Out of the loop: Rex Tillerson finds state department sidelined by White House
Rex Tillerson began his first foreign outing as US secretary of state on Thursday, meeting counterparts from G20 countries in Bonn, but he has left behind in Washington a department that is severely weakened and cut out of key policy decisions.
Since starting the job two weeks ago, Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil executive, has soothed nerves at the state department by consulting widely with regional and country experts, but it has been hard to disguise the gap between the department headquarters at Washington’s Foggy Bottom and the White House where far-reaching foreign policy decisions are being made.
Senior state department officials who would normally be called to the White House for their views on key policy issues, are not being asked their opinion. They have resorted to asking foreign diplomats, who now have better access to President Trump’s immediate circle of advisers, what new decisions are imminent.
The public voice of the state department has fallen silent. There has not been a daily press briefing, the customary channel for voicing US views and policy on world events, since January.
When he flew to Germany, Tillerson did not take the diplomatic press corps with him, and at his first meeting on Thursday with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, journalists were hustled out of the room before Tillerson opened his mouth, according to the Bloomberg news agency, rather than be allowed to stay to record the routine exchange of introductory platitudes. When Tillerson emerged, he delivered a very short statement, but refused to take questions.
The new secretary of state’s aversion to press scrutiny may be inherited from his past job at the head of an exceptionally secretive and hierarchical corporation. But it may also reflect the fact that Tillerson’s department has been cut out of the loop when it comes to key decisions.
Neither he nor his staff were consulted on the executive order imposing a travel ban on refugees and nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries. A memo strongly dissenting from the policy has been signed by about 1,000 state department employees.
When Trump decided over a dinner to approve a special forces counter-terrorist raid in Yemen, there was no one from the state department present who would normally have highlighted the dangers of civilian casualties from such operations for wider US interests in the region. The raid on 29 January went badly wrong and 25 civilians were killed, including nine children under the age of 13.
Tillerson has had lunch with Trump since taking the job, but he was taken by surprise when the president at the last moment rejected his choice of deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams, because Abrams had criticised him during the campaign.
Tillerson had previously assured Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, that he would have a free hand in choosing staff. He has brought a handful of personal aides with him but many of the state department senior staff either resigned or were summarily dismissed days before Tillerson arrived in the building, and there is no list of nominees to replace them. Given the time vetting and congressional confirmation takes, Tillerson is now facing many months of working with a severely depleted team of senior staff.
“What concerns me is that in the absence of any confirmed officials other than the secretary, they will not have the weight to make those educated voices heard as the White House makes policy,” said Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation and one of the senior staff who was suddenly sacked before Tillerson’s arrival.
“My nagging suspicion is that the White House is very happy to have a vacuum in the under-secretary and assistant secretary levels, not only at state but across government agencies, because it relieves them of even feeling an obligation to consult with experts before they take a new direction.”
In normal times, the state department is a constant part of an inter-agency policymaking process coordinated by the national security council. But the NSC is in crisis and not just because its leader, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign after details of his discussions with the Russian ambassador were revealed.
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The NSC itself is being bypassed on key decisions by a small group of highly ideological advisers around Trump led by his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, a former Breitbart News executive with ties to the far right. Bannon has presented his role as one of a deliberate disruptor of the Washington establishment and its normal ways of functioning.
“Even in normal circumstances, it would be difficult for a department to carry weight in an inter-agency debate with no deputy secretary, under-secretaries or assistant secretaries, that have been nominated, much less confirmed,” said Tom Malinowski, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour in the Obama administration. “The building needs internal leadership to be able to exert external leadership, and that always takes a little bit of time. What’s different in this situation is that it’s happening at a moment when the country’s foreign policy is probably more unsettled than at any point in our history.”