Palace intrigue dominated news of the Trump White House this week, as rumors swirled that populist chief strategist Steve Bannon had lost influence to Gary Cohn, the registered Democrat who heads the National Economic Council. Now, elsewhere in the administration, another power play appears to be under way: Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, made a splash with a highly visible trip to Iraq on behalf of the White House, and is handling portfolios involving parts of U.S. policy toward China, the Middle East, and Mexico. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looks increasingly marginalized.
This has happened before. For nearly five years, Richard Nixon kept his old friend Bill Rogers as his nominal secretary of state, while the real diplomatic clout was wielded by Henry Kissinger, the national-security adviser. It was Kissinger who arranged Nixon’s historic visit to China, successfully pursued nuclear-arms-reduction talks with the Soviet Union, and led negotiations with Hanoi to end the Vietnam War. Cynics dubbed Rogers the “secretary of the links” because of all the time he had to play golf. “You could walk through Rogers’ deepest influence on foreign policy and not get your ankles wet,” cracked the late Nixon speechwriter and columnist William Safire.
No one is suggesting that Tillerson, the type-A former CEO of ExxonMobil, will allow himself to be satisfied with a golf cart. But he certainly appears not to have a front-row seat on many foreign-policy issues. He was absent at President Trump’s meetings with the leaders of Israel, Canada, and Japan, and he wasn’t consulted on Trump’s botched executive order restricting non-citizen entry to the U.S. The White House overruled his pick of Elliott Abrams as the No. 2 man at State after Trump was made aware that Abrams had publicly criticized him during the 2016 campaign.
To date, Tillerson is Trump’s only political appointee at the State Department; two dozen other such posts remain unfilled, and the vacuum could have serious consequences. “The longer Tillerson is ‘home alone’ at State, the more he relies on Obama holdovers who don’t have the administration’s best interests at heart,” one former State Department official told me. “The more that happens, the less willing the White House is to give Tillerson the staff he wants.”
Case in point: When the conservative group Judicial Watch went into federal district court this month to seek the release of State Department documents relating to Hillary Clinton’s e-mail server, it was opposed by Richard Visek, an Obama holdover who is still the acting legal adviser at Foggy Bottom. “The State Department’s position is that we won’t get all the documents until 2020. On issue after issue, they haven’t given an inch in favor of transparency,” Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton told me. “There has been no change from the delaying tactics of the Obama Administration — especially on the Clinton e-mail issue. The Trump administration should be all about transparency.”
Defenders of Tillerson say that their man has been hurt by the open hostility Trump aides display toward State. White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in January that Foreign Service officers who objected to Trump’s travel ban “should either get with the program, or they can go.” The Trump budget proposal released in March would cut State’s funding by 37 percent. “It’s hard to be secretary of state if they take away all your soft power,” a Tillerson ally told me.
It’s fair to argue that a recalcitrant State Department is best dealt with through engagement and confrontation rather than by being isolated and left to atrophy into uselessness. It’s also all too easy to concentrate foreign-policy decision making in the White House, the way Nixon did. “They really want to blow this place up,” one State Department official told the Atlantic in March. “I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner] can do everything.”
As tempting as it must seem to President Trump, caution flags should be raised if he decides to make the White House his de facto State Department. While Trump believes he can close deals with foreign leaders like no one else can, someone has to pave the way for those deals, and a State Department led by Trump appointees is the best bet to fill the role. Blowing up bureaucratic agencies can be a good thing at times, but simply ignoring the fact that they exist is likely to be shortsighted and lead to unwanted surprises.
— John Fund is National Review’s national-affairs columnist.