Tillerson defends leadership of State Department

Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonRand's reversal advances Pompeo Frequent Trump critics NY Daily News, USA Today editorial boards back Pompeo Sarah Sanders: Dems have to decide if they love the US more than they hate Trump MORE defended his management of the State Department on Tuesday, disputing reported numbers that suggest he has downsized the staff at State's Foggy Bottom headquarters. 

Tillerson has been criticized since taking over the department for low morale among foreign service staff, as well as staffing changes critics say have caused the department to lose experienced employees.

But during a question-and-answer session following a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Tillerson argued his efforts to change the department are meant to help career diplomats who have chosen to “spend their life” in the foreign service.

“So there is no hollowing out. These numbers that people are throwing around are just false. They’re wrong,” he said. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Tillerson claimed that State's budget when he took over the department was at a “record high” and noted he was “stunned” to discover he had 82 direct-report employees. This, he explained, caused him to push for what he described as a redesign.

Tillerson also praised the acting staff working at the State Department during the confirmation process, saying he is offended for them by reports of staffing cuts or of a department that is not operating effectively.

“And when I read these articles that there’s this hollowing out, I take offense to that on their behalf because the people that are serving in those roles are doing extraordinary work and they know they’re not going to get the job permanently,” Tillerson said.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert earlier this month appeared to acknowledge low morale within the ranks, but pushed the importance of the redesign. 

Critics have argued Tillerson has crippled the State Department in his tenure. The head of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in early November criticized the Trump administration for what she described as leadership positions “being depleted at a dizzying speed.”

"The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events," AFSA President Barbara Stephenson wrote in her column for the December Foreign Service Journal.

Stephenson at the time said the State Department “lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January,” a figure Tillerson acknowledged on Tuesday while insisting it was due to four retirements after he became secretary. Foggy Bottom is in the process of evaluating candidates for the positions, he said.

“But we still have two. But we went from six to two, it was a 60 percent reduction. It sounded like the sky was falling,” Tillerson said, noting the department is “very selective” in choosing individuals for the roles.

Lawmakers have also expressed concern about reports of internal issues at the State Department. Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainManchin, Donnelly back Pompeo This week: Senate barrels toward showdown over Pompeo Romney forced into GOP primary for Utah Senate nomination MORE (R-Ariz.) and Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSenators pledge to pursue sanctions against Turkey over imprisoned American pastor Dems walk tightrope on Pompeo nomination Menendez rips characterization of Pompeo as 'nation's top diplomat' MORE (D-N.H.) in a Nov. 15 letter to Tillerson asked the secretary to end the department’s hiring freeze and work with Congress on any matters “that could potentially have long-term impacts” on retaining and hiring staff.