When Donald Trump announced that he was nominating Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State, I have to say my first reaction was relief. Which is not to say that I have any positive feelings about Rex Tillerson, and in fact having the former CEO of ExxonMobil as our Secretary of State is incredibly bad from a climate change perspective. But compared to the names that were bandied about to run State at the start of the transition process (John Bolton? Rudy Giuliani? Mike Flynn? Mitt Romne–oh right that wasn’t a serious possibility), Tillerson was positively sparkling. Unorthodox, yes, but less likely than the other candidates to, say, directly contribute to the start of World War III.
Unfortunately, it also doesn’t seem like he’d be able to do much to stop World War III. Among the questions involved in making a non-politician and non-diplomat like Tillerson the Secretary of State was whether or not he’d be able to a) do the job and b) negotiate the politics of the job. So far the answer to both of those questions appears to be a resounding “no.” When you’re a novice cabinet secretary, and the Washington Post and Politico both publish pieces about your struggles on the job on the same day, as they did about Tillerson yesterday, it’s pretty clear that you’re not having a smooth ride in office. Here, for example, is how the Post begins its piece:
The Trump administration in its first month has largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the preeminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.
Decisions on hiring, policy and scheduling are being driven by a White House often wary of the foreign policy establishment and struggling to set priorities and write policy on the fly.
Yikes. Tillerson’s State Department doesn’t give daily briefings, he’s rarely present when Trump meets with foreign leaders, he’s regularly out of sync with the White House when he does make a public statement, he’s apparently (if you believe the reporting) blindsided on the regular by new foreign policy pronouncements from the White House, and he, like a lot of other Trump “outsiders” in the administration, isn’t being allowed to hire the personnel he wants. Meanwhile, Jared Kushner, who’s main qualification is that he’s married to Ivanka Trump, is by several accounts acting as the “shadow secretary of state.”
Politico reported yesterday that Tillerson is trying to remedy his situation, or at least the part of his situation that’s within his control to remedy:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has asked his aides to find ways to improve his media profile, a request that comes as U.S. diplomats increasingly worry about the direction of the State Department and whether their new boss has enough influence with President Donald Trump.
A State Department official said Tillerson’s aides have asked staffers at the agency to draft a paper laying out ways he can engage with reporters, who have been given almost no access to the new Cabinet member. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to share the information. The State Department’s press office did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
Some of Tillerson’s reticence with the press undoubtedly has to do with his background–as CEO of ExxonMobil, he presumably avoided talking to the press as much as possible. But even if his staff manages to figure out how to raise his media profile (and, really, how hard can that be? just talk to the press more often, or at all), we run into the problem that Tillerson just doesn’t seem to be involved in setting the administration’s foreign policy. That’s being run almost exclusively out of Trump’s inner circle (i.e., Kushner and Steve Bannon). So what’s Tillerson going to say to the press that changes the underlying problem? What can he say to the press when it seems the press keeps learning about Trump’s major foreign policy moves before Tillerson does?
The first month of foreign policy under Donald Trump has been a mix of lousy ideology and total inconsistency in message, and right now it’s not clear which is worse. The latter sounds like window dressing, but it’s not. When the President of the United States declares his foreign policy, the world changes, for better or for worse. When the US Secretary of State makes foreign policy pronouncements, which are presumed to be in the president’s name, the world changes. When the president and the secretary of state aren’t on the same page, the world gets confused. When the president says things that later have to be contradicted or walked back by his staff, you have the potential for chaos. Right now, the net effect the Trump administration is having on the world is a whole lot of chaos.
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