Tillerson tries to find voice in Trump administration

Tillerson tries to find voice in Trump administration

After appearing sidelined for months, Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's 12:30 Report Trump will declare North Korea a state sponsor of terror Tillerson condemns violence against LGBT people on Transgender Day of Remembrance MORE has shown a more independent streak in recent weeks, asserting authority over an agency targeted for budget cuts by President Trump and suffering from low morale.

Tillerson made headlines on Sunday by saying that Trump “speaks for himself” on values when asked to respond to the president’s defense of his controversial comments about both sides being to blame for violence in Charlottesville, Va., between neo-Nazis and other far-right groups and counterprotesters.

He earlier had spoke of the need for greater diversity within the State Department and condemned racism and bigotry.

Within the administration, Tillerson appears to be on the rise.

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He’s seen rivals and critics in Trump advisers Stephen Bannon and Sebastian Gorka exit, the latter shortly after a public shot at the secretary of State.

An ally, John Kelly, is on the rise as Trump’s chief of staff and new gatekeeper, and Tillerson seems at home in working with Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisEric Trump: My father is 'not playing' on national security NSC to present Trump M deal to arm Ukraine against Russia Iraqi forces retake last ISIS-held town MORE and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

Tillerson has increasingly asserted himself as a voice for his department, delivering public remarks on Afghanistan last week after which he took questions from reporters.

Press appearances in the past had been sparse for Tillerson, and he has been criticized for limiting media access.

“I do hope that that’s something that as time passes he will do more of,” said Anita McBride, who served in senior level positions at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “I do think people get a real sense of seriousness and measured and very professional way of thinking about things and responding to things, that this is a solid guy. I think people would be really encouraged to hear more from him.”

Tillerson’s words have at times been viewed as a foil for those of Trump.

After the president warned earlier this month that North Korea would be met with “fire and fury” if it threatened the United States, Tillerson downplayed the threat in unscheduled remarks and assured that “Americans should sleep well at night.”

Speaking on the pathway forward in Afghanistan, Trump zeroed in on the aim of “obliterating” ISIS, defeating al Qaeda and beating back the Taliban. Tillerson chose to focus on the goal of ultimately bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table in order to bring an end to the yearslong violence.

On Sunday, Tillerson told Fox News that the State Department projects “America’s values,” in response to a question about whether the president’s statements on Charlottesville make it more difficult to push American values around the globe.

“We represent the American people, we represent America’s values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment of equal treatment of people the world over,” he said. “That message has never changed."

“The president speaks for himself,” he added. “I have made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department this past week.”

The remarks spurred speculation of a break between Tillerson and Trump, though they were viewed broadly as an effort by the secretary of State to speak to global audiences and assert his role as the nation’s top diplomat.

When asked to clarify the remarks, a State Department spokesman said simply that the department is letting them “speak for themselves.”

The White House on Tuesday downplayed the remarks, describing Trump’s relationship with Tillerson as “very strong.”

James Carafano of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, who worked on the transition team for Trump’s State Department, said that the difference is not in content of their statements, but in the audience.

Trump, he said, is often addressing his base domestically, whereas Tillerson is speaking in “official language on official policy” to international audiences.

“Tillerson’s job is to articulate official U.S. policy,” Carafano said.

The statements have invited praise from those who have been critical of Tillerson’s leadership. 

“I thought his statement [Sunday] was pretty courageous,” said Rob Berschinski, who served as deputy assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor during the Obama administration. “I think he is trying to thread a really tough needle.”

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh questioned Tillerson and National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn for appearing to break with the president during his show Monday.

“Tillerson and Gary Cohn — I’m asking why are they still working in the White House with what they’ve been saying,” Limbaugh said. 

Tillerson has earned applause for his remarks to students of the State Department’s fellowship programs in mid-August, during which he pledged to cultivate diversity across the ranks of foreign and civil service officers.

“I would interpret it as keeping his distance from what Trump said on racism. Rather like the TV statement about who speaks for whom,” said Gordon Adams, who served in the White House as a senior official for national security and foreign policy budgets during the Clinton administration. “Daylight, without putting an exclamation point on it.”

The start of Tillerson’s tenure has been rocky.

Members of Congress ridiculed Trump’s budget request to cut nearly 30 percent of the State Department’s budget, a proposal that Tillerson had to defend in hearings. He and his deputy, John Sullivan, have also faced tough questions on the ongoing effort to reorganize the department, which includes proposals to shutter offices and eliminate positions.

Tillerson has been viewed as having less input in policy decisions at the White House than Kelly, Mattis and McMaster, the three generals in Trump’s inner circle. And he has sparred with the administration over decisions on key appointments.

The State Department was forced to deny reports last month that Tillerson might leave.

Tillerson will be tested in coming months.

He continues to grapple with murmurs of declining morale under his leadership, underpinned by his rumored distance from career officials. In the past week, the department lost three top career diplomats, including the official responsible for shepherding U.S. policy at the United Nations, Foreign Policy reported.

Tillerson will also need to defend his reorganization plans to Congress and to those within the department that are skeptical of his efforts. He issued notice to senators this week about proposals to eliminate special envoy positions and select offices, details sure to provide fodder for dialogues between senior officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill next month.

Tillerson has faced fierce criticism from some former officials on his stewardship at the helm of the department and failure to fill key positions that remain vacant more than seven months into the new administration.

“He’s done a miserable job, frankly, of engaging the stakeholders in the department,” Adams said. “I don’t think he’s found the key to the lock in the State Department.”

But some say he’s growing into the role and that experience will come with more time on the job.

“It’s an evolution,” McBride said. “He’s gaining greater understanding of the role, and it’s an evolution in the way he executes the position.”