Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s close relationship with President Trump was on display during Trump’s formal sit-down with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month in Germany. He was the only other U.S. official present, apart from an interpreter, for the most anticipated diplomatic meeting of the new administration, held as Trump and Putin were attending the Group of 20 summit.
The picture was one of a trusted envoy at the center of the action. Back in Washington, however, the State Department that Tillerson leads is adrift.
Trump is his administration’s loudest and most-watched voice on foreign policy and has consolidated decision-making among a small group of trusted aides and family members at the White House.
Tillerson meets with the president most days the two are in Washington and takes calls from him at all hours on his mobile phone. But diplomacy, or at least the kind the State Department traditionally conducts, has seemed a low priority for a president who is openly skeptical of international entanglements.
There were early signs that the State Department would be benched.
Trump put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who had no foreign policy background, in charge of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. And he disregarded the advice of Tillerson and the State Department when he decided to leave the Paris climate accord.
Diplomats breathed a sigh of relief when Trump did not quickly lift punitive sanctions on Russia that many of the State Department’s senior leaders had worked for years to impose, and when he backed off his harshest criticism of China as a currency manipulator. Similarly, Trump has signaled that he will not immediately abandon the State Department-negotiated Iran nuclear deal.
But in each case, current and former department employees said, the State Department’s voice was muted or regarded with a measure of suspicion. Several credited the addition of similar recommendations from the Pentagon for changing Trump’s mind.
The nation’s oldest Cabinet department has a hollowed-out feel these days. Six months into Trump’s presidency, most of the top jobs remain unfilled, and lower-level hiring is largely on hold.
“There’s a lot of stuff where it’s not clear there’s anybody at the helm,” said Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador who is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “There’s a sense of incoherence in the way they fire people without replacements, shuttle people into the job and then have to shuttle somebody else into that job.”
Tillerson wants to restructure the department to reduce its size and get rid of overlapping areas of responsibility. Congressional critics, including numerous Republicans, told Tillerson last month that streamlining may be a good idea but that empty desks and large budget cuts are not.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) opened a hearing on the State Department budget by praising Tillerson’s straight-talking style, while warning him that he has a lot to learn. Graham took Tillerson on a rhetorical tour of trouble spots, including Syria, North Korea, Ukraine and the Persian Gulf, among others.
The U.S. secretary of state has to confront all of them, the veteran senator told Tillerson.
“You’re the man,” Graham said. “You’re going to do all that and cut the budget by 29 percent?”
Tillerson has made clear that he thinks the department’s structure and functions need reforming for the 21st century. He has told diplomats that he has seen the benefits of periodic management overhauls.
But his timeline for change — extending to late 2018, or halfway through the presidential term — is languorous by the standards of Washington political cycles.
A senior adviser, R.C. Hammond, said Tillerson, a mechanical engineer by training, has approached the job methodically. First he huddled with Trump and the national security team, a job set back by the sudden resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Then he proceeded in charted phases. First he laid the groundwork for the most pressing problem, trying to coax China into turning its back on North Korea over its nuclear program.
“In the first six months, we set up an entire new direction with our policy toward North Korea,” he said. “It’s not because the administration changed. It’s because of world events.”
Now, Tillerson is trying to improve relations with Moscow despite growing questions over its attempts to disrupt the U.S. election, and he is wading into the crises in Syria and the Persian Gulf.
Hammond dismissed the narrative that Tillerson is isolated from the staff. He said he has met frequently with desk officers and advisers on hot spots that he is training his attention on. And he is known for insisting that his schedule block out dedicated hours for reading briefing papers.
“People mistake the value of face time versus reading time,” Hammond said. “This is a guy who gets excited reading instructions from Ikea. He’s a mechanical engineer who reads and analyzes. He spends a lot of time with the guys who work on China and the Middle East. The information he needs to do the job is dictated by what the president is looking for.”
In the next six months, Hammond said, Tillerson will speak frequently on the immorality of human trafficking, the wisdom of nuclear nonproliferation, and cooperation with Mexico to combat the drug cartels.
“This was the plan all along,” Hammond said of Tillerson’s pace. “He’s not adjusting because of criticism. He’s staying on the railroad track he laid out for himself, and continues chugging along.”
Tillerson has begun to project his own role more aggressively. That became publicly noticeable when he introduced the annual human trafficking report last month. Six weeks earlier, he had skipped the rollout of the annual human rights report entirely, a sharp departure from previous secretaries of state who used it to underscore the centrality of human rights to U.S. foreign policy.
But when the human trafficking report came around, Tillerson was front and center in the opulent Benjamin Franklin room, with several prominent members of Congress in attendance. Talking off the cuff as the cameras rolled, he struck themes similar to those of his immediate predecessor, John F. Kerry, saying that “the consequences of our failure to act in this area has so many other negative impacts around the world: It breeds corruption; it undermines rule of law; it erodes the core values that underpin a civil society.”
He was willing to infuriate Beijing with the report, which downgraded China to a ranking reserved for the world’s worst offenders. He spoke scornfully and at length of China using North Korean guest workers whose pay goes directly to Pyongyang despite its nuclear weapons program.
At the G-20 summit in Hamburg, the man who in March described himself as “not a big media press access person” stood comfortably in front of a room of reporters, answering their questions and even making light of first lady Melania Trump’s unsuccessful attempt to break up the meeting with Putin when it ran long.
After months of watching silently while the White House grabbed the big items in the foreign policy portfolio, Tillerson — and the State Department — are edging to the forefront of several foreign initiatives.
He has appointed a special representative to push U.S. views and help shape negotiations over the war in Ukraine, where an agreement mediated by the French and Germans has languished for years.
In the Syrian war, the State Department was involved in weeks of negotiations to get an agreement for a cease-fire in the southwest, and Tillerson hopes the cooperation he has sought with Russia will lead to a further cessation of hostilities elsewhere in the country.
And Tillerson spent several days in July flying around the Persian Gulf trying to help end a trade and diplomatic embargo placed on Qatar by its neighbors. At the end of that trip, Tillerson told reporters that he hoped he had nudged the squabbling parties closer, and he suggested that he is more comfortable with that part of the job than he is navigating political Washington.
“It is a lot different than being CEO of [ExxonMobil], because I was the ultimate decision-maker. That always makes life easier,” Tillerson said.
Neumann said it is perhaps too easy to criticize Tillerson and the new administration for sidelining the State Department. Tension between the department and the White House National Security Council is nothing new, he noted, nor is a tug-of-war over influence in policy decisions.
The larger question looming over the department, Neumann said, is how diplomacy figures in an administration that still feels ad hoc and that is continually buffeted by Trump’s own behavior.
“It’s one thing having policies under debate. It’s another to have policies that have to be reversed because the president is undercutting his own Cabinet secretaries,” Neumann said.