The arrival of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the State Department February 1 (he was sworn in the night before) seems to have reduced the risk that some observers predicted in late January of a mass departure of State Department personnel. So it appears the revolution is on hold. That said, the tough job ahead for Secretary Tillerson will be to get his new team of senior officials installed and operational at State, while adapting to the unique culture of that organization.
His opening remarks to employees at the State Department were well received. We are told State staffers particularly appreciated Tillerson’s stop at the Department’s Memorial Wall where 248 individuals are memorialized for heroic service and for perishing in the line of duty. He made light reference to the “dissent message” circulating at the time through the Department over the Muslim travel ban: “Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team” he said, also assuring State Department employees that he would tap into their expertise. Analysts covering the tradition-bound Department were also struck by this Tillerson message: “Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach.”
The welcoming procedures are complete. A key question of course is whether Secretary Tillerson will get to pick his key deputies at State, and once answered, we can begin to examine whether the exodus of senior officers at the end of January will slow down or possibly take new forms.
For now the focus will be on appointing and confirming the senior level positions in as short a time as possible. Word is that there will be a single Deputy Secretary and that the position of Deputy Secretary for Management, created in 2009, will be abolished (Patrick Kennedy left in a rush at the end of January, as you will recall). The Washington rumor mill has been suggesting Elliot Abrams, formerly of State but also associated with the Iran-Contra affair under the Reagan Administration and pardoned after being convicted of perjury, has a high likelihood to be named as Deputy Secretary, and the list for Under Secretary for Political Affairs has several experienced contenders under consideration. Reports published late February 10 indicate, however, that the Abrams nomination — reportedly Tillerson’s choice — may be in trouble and that former Bush Administration State Department official Paula Dobriansky has now become the prime candidate.
Finally, President Trump has already named several ambassadors for key posts. For the UN, Ambassador Nikki Haley of South Carolina (former governor) was confirmed on January 24. Ambassadorial nominees for Israel (David Freidman – a New York attorney), Italy (Lewis Eisenberg – a New York area transportation consultant), the UK (Woody Johnson – a New York area philanthropist, executive and sports mogul) and China (Terry Banstand – currently Governor of Iowa) are awaiting Senate confirmation. Europe is breathlessly awaiting the official nomination of the next ambassador to serve at the US Mission to the EU, despite the apparent self-nomination of UK-based pro-Brexit economist Ted Malloch and the shockwaves his pronouncements have been generating across the Eurozone. EU officials currently in Washington may well be at work trying to convince the Trump Administration to make another choice.