The relative silence from the State Department over the first month of the Trump Administration has led some to an eerie conclusion that Secretary Tillerson’s agency has been sidelined or somehow marginalized in the Washington foreign policy arena. How much of this is just a temporary phenomenon, due primarily to slow White House decisions on key State Department personnel, along with the apparent flurry of high profile foreign affairs events and pronouncements/tweets from the White House, remains to be seen. But in any case, the growing perception that the hawks and activists in the White House – especially Trump’s kitchen cabinet — and elsewhere around Washington, have sidelined America’s diplomats, is one that must be addressed soon before real damage sets in.
What is most critical at the moment for the State Department is the continuing delay in getting senior “Seventh Floor” Washington positions and vacant ambassadorships announced and into/through the confirmation process. The Trump White House’s early rejection of Tillerson’s (aka “T-Rex”) choice of Elliot Abrams for Deputy Secretary has left a visible scar on the Department, as of yet not fully healed. We also learned over the past month that a number of other “Seventh Floor” officials have been asked to leave (a presidential prerogative) and to reassign their key career staffers elsewhere in the Department. Most important in this context has been the Deputy Secretary for Management (Patrick Kennedy) and the Department’s Counselor (Kristie Kenney) as well as Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Thomas Countryman. Secretary Tillerson has, fortunately, been able to select and appoint his Chief of Staff, Margaret Peterlin, who brings both Capitol Hill and Commerce Department expertise. We also witnessed the widespread signing-on by hundreds of career diplomats of a “Dissent Channel” memorandum condemning the White House-ordered ban on selective Muslim country travelers’ entry to the U.S., but no wave of mass resignations, as predicted at the time by numerous observers.
For the moment the jury must remain out on Tillerson’s /T-Rex’s tactics. Is he focusing on learning the job and the diplomatic tools of the trade before expanding his personal engagement with the press and fully activating the State Department’s extensive public diplomacy machine? Is the appearance of a sidelined or “underwater” Secretary of State just a reflection of the Washington Press Corps’ tendency to focus attention where there is the most easily visible action and abundant energy? Is it just a matter of resuming daily press briefings and expanding the Secretary’s traveling press corps when he travels?
Tillerson now leads a world-class organization (yes, one that has clearly seen better times) brimming with an unmatched reserve of talent, dedication and global expertise. Most of the world knows this, as we can tell when much of the planet tunes into the Department’s soon to resume daily press briefings. It’s up to T-Rex to make sure the Trump White House does as well.