The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In first month of Trump presidency, State Department has been sidelined

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrives in Mexico City on Feb 22. The visit is the second foreign trip of Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

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.

The most visible change at the State Department is the month-long lack of daily press briefings, a fixture since John Foster Dulles was secretary of state in the 1950s. The televised question-and-answer session is watched closely around the world, and past administrations have pointed proudly to the accountability of having a government spokesman available to domestic and foreign press almost every day without fail.

Tillerson has also been notably absent from White House meetings with foreign leaders. The State Department was represented by the acting deputy, Tom Shannon, at the president’s discussions with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Because he was en route to Bonn for a Group of 20 meeting, Tillerson did not join Trump’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although the two had a working dinner the night before.

It is still early in Tillerson’s tenure, and former State Department officials, from Republican and Democratic administrations alike, say his performance reflects the disarray in the White House. The administration had sent mixed signals on key issues such as U.S. policy toward China and commitment to the NATO alliance even before Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign last week.

Some of the State Department’s lack of public diplomacy is probably due to the learning curve of the former oil executive turned diplomat. Other factors appear to be at play, including an aversion to freewheeling questions from reporters and the many department vacancies.

But the biggest factor is the confusing lines of communication and authority to the White House, and Trump’s inclination to farm out elements of foreign policy to a kitchen Cabinet of close advisers.

Chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon attends national security meetings and recently spoke with the German ambassador, and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been given a major role in getting Israeli-Palestinian talks on track, a job usually the preserve of the State Department. When asked about foreign policy developments, State Department officials often have referred reporters to the White House.

“Tillerson isn’t being purposefully sidelined; he’s just caught up in an administration with too many competing power centers and a president who’s unwilling or unable to decide who he wants to play the lead role in implementing his foreign policy,” said Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat who advised Republican and Democratic presidents about the Middle East. “The problem is letting a thousand flowers and tweets bloom isn’t the best way to run the foreign policy of the world’s most consequential power.”

So far, most of Tillerson's diplomacy has been conducted out of sight. He has met with several visiting foreign ministers, spoken on the phone with dozens of other diplomats and met more at the G-20 meeting last week in Bonn.

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Unlike in previous administrations, the State Department has not always made brief accounts of those conversations public. After Tillerson met with European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini this month, the State Department said nothing, while Mogherini held a detailed on-the-record briefing for reporters.

“I think it’s hard to go out and talk to the press if you don’t know what to say,” said Richard Boucher, a retired career diplomat and former spokesman for Republican and Democratic administrations.

“I think they’re struggling to get back to square one and reassure people they aren’t undercutting the foundations of what America stood for,” he added. “So they don’t have a lot to say and don’t know how to use the press to influence getting there.”

In some cases, governments of countries that are not democracies have been more transparent than the State Department. Phone conversations Tillerson had with the foreign ministers of Russia and Egypt as well as a phone conversation with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman came to light only when the officials told their local press about them.

“It behooves the administration to give our side of any conversation,” said Richard Stengel, the undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs from 2014 through 2016 in the Obama administration. “Having someone put points on the scoreboard and not taking the shot yourself seems peculiar to me.”

Tillerson speaks frequently with Trump and met with him before leaving Washington on Wednesday for meetings in Mexico that will include Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly. A senior State Department official said Tillerson has also had several working meals with the president and provided Trump a debriefing on the meetings in Bonn.

Still, the new secretary of state has maintained an extremely low profile since taking office Feb. 1. His influence appears muted, at least for now, and he suffered a public embarrassment just a week into the job when Trump rejected his choice of a deputy, Republican foreign policy veteran Elliott Abrams, as insufficiently loyal to Trump.

“Tillerson is pretty clearly a decent character and would be a perfectly normal Republican secretary of state, but he’s clearly hampered in all kinds of ways, including in making his own appointments,” said Eliot Cohen, who was a top aide to former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. “The Elliott Abrams example is pretty horrifying.”

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Tillerson has a small group of aides clustered around him, including chief of staff Margaret Peterlin, a former deputy director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office; R.C. Hammond, who was press secretary in Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign; Matt Mowers, a former aide to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who worked on the Trump campaign; and Jennifer Hazelton, who worked at CNN and Fox News before joining the Trump campaign.

Asked whether the absence of top officials at State — Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley are the only Trump-selected officials on the job — is hampering the work of diplomacy, the department referred to earlier comments from White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

“The secretary is having an ongoing and productive exchange with the president and his team that is identifying very talented individuals to serve and help the department execute its mission,” Spicer said.

Though the president always sets foreign policy, often it is considered better for tactical reasons to have policies explained by the State Department and the secretary of state instead of the president.

Former secretaries of state were viewed as the primary public face of U.S. foreign policy, a role Tillerson has yet to fill.

“I support Secretary Tillerson and believe everyone should be patient while he defines his operating style,” said Jim Wilkinson, who was a senior adviser to Rice.

Tillerson has not taken the usual complement of beat reporters with him on either of his foreign trips so far, opting instead for small “pools” that send reports to others. Other recent secretaries of state have made a point of orchestrating a long, symbolic first trip, showcasing their own agendas with news conferences and interviews.

State Department officials have said the daily press briefings are only temporarily shelved while the new administration gets its footing, but there has been no announcement about when they will resume or whether they will still be held every day.

“The Department of State continues to provide members of the media a full suite of services,” acting department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday. “In addition to regular press briefings conducted by a department spokesperson, reporters will soon have access to additional opportunities each week to interact with State Department officials.”

Other incoming administrations have called a hiatus of a few days at most before the briefings resumed. In 2001, the last time a Republican took over after a Democratic administration, there was no break at all. Boucher briefed on Monday, Jan. 22, answering questions about the Philippines, Iraq and Colin L. Powell’s first day on the job as secretary of state.

The silence from the State Department is all the more notable for the combative and sometimes adversarial stance Spicer has adopted and Trump’s own denunciations of major news organizations as biased. Last week, Trump used his favorite bypass, Twitter, to call the news media “the enemy of the American People.”

The former ExxonMobil chief executive has made no speeches beyond a well-received address to State Department employees on his arrival and has held no news conferences. He made only one brief, substantive remark on policy within reporters’ earshot during an intensive round of meetings in Bonn last week and ignored shouted questions that other foreign ministers attending the G-20 session gladly answered.