Tillerson walks fine line between Trump, global community
Mixed messages raise questions
President Trump is in front of the rhetorical brinkmanship with North Korea, but it’s Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson who has the tough behindthe-scenes role of managing fallout from the administration’s first genuine international crisis, sparked by reports that Pyongyang may now have a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on a missile that could hit the U.S. mainland.
The standoff is a defining moment for America’s top diplomat six months into his tenure at Foggy Bottom. Meanwhile, many key leadership posts — including ambassador to South Korea — remain unfilled, fears of budget cuts and reorganizations are high, and questions swirl over how much clout the former Exxon Mobil chief has with the president.
But Mr. Tillerson, who has been criticized from the left and scrutinized from the right over speculation that he is not on message with Mr. Trump, has built a reputation for cool nonchalance under pressure that supporters say is exactly what is needed to provide a foundation of calm behind a president bent on confronting North Korea.
However, nobody said it was going to be easy. Take last week: It began with Mr. Tillerson in East Asia privately celebrating how he and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley had pulled off the surprise triumph of getting a unanimous United Nations Security Council to approve a resolution with the most severe sanctions package ever against
By Tuesday, however, the whole idea of diplomacy with Pyongyang was turned on its head when Mr. Trump made international headlines by vowing to meet any future threats from the regime of Kim Jong-un with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
What came next was as good an example as any of Mr. Tillerson’s delicate role, State Department watchers say.
The secretary of state backed up his boss by saying the president’s strong words were needed “because [Mr. Kim] doesn’t seem to understand diplomatic language.”
But Mr. Tillerson also threaded a diplomatic needle by immediately adding that he didn’t believe there was any imminent threat of an attack by Pyongyang and by expressing confidence that diplomacy — with help from China and Russia — can work.
The subtle messaging may have worked on the world stage, but Mr. Tillerson quickly found himself in a storm of media scrutiny over whether or not he was breaking ranks with Mr. Trump.
James Carafano, a scholar at The Heritage Foundation who advised Mr. Trump’s transition team on foreign policy, defended the secretary of state. He argued that the varied messages were aimed at different audiences, with Mr. Trump speaking to the American people and Mr. Tillerson focusing on the global community and nervous U.S. allies in the region.
Writing in The National Interest journal over the weekend, Mr. Carafano argued that Mr. Tillerson is so focused on behind-the-scenes diplomacy and not on generating headlines that when he does speak publicly, his words carry unusual weight in the press.
“Reporters and pundits,” Mr. Carafano wrote, “stampede to find some sentence that will allow them to assert that the secretary ‘breaks with the president.’”
“Tillerson has little use for overhyped controversy that does not contribute to getting the department’s message out or advancing U.S. foreign policy,” the analyst said. “So he just doesn’t engage.”
Slammed by the media
Mr. Tillerson hasn’t been popular with many inside his department since he asserted months ago that its spending levels were not sustainable and vowed to implement Mr. Trump’s call for a 28 percent cut to U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid spending next year. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including a number of top Republicans, seemed more eager to defend the department’s budget than did the secretary of state.
Unease about the secretary’s plan has grown while more than a dozen top department management positions and ambassadorships remain unfilled. In the absence of hard news on how Mr. Tillerson and his aides plan to overhaul the department, leaks have been common and even the most innocuous policy changes often give a negative spin.
The few managers who have been appointed say the reason for the delay is that the secretary wants first to finish a major reorganization of the department aimed at making it run more efficiently and better focusing its operations toward implementing Mr. Trump’s “America first” priorities.
But internal strife over the reorganization began spiraling in April, when it was leaked that Mr. Tillerson was thinking about eliminating 2,300 jobs in a department with 30,000 employees, including about 8,000 Foreign Service officers.
In the months since, there have been biting newspaper critiques and claims of diplomats fleeing Foggy Bottom in anger over cuts and ideological rifts with the administration. “An exodus is underway,” said a New York Times column in late July. “Trump seems determined to hollow out the State Department in a strange act of national self-amputation.”
Mr. Tillerson has opted against addressing such claims head-on. Instead, he has focused on behind-the-scenes messaging. He told staff and families at the U.S. Embassy in Malaysia last week that he was aware of the uncertainty and appreciated “what is going through a lot of people’s minds.”
But he also stressed that the reorganization will take into account the concerns of the department’s rank and file and said “sit-down, lengthy, face-toface interviews with over 300 people in the department” have helped guide the process. “No one knows better what gets in the way of you being effective than you, and that was really what we’re wanting to have some understanding of,” Mr. Tillerson said. “Answers are going to come from all of this.”
Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan defended Mr. Tillerson last week by telling reporters at Foggy Bottom that negative press coverage fuels “a misperception both of the department and what we’re doing and [the secretary’s] role in the department.”
“I see those articles, [and] I try not to pay attention,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I’m from Boston and a New England Patriots fan, and those of you who know football know Bill Belichick’s motto is: ‘Do your job and don’t pay attention to the noise out there.’”
“But in this town,” he said, “it’s kind of hard to miss when your friends and colleagues start calling you and emailing you about the latest article that appeared.”
Mr. Tillerson and his team also seem indifferent at best to arguing their side of the story, at least in public. Mr. Tillerson’s first foreign trips have included far fewer briefing opportunities than those of his predecessors, and the daily State Department press briefing, a tradition dating back to the 1950s, has gone by the wayside.
While some briefings have resumed, acrimony remains among the press corps covering Foggy Bottom over the secretary’s restrictions on media access.
What remains to be seen is whether the Tillerson-Sullivan message will help defuse criticism in the media, where Mr. Tillerson is often portrayed as a lackey carrying out Mr. Trump’s orders while having his own legitimacy undercut by the president.
Critics say the White House vetoed Mr. Tillerson’s early choices for key management slots and that the presidential team, not the State Department, was handling broad swaths of foreign policy.
“Under Trump, the White House has seized control of key foreign policy issues,” argued a recent analysis in The New Yorker.
“The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a real estate developer, has been charged with brokering Middle East peace, navigating U.S.-China relations, and the Mexico portfolio. … Washington scuttlebutt is consumed with tales of how Trump has stymied his own Secretary of State.”
On the same page?
There is also some evidence that Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump are not always on the same page. Their different tones on the severity of the crisis with North Korea is just the latest example.
While some analysts say the two are tacitly engaged in a kind of “good cop/ bad cop” routine to bolster Mr. Trump’s overall negotiating leverage, Mr. Tillerson opposed the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord and is said to be a leading voice against Mr. Trump’s clear desire to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal.
Meeting with reporters last week at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, Mr. Trump sent his clearest signal to date that he is intent on declaring Tehran to be noncompliant with the 2015 accord negotiated by the Obama administration and five international partners. He insisted that Iran was violating the terms and the spirit of the deal.
But Mr. Tillerson, acknowledging he and Mr. Trump differ on the issue, has argued that such a move would have momentous negative consequences with U.S. allies party to the deal and that the U.S. would have more leverage to pressure Iran if it stays in the agreement.
On a separate front, Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson worked at cross-purposes in June when, just after Mr. Trump delivered his highly anticipated speech in Saudi Arabia reasserting U.S. leadership in the Middle East, a vicious spat between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors broke into the open.
Several nations, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, abruptly cut ties with Qatar over its alleged support of terrorism, promotion of Al Jazeera and relationship with Iran, dividing crucial U.S. allies at a time when Mr. Trump hoped to present a united front against Iran and Islamist terrorist groups.
Mr. Trump quickly jumped into the fray on Twitter, seeming to side with the Saudis in their contention that Qatar, home to one of the critical U.S. military bases in the region, was supporting terrorist groups.
Mr. Tillerson appealed for a diplomatic truce and prodded the disputing sides to at least start talking. He also helped secure amendments to Qatar’s anti-terrorism laws.
But the crisis remains at a boiling point, and some regional analysts say it is not helped by the appearance that Mr. Trump is behind the Saudi-led bloc and Mr. Tillerson supports Qatar, where he once had deep relationships as CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.
The whispers about Mr. Tillerson’s long-term plans — there was briefly talk of a possible “Rexit” this summer when the secretary’s frustration was said to be mounting — show no signs of subsiding.
The president and the nation’s top diplomat were again forced to deny there was daylight between them as recently as Friday, when Mr. Trump mixed more hawkish rhetoric with an assurance that he and Mr. Tillerson were “totally on the same page” when it comes to Pyongyang.
Mr. Tillerson, standing at the president’s side, said sometimes it takes “a combined message if we’re going to get effective movement out of the regime in North Korea.”
President Trump spoke after meeting with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Friday. Mr. Tillerson and Mrs. Haley last week managed to get a unanimous United Nations Security Council to approve a resolution with the most severe sanctions package ever against North Korea.