PHOTOS FROM the restaurant at the Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office on Saturday night confirm that President Trump had dinner with Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party and a key leader of the campaign for Britain to exit the European Union. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his wife were dining separately, not included in Mr. Trump’s party, according to the account of a journalist, Benny Johnson, who had booked a nearby table. The scene nicely captures a question being asked in Washington about Mr. Tillerson: Has the State Department been shoved aside in the making of foreign policy?
Mr. Tillerson’s corporate experience raised hopes of a steady hand at the helm of U.S. international relations after Mr. Trump’s erratic campaign rhetoric. Perhaps that is still the secretary’s intention, but so far there is little sign of it. As Carol Morello and Anne Gearan reported recently in The Post, the White House appears to have largely sidelined the State Department from its role as the preeminent voice of U.S. foreign policy. Decisions on hiring, policy and scheduling are being driven by the West Wing, where Mr. Trump’s advisers are deeply suspicious of the foreign policy establishment. They are reportedly planning to ask the State Department to absorb a huge budget cut.
Mr. Tillerson’s sluggish start is evident in several areas. Since his choice of a deputy, Elliott Abrams, was torpedoed by the president, he has yet to select someone. Nor has the administration picked assistant secretaries and others who are vital to managing policy around the world. Right now, these jobs are being carried out on an acting basis by officials who know they are in a holding pattern.
Meanwhile, the department’s daily televised briefing, scrutinized around the world, has not been held since Jan. 19. This pause is extremely unusual. Officials say it will restart March 6. At the same time, Mr. Tillerson has not been included in key meetings between the president and world leaders; instead, the acting deputy, Tom Shannon, attended discussions with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Middle East peace efforts are said to be in the hands of Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In his early days in office, Mr. Tillerson has taken a very low-profile approach, without speeches or news conferences, and sometimes neglected press statements about his conversations with foreign leaders.
On Monday, the department issued a brief comment marking the second anniversary of the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The four-sentence statement largely repeated sentiments expressed last year but dropped language from 2016 calling on Russia to “uphold its obligations” to “promote and protect universal human rights, including the fundamental freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.” Does the United States no longer insist Russia respect human rights and democracy? Good first question, when and if the lights come back on in Foggy Bottom.
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