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New Jersey's Booker, Dem Senators Question Secretary of State on Press Access, Human Rights Commitment

Booker, Markey, Wyden, Franken, Sanders, Shaheen, Brown raise concerns about Rex Tillerson’s avoidance of media

WASHINGTON, D.C. – March 17, 2017 - Today, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson questioning his commitment to transparency and human rights. Specifically, the letter raised concerns about Tillerson’s recent decisions to break with precedent by limiting press access on international trips, drastically cutting the number of weekly press briefings, and not participating in the public release of the annual State Department Human Rights Report earlier this month. Joining Booker on the letter were Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Al Franken (D-MN), Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).

“The State Department has long been a champion of American values and human rights, including freedom of speech and of the press, and transparent and accountable governance in our interactions with both foreign partner governments and adversaries around the world,” the lawmakers wrote. “Unfortunately, we have recently witnessed a series of clear breaks in precedent from these bipartisan traditions which give pause to those who rely on the State Department’s leadership of and commitment to these principles.”

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In his January confirmation hearing, Booker asked Tillerson to commit to bringing a traveling press corps on overseas trips and having regular interactions with the press, but Tillerson was noncommittal. Last Sunday, on CNN’s State of the Union, Booker criticized Tillerson’s decision to travel to Asia without a standard traveling press corps.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

March 17, 2017
The Honorable Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Tillerson: 

The State Department has long been a champion of American values and human rights, including freedom of speech and of the press, and transparent and accountable governance in our interactions with both foreign partner governments and adversaries around the world. While some of this work can be accomplished in private, much of it tends to be most effective in the public domain and includes speaking out against human rights violations when others refuse to do so, shoring up support among like-minded governments to collectively address these issues, and ensuring that journalists have access to both U.S. and foreign leaders during travel by senior U.S. officials. Unfortunately, we have recently witnessed a series of clear breaks in precedent from these bipartisan traditions which give pause to those who rely on the State Department’s leadership of and commitment to these principles.

In particular, your decision not to participate in the public release of the annual State Department Human Rights Report, breaking with precedent established during both Democratic and Republican administrations, is deeply troubling and appears to be part of a larger effort to walk the United States back from the leadership role it has played, for decades, on global human rights issues. 

The introduction of the human rights report states clearly that “[o]ur values are our interests when it comes to human rights” and that “[t]he production of these reports underscores our commitment to freedom, democracy, and the human rights guaranteed to all individuals around the world.” In prepared testimony for your Senate confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee you wrote, “we do not face an ‘either or’ choice on defending global human rights. Our values are our interests when it comes to human rights and humanitarian assistance.” That is one reason we were troubled by your refusal to answer questions from several members about human rights abuses in countries like Syria, Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines – despite overwhelming evidence from multiple sources indicating that grave abuses occur frequently in all three countries.  In fact, you noted that in order to make such a determination you would need an understanding of “the facts on the ground,” which we assume you now have. And yet, we have not seen a single statement or public comment from you on the human rights situation in these or other countries.

There are other strong indicators that the Trump White House may be reversing our country’s longstanding, bipartisan commitment to a values-based foreign policy. An Executive Order that halts refugee resettlement to the United States and restricts immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries, undermines the values of our democracy.  Furthermore, plans to slash as much as 37 percent of the State Department and USAID budget, which could mean the elimination of critical diplomacy, development, and human rights programs long supported by the United States, also alarm us about the U.S.’s legacy on human rights concerns. 

Second, we understand you have yet to abide by the commitments you made in your confirmation hearing regarding transparency. During that hearing you stated, “We want to ensure at all times, to confirm the Secretary of State and the State Department is fully transparent with the public. That’s part of my comment of being truthful and being you know, and holding ourselves accountable, as well as others accountable.” Yet, the State Department broke with longstanding precedent since the early 1990s by refusing to hold a press briefing within a few days of your confirmation.[1]

After more than six weeks without a press briefing, the department has now said it will hold two on-camera question-and-answer sessions and two off-camera sessions per week, in contrast to the previous three administrations, which regularly held on-camera briefings five days a week.[2] Moreover, reports indicate that the usual complement of about a dozen reporters and photographers have not been invited on the two trips abroad you have made.[3] We also understand that you did not allow reporters to travel with you on your trip to Asia, aside from one reporter from a small website, but instead required them to make their own travel arrangements. This move broke with decades of precedent stretching back to Henry Kissinger.[4]

The daily briefings are vital not only to explain the Trump administration’s positions on key diplomatic issues to American and foreign audiences, but also to provide guidance to the tens of thousands of Foreign Service officers serving abroad whose embassies and bureaus currently lack nominated leaders. Taken together, these actions by the department signify a worrisome retreat in America’s commitment to a principled foreign policy that threatens to create a void that can be filled by countries that do not share our values.

We are concerned by these stark breaks in precedent. To this end, we request a response in writing to the following questions:

  1. Why did you not publicly participate in the March 3 roll out of the State Department’s annual human rights report? 
  2. Do you believe the United States has a responsibility to actively promote human rights and if yes, what does such a policy entail? If not, why not?
  3. If yes, can you give us some examples of how you are addressing, or plan to address in the future, human rights concerns within your larger approach to foreign policy? 
  4. Are you raising human rights concerns in private bilateral meetings? At what point would you consider raising them publicly?
  5. What messages are you sending to U.S. embassies and ambassadors around the world about their engagement with and support for civil society, human rights activists, and independent media?
  6. Why does the State Department plan to only hold two on-camera briefings per week and two off-camera sessions in contrast with the daily on-camera press briefing under previous administrations?

Thank you in advance for your consideration of these questions and we look forward to your response.

Sincerely, 

Cory A. Booker
Ed Markey
Ron Wyden
Al Franken
Bernie Sanders
Jeanne Shaheen
Sherrod Brown

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