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Tillerson survives 'Rexit' rumors but Trump's only a tweet away

Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg News on

Published in Political News

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once seemed such a sure bet to leave the Trump administration that his inevitable departure had its own nickname -- "Rexit."

Just two months later, Tillerson has racked up hard-fought victories over administration rivals such as United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and is pushing ahead with a heavy travel schedule and an agenda to confront North Korea's nuclear program and counter drug-trafficking, among other priorities.

If there's a lesson from President Donald Trump's first year in office, it's that officials who are praised one day can be savaged in a tweet the next morning. But the top U.S. diplomat appears to be reaping the benefits of a year spent cultivating Trump, working closely with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and learning the rules of the Washington power game that he professed to be unfamiliar with after nearly four decades at Exxon Mobil Corp.

"My guess is during this first year he's probably encountered a lot of things he didn't expect to encounter, but it feels to me like there's a reprieve that's underway," Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. "It feels to me like he's settling in and moving ahead. He's planning this on out through the rest of the year."

As recently as December, Trump felt compelled to deny reports that he planned to fire Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, although the president pointedly added that "we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots.)" And that was at the end of a year when Tillerson's spokeswoman had to deny that he'd called the president a "moron" in a private meeting.

Tillerson won a victory late last year when Trump nominated Susan Thornton for assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, a key voice in the debate over policy toward China and North Korea. Thornton, a career official who has been filling the job as acting assistant secretary, had been publicly opposed by Trump adviser Steve Bannon before his ouster last year.

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Tillerson also overruled Trump's inner circle on their choice for ambassador to NATO, successfully bringing in fellow Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison over Richard Grenell, who went on to be the nominee for Germany instead. Grenell's nomination is still pending in the Senate.

One of Tillerson's biggest policy victories came last month when he circumvented Haley, with whom he has repeatedly sparred behind the scenes, and won a reduction of funding for the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees rather than the cutoff she sought.

Tillerson won Trump's approval for providing $60 million to the agency without Haley's knowledge, avoiding a debate over the issue in the interagency meetings that would normally precede such a decision. The first Haley's team heard about the decision was when the State Department announced the funding, according to several officials familiar with the incident. Aides to Haley didn't respond to requests for comment.

Explaining his first year, Tillerson said last month on CNN, "We had a very successful -- in my view -- year 2017, pivoting our policies and helping our partners understand those policies. We're now into the implementation and execution against those policies."

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