one bureau chief noted, “Congressional delegations take Air Force 737 planes all over the world all the time. So that one doesn’t quite ring true.”

The practical problem for the press is that if one doesn’t catch a ride with Tillerson — and an expensive ride it is, given rates that increasingly make it tough for cash-strapped outlets to hop aboard — the logistics of keeping up with him by assembling stringers or hopscotching about on commercials flights makes coverage exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

So, bureau chiefs will talk over the matter this morning. The State Department is expected to receive questions on the matter during an afternoon briefing.

In the early days of the administration, Tillerson is operating rather differently than his high-profile, tweeting boss, Trump. Access has been minimal and there have been no on-camera briefings. There’s the understanding that the tradition of daily press briefings at the State Department may well change, to as few as two a week.

It’s still early. But, so far, it appears Tillerson is not more given to deal with the media as he was in confronting the realities of climate change as a Big Oil chief who long questioned the science behind the obvious.

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New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
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