Secretary of State Rex Tillerson isn't acting like a man who's planning to leave his job anytime soon.
Speaking to State Department employees Tuesday in a town hall televised throughout the building and to U.S. missions around the world, Tillerson said he plans to travel to Canada next week and to Africa and Latin America early next year.
He acknowledged widespread concern about a planned reorganization that has contributed to flagging morale and staff defections. But he rebutted rumors that embassies would be closed, and he roused applause by saying he would lift a widely disliked hiring freeze for family members at overseas posts — although a broader freeze will remain in place.
Over the next week, between attending internal holiday parties, he will meet with Capitol Hill committees dealing with foreign policy to explain his reorganization plans, about which lawmakers have complained that they are being kept in the dark.
Tillerson's outreach efforts mark an attempt to reverse criticism that the former ExxonMobil chief executive is aloof from his employees and is presiding over the decline of U.S. diplomacy. Rumors have circulated for months that he is on the verge of resigning or being fired, which he has consistently denied. The speculation about his future even spawned a name, "Rexit." Tillerson has seemed particularly vexed over reports last month that the White House intended to replace him.
Now, the State Department is making a change in strategy aimed at turning the narrative around. It is a tacit acknowledgment that Tillerson's previous approach of limited engagement with employees, Congress and the news media is not working and has only hurt him.
"We have to do a better job of communicating broadly to our external audiences and our internal audiences," said Steve Goldstein, a former communications and marketing executive who is the department's new undersecretary for public diplomacy.
"You're going to see more of this," he said.
Tillerson's town hall is only his second since he arrived in February. During the event, he answered unscreened questions from employees. Reporters were not allowed inside the hall where Tillerson addressed roughly 300 diplomats and State Department staffers, but it was possible to observe his remarks on closed-circuit television.Wearing a gray suit with a pale-blue tie, Tillerson spoke extemporaneously, using no teleprompter as he shunned the lectern to roam the stage, gesturing with animation for an hour and 40 minutes.
The first half of the session was dedicated to what Tillerson called a "trip around the world" highlighting what he considers the State Department's accomplishments this year.
In Asia, he said it remains a goal for the Korean Peninsula to be denuclearized, and he lauded U.S. efforts to persuade other countries to downgrade their diplomatic presence in North Korea and support sanctions designed to starve Pyongyang of the currency needed to develop missiles and nuclear arms. The pace of North Korea's missile tests has accelerated dramatically this year.
On Iran, he said the Obama administration had focused all its attention on securing the 2015 nuclear deal, while the Trump administration was getting allies to talk about ways to counter Iran's missile testing and its support for groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The task, however, is not a victory for U.S. policy, since many allies have publicly urged the United States to stay in the nuclear deal and insist that other issues must be determined separately from the agreement.
"For the time being, we are in the agreement," Tillerson said, not mentioning President Trump's threat to withdraw.
Cameras that occasionally panned across the audience during the diplomacy part of Tillerson's remarks showed expressionless faces. That changed when Tillerson began to address the overhaul that he calls a redesign.
Standing before a screen with the logo "Our Journey: Redesign Update," Tillerson said 35,000 employee questionnaires and 300 interviews had produced plans for some "quick wins."
Employees smiled and applauded when he announced an end to the hiring freeze he imposed for "eligible family members," mostly spouses who are given preference for jobs that become vacant in embassies and other missions. They also clapped when Tillerson vowed to streamline security clearances and issue interim security clearances to interns so that workers can do their jobs sooner.
He also announced technological updates such as merging email lists and putting communications in the cloud, allowing more teleworking and streamlining the processes for transfers, travel and bidding for jobs.
"We want to work more closely, and we want to work as a team together," he said.
Tillerson is still an unfamiliar presence to many employees, and he offered small glimpses of his personality. He said that when he came to the State Department, despite being an international businessman who negotiated deals around the world, he did not know a single U.S. diplomat. He described himself as "beginning" to enjoy the job, although he said he wakes every morning asking himself how to keep people from being killed somewhere in the world.
"This is a hard job," he said.
He acknowledged that while he seeks "win-win" scenarios, it has not worked out that way yet, phrasing his remarks in a way that suggested he is embracing the potential and limitations of traditional diplomacy.
"Do we have any wins to put on the board?" he said. "No. That's not the way this works. Diplomacy is not that simple."
Tillerson reinforced that view later Tuesday during remarks at the Atlantic Council, when he offered to start negotiations with North Korea with no preconditions. He suggested that the two sides could start with small talk, paving the way for a road map. All he demanded was a period when no missiles are fired.
"We need a period of quiet," he said. "You've got to tell us you're ready to talk. The door's open, but we'll show up when you tell us you're willing to talk."