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For Rex Tillerson, A Rocky First Year As Trump's Secretary Of State

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes his way to his seat before the Strategic Dialogue on Disrupting Transnational Criminal Organizations at the State Department on Dec. 14.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes his way to his seat before the Strategic Dialogue on Disrupting Transnational Criminal Organizations at the State Department on Dec. 14.

In summing up his year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told a State Department town hall meeting in mid-December he has no diplomatic wins on the board. "Diplomacy is not that simple," he said. But Tillerson believes his restructuring plan — which includes improving IT systems and streamlining the bureaucracy — has put the State Department in a better place.

Critics argue he has done so much damage that it may take years for the department to recover.

Tillerson has never quite fit the mold of a secretary of state. Until joining the Trump administration, he spent his entire career in the oil and gas industry. He has been at odds with the president over a number of issues, fueling speculation that he may be a short-timer as America's top diplomat.

In many ways, Tillerson still speaks like the former Exxon Mobil CEO he is, telling State Department employees recently that he was going to put together "tiger teams" to work on the "keystone projects" that are part of his "redesign" plan. He has hired outside consultants to help with his reform plans but has spent little time explaining it all to members of Congress, which controls the budget.

"Ever since this secretary of state took the helm, there has been a slow, unexplained erosion of the department, and along with it, the values that it promotes and the vital role it plays around the world," said Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Cardin pointed out in a recent Senate speech that more than 30 key ambassadorships remain without nominees and "most experienced officials — the department's equivalent of two-, three- and four-star generals — have been departing or effectively forced out and not replaced at the same rate."

Some, likeVictoria Nuland, left on their own. Nuland was a George W. Bush administration ambassador to NATO, an adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney and a spokeswoman as well as assistant secretary of state for Europe in the Obama administration. But when Trump was elected, Nuland opted to retire.

"The president-elect was taking public positions that were antithetical to 30 years of work I had done," she says — "everything from calling NATO obsolete to denying Russian influence in the U.S. election."

Several others chose to stay, she says, but were forced out early on by the Trump administration.

"So what you have is an enormous drain of experience," Nuland says, "decades of work negotiating agreements, dealing with tough countries, promoting U.S. interests and values around the world."

Tillerson denies that the cuts have been so deep or that he is hollowing out the department. However, many vacancies are being filled only on a temporary basis.

Some retired career diplomats warn Tillerson is creating a long-term problem: As experienced foreign service officers leave, he is also limiting the number coming in, maintaining a hiring freeze that has been lifted for the rest of the government.

"We are not seeing anyplace in the world where we don't need some capacity," Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan, who now runs the American Academy of Diplomacy, tells NPR. "There's no sign the world is becoming less troubled."

Tillerson seems nonplussed by the criticism and brushes off as "laughable" reports that President Trump may soon replace him.

"This is a narrative that keeps coming up about every six weeks," he told reporters during a trip to NATO headquarters in Brussels in early December. "And I would say you all need to get some new sources, because your story keeps being wrong."

He has, however, been at odds with the president on many occasions. To no avail, Tillerson encouraged Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate agreement. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to resolve a conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both U.S. allies, while Trump sided with Riyadh.

After reports surfaced that Tillerson had called Trump a "moron" during a private meeting at the Pentagon, Tillerson stood before cameras to insistthat the president is smart.

"I'm not going to deal with petty stuff like that," he said. "I'm not from this place, but the places I come from, we don't deal with that kind of petty nonsense."

He has taken a lead on policy toward North Korea but there, too, has found himself out of sync with the president, who once tweeted: "I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man... Save your energy, Rex, we'll do what has to be done!"

At times, the mixed messages have come from Tillerson himself. He has said that he would be ready to talk to North Korea about anything, even "the weather," without preconditions. But later, he corrected himself, saying there had to be a period of calm first, with North Korea refraining from its provocative missile and nuclear tests.

Tillerson will be co-hosting a big diplomatic conference on North Korea with Canada's foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, in mid-January. But the State Department's staffing shortfalls are being felt when it comes to this area. The Trump administration has yet to name an ambassador to South Korea, though a former U.S. envoy on North Korea, Victor Cha, has reportedly been tapped for the job.

The White House also waited until mid-December to formally nominate Susan Thornton as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Thornton has been in the job on an acting basis since March and now needs Senate confirmation.

But in this case, Tillerson can count the nomination as a win. Thornton, a respected career foreign service officer, is the candidate Tillerson has long favored for this position — over opposition from some in the White House, including former chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.