Tillerson: State Dept. 'not missing a beat' despite vacancies

Tillerson: State Dept. 'not missing a beat' despite vacancies
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Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonDecline in US travel spurs business push for visitors Overnight Defense: GOP chair blames Dems for defense budget holdup | FDA, Pentagon to speed approval of battlefield drugs | Mattis calls North Korea situation 'sobering' Mattis: North Korea situation 'sobering' MORE insisted Tuesday that dozens of vacant posts in the State Department have not hampered its work, claiming that the agency is in "a much better position" to advance U.S. interests abroad now than it was 10 months ago.

"The State Department is not missing a beat just because we’ve got some nominees that are still working through the process," Tillerson told embassy staffers and their family members in Brussels. 

Tillerson has been criticized for his handling of the State Department, which has seen low morale and vacant positions under his leadership.

Tillerson said that, while the State Department doesn't have "any wins on the board yet," he felt that the agency was better equipped to take on the diplomatic challenges currently facing the U.S. now than it was when he took the helm in February.

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Dozens of key positions in the State Department remain without nominees to fill them, including many ambassadorships. There is no ambassador to Belgium, for example, nor is there one for the European Union, a position also based in Brussels. Both jobs are currently held by acting charge d’affaires. 

Tillerson's comments came days after reports surfaced that the White House, frustrated with Tillerson, had developed a plan to remove him from the State Department and replace him with CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoMelania Trump hires policy director in step toward official platform Dems warn of Russian election interference across Europe Publisher rushing to print more copies of ‘Fire and Fury’ MORE

Tillerson and President Trump have since sought to knock down those reports. The secretary last week called such claims "laughable," and Trump accused them of being "fake news."

Tillerson's tenure at the State Department has been turbulent. News reports frequently indicate dwindling morale at the agency, driven by a partial hiring freeze and staffing cuts. The secretary has also sparred with Trump on key foreign policy issues, including the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord. 

But in Brussels on Tuesday, Tillerson was eager to tout his efforts to "redesign" the State Department — what he has called his most important endeavor at the agency. He said the process had moved through its early phases, and he would soon begin to execute the changes.

"We’ve been through phase one, now we’ve just completed phase two, and we’re going to transition to phase three, which is now execution," he said. "So now we’re in a position to really talk about some concrete things."