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

Nick Wadhams, Bloomberg News on

Published in Political News

Now, on Iran, he's pressing European allies to toughen oversight of the Islamic Republic's ballistic missile program. On North Korea, he's pushing ahead with what he's called a "peaceful pressure" campaign to choke off its economy and has coordinated with Mike Pence ahead of the vice president's trip this week to the Olympic Games in South Korea.

Still, Tillerson got a reminder of the precarious nature of service in Trump's Cabinet during his seven-day swing through Latin America and the Caribbean, which ended Wednesday.

Just before Tillerson's stops in Peru and Colombia, both recipients of U.S. counter-narcotics funding, Trump said he wanted to "stop the aid" to countries that fail to stem the flow of drugs to the U.S. It was an exercise in finger-pointing at odds with Tillerson's comments in a Texas speech setting the stage for his trip that "U.S. demand for drugs drives this violence and this lawlessness," a key complaint of other nations and critics of U.S. drug policy.

Trump's move was reminiscent of a message he sent after Tillerson told reporters in China in October that the U.S. was talking with North Korean officials through diplomatic back channels. Trump said on Twitter that he told his "wonderful" secretary of State that "he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," the president's nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Now, though, Tillerson is more aware that such broadsides could be incoming.

"I don't get frustrated about anything, so I don't need to answer the question," Tillerson responded when asked about Trump's penchant for undercutting him.

Tillerson and his team acknowledge that they've disagreed with some of the president's foreign policy moves, from his decision to leave the Paris climate change agreement to delays in sending more nominations to Capitol Hill. But they also know there's no value in Tillerson drawing public attention to such internal disputes.

"With this president it is safer to keep your head down and avoid much of a public profile," said former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. "He's becoming more comfortable in the public role and he's clearly in command of his brief."

How long that lasts remains an open question because Tillerson continues to clash with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over the Middle East peace process. After intervening with Trump last year over his fears that Kushner was freelancing too much on the sensitive process, their animus hasn't died down, according to a senior State Department official familiar with the matter.

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While Tillerson is an engineer, focused on process, Kushner has vented both to the White House and State Department staff about the secretary's unwillingness to "strategically break things," according to one person familiar with the exchanges.

Current and former staff say morale within the State Department is as low as they've ever seen it, although Tillerson dismisses that as a myth manufactured by the media and he's begun to fill long-vacant slots.

Unlike Colin Powell, who is often cited as an example of a secretary who had the department's support, Tillerson's chief legacy among foreign service officers will be an exodus of experienced staff and a "restructuring" effort that has alienated much of the department in combination with calls for steep budget cuts. Those personnel losses include his third-in-command, Thomas Shannon, who announced Feb. 1 that he would retire once a replacement can be found.

But in this administration, with a president who often takes foreign policy into his own hands, it would be hard for anyone to be a clear success, outside analysts say.

"You could have the best secretary of state in the world, and with this president and this White House it probably wouldn't do you one bit of good," said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. "How Tillerson would have behaved in a Bush administration or a McCain administration or some other Republican that actually embraced or engaged with normal policy making -- it's impossible to know."

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