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State Department Holds First Briefing Since Trump's Inauguration

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Throughout the Trump presidency, the State Department briefing room has been dark. That changed today with the first briefing in a month and a half. NPR's Michele Kelemen was there.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Along the wall outside the briefing room, there are photos of past spokesmen dating back to 1944. It's just one reminder of how important public diplomacy has been over the years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK TONER: Good afternoon. Feels good to be back up here.

KELEMEN: That's Mark Toner, a career foreign service officer who's been acting spokesman. He faced a month and a half of pent-up questions, brushing off concerns that the State Department has been silenced and sidelined.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONER: The State Department's voice is heard loud and clear in policy discussions at the National Security Council level.

KELEMEN: Since the last briefing, North Korea has carried out two rounds of missile tests; there's been an uptick in in violence in eastern Ukraine; and the Trump administration put Iran, quote, "on notice." Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been on two international trips. And a former State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, has been surprised by the lack of information.

P J CROWLEY: Ironically, when the secretary has met with other officials - so, for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia - in this particular case, Russia and the Kremlin were far more forthcoming in terms of the details of their conversation, you know, than was the United States. That's highly unusual.

KELEMEN: Also unusual are the mixed messages coming from this administration, says Crowley, who now teaches at George Washington University.

CROWLEY: The president said that NATO is obsolete. And the vice president went to Europe and said, no, we're committed to the alliance. You know, the president uses the phrase radical Islamic terrorism. And his national security adviser says this is unhelpful.

KELEMEN: Regular State Department briefings can clear up some of that confusion. It's also helpful for U.S. diplomats overseas, according to one former foreign service officer, Laura Kennedy.

LAURA KENNEDY: We had to sharpen our thinking about any number of issues, whether it was an overnight crisis or a major policy issue.

KELEMEN: Kennedy says these exchanges with reporters helped her promote transparency abroad.

KENNEDY: I oftentimes had visitors from overseas. I took them to the daily press briefing in the old days because this is a great opportunity to show foreigners what the give-and-take of a free society is all about.

CROWLEY: Kennedy says it also gives American taxpayers a view on what the State Department does, something she feels is vital as the Trump administration considers massive cuts. Spokesman Mark Toner told reporters that the budget process is still in the early days. He also announced that Secretary of State Tillerson is heading on another trip next week to China, South Korea and Japan.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT SONG, "FIND YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.