While traveling with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Guy Benson was lucky enough to sit down with Morgan Ortagus for her first interview as State Department Spokesperson. Benson & Ortagus discussed foreign relations, her new position, and how she plans to have briefings "multiple times a week" listen here:
Guy Benson [00:00:00] Welcome back to the Guy Benson Show and show we are at 35000 feet flying over Europe here on the secretary of state's airplane. And I am delighted to be joined by Morgan Ortagus who was for quite some time a colleague of ours here at Fox News Channel and she has since departed and recently just a few weeks ago taken the position of the chief spokesperson at the State Department. And I will also confess she's a friend and this is really fun. And it's your first interview since taking her new gig.
Morgan Ortagus [00:00:29] It is and it's a pleasure to be with you and Fox again. I miss everyone there. I'm happy to be serving my country. But this is this is the first one you've got it Guy.
Guy Benson [00:00:37] That's a big deal and we're honored to have you here. So as we're sitting on this plane and were thinking about. Our time in Brussels and the time coming up now in Russia as well. This is a very significant trip in a lot of ways. I think a lot of Americans are curious about how the secretary will engage with his counterparts in Russia. And it's kind of a cool time for you professionally because this is a pretty prestigious job, it's a sought after job. You were at Fox. Walk us through if you will sort of the timeline of how you came to be offered the job and how you deliberated and then ultimately took it.
Morgan Ortagus [00:01:16] So you know would say that being the spokesperson at the State Department is sort of one of those dream jobs that if it's ever offered to you you know wherever you are in the world you stop and take it. I mean what had always been attractive to me about the State Department spokesperson role is that it's traditionally been a very substantive position. You know you really have to understand foreign policy you need to have a background in it to be good in it. And when you look at some of the people who have held this role before me people like you know Ambassador Nick Burns and Admiral Kirby and Victoria Nuland and you could go through the list of foreign service officers who are at the top of their game and at the top of the foreign policy professional when they took this on. So I am very cognizant that I have incredibly big shoes to fill.
Guy Benson [00:02:06] Is it intimidating at all. Does she read through that list right. I mean.
Morgan Ortagus [00:02:09] Still very intimidating. I mean I think that you think you know what we on Fox and I love being on Fox and let me just say for the record I really really miss it. We have such a great cast and crew there. But when you're on Fox if you screw up right. If you say something stupid it's on you personally and you might get hurt a little in the media when you say something wrong and this job has policy implications it has global implications. And you know around the world there are press officers at each embassy there foreign service officers and one of the things they do is they read everything that the secretary and I say the day before. And so the weight of my words is something that weighs on me pretty heavily it's one of the things that I think about every night before I go to bed. The weight the impact of this job.
Guy Benson [00:02:55] So talk about that transition because previously you were being paid like I am to just give your opinions right you're speaking for one if you make a great point, it's clever if you're snarky, that's funny that's Morgan being a talented right? If you screw up as you say that's on you. But now you've got a principal rival the secretary that you're speaking on behalf of and really the whole State Department. Talk about the challenge of that transition and that mindset.
Morgan Ortagus [00:03:19] So you know I worked really hard at Fox to get the contract with them. They really made me work for it and I was very proud of it. You know I had some it was something that you know you always hope to achieve. You're never sure if you're going to achieve. And so it was a monumental career milestone for me. And let me just say people always ask What was it like to work at Fox. I don't know that I've ever worked at the nicer group of people. And I sincerely mean that. I mean you could just go through the list of show after show and I think what's so different about Fox than when you hear stories of where other people work is that you know people really help each other. I mean everything every environment is competitive. But I found especially the female anchors to want to take me under their wing to help me to give me TV time to get me booked on their show it's it's an abnormal and friendly environment,.
Guy Benson [00:04:09] They make you better and better prepared for this job?
Morgan Ortagus [00:04:14] Absolutely. I mean absolutely because you know there was always tough questions being asked you know on America's Newsroom on Bret Baier's Special Report. I prepared for hours before I went on Special Report. So in that transition you know when the secretary called and I went in to meet with him you don't really know if they're going to offer you to you or not. But for me as much as I love Fox and as much as it was you know such an amazing amazing place to be when your country calls you you raise your hand you stand up and you serve. And so there will be an end point to this I'm not going to be the State Department spokesperson forever. You know we've got till the end of the administration. One of the things that the secretary challenged me as he said how many days do we have left for the administration? And I thought oh I don't know actually. And so I looked it up on I've got this countdown clock on my phone and actually just when I went to brief him before the plane took off I said 616 days sir. And he just looked at me and then he smiled. He realized what I was talking about and that's something I'm going to challenge myself every single day the number of days that we have left to make a difference.
Guy Benson [00:05:16] What has been the toughest or the most surprising part of this learning curve?
Morgan Ortagus [00:05:21] I thought that I knew the world pretty well. I mean this is what I do for a living I've been in government or in the Navy Reserves for 13 years. I've got an undergraduate degree and a master's degree focused on that stuff so I would put myself on the what I thought was the more well educated end of the spectrum on these things. But the amount of information that I have to consume on a daily basis to be on top of the world is it's drinking from a firehose it's mind boggling.
Guy Benson [00:05:51] And just the institutional knowledge inherent in the people on this airplane sitting behind us is pretty breathtaking.
Morgan Ortagus [00:05:58] I'm lucky to have so many valuable people at my fingertips. You know we've started getting ready for the press briefings. You know you can easily easily spend up to three hours on that just for one briefing so I'm lucky that the secretary I get to spend a lot of time with the secretary and hear exactly how he thinks about these things here what he says you know in interviews and really for me the most important job here is not to have my own opinion but to echo his voice to echo the president's voice for what the strategy is as it relates to foreign policy for this administration.
Guy Benson [00:06:31] You mentioned the briefings I want to ask you about your philosophy and your approach to briefing because as we all know in this administration not everyone briefs every day right. We've seen that at the White House to say the very least. How are you going to take on this job in terms of interacting with the press on a daily basis? How often will you be briefing formally? Have you formulated a game plan on that?
Morgan Ortagus [00:06:52] Yeah we're going to start this very soon. And what I don't want is an effort for it to be an event. Right. I wanted to be when I brief. I wanted to be as regular as possible. I don't know if we'll do five days a week but we'll we'll try.
Guy Benson [00:07:04] Multiple times a week
Morgan Ortagus [00:07:06] Multiple times a week. And I want. I wanted to be just a part of the system and the way that we do things. You know we just we have the whole team. And by the way we have a fantastic team around the State Department building who gear up every morning to give me news from around the world to get me briefed up to get me knowledgeable and so I said there's not a lot of downtime. You know whenever I'm not working I'm at home reading and studying this stuff. I'm getting PHD in all of this. But but the but the goal is as I think is to be strategic as possible. We have something called a topper at the beginning of the briefing and those toppers I want to talk about what the secretary cares about what our principals care about what our strategy is.
Guy Benson [00:07:45] Before you take questions you come out. You've got a few things to say.
Morgan Ortagus [00:07:48] Right.
Guy Benson [00:07:48] So I want to talk about this isn't hopefully too self-indulgent but I've been getting so many tweets and messages from listeners and followers saying how how did you end up on this trip. All of a sudden you know Guy Benson from Fox News I'm not exactly part of the diplomatic press corps. Why am I traveling to Russia with the secretary of state. Obviously you had something to do with this. We've been buds for a while but it seems like when you came in and took this job you have fresh eyes on the position and you approach the secretary about maybe tweaking a little bit. How how you guys approach the list of media figures that you invite along.
Morgan Ortagus [00:08:26] Sure. So you always have what we call the pool and the pool is the diplomatic press corps that are assigned from all the major news outlets including Rich Edson for example from Fox News that are assigned to to the State Department. So that's so that's the pool what we started looking at and this last trip this is only the second trip or we've brought people outside of the pool. Last trip we had Katie Pavlich, your Townhall and Fox News colleague and also Christina Wong from bright bar who also were on the trips and so what we're trying on each trip is is to bring people that are outside of the traditional State Department press pool. Why is that important? It's it's important Guy because what the secretary and I fundamentally believe is that we need to mainstream what the State Department does and what our foreign policy is to everybody around the country listening something that I'm always challenging my team on is, for years we've spoken in in sort of diplomatic speak.
Guy Benson [00:09:28] Sort of like this is rarefied world.
Morgan Ortagus [00:09:29] Which is exactly what I was going to say this whole language that that goes with diplomatic speak that if you're not in an on a daily basis can be intimidating and hard to understand. And I always tell everyone you know my parents who are the salt of the earth people hardworking taxpaying voting American citizens who graduated from high school but did not go to college but are successful small business owners if they don't understand my my press conference. If they don't understand my interviews if they don't understand what's being said then I have failed to communicate to the American people so what the secretary always says that it's one of the reasons that he listen you'll see him traveling around the United States telling our story more than you'll see him in Paris because while he travels internationally quite a bit and keeping up with him is a major challenge for me. We try to speak very directly and very plain language in a way in which people can understand what we are trying to achieve at the State Department.
Guy Benson [00:10:26] So it's kind of the way I look at it as it's some very welcome and fascinating and intellectually stimulating access for me but also it's about accessibility to what you guys are trying to do for our audience at Fox and here on the Guy Benson show you you're talking about the secretary and just the breakneck pace he looks at. It's really hard is just seeing it for the last few days anyway. Wow that is that is a lot. How would you describe the way that he wants to interact with the press broadly speaking?
Morgan Ortagus [00:10:58] That's an interesting question. I think you know he's he's different in the fact that he's coming. He came to be secretary of state immediately after being CIA director. And so that was very.
Guy Benson [00:11:12] Where you don't really want to talk to many people too often
Morgan Ortagus [00:11:14] You don't talk to the press. You don't do the engagement. But but he's really been reaching out and I think his goal again has been to reach out out to talk to the traditional media but to reach out outside of the press that we normally go to to make sure that we're talking to local press to make sure that we're engaging on social media. You know he often says If you think about it like if you're it if you're at a football stadium you're watching you know your favorite team you'll see the flyover you know from from someone from the Air Force or from the Navy. And there's so much of the Defense Department that's ingrained in the American psyche and people understand it. And I think what he's been really trying to cultivate is that same pride in the diplomatic corps that same pride and understanding what we do. You know one of the reasons when I interviewed with him one of the things he said to me is you know Morgan our job is so important because when we fail when diplomacy fails that's when we have to put our young men and women at risk you know to go overseas to to fight to engage whatever it may be. And I think that he is you know he's really a man on a mission. He really does look at every day until they submit into the administration is this is his shot this is his one shot at being secretary of state and reversing a lot of things that I think he feels were done poorly in the last administration.
Guy Benson [00:12:33] Last question as I was thinking about the subject matter for my discussion upcoming with the secretary. I was struck by how many different directions I could go because there are so many enormous issues and that's true of any secretary of state it seems particularly true these days. And I wonder in your opening weeks in this position has there been a particular foreign policy issue or challenge that has been the most vexing or difficult for you to communicate with the American people about.
Morgan Ortagus [00:13:03] Oh hard hitting questions Guy. Gosh they're all they're all incredibly challenging and nuanced. I Think when we look at the era of great power competition that we're and that the president's national security strategy focused on. So when you look at Russia and China right we're heading to Russia. When when people ask me What are you going to talk about to the Russians about. Well the list is 10 miles long. Right. Right. I mean there's so many. So it's not just about the bilateral relationship that we have with the Russians or the Chinese or with anyone. It's also what's happening in Syria and Idlib what's happening in Venezuela what's happening in North Korea what's happening China.
Guy Benson [00:13:48] The Russians fingerprints are on all of that stuff and I feel like so much of the political press for understandable reasons and it's an important issue they're talking about 2016 an election medal and all that that's important. But even just in a trip to Russia there's so many more important than actually more board but crucially important things to talk about.
Morgan Ortagus [00:14:07] There's a woman named Mary Kissel who used to be on the editorial board at the Wall Street Journal and she did many Fox Business appearances. And she's my colleague now and she's she's the head of our strategic communications really brilliant mind. She has been invaluable to me. Well she often says and I think she explains it the best that foreign policy is not black and white. It's shades of gray. Right? There are areas in which the Russians are actually surprisingly cooperative. There are areas in which we clearly do not get along. So you can't approach any relationship whether you're going to be with the Russians the Chinese the Mexicans with whomever you never approach it with a black and white. There's some positions that we are never going to see eye to eye on and then you figure out how to deal with those positions and there's some of which there's areas in which that that we can we can work together. So I think that's really the most important messages. It's easy in cable news in this era we live in to paint black white good bad.
Guy Benson [00:15:08] And sometimes you have so much time right there's so much sound bite culture.
Morgan Ortagus [00:15:11] It really is shades of gray and that's how we operate. That's what diplomats do.
Guy Benson [00:15:16] Morgan Ortagus, first of all congratulations on the new concession it's very exciting for you. When I saw you at Andrews Air Force Base for the first time this person I just I smiled because it's it's pretty thrilling. And we are.
Morgan Ortagus [00:15:29] I'm Very lucky.
Guy Benson [00:15:30] Just delighted that you gave your first interview in this job to us which means a lot.
Morgan Ortagus [00:15:34] Absolutely.
Guy Benson [00:15:34] Thanks for including us on the trip and hopefully we'll have you back.
Morgan Ortagus [00:15:37] Thank you Guy.
Guy Benson [00:15:38] All right. We'll be right back with more Guy Benson show after this.