Trump’s top diplomat enters pressure cooker
Rex Tillerson has his work cut out for him.
The new secretary of State is taking on the high-pressure role of top diplomat with arguably even more scrutiny than his predecessors.
Right away, Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has to prove that he’s not just President Trump’s clean-up man on controversies like the immigration order and diplomatic spats with Mexico and Australia.
He’ll have to manage America’s shifting relationships with China and Russia, not to mention tension in the Middle East, while dealing with a workforce that at times appears hostile to Trump’s agenda.
More than 1,000 State Department employees recently signed on to a cable dissenting from a White House order that temporarily halted all refugee resettlement and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
But more than anything, all eyes — inside the sprawling State Department and around the world — will be watching to see whether Tillerson is empowered to deal with foreign governments, or merely play wing-man to Trump’s aggressive approach.
“The single biggest question the Department will have is Tillerson’s relationship to the White House,” said David Wade, who served as chief of staff to former Secretary of State John Kerry. “The building will size him up to learn whether he is in the loop, out of the loop, or able to move the White House on areas which matter to the Department.
“Those early weeks shape a lot of that internal opinion,” Wade added. “First impressions matter.”
Other former State Department officials agreed that Tillerson would have to telegraph his approach quickly.
“He gets zero grace period. He gets no honeymoon,” said Alec Ross, who served as a senior adviser on innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ross noted that Tillerson has “lived the life of life of a diplomat” as the former chief executive of the oil and gas behemoth, and is likely to be “effective at the grand oak table and at the formal conduct and interaction” that comprises much of the work of secretary of State.
Still, Ross cautioned: “He may have the best country club-trained manner in the world, but if he’s spewing an offensive foreign policy, a foreign minister is going to look at him and determine that the U.S. is a hostile government.”
Trump has signaled his plans to get tough on foreign policy, with bold executive orders on immigration and trade since taking office.
“We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually,” Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen anymore. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
Tillerson has hewed closely to Trump’s positions, both during his confirmation hearings and during his first address to State Department employees. During that speech Thursday, he didn’t outline a detailed foreign policy agenda, differing from predecessors such as Clinton and Colin Powell.
Employees at the State Department, both past and present, interpreted Tillerson’s address as a sign that there won’t be much daylight with the president, and that the White House will largely dictate the foreign policy approach.
Watching Tillerson’s confirmation hearing, Shamila Chaudhary, a former State Department official under Obama, noted that Tillerson was non-committal in many of his answers.
“I didn’t get the sense that Tillerson was disagreeing with Trump,” Chaudhary said, adding that it was different than the hearing for Defense Secretary James Mattis, who at times broke with Trump on Russia and other policies. “That’s an indication [Tillerson] will be closely linked with Trump on foreign policy.”
“I have no doubt in my mind that Tillerson is going to convey what Trump wants him to convey,” she added.
Even though 43 senators voted against Tillerson earlier this week, some Democrats remain somewhat optimistic about his tenure.
Some foreign policy actions taken this week already echoed some of former President Obama’s policies, including Friday’s announcement of Iran sanctions, a warning to Israel on settlement construction and demands that Russia withdraw from Crimea.
On Thursday, Nikki Haley, Trump’s United Nations ambassador, often mimicked her predecessor, Samantha Power.
All of that bodes well for Tillerson, some State Department officials say.
“I think a lot of us are on pins and needles and curious to see how the secretary handles things,” said one official in Foggy Bottom. “But I think a lot of us are more optimistic than not.”
Wade said Tillerson will need to pay attention to morale inside the building, because there needs to be a good synergy between the secretary’s team on the 7th floor and the career foreign service.
“The department works best when the secretary isn’t a solo act, but a maestro conducting a big orchestra,” he said. “You need the buy-in of the Foreign Service and civil service and you need the right people in the right chairs, quickly.”
Tillerson has spent his first days on the job making phone calls to the foreign ministers of Canada and Mexico and meeting with the foreign ministers of Germany and Jordan. On Friday, he also met with U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Chaudhary said these first few calls — along with their readouts — could help Tillerson reshape the administration’s bumpy start.
“He’ll be watched in the same way as Trump,” she said.
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