The White House is becoming increasingly frustrated with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and a close-knit circle of aides over the slow pace of hiring and a chokehold on information and access to Tillerson, according to senior Trump administration officials and others familiar with the rift.
Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil chief executive with no prior government experience, gets some of the blame from White House officials and political advisers anxious to place Republican political appointees in numerous vacant positions at the State Department.
They said Tillerson’s deliberate approach to reviewing candidates and his insistence on a detailed department management review and reorganization, informed by his corporate background, has slowed down an already slow process.
Tillerson told Congress last week that dozens of candidates are moving through the system and that the biggest holdup is usually the onerous background paperwork required of new government hires.
But Tillerson also sketched a lengthy timeline for his internal review that would include a period of study and planning through 2017 and changes to the department’s structure and staffing next year. In some cases, senior jobs will remain vacant until then, if they are filled at all.
Aides say Tillerson is more concerned about setting the State Department on what he considers a more solid course in the long term than he is in satisfying the demands of political Washington to fill the employment roster.
“I’m listening to what my people tell me are the challenges facing them and how we can produce a more efficient, effective State Department and USAID,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
For now, Tillerson is surrounded by a core group of about a half-dozen top aides who are responsible for a vast menu of decisions about policy, priorities, staffing and more.
At the center of that small group is State Department chief of staff Margaret Peterlin, a little-known political aide. Although Tillerson’s CEO leadership style dictates much of how his front office works, Peterlin’s growing number of critics complain that she has built a fortress around her boss that ensures information and decisions flow through her.
“And only her,” said one administration official.
The internal Trump administration complaints about Peterlin’s role boil down to a tussle over who calls the shots about access to Tillerson and the filling of political jobs.
Peterlin has even tried to limit direct access to Tillerson by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and other top officials, one outside adviser to the White House said, leaving White House officials to “sneak around” or call Tillerson on his cellphone, that person and administration officials said.
“It is stove-piped,” one senior administration official said. “Calls aren’t getting returned. It’s that kind of crap.”
Critics of the Tillerson front office, and of Peterlin in particular, spoke on the condition of anonymity to express frustration with what they said is a closed-ranks approach that could hurt the department’s effectiveness.
The director of the White House personnel office, Johnny DeStefano, did not respond to a request for comment.
Others involved in the process, however, said Tillerson aides have sat on or ignored White House requests for action on personnel.
Tillerson is not a politician, and his step-by-step approach to evaluating job candidates may not always fit the expected tempo or political imperatives of Washington, senior aide R.C. Hammond said.
Hammond said Tillerson wants to interview two candidates for most department jobs, such as the numerous assistant secretaries who oversee State Department activities in particular regions of the world.
“The measuring stick he’s sort of putting people up against is, is this person qualified to help, are their skills and leadership going to help us achieve the mission?” Hammond said.
“A desire for political patronage does not help a candidate overcome a lack of competence,” he said.
The alleged logjam includes what the outside adviser characterized as White House picks for a dozen or more ambassadorships.
Tillerson’s team has so far refused to act on the recommendations, the adviser said.
“Not a word back from State,” this person said.
Peterlin declined to comment, but Hammond dismissed the notion that she or other Tillerson aides are slow-walking staffing decisions or preventing access to White House officials.
“She is the chief of staff. Her job is to implement what the secretary wants her to do. She leads the staff to be the implementers of what the secretary wants to get done,” Hammond said. “Margaret doesn’t freelance.”
A chief of staff is a gatekeeper by necessity, ensuring that the boss is not inundated with requests and decisions that could be made by others, and that time is used wisely. Previous State Department chiefs of staff, including Hillary Clinton aide Cheryl Mills, were also accused of insularity.
But Peterlin’s concentrated power and perceived resistance to White House priorities is puzzling to several administration officials interviewed. Peterlin had been selected by the Trump transition team to prepare Tillerson for his Senate confirmation hearing in January, and became one of the first Trump administration political appointees at the department. She and Tillerson did not know each other well before the confirmation hearing prep sessions.
Peterlin’s defenders suggest people might be making her a scapegoat to save face for the White House or Republican advisers when a favored candidate doesn’t make the cut.
And Hammond said she is not directly responsible for deciding which White House job recommendations make it to Tillerson’s desk. Tillerson is spending about 45 minutes to one hour each week working down lists of candidates for ambassadorships and some other senior positions directly with President Trump or others at the White House, Hammond said.
Any senior figure who needs to talk to Tillerson can do so, Hammond added, citing the frequent back-and-forth between Tillerson’s office and the secretaries of defense and treasury, as well as Tillerson’s near-daily calls and visits with Trump.
Peterlin’s counterpart at the Treasury Department, chief of staff Eli Miller, said he has experienced no holdup or problem in getting information or arranging phone calls through Peterlin and her staff.
“She is very accessible. Really at any time,” Miller said. “I work very closely with them and I’ve never had a problem — early in the morning or late at night.”
The allegation of roadblocks can go both ways. One former senior government official who has met with Tillerson for a job said that Tillerson had made the hiring recommendation to the White House, but what followed was “radio silence.”
Under somewhat skeptical questioning from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers last week, Tillerson said his goal is a modest reduction in the overall size of the State Department staff and a strategic rethinking of priorities and resources. He defended the Trump administration’s proposed budget cut of about 30 percent, although lawmakers of both parties told him the cuts were unreasonable and would not stand.