Tillerson's first Asia trip as US secretary of state has been rocky

BEIJING, CHINA – MARCH 18: U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a joint press conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (not pictured) at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse on March 18, 2017 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Pool/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson made his first trip to Asia this week as US secretary of state, and there’s been some confusion as the press scrambles to keep up with him and get enough access to report what’s going on.

Much of the coverage of the trip has focused on how little access journalists who report on the State Department have had. Members of the press have been very vocally complaining because only one reporter, from the conservative Independent Journal Review, is travelling with Tillerson.

Some reporters, like MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, have been using commercial airlines to follow Tillerson’s travels but have not been travelling with him.

And the Independent Journal Review reporter, Erin McPike, has not been filing stories (or even tweeting) from the trip. A spokesperson for the website said she is, instead, focusing on a longer profile piece on the secretary.

Several Washington, DC, bureau chiefs from prominent news organisations sent a letter to the State Department saying they’re “deeply concerned” about the whole arrangement.

The lack of access has led to some confusion about Tillerson’s status throughout the trip.

The Korea Herald reported Friday that Tillerson didn’t have a lunch or dinner gathering scheduled with South Korea officials and that “the US side opted not to have a meal together, citing the secretary’s ‘fatigue.'”

The story gathered steam when The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler tweeted it, writing Tillerson “cut short” his trip to South Korea. Bloomberg foreign policy reporter Nicholas Wadhams responded, explaining Tillerson didn’t cut his trip short and there was never a dinner on the schedule.

In subsequent tweets, Wadhams noted that Tillerson hadn’t left Seoul yet, and that while the travelling press, including Bloomberg, the Associated Press, Reuters, and NBC News, were not in a press pool, they were staying in the same hotel as Tillerson and staff.

But there have been difficulties — Wadhams said the travelling press “couldn’t keep up” because Tillerson flew into an air force base that morning. Since reporters aren’t on his plane, they have had to book their own travel.

“Up until now, secretaries of state have made it a key demand that our press corps gets into meetings … that there be access for the media,” MSNBC’s Mitchell said recently on-air. “A key component of foreign policy is being undercut by this.”

Moreover, the reporters who followed Tillerson to Asia haven’t been allowed into some events. Fox News was allowed into one meeting in South Korea, but other reporters were blocked. A local embassy official told reporters that it was Tillerson’s decision.

CNN’s Jake Tapper emphasised last week that Tillerson not bringing press on the trip was “insulting to any American who is looking for anything but a state-run version of events.”

Tillerson made major news on the trip when he said that if North Korea elevated “the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action,” a military response from the US would be on the table.

President Donald Trump followed up this statement with a tweet saying North Korea had been “behaving very badly” and that China had done “little to help.” Tillerson heads to China next on his trip.

Despite the controversy over the trip, Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, cautioned against making any judgment on the success or failure of the trip too soon.

“I know there’s a lot of swirl about all this and obviously the difference in style between Tillerson and his predecessors has brought a lot of attention,” Snyder told Business Insider, “but in terms of what he’s accomplishing it’s a little bit too early to make a judgment.”

And Trump’s tweet, which some viewed as a further escalation of tensions, could even be a good thing for Tillerson.

“Trump knows Tillerson is out there,” Snyder said. “Tillerson is perceived to be kind of marginalized in a way, and a few timely tweets on issues that Tillerson is immediately working on, in a way, it provides good news for Tillerson.”

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