Not too long ago, the privilege of traveling with the defense secretary was the province of the elite Pentagon press corps, a close-knit cadre of beat reporters who cover national security for a living and often have government-provided work space just a short walk and one floor away from the secretary’s office.
But Jim Mattis has proven to be an unconventional Pentagon chief in his dealings with the news media, eschewing customary televised briefings in favor of random informal hallway chats, and rejecting the idea that all the major wire services should accompany him on every trip he takes.
Aides say Mattis was taken aback when, on his first trip abroad to Japan and South Korea in February, more than a dozen news organizations traveled with him on his modified 747.
In April, when Mattis went to the Middle East and Africa, the number of reporters had ballooned to 16.
Since then, at Mattis’ direction, the Pentagon has cut back on the number of traveling press, and made a deliberate effort to expand the mix of news organizations that get a coveted invitation for a seat on the secretary’s plane.
An analysis by the Washington Examiner of the secretary’s travel over the past six months shows the average size of his press contingent has shrunk to just over six, with as many as eight seats allocated to the media when a network television pool crew is included.
If Mattis plans few or no on-camera events, his staff doesn’t invite TV along. And even when the Pentagon has included a TV pool, the number of travelers has been cut from the former standard of three people (cameraperson, audio technician and editorial) to just two (camera and editorial).
That’s a departure from past secretaries, who often took 10 to 12 members of the media on official travel, and always included the three major wire services: The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse.
The trend lately is to pick one or two wire service reporters, but not all three.
One aide to Mattis, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says that has a lot to do with his personal style.
While previous secretaries often had carefully choreographed trips with planned news events in the itinerary, Mattis prefers not to make news, the aide said.
He sees the travel as a way to broaden his interaction beyond the indigenous Pentagon press corps. He can talk to those reporters anytime he feels like stopping off in the press area after picking up his dry cleaning at the end of the day.
And he prefers to educate the reporters in off-the-record colloquies that can better inform their reporting, while keeping him out of the daily headlines, the official explained.
On a flight to Florida last month, Mattis made that point, when speaking to reporters on his plane, “What I thought I'd talk for a couple minutes on the record, then I want to go off the record,” he said. “You'll get more from me off the record.”
The Mattis template means that in recent trips, news organization and even individual reporters have been invited to travel with him who have rarely, if ever, been on official Department of Defense travel.
Recent examples include Brietbart, Axios and the Christian Broadcasting Network.
The highly-regarded Washington Post national security columnist David Ignatius was a guest on one trip, while China expert and prolific author Bill Gertz of the conservative Washington Free Beacon was invited along when Mattis visited U.S. Central and Special Operations commands in Tampa, Fla., last month.
Gertz, widely respected for his depth of sources in the intelligence field, had been essentially declared persona non grata during the Obama administration.
The loss of their frequent flyer status has rankled some veteran members of the press corps, who had come to expect a seat on the plane based on the commitment and reach of their respective news organizations. But no one who was contacted by the Washington Examiner was willing to complain on the record, either because they were not authorized to speak for their organizations, or because they were disinclined to pick a fight with officials who will be issuing invitations for the next trip.
But privately, they grumble that the Pentagon is handpicking friendly media who aren’t as interested in pressing Mattis on the news of the day.
On a recent trip to the U.S. Northern Command, Erik Rosales, a national security correspondent for the Christian Broadcast Network, asked Mattis to talk about his faith and “how it’s shaped who you are and your goals, and also about how you make decisions.”
It was the kind of question Mattis was unlikely to get from one of the Pentagon regulars, and he politely declined to answer.
“That's something I stay pretty private about,” he said.
And when Rosales filed his story, it was a straightforward report contrasting how Mattis was open to negotiating with North Korea as the president was calling talks a waste of time.
Pentagon officials insist the makeup of the traveling press contingent is decided on a trip-by-trip basis, depending on the length, location and logistics. Decisions are aimed at increasing the diversity of the media covering the secretary, not discriminating against any single news outlet.
Figures provided by the Pentagon show that in 14 trips since March, both AP and Reuters have been on every trip but one. The Wall Street Journal was on six trips, the Washington Post five, the New York Times four and Breitbart one.
As one of the news organizations that regularly covers the Pentagon, the Washington Examiner was invited, and traveled with Mattis to Germany and NATO headquarters in June.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Breitbart has accompanied Mattis on one trip.