Tillerson's old school way to deal with Trump tweets

When the president sends a tweet on world affairs, a State Department aide prints it and brings it to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for later perusal.
When the president sends a tweet on world affairs, a State Department aide prints it and brings it to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for later perusal.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - When US President Donald Trump launches into one of his tweetstorms it sometimes seems like the diplomatic world is gasping in unison - but not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Many foreign policy professionals have set up alerts so their phones buzz in their pockets whenever the commander-in-chief insults a foreign leader or issues a vague threat of war.

But not Tillerson, Washington's chief diplomat and arguably the man who has the toughest job clearing the air after Trump sets off another diplomatic incident with a social media rant.

Tillerson is not on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. When Trump sends a tweet on world affairs a State Department aide prints it and brings it to the secretary for later perusal.

At least, that is how he explained things to his friend and predecessor Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday (Jan 17) in a chat after a speech at Stanford University in California.

Rice asked Tillerson a question he gets asked all the time: how can he handle US foreign policy with Trump constantly stirring the pot with his undiplomatic tweets?

Tillerson's reply went into more detail than usual - although he again insisted that he has no problem with Trump's remarks and sees them as an opportunity to communicate his vision.

"He's world class in social media, and I'm not," 65-year-old former oilman Tillerson admitted. "I have no social media account, I've never had any and I don't intend to have any."

"It is a great tool when it is used well. The president has used it at a great effect by by-passing the traditional means of communicating," he told the assembled policy experts.

"And he absolutely thrives with his ability to instantly communicate not just to the American people but to our friends and allies or to our adversaries in the entire world."

This much has been said before, but surely Tillerson receives a warning before Trump abruptly cancels a planned trip to London or threatens to pull out of the NAFTA trade pact?

The answer is no, apparently. Tillerson likes it that way.

"I don't know when he's going to do that, because that is just the way the president operates," he said.

"The challenge is just getting caught up because I don't even have a Twitter account to follow what he's tweeting. My staff usually has to print his tweets out and hand them to me." "I've actually concluded that's not a bad system."

Tillerson explained that it might be anything up to an hour post-tweet that he finds out what Trump has been saying, and that means he can gauge official reaction before responding.

"I already have the early reactions to that and it allows me to begin to think about: 'How do we take that?'," he said.

"OK, this is information. We know what our objectives are and he didn't change any of them. This is just the way he wants to communicate on a subject, how do we take that and use it?"

Tillerson remains sanguine about Trump's exotic online monologue, which some critics fear could alienate US allies, despite having fallen foul of it more than once himself.

In October last year, Tillerson met senior Chinese leaders in Beijing and afterwards told reporters that he had back channel communications open with Kim Jong Un's North Korea.

When Tillerson arrived back in Washington he discovered - presumably on being handed a print out - that Trump had disavowed his efforts to resolve the nuclear stand-off.

"I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man," Trump had tweeted.

"Save your energy Rex, we'll do what needs to be done!"