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Analysis: Tillerson travels the world as the anti-Trump

Tracy Wilkinson, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sat down with five presidents or prime ministers as he crossed Latin America and the Caribbean last week. On Saturday, he leaves for six days in five countries in the Middle East. Next month, he hits the road for 12 days in Africa.

It's no mean feat, especially since in capital after capital, Tillerson has to finesse between supporting President Donald Trump's policies and repairing the damage from the president's harsh tweets, belligerent speeches and vulgarities about America's allies and adversaries alike.

A year into a job, the urbane former oil executive with the baritone Texas twang is making his mark not for imposing a bold foreign policy, or assembling a grand coalition. In many ways, Tillerson travels the world as the un-Trump.

"The president and I are pretty different individuals in terms of our management style, in terms of our communication style," Tillerson told reporters traveling with him last week in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Peru and Jamaica.

"It doesn't mean one is right, one is wrong, one is better, one is worse," he added. "But we're very different, and the way I process information and come to decisions is different from the way he does."

In contrast to Vice President Mike Pence, who uses his overseas trips to publicly embrace and praise Trump, Tillerson delivers what often seem, if not directly opposing messages, certainly more nuanced ones.

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While Pence paid homage to Trump at nearly every stop in the Middle East last month, and in Tokyo and Seoul this week, Tillerson mentioned the president occasionally and almost in passing while in Latin America.

Tillerson rejects any notion of a gulf between him and the president. But he spends a lot of time reassuring aggrieved allies and explaining what Trump really means on controversies as fraught as Middle East peace, the North Korean nuclear impasse, trade with Mexico and global warming -- all issues where Tillerson has publicly differed with his boss.

Tillerson does not challenge Trump to his face in their regular White House lunches and meetings, nor in frequent telephone conversations, according to people familiar with their dealings. But he is willing to tell other nations that more thought goes into White House policy than meets the eye.

"The president's tweets don't define the policy," Tillerson said.

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