Tillerson brushes off reports that he is out

Mr Rex Tillerson has been credited for being a moderating influence on President Donald Trump's more dramatic foreign policy positions. But he has lost most of the policy disagreements he faced behind closed doors.
Mr Rex Tillerson has been credited for being a moderating influence on President Donald Trump's more dramatic foreign policy positions. But he has lost most of the policy disagreements he faced behind closed doors.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Talk that Secretary of State would soon be replaced by CIA chief Pompeo 'not true'

WASHINGTON • United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has brushed off reports that the White House is preparing to oust him.

His spokesman, Ms Heather Nauert, said he enjoys his job as Washington's top diplomat and intends to stay on. She told reporters on Thursday that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had called the State Department to assure officials that the reports that Mr Tillerson was to be replaced were untrue.

"Secretary Tillerson enjoys this job. He has a lot of work to do," Ms Nauert said, confirming that the secretary has meetings planned next week with European ministers in Brussels, Vienna and Paris.

"It is a fact that Secretary Tillerson serves at the pleasure of the President, as we all do," she added. "Chief of Staff Kelly called our department this morning and said that the rumours are not true, that those reports are not true. That is what I've been told, and that's what we've been told, and you heard from the White House today that they have no personnel changes to announce."

As Ms Nauert spoke at the State Department, Mr Tillerson was at the White House for a meeting with top national security officials on the crisis in Syria.

Earlier, The New York Times - followed shortly afterwards by several other news outlets - had reported that President Donald Trump has become frustrated with Mr Tillerson and plans to replace him with CIA director Mike Pompeo.

If Mr Tillerson does head back to his Texas ranch soon, he will leave without banner diplomatic achievements and with little to show for his signature effort at downsizing and streamlining the State Department.

He would not be greatly missed by the rank and file, several current and former officials said privately, although his supporters suggested that he has far stronger credentials than Mr Pompeo.

"I really have no way of rating Pompeo," Senator Bob Corker said on Thursday as reporters asked him about reports that Mr Tillerson would soon be fired and replaced by Mr Pompeo, a hawkish former congressman who was a leading critic of the international nuclear deal with Iran.

"I could barely pick Pompeo out of a line-up," Mr Corker added. He said he had spoken at length with Mr Tillerson on Thursday and did not believe he was about to be sacked.

Representative Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told C-Span on Thursday that he is "not optimistic that the State Department's going to get better under Secretary Pompeo".

"At least Secretary Tillerson, when he worked for ExxonMobil, was very global. He knew he had to work with other countries," he said.

Mr Tillerson came to office in February with no experience as a diplomat but with four decades under his belt conducting oil negotiations around the world during his career with Exxon.

Mr Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said Mr Tillerson's record is mixed. "To be fair to Tillerson, people ought to stop merging his performance as a diplomat and his performance as a manager," he said. "As a diplomat, he's not done all that badly."

Mr Neumann credited Mr Tillerson with applying classic diplomacy to dealing with North Korea, and helping persuade Mr Trump to sign two certifications of Iran's compliance with the nuclear accord.

Mr James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador who keeps in touch with Mr Tillerson since he came to Washington, said Mr Tillerson deserves credit for doing "damage control" by acting as a moderating influence on some of Mr Trump's positions and helping to broker cease-fires in Syria that are holding in some parts of the country.

"US foreign policy, a year after the President came into office, looks a lot like the foreign policy of Barack Obama," Mr Jeffrey said, crediting the President's national security team with mitigating some of Mr Trump's more dramatic foreign policy pledges.

Still, Mr Tillerson has lost most of the policy disagreements he faced behind closed doors, including whether to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord and, ultimately, whether to continue certifying Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Mr Trump declined to do so in October, and the deal's future is now in limbo.

The risk from North Korea, Mr Tillerson's most high-profile diplomatic challenge, appears to be worse than when the administration took office - Pyongyang has now tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears capable of reaching the continental US, and its leader, Mr Kim Jong Un, has refused to come to engage in talks that Mr Tillerson has offered.

Much of the criticism of Mr Tillerson has revolved around how he has managed planned budget cuts and an 8 per cent staff reduction that the White House has ordered him to make. The State Department has offered buyouts to more than 600 employees in addition to a hiring freeze, measures that will eventually lead to 2,000 fewer employees.

Already, dozens of senior diplomats with decades of experience have resigned or taken early retirement. All of this comes amid a reorganisation that Mr Tillerson, who oversaw three mergers while at Exxon, considers the most important thing he will accomplish at the State Department.

But after months of questionnaires, interviews and workshops to gather employee input, Mr Tillerson has yet to outline a timetable or a vision other than promising efficiency and job satisfaction.

He has also yet to win the allegiance of most members of staff after 10 months on the seventh floor, where his office is located along with those of a small group of senior advisers. He is viewed by many as a remote presence, at best.

Defence Secretary James Mattis, Mr Tillerson's closest ally in the administration, told reporters who asked about the rumours of Mr Tillerson's departure: "There's nothing to it." But few within the State Department or in the foreign policy community expect him to stay a full four years.

Whenever he leaves, Ms Nancy McEldowney, former director of the Foreign Service Institute, said Mr Tillerson will walk out of an agency that is smaller and weaker than when he arrived.

"It's been starved for resources, human and fiscal," she said. "The workforce is dispirited. Relations with key allies are severely strained. Our standing in the world has plummeted in almost every country. Our reputation as a promoter of democracy and an exporter of stability is gone."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2017, with the headline 'Tillerson brushes off reports that he is out'. Print Edition | Subscribe