WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department held out the possibility on Thursday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might take reporters with him to Asia after it initially broke with decades of tradition by telling the media he would not.
"We are still working out the logistics for this trip, so (we) cannot yet speak definitively as to whether we'll be able to accommodate any press on the Secretary's plane," State Department spokesman Mark Toner wrote in an email."Going forward, the State Department will do everything it can to accommodate a contingent of travelling media on board the Secretary's plane."
The State Department told reporters earlier this week that Tillerson would not take any of them on a March 15-19 trip to Japan, South Korea and China, countries of strategic, military and economic interest to the United States.
Major news organizations complained, among them the BBC, CNN, New York Times, Washington Post and Reuters.
North Korea, which fired four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan's northwest coast on Monday, angering both South Korea and Japan, is likely to be a key topic of Tillerson's trip.
Asked earlier this week why Tillerson was not taking media with him, a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters the plane "is too small to accommodate ... he carries a much smaller footprint in terms of personnel, and that's not just press."
Toner did not respond when asked whether Tillerson had tried to get a larger Air Force plane or how the department would respond to critics who described the plan as self-defeating.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other past State Department officials questioned Tillerson's plan, saying that by including reporters, the chief U.S. diplomat could make the administration's case and prevent other countries from dominating coverage of U.S. policy.
Albright, secretary of state under Democrat Bill Clinton, told MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports" on Wednesday taking the news media demonstrates a U.S. commitment to a free press.
President Donald Trump, a Republican, has accused news outlets of "fake news" and called journalists "the enemy of the people."
Richard Boucher, a retired U.S. diplomat who served as State Department spokesman from 2000 to 2005 under Albright as well as Republicans Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, could not recall a time during his tenure when reporters did not fly on the plane.
Since becoming secretary of state on Feb. 1, Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive, has travelled to Germany and Mexico, in both cases inviting fewer media than his predecessors for at least the last 50 years.
Veteran State Department television correspondent Marvin Kalb said William Rogers, Richard Nixon's first secretary of state, began taking press with him in 1969 and - with rare exceptions such as Henry Kissinger's secret trip to China in 1971 - that had remained the practice.
Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by John Walcott and Howard Goller