Does Rex Tillerson have the worst job in Washington?

Does Rex Tillerson have the worst job in Washington?
© Greg Nash

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might not have the toughest job in the Trump administration. But it’s not the easiest one, either.

One month after his confirmation, Tillerson leads a department on President Trump’s chopping block that feels underappreciated at best.

Trump’s budget would reportedly cut State funding by 37 percent, making deep reductions in spending on foreign aid. While those cuts are unlikely to be realized, they’ve sent an unmistakable signal that the department doesn’t seem important to Trump.

Sources inside and outside the State Department say Tillerson seems removed from the routine tasks of former secretaries of State.

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He wasn’t included in meetings with foreign leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and wasn’t heavily involved in key decisions including Trump’s warning to Iran following their ballistic missile tests.

He also wasn’t allowed to pick his top deputy. Trump reportedly rejected his request to make Elliott Abrams his deputy. Abrams had criticized Trump publicly, which led the president to nix him at State.

Earlier this week, The New York Times piled on with an editorial titled “Calling Secretary Tillerson.”

It said the State Department’s voice too often seemed “muffled” in the chorus of generals offering Trump advice. Generals are serving as Trump’s secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security, and as his national security adviser.

The former chief of Exxon Mobil Corp., an outsider to Trump’s orbit and Washington, is generally seen as a positive force within the administration.

“I don’t think people have a negative view of him at all,” said one State Department official. “He said the right things when he arrived.”

The question is whether Tillerson actually has any influence in a Trump administration where other heavyweights, such as senior Trump advisers Stephen Bannon and Jared Kushner, have strong opinions on foreign policy. Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is seen as having an interest in working on a Middle East peace plan.

“His main problem right now is that people think he isn’t influential,” the official said. “He’s not perceived as being in the loop.”

That has been a further drag on morale at State, the official said.

Shamila Chaudhary, a former State Department official under President Obama, predicted that Tillerson would serve more as an “adviser and facilitator” than someone like former Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryO'Rourke doubles support in CNN poll of Dem presidential race Overnight Energy — Sponsored by the National Biodiesel Board — Court blocks Atlantic coast pipeline | Kerry calls Trump climate actions 'profoundly dangerous' | EPA asked to investigate Pruitt Fox News hits John Kerry: Trump's actions on climate change are 'profoundly dangerous' for planet MORE, who aimed for a legacy.

“He’s not going to be a provocative person,” Chaudhary said.

Since taking the helm at Foggy Bottom, Tillerson has been slow and methodical in learning the building and acquainting himself with bureaucratic Washington. He has been known to stop and chat with employees as he wanders the sterile State Department corridors, according to sources.

He has received solid reviews from former Obama political appointees. “I think he’s the real deal,” one Obama political appointee said. “He’s a serious guy with serious credentials.”

But these sources said he has also angered some career officials at Foggy Bottom by not seeking their guidance in the early days of the administration.

“[The administration] tells people that he has no intent to be a globe-trotting diplomat making deals like James Baker or John Kerry, that he’s going to stay in Washington and manage the building and be a counselor to the president, but he seems disconnected from the career foreign service officers inside the building,” one former state official said.

David Wade, who served as chief of staff to Kerry, said the budget proposal “speaks volumes” about the administration’s priorities when it comes to State.

“Diplomatic downsizing is a gift to America’s adversaries and rivals because it sends the message that we’re retreating from global leadership,” Wade said. “That’s an in-kind contribution to Moscow and Beijing. It creates a vacuum, and others who don’t share our values but who wield big checkbooks are always happy to fill it.”

Richard Fontaine, the president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the reported proposals provide “an early test” about the priorities.

“Assuming the press accounts are accurate, it reflects what you’ve seen on the campaign trail, which is a more narrowly construed view of America’s interests.”

In his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, Trump reaffirmed an America-centric view with very little discussion or heavy details on foreign policy.

While he referenced the “unbreakable alliance” the U.S. has with Israel, he only mentioned China once and swept past Iraq and Afghanistan along with his alleged ties to Russia. 

“My job is not to represent the world,” Trump said in the address. “My job is to represent the United States of America. But we know that America is better off when there is less conflict, not more.”