The secretary of state has done little to define his views or give guidance to diplomats abroad, limiting himself to terse, scripted statements, taking no questions from reporters and offering no public protest when the White House proposed cutting the State Department budget.
WASHINGTON — Henry A. Kissinger slipped into the State Department last week for a quiet lunch in his old office with Rex W. Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil chief executive, who has all but covered himself in a cloak of invisibility in his first six weeks as secretary of state.
Describing his impressions, Kissinger, perhaps the United States’ most famous diplomatic strategist, chose his words judiciously. “The normal tendency when you come into that job is to increase your visibility and to show that you are present and in charge,” he said in an interview. “He wanted to first inform himself of all the nuances. I was impressed by the confidence and self-assurance that he showed.”
But in the Washington of Donald Trump, where foreign policy proclamations often appear first on Twitter, and where White House advisers are still battling for dominance, this approach can be seen as brilliant, mystifying or a prescription for powerlessness.
Tillerson has skipped every opportunity to define his views or give guidance to U.S. diplomats abroad, limiting himself to terse, scripted statements, taking no questions from reporters and offering no public protest when the White House proposed cutting the State Department budget by 37 percent without first consulting him.
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He suffered in silence, State Department officials said, when Trump called, in a matter-of-fact way, to reject Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams.
He has been absent from the White House meetings with key world leaders, and when the State Department issued its annual report on human rights — usually a major moment for the United States to stand up against repression around the world — he skipped the announcement.
Tillerson, according to the people interviewed, wants a slimmed-down department that serves Trump’s goal — a national-security strategy more narrowly focused on backing U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe to advance his “America First” theme. That means largely doing away with the global promotion of democracy and other “soft power” initiatives.
It marks a sharp departure from the era of President Barack Obama, who oversaw an expansion of the State Department’s mandate, staff and budget.
Defenders say Tillerson has been accomplishing far more behind the scenes, including arranging for the first trip of a Saudi foreign minister to Iraq in more than a quarter-century — his first foray into the sinkhole of Middle East politics.
“He’s already developing plans to begin ratcheting back Putin’s nefarious behavior,” Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview — steps that would represent the first known effort by the new administration to face off against President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
“He’s won status and respect of the president, of McMaster, and talks all the time to Jared,” the senator said, referring to the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who has emerged as a prominent voice on U.S. foreign policy.
“He doesn’t mind at all that these stories are being written about him being missing,” Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said about Tillerson. “When he’s ready to talk, you will be very highly impressed.”
Asia mission launches
On Tuesday, Tillerson will leave for his first truly fraught diplomatic mission: a trip to Japan, South Korea and China, at a moment when open conflict with North Korea is a growing possibility, and when the administration is planning Trump’s first meeting with President Xi Jinping of China. The trip is so vital that the “principals” committee of the National Security Council is set to convene Monday to discuss the North Korean threat and how to deal with China, so that Tillerson speaks from a consensus strategy.
But do not expect to hear much about that strategy from the secretary before he arrives in Asia: The State Department has told reporters that they cannot ride on the plane.
The decision appears to be unprecedented for a major diplomatic trip — even four decades ago, when Kissinger was conducting shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and opening up China, he was delivering spin to reporters on the plane and offering up diplomatic tutorials.
“All his predecessors have traveled with press,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who served as spokesman, ambassador and undersecretary of state in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Failing to do so, he noted, creates the risk that the secretary of state will be defined by the country he is visiting — especially a place like China.
Promising first day
Within the State Department, Tillerson, 64, got off to a promising start with a warm, humble greeting to staff members in the drab headquarters’ flag-draped foyer on his first day on the job. He talked about his upbringing and his wife’s belief that he had been preparing for this job his whole life, even if had not known it.
But few have heard from him since. Those who have say they regard him as an impressive manager who knows how to run a crisp meeting, take in a variety of views and give little away about his own.
“He forces everyone to boil their memos down to a page or two, so they really have to think about what their message is,” said one official who has dealt with him frequently in recent weeks. “He’s already met with two of the most important Chinese officials. He knows a lot about some countries many secretaries don’t know about,” including Indonesia and others that have energy assets. He understands what embassies do, because Exxon Mobil often relied on them for help.
At Exxon, Tillerson surrounded himself with a small group of aides with whom he met daily to steer the company. He’s done the same at the State Department. While he has been briefed by many career diplomats, he relies on Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin; Matt Mowers, a former aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who is his main conduit to the White House; and Christine Ciccone, formerly the chief operating officer of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
But he is also introverted, a bit standoffish. He never met in person with John Kerry, his predecessor. “These guys came in to drain the swamp,” one career State Department official said, “and it’s clear that they are under orders not to cooperate or deal with swamp creatures.”
Diplomacy no priority?
The biggest concern among diplomats and many in Congress is that when Trump talks about bolstering the United States’ commitment to its national security, he does not have diplomacy in mind. Longtime diplomats often cite — or email to reporters — a line uttered four years ago by the new defense secretary, Jim Mattis, when he was in charge of Central Command.
“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition,” Mattis said at the time. As one diplomat who has met frequently with Tillerson since he took office noted recently, “Rex clearly agrees with that. He just won’t say it.”
(A senior State Department official said Tillerson did say it, to Trump, over dinner a little more than a week ago.)
Analysts agree there is room for change at the department, if only to reduce confusion. Cybersecurity matters, for example, are split between the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Information Resources Management. Plus there’s a coordinator for Cyber Issues.
Still, the hollowing out of entire levels of the diplomatic corps with the departure — voluntary or forced — of political appointees has alarmed groups that work with the State Department on issues around the globe.
“There are whole layers there that are empty at the political level — the ones who can make decisions and drive resources to solve these kinds of problems,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services. “That’s really the critical need.”
The department is slowly staffing up, with Trump deciding on choices for a NATO ambassador, State Department spokesman and ambassador to Russia in recent days.
On his first trip, to Europe, Tillerson went out of his way to reassure allies of the United States’ commitment to NATO, doing little to repeat the “America First” notion that Trump has promoted. In Asia, Tillerson is scheduled to visit the Demilitarized Zone on the border with North Korea, and it seems almost unimaginable that he would repeat Trump’s warning as a candidate that the United States may pull back from the region.
One of the first tests may come in the arena of human rights, where he caused alarm during his confirmation hearings in January by declining to criticize the killings ordered by the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, in an anti-drug campaign.
So why is the man many in the State Department call T. Rex so quiet?
There are several theories about Tillerson’s reticence.
One is that his silence is highly strategic: He wants to cement key relationships in private, make sure he is aligned with a mercurial president and let the policy process at the National Security Council play out before making any grand pronouncements.
The second is that he is waiting for the battles at the White House to burn out. In short, he wants to sidestep Stephen Bannon, the president’s top strategist, who believes that China’s rise can be halted and that Iran should be vigorously confronted, and work with Mattis, Kushner and McMaster. Corker said that “he’s already reached an agreement with Mattis to come to agreement and present ideas together,” something that Condoleezza Rice and Clinton often did with their defense counterpart, Robert M. Gates.
The third is that he sees the job as more akin to what he did at Exxon Mobil: Cut your deals, say as little as possible and take the heat.