Rex Tillerson: Diplomats told not to make eye contact with Trump's Secretary of State as awkward start continues

Former ExxonMobil chief executive cuts isolated figure as US State Department grows anxious over lack of direction on key issues

Rex Tillerson boards a plane for his first trip as Secretary of State, a visit to Germany, in February
Rex Tillerson boards a plane for his first trip as Secretary of State, a visit to Germany, in February

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes a private elevator to his palatial office on the seventh floor of the US State Department building, where sightings of him are rare on the floors below.

On many days, he blocks out several hours on his schedule as “reading time”, when he is cloistered in his office poring over the memos he prefers ahead of in-person meetings.

Most of his 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.

On his first three foreign trips, Tillerson skipped visits with State Department employees and their families, embassy stops that were standard morale-boosters under other secretaries of state.

Eight weeks into his tenure as President Trump’s top diplomat, the former ExxonMobil chief executive is isolated, walled off from the State Department’s corps of bureaucrats in Washington and around the world. His distant management style has created growing bewilderment among foreign officials who are struggling to understand where the United States stands on key issues. It has sown mistrust among career employees at the State Department, who swap paranoid stories about Tillerson that often turn out to be untrue. And it threatens to undermine the power and reach of his department, which has been targeted for a 30 percent funding cut in Trump’s budget.

Many have expressed alarm that Tillerson has not fought harder for the agency he now leads.

Congressman Eliot Engel (New York), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tillerson called him after the proposed cuts were announced. Engel said the Secretary of State seemed to share Engel’s concern that the cuts are “draconian” and counterproductive. But Engel said Tillerson seemed to signal his acquiescence when he called them “a glide path to what was about to happen”.

“I’m chagrined by what’s happening, or not happening,” Engel said.

“When you put it all together, it certainly seems they’re trying to downsize the State Department and make it irrelevant. I’m at a loss for words. Why would Tillerson take the job if he was not going to defend his agency?”

Tillerson’s low profile reflects his desire to do his job without fanfare, said a senior aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly.

As an oil executive, Tillerson travelled the world negotiating deals behind closed doors, with just one or two aides accompanying him. Tillerson’s current aide said the secretary thinks that model served him well.

Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the United States, brushed off the concerns about staff vacancies, confusion and a clamp on information. Britain’s dealings with the Trump administration have gone well – starting with Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to the White House just days after Trump took office, Darroch said.

“We are having absolutely no problem, I promise you, with access or accessibility” at the State Department or White House, Darroch said.

Still, the Secretary of State is visibly uncomfortable with the vast infrastructure and expectations of public diplomacy that come with his new role.

Tillerson’s slow start has rattled other foreign diplomats. Some complain that with assistant secretary of state positions occupied only by “acting” deputies, they have no one of authority to contact. Tillerson remains the only Senate-confirmed official selected by Trump anywhere inside the State Department building. Weeks after the White House embarrassed Tillerson by rejecting the seasoned foreign policy hand he had selected for a deputy, Republican lawyer John Sullivan is the leading candidate. Sullivan held senior jobs in the George W Bush administration but has no direct experience in the State Department.

Some diplomats have begun meeting with each other to swap notes on how to decipher the fledgling administration’s policies.

“We’re rowing against the current, and the current has a Twitter account,” a foreign diplomat posted in Washington said about how information relayed by State Department diplomats can be undercut by a presidential tweet.

Current and recently departed State Department officials – all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid assessments of what one called the “benching” of the oldest cabinet department – said Tillerson is paying a price.

Tillerson’s political advisers have little foreign policy experience and little pull at the White House, current and former officials said. Their dealings with the department staff have sometimes been testy and unpleasant.

“Part of it is a deep distrust of bureaucracy,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “It sets a command climate that makes people cautious and paranoid. These folks, in their political-commissar roles, take that to an extreme. Everything we have heard is about how small the aperture is for information coming in and going out of the secretary’s office. That is not a recipe for success.”

For weeks, a rumour circulated in Foggy Bottom – an informal name for the department – that Tillerson was ripping up a grand adjacent office on “Mahogany Row” to install a warren of cubicles for White House-approved political aides who could bypass department employees. According to the senior Tillerson aide, the story was untrue. The Secretary of State is merely converting the office into a conference room, the aide said, intended to be a place where he can convene the sort of strategy sessions he found useful when gaming out oil deals and profit plans at Exxon.

“The man loves his whiteboards. He wanted to build out a spot, a working room, to engage with colleagues and map things out,” the aide said.

Tillerson charmed employees on his first day on the job with a pledge to listen and learn, but the ensuing weeks suggest that the former executive’s boardroom sensibilities are an awkward fit for the diplomatic salon.

Career employees might have helped Tillerson avoid embarrassing gaffes such as the initial decision not to attend a Nato foreign ministers’ meeting.

The 28-member session in Brussels was rescheduled to accommodate Tillerson, who reversed course amid criticism that by his planned absence he had offered proof of the new administration’s indifference to the transatlantic military alliance.

“Rookie error, plain and simple,” one former State Department employee said, noting that department officials in charge of dealings with Nato and Europe were cut out of many planning discussions.

The debacle may serve as an example of how Tillerson’s corporate insistence on efficient time management did not serve him well, another official said.

But Darroch, the British ambassador, said the quarrel over the Nato meeting ended well, with Tillerson making room for it in his schedule.

“It’s great that he’s coming over to Europe pretty much just for this meeting, racking up the air miles already, and so it’s all fine,” Darroch said with a smile.

Tillerson has opted to scrap at least two senior jobs formerly housed on the seventh floor, including that of department counsellor, the Tillerson aide said. Some secretaries have used that job as a kind of in-house truth-teller, someone empowered to tell the boss she or he is making a mistake. Other secretaries of state have used the counsellor to act as a surrogate, or like Tillerson, opted not to fill the position at all.

Rumours that Tillerson does not plan to fill the many vacancies at the assistant-secretary level are not true, the aide said. But a lack of guidance from Tillerson since he arrived on 2 February has fostered a sense among career diplomats that they are considered an obstacle to change, one department official said.

“We’re rooting for our Secretary of State to come around, and trying to figure out a way to convince him we do work for administrations of both parties,” the official said.

Tillerson has told employees that he will travel less than previous secretaries did and will take a smaller, faster plane that is more like the corporate jets of his former life. The government plane he is using this week in Europe has room for fewer than a dozen staff members, perhaps half the contingent that customarily travelled with recent predecessors.

No official note taker accompanied him on a recent trip, so senior aides did the job to have a record of his talks with foreign ministers, according to a congressional aide.

On Thursday, Tillerson held his first visit with State Department employees abroad, at the US embassy in Ankara, where he appeared to acknowledge some dissent in the ranks when he urged “honest” confrontation of differing opinions.

“That’s how we come to a better decision in all that we do. And only if we do that can we then be honest with all of our partners and allies around the world as well. And still, I mean, we’re going to have our differences, but we’re going to be very honest and open about those, so at least we understand them.”

© The Washington Post

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