WASHINGTON – Frustration is mounting among leading foreign policy officials in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration as they chafe at some policy and bureaucratic defeats and complain they lack independence to do their jobs, officials say.
The clash between internationalists urging the traditional U.S. leadership role in the world and advocates of an “America First” approach has worn down foreign policy and intelligence professionals inside the government, according to the officials.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has told friends he will be lucky to last a year in his job, according to a friend, while two officials said national security adviser H.R. McMaster was frustrated by what he sees as disorganization and indiscipline on key policy issues inside the White House.
A source familiar with the situation said that Tillerson was “very upset at not having autonomy, independence and control over his own department and the ability to do the job the way the job … is traditionally done.”
The source said he had heard nothing about any possible departure, but added: “The situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and in some respects appears to be getting worse.”
R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s spokesman, denied Tillerson was considering leaving or that his frustrations were boiling over, saying he had “plenty of reasons to stay on the job, and all of them are important to America.”
“There’s a desperate need for American leadership in the world and that’s where the secretary’s focusing his attention,” he said.
Tillerson scored a policy win last week when the administration certified, albeit reluctantly, that Iran was complying with the 2015 nuclear deal under which Tehran agreed to restrain its atomic program in exchange for sanctions relief.
He was upset, however, by fierce internal criticism from Trump, as well as his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and White House aide Sebastian Gorka, over the decision, said another U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The secretary does not feel that White House staff members should be in a position to conduct hostile cross-(examinations) of Cabinet officials,” the official said.
Hammond disputed the account of harsh discord between Trump and Tillerson regarding recertifying the Iran nuclear deal, saying: “I don’t buy this whole thing that there are tensions. Developing public policy is about vetting out ideas.”
Following last month’s move by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt to boycott Qatar, which they accuse of financing extremist groups and supporting terrorism, Tillerson publicly asked the nations to ease their blockade, and put the onus on both sides to end the crisis.
Less than 90 minutes later, Trump accused Qatar of being a “high-level” sponsor of terrorism and suggested he had helped plan the Qatar action with Arab leaders.
“As a government we offered some confusing signals, but we’ve since been able to clear up and clarify that,” Hammond said.
Politico reported last month that Tillerson was furious with Johnny DeStefano, the head of the presidential personnel office, for torpedoing proposed nominees to key State Department posts.
Senior national security officials said McMaster was dismayed that his recommendations, backed by his senior director for Russia, Fiona Hill, about taking a tough stance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, had been ignored.
Trump has questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to try to help him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
McMaster, a three-star U.S. Army general who once praised Trump as a “disruptive” figure, is also troubled by a protracted debate about sending more American forces to help Afghanistan reverse gains by the Taliban, officials familiar with the matter said.
Asked to respond to the characterizations of the views of McMaster and other officials, a White House official said: “Assertions not of fact but of state of mind in internal thought have no place in a story like this.”
While circumspect, Tillerson talked about the challenges of his new job earlier this month, telling reporters that it differed from his former role as chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp. where “I was the ultimate decision-maker. That always makes life easier.”
“I knew what to expect and we had very long-standing disciplined processes and decision-making,” he said. “Those are not the characteristics of the United States government.”
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