A veteran State Department reporter is throwing cold water on a bombshell report that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson instructed some staff members “not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact.”
The Washington Post’s Thursday story portrays Tillerson as a reclusive figure who is "isolated, walled off from the State Department’s corps of bureaucrats in Washington and around the world."
The piece says Tillerson has instructed his staff to warn "career diplomats" not to speak or make eye contact with him.
"Most of Tillerson's interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact."
Associated Press chief diplomatic writer Matt Lee took to Twitter to dispute the report.
“This is not true and people repeating it are making it more difficult to address very real issues," Lee tweeted.
"I was told of this allegation — weeks ago — and checked it out,” he added in a later tweet, before characterizing it as "compelling gossip."
Lee clarified that he’s "not disputing the entire story," but only the part about Tillerson's alleged instructions around no direct conversation or eye contact.
This is not true and people repeating it are making it more difficult to address very real issues. https://t.co/ztEm3mAXd6— Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) March 31, 2017
@MarkHarrisNYC I would suggest to you that I was told of this allegation - weeks ago - and checked it out.— Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) March 31, 2017
@Tara_Mckelvey It's compelling gossip. I have looked him in the eyes and not turned to stone. At least not yet...— Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) March 31, 2017
@mlcalderone Not disputing the entire story. There are issues. But "no eye contact" is not one of them...— Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) March 31, 2017
Despite Lee’s doubts, the Post stood by its story.
“We stand by our report,” managing editor Cameron Barr said in a statement. “Multiple sources told us that staffers were instructed not to directly address or make eye contact with Secretary Tillerson while on trips. We made the secretary’s office aware of our intention to publish this reporting in seeking comment for the story. The detail about eye contact was not challenged.”
Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., is in Brussels on Friday for his first meeting with NATO allies. He is again putting pressure on other NATO members to increase their defense spending, echoing a complaint President Trump frequently raised during the campaign.
The vivid detail in the Post’s Tillerson report drew massive attention online, with journalists, political figures and even tennis legend Martina Navratilova weighing in:
when you make eye contact with Rex Tillerson pic.twitter.com/z5ut9eRToO— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) March 31, 2017
Legend has it that any career Foreign Service Officer who looks directly into Rex Tillerson’s eyes will be turned to stone.— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) March 31, 2017
Rex Tillerson cozies up to vicious dictators Assad, Erdogan--tells senior State Dept diplomats not to have eye contact with him. Beyond bad— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) March 31, 2017
This is Rex Tillerson. He's in charge of diplomacy.— Jason Kander (@JasonKander) March 31, 2017
What? Don't make eye contact? Or Rex will turn you into stone or what exactly?!? https://t.co/0aFddzZ6gy— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) March 31, 2017