When Rex Tillerson first took over as secretary of state, he told his new employees that he wouldn’t let “ineffective traditions” get in the way of successful outcomes.
Two months and a string of eyebrow-raising decisions later, people in and outside the State Department wonder if there’s any tradition Tillerson thinks is worth keeping. Following President Donald Trump’s proposal to slash the diplomatic budget, some are even wondering how much of the State Department itself Tillerson plans to keep.
In the latest flap, Tillerson is planning to skip an April 5-6 gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels so that he can reportedly attend meetings between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The choice between the gatherings is a tough one, and the State Department said Tuesday morning that it had, following the news reports, offered some alternative dates for the NATO summit.
Still, the initial decision alarmed people on left and right who pointed out that what makes it extra sensitive is that Tillerson plans to visit Russia later in the month. That means he would spend time with a NATO and U.S. rival before formally meeting with America’s NATO allies.
“At a time when questions are swirling about possible Trump administration collusion with Russia [during the 2016 election], and when our democratic allies are questioning the U.S. commitment to the alliance, skipping a NATO ministerial sends a terrible signal,” said Philip Gordon, a former top official in Barack Obama’s administration.
Republican Sen. John McCain also gently chided the secretary of state over potentially skipping the NATO session. “I regret that he could not be at that meeting. Maybe it’s an important meeting he’s having, but I would have preferred to see him here,” the Arizona senator said.
Through action and inaction, Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, has repeatedly rattled a foreign policy establishment that still hopes he will serve as a moderating influence on the brash new Republican president.
Tillerson traveled to Asia last week without the usual media cohort, a major break with tradition. Along the way, he suggested in starkly undiplomatic terms that South Korean officials had misled people about his schedule. And he appeared to partly parrot Chinese talking points on the U.S.-China relationship.
Tillerson has plenty of defenders, some of whom insist his words and actions are often taken out of context, and that he doesn’t get enough credit for some of the work he does behind the scenes.
For instance, Tillerson drew heat for not sitting in on a meeting between Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli prime minister was in town in February. But Tillerson met with Netanyahu the night before, and he was heading to Europe for meetings there when Netanyahu held his session with Trump.
And yes, Tillerson may have stumbled in China when using a phrase such as “mutual respect,” which the Chinese often deploy as a way of saying the U.S. shouldn’t interfere in sensitive issues like Beijing’s role in Tibet. But the secretary also spoke of the need for Beijing to pressure North Korea on its nuclear program, and he said that the U.S. “will continue to advocate for universal values such as human rights and religious freedom.”
Foreign diplomats who have met Tillerson say he appears engaged and informed, and that he doesn’t simply listen but also makes America’s case. Some point out that Tillerson meets regularly with Trump, indicating that he has the president’s ear.
“The media coverage of him has been hysterical — it’s overly critical,” an ambassador from an Asian country told POLITICO. “He’s settling in and in the loop.”
But critics and supporters alike say the poor perceptions of Tillerson stem in part from his unwillingness to regularly engage with the media, which has let negative narratives about the still inexperienced diplomat fill the vacuum.
After Tillerson didn’t have dinner with South Korean officials during his trip to Asia last week, Korean media, citing Seoul officials, reported that he’d chosen to avoid a meal due to “fatigue.” Because Tillerson didn’t take a usual contingent of U.S. journalists with him — he took just one reporter, from the conservative Independent Journal Review, who was working on a longer story — the Korean narrative stood for hours without challenge or correction from U.S. journalists who would have the secretary in their sight. When Tillerson gave the IJR an interview, he implied his hosts had lied to protect themselves “optically” after never inviting him for dinner — talk that struck some as a diplomatic blunder toward an ally.
Tillerson also has failed to fill numerous vacant leadership positions at the State Department, including undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. Such staffers are key to coordinating with foreign capitals and the White House, including on scheduling. They can help avoid dust-ups such as the one facing Tillerson over the NATO ministerial. And they can be especially helpful in situations involving a country such as China, which places tremendous importance on protocol and would view Tillerson’s absence from the presidents’ meeting as a sign that he lacks influence.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said U.S. officials had on Tuesday morning put forth alternative dates for the NATO summit — “The secretary certainly wants to be there if he can.” Reports the previous night indicated that Tillerson had rebuffed offers from NATO officials to reschedule, though Toner downplayed that characterization. Toner also noted that Tillerson will meet many of the same NATO members during a summit in Washington this week of the international coalition battling the Islamic State, although the agenda obviously will be different.
David Wade, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry, was sympathetic to Tillerson’s situation, saying that all too often “scheduling becomes substance.”
“The secretary of state is in demand like no other foreign minister on the planet and you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Wade said. “You benefit from hopefully having an early warning system of assistant secretaries in place who can help manage the calendar to avoid train wrecks, but even that’s no fail-safe.”
Instead, Tillerson is surrounded by a small group of White House-approved aides who carefully curate access to him. Margaret Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff, is said by sources in the department to be a bottleneck, hindering people’s ability to reach the secretary.
That has left large sections of the building still feeling cut off and adrift; State employees say they often find themselves with little to do because there’s not much policy guidance coming down and there are few people in permanent leadership positions to give them orders. Some worry that State, which many analysts say has been ceding influence to the National Security Council and other parts of the government for decades, could be rendered irrelevant in the new administration.
The staffers who have met Tillerson say they find him pleasant, direct and engaged, but they acknowledge he’s still learning the sensitivities of managing a public institution dedicated to diplomacy. During his recent stop in Japan, for example, he didn’t stop by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo to greet his employees, another break with tradition that some saw as a snub.
Tillerson is reviewing the structure of the State Department, much of which may change even if the steep cuts envisioned in the president’s budget proposal never become a reality. Trump wants to cut roughly 30 percent of the budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Tillerson has indicated he’ll make it work if he must. In any case, State employees are preparing for significant restructuring, though not necessarily blaming Tillerson.
“As people who have been through this before, those of us who have recognize that there’s still a long way to go,” a State Department official said of the budget plans. “It has not reached a panic.”
For his part, Tillerson doesn’t appear too worried about the flare-ups his decisions are causing. In his interview with IJR, he responded to questions about his lack of engagement with reporters by casting it as a personality trait.
“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it,” he said. But he also acknowledged that “the media is very important to help me communicate not just to the American people, but to others in the world that are listening.”
“When I have something important and useful to say, I know where everybody is and I know how to go out there and say it,” Tillerson further told the conservative outlet. “But if I don’t because we’re still formulating and we’re still deciding what we’re going to do, there is not going to be a lot to say.”