WASHINGTON – U.S. diplomats breathed a sigh of relief three months ago when Rex Tillerson was nominated as secretary of state, welcoming the oilman as a seasoned manager who would shield them from ideologues ready to gut America’s foreign policy machinery.
Yet that comfort is now giving way to unease, as the former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief embraces President Donald Trump’s vision.
Tillerson supports the president’s goal to cut the State Department budget and shift its mission away from existing initiatives such as climate change, global health and development assistance beyond key allies, according to half a dozen people familiar with his thinking who requested anonymity to discuss internal matters.
“The issue isn’t a lack of resources, it’s how do we refocus the department on its core priorities, and this is a way of getting at that,” said Brett Schaefer, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who has advocated a restructuring of the department but says he isn’t advising Tillerson. “It’s sort of a pressure exercise to force the people inside State and at USAID to rethink how budgets have been allocated and focus on critical priorities.”
That doesn’t mean Tillerson will rubber stamp the Office of Management and Budget’s proposal to slash 37 percent of the combined $50 billion budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to free up money for the military, but he supports the sentiment behind it, the people said.
Tillerson, according to the people interviewed, wants a slimmed-down department that serves Trump’s goal — a national security strategy more narrowly focused on backing U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe to advance his “America First” theme. That means largely doing away with the global promotion of democracy and other “soft power” initiatives.
It marks a sharp departure from the era of President Barack Obama, who oversaw an expansion of the State Department’s mandate, staff and budget.
The swings of sentiment inside the State Department were described by several current and former officials who said staffers were initially encouraged that Trump chose Tillerson and not former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or other candidates they saw as hostile to the department’s goals. Their concerns crystallized later after career diplomats were let go without protest from Tillerson and appointees seen as loyal to Trump but lacking foreign policy experience were installed, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.
Unlike his predecessors — from Republican Henry Kissinger to Democrat Hillary Clinton — Tillerson has cultivated a low public profile. He hasn’t held a single news conference and isn’t taking reporters with him on a trip to Japan, South Korea and China next week.
“He has gone very slowly in developing a public profile in part because he’s smart enough to know that he has to win Trump’s confidence and the confidence of the White House,” said James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies who was previously ambassador to Iraq and went on to work under Tillerson at Exxon. “That’s job one of any secretary.”
There are signs that Tillerson’s strategy is paying off, at least at the White House.
Early media reports painted him as out of the loop after his pick for deputy secretary of state was rejected and he didn’t participate in meetings Trump held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. However, he has been given more face time with the president since then.
The two spoke by phone on Feb. 14 and then met on Feb. 22, Feb. 27, March 1 and March 6, according to the White House schedule. Tillerson was scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on Friday for lunch in the presidential dining room.
Tillerson also was center stage when the administration rolled out a revised executive order outlining immigration limits — one of Trump’s top priorities — and he will chair a ministerial meeting of the 68-nation coalition to combat Islamic State later this month.
But in a change troubling to some in the foreign policy community, Tillerson hasn’t offered an overarching vision for the U.S. role in the world — and may never do so. Instead, he sees himself as a manager with an eye toward corporate-style reform, an outgrowth of his four decades in the private sector, according to those familiar with his thinking.
At Exxon, the 64-year-old Tillerson surrounded himself with a small group of aides with whom he met daily to steer the company. He’s done the same at State. While he has been briefed by many career diplomats, he relies on Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin; Matt Mowers, a former aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who is his main conduit to the White House; and Christine Ciccone, formerly the chief operating officer of Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign.
Tillerson’s management style is surprising would-be supporters. When the budget office’s proposals were revealed last week, senators on both sides of the political aisle condemned the idea, saying it would cripple the department he overseas and undermine U.S. influence. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina proclaimed the plan “dead on arrival.”
Those same senators are finding that the one person they expected to champion their cause — Tillerson — isn’t necessarily on their side. A memo sent to top staff at the State Department and USAID last week by a senior official highlights the divisions and the conflicting messages. While it says Tillerson is “deeply concerned” about the timing and size of the reductions, it also says he is “committed to pursuing” Trump’s agenda of making government leaner and more accountable.
Democrats say Tillerson’s approach is misguided. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont wrote him Thursday to say the department increasingly “appears unable to respond to the myriad foreign policy challenges facing our nation.”
Asked about the potential State Department budget cuts, acting spokesman Mark Toner said at a briefing Tuesday that the senior staff’s goal was to study “where can we possibly move resources to, re-evaluate resources, reassess, perhaps make cuts if we feel that’s necessary, but in no way trying to limit the function or the efficacy, efficiency of this State Department.”
Tension over the State Department and its role is hardly new. David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest,” a book that Trump adviser Steve Bannon demanded that others on the presidential transition team read, is replete with tales of President John F. Kennedy’s frustration with the slow pace of work at State.
And whether or not his employees agree, Tillerson’s made clear that change is coming. In an otherwise conciliatory speech to State Department staff on his first day there, he warned that they “cannot sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes.”
He was even more explicit in his confirmation hearing, citing his time as an engineer and later chief executive officer at Exxon, the world’s largest energy company by market value, when asked whether he planned to eliminate redundancies.
“I’ve looked at organization charts from a few years ago to organization charts today and I’ve noticed there are a few more boxes,” he said. “Now, some of those may be for very good and valid reasons, but also, it appears to me that new issues which have been added may rightfully need to be placed back into the mission and integrated into the mission itself.”
Analysts agree there is room for change at the department, if only to reduce confusion. Cybersecurity matters, for example, are split between the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Information Resources Management. Plus there’s a coordinator for Cyber Issues.
Still, the hollowing out of entire levels of the diplomatic corps with the departure — voluntary or forced — of political appointees has alarmed groups that work with the State Department on issues around the globe.
“There are whole layers there that are empty at the political level — the ones who can make decisions and drive resources to solve these kinds of problems,” said Bill O’Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at Catholic Relief Services. “That’s really the critical need.”
The department is slowly staffing up, with Trump deciding on choices for a NATO ambassador, State Department spokesman and ambassador to Russia in recent days.
But the question remains what Tillerson’s State Department will look like and whether it can do its job with its reach — and its budget — reduced.
“These are the condo fees of global leadership,” said Daniel Runde, a Republican who’s a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We have a Republican Congress and a Republican executive branch, and we’re overdue for a strategic conversation for how we use our soft power in the world.”