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An Unfair Hit on Rex Tillerson

From the last Morning Jolt of the week…

An Unfair Hit on Rex Tillerson

The Washington Post offers a particularly unflattering portrait of Rex Tillerson’s early days as Secretary of State, with a few details that don’t pass the smell test. For starters…

Most of his interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly — or even make eye contact.

Matt Lee, the chief diplomatic writer for the Associated Press, calls BS on the implausible “no eye contact” rule: “This is not true and people repeating it are making it more difficult to address very real issues. I was told of this allegation – weeks ago – and checked it out.”

I heard through the grapevine that Tillerson has held at least one getting-to-know-you meeting with career foreign service employees and that the event went well. Of course, not everyone’s going to instantly bond over one casual meeting with snacks, but in the eyes of the people I heard from, he was making an effort, and they appreciated it.

I’ve heard a couple key impressions through the grapevine:

  1. He’s a competent manager, but running Exxon is different from running the U.S. State Department, and he recognizes that. He’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, and he’s listening more than he’s talking. He understands that he’s got a steep learning curve.
  2. With that lack of experience in mind, he’s doing pretty well. His experience in high-level negotiations shows. 
  3. He’s seriously undermined by the lack of staff around him. See this week’s article about the 110 or so State Department positions that still don’t have a nomination from Trump.

Also notice the sources who offer critical quotes in the Post article:

  • Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee,
  • a foreign diplomat posted in Washington
  • a senior Senate Democratic aide.
  • one former State Department employee
  • “another official”
  • “one department official”

So we’ve got one Congressional Democrat, one Senate Democratic aide, one foreign diplomat, one current official, and what is likely two former State employees who worked under Kerry or Clinton. Somehow it is less than stunning that they would be critical of Tillerson.

Two sources offer quotes of praise or explanation; an unnamed senior Tillerson aide and the British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch.

Most would agree the decision to bring only one reporter on his first foreign trip, and not to make it a “pool reporter” (acting as the reporter for all news agencies covering the State Department) was a major mistake. Informing the American public back home of what the Secretary of State is doing is part of the job. Maybe Tillerson is used to having a lower-profile, but that simply doesn’t work when you’re the country’s chief diplomat.

The Post article says Tillerson skipped the traditional meeting with American embassy employees on his first three foreign trips, another avoidable mistake… but he met with embassy employees in Ankara this week. Also while in Ankara, Tillerson held a surprise meeting with Norine Brunson, wife of imprisoned American Pastor Andrew Brunson – the sort of gesture that turns heads and sends a clear signal.

So, yes, he’s made some early mistakes, but he’s learning the ropes.

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