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Low-key Tillerson steps up onto global stage at G-20 summit

Tracy Wilkinson, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- As CEO of Exxon Mobil, one of the world's largest oil companies, Rex Tillerson was accustomed to giving orders and brokering multibillion-dollar deals around the globe.

Now he leads a State Department that was largely sidelined by President Donald Trump's disruptive phone calls with leaders in Mexico and Australia, provocative comments about NATO and China, and the subsequently blocked order suspending travel from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Secretary of State Tillerson made his debut on the global stage Thursday at a G-20 summit in Bonn, Germany, saying little in public but working behind the scenes to reassure a dozen or so foreign ministers that U.S. foreign policy was nothing to fear.

Tillerson faced a barrage of questions from his foreign counterparts on whether Trump administration policy would hew to traditional lines or follow Trump's sometimes ad hoc pronouncements. The diplomat mostly stuck to a handful of carefully crafted policy statements.

He described his first formal meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as "productive," and avoided any mention of the FBI investigation back home into whether Trump's campaign team or associates had improper contacts with Russian officials.

Tillerson apparently has the president's ear.

After he spoke to Trump, the White House issued a mild rebuke for the first time to Israel for expanding settlements in the disputed West Bank. Trump repeated the criticism Wednesday at a joint news conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

And Tillerson is winning over skeptics at State who questioned his lack of government experience.

Several officials who have briefed Tillerson say he asks questions and listens patiently. His predecessor, John F. Kerry, a garrulous former U.S. senator with vast diplomatic experience, tended to pontificate rather than listen, these officials said.

Still, with Trump's foreign policy very much a work in progress, Tillerson has kept an usually low public profile since he was sworn in Feb. 1. Except for a folksy introduction to State Department staffers, he has yet to give a speech, appear on a TV talk show or hold a news conference.

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