Spokesman on budget cuts: Tillerson understands 'vital work' of State Dept.

Spokesman on budget cuts: Tillerson understands 'vital work' of State Dept.
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Acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner on Tuesday underscored the relevance of the department within the Trump administration, noting that Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Top Democrat demands Barr recuse himself from case against Turkish bank MORE is involved in discussions at the highest levels.

Toner said during the first State Department press briefing since President TrumpDonald John TrumpAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments What coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat MORE took office that Tillerson "is very engaged with the White House, very engaged with the president, speaks to him frequently."

The spokesman offered what appeared to be the State Department's first public response to reports last month that the White House is planning deep cuts to the department's budget, emphasizing Tillerson’s commitment to his role at Foggy Bottom.

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Pressed on reports Trump’s team is suggesting a 37 percent cut to the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development funding, Toner said negotiations over the State Department budget are in the early stages.

“He has been working with senior staff here at the State Department, listening to what their priorities are, what they’re working on, what is going well, where they believe they have needs that need to be addressed,” Toner said of Tillerson. 

“I would also stress that Secretary Tillerson understands the vital work that this department does,” Toner continued, referencing the State Department’s work both in Washington, D.C., and abroad.

The Associated Press reported last week that Tillerson agreed with Trump team in principle to slash the department's budget, but wants the cuts dispersed over the course of three years instead of in a single year.

Tillerson wants to make sure that State Department staff "have what they need to get the job done," Toner said, urging caution over the reported budget cut figures.

Toner also urged reporters to "take a deep breath" about hiring at the State Department.

So far, the White House has not nominated a deputy for Tillerson. The State Department has also not announced a replacement for Toner, who served as a spokesman at the department during the Obama administration.

Tillerson's choice to serve as his number two was reportedly Elliott Abrams, a prominent neoconservative who served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But Trump reportedly rejected Abrams for the post after learning that Abrams criticized him during his presidential campaign.

Toner said Tuesday that officials are "working on identifying candidates ... qualified candidates for senior department positions and trying to fill them as quickly as possible," noting a vetting process.

The State Department's first briefing comes on the 46th day of the new administration, after a briefing scheduled for Monday was postponed as Trump signed a revised executive order on immigration and travel to the U.S.

Toner thanked the press for its patience as the new administration got its "sea legs" back.

Tillerson will make his first trip to East Asia this month, visiting China, Japan and South Korea, Toner said. He will stop in Tokyo for the first leg of the trip on March 15.