"AT&T, we can mute that line." That was the bulk of the response from State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus on Monday when, during a phone briefing on Chinese propaganda, a reporter tried to ask about John Bolton's new book. The Reuters journalist was asking if any allies had reached out to the department's East Asian and Pacific Affairs chief after the allegations in the book that President Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him with re-election. "That's not what this call is about," Ortagus said, before the aforementioned line, per USA Today. The call was meant to discuss the State Department's recent decision to designate four Chinese news organizations as, essentially, propaganda outlets.
The department had previously emphasized that it believes in freedom of the press and that US journalists will still be allowed "to enjoy the freedom of expression that is not permitted in [China]"; Politico describes the call as "extolling press freedom." A second reporter, this one from Bloomberg, asked what type of message it sends for the department to say those things but then refuse to answer questions about Bolton's book. Ortagus responded by attacking him. "The insinuation that we haven't made ourselves available or responsive to your questions ... is offensive," she said. "And I just would like to go on the record that that's totally inaccurate." Mediaite notes that under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the department has had "a highly adversarial approach to the press." (Read more State Department stories.)