6 reasons the State Department is a mess, according to a new Rex Tillerson profile

The New York Times' new interview with Tillerson exposes his incredibly contentious relationship with Donald Trump

By Charlie May
Published October 17, 2017 3:56PM (EDT)
 (AP/Ivan Sekretarev)
(AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

In nine months, the State Department went from a fine-tuned machine to an underfunded, chaos-driven free-for-all that exists not to promote democracy but to push President Donald Trump's personal presidential brand, if not his agenda.

At the center of it all is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose rocky relationship with the president has taken center stage over the past few weeks. A New York Times piece published Tuesday delved into the genesis of the dysfunction. Here are the key takeaways:

1. Tillerson refuses to befriend Trump, and that's causing much tension

The central contention splitting Trump and Tillerson is what their relationship should look like. Tillerson expected to come in and be a cold and methodical analyst who used his expertise in dealing with world leaders. As he explained to the Times:

I’m an engineer by training. I’m a very systems, process, methodical decision maker. He’s an entrepreneur. Different mind-set. He makes decisions differently. Doesn’t mean one is better than the other, but I’ve had to learn how he processes information and how I can help him process the information and how I can give him good advice that makes sense to him. So for both of us there’s a communication to be worked out.

But that's not what Trump wanted. The president wanted friendly sycophants he could hang out with. According to one adviser, "Trump originally thought he could have a relationship with Tillerson that’s almost social. The way his relationships are with Wilbur Ross and Steve Mnuchin." That hasn't worked out with Tillerson because the two have such different personalities:

But unlike Trump’s commerce and Treasury secretaries — plutocrats who, like Trump, are on their third, younger wives — Tillerson, who is 65 and has been married to the same woman for 31 years, has shown little interest in being the president’s running buddy; instead of Saturday-night dinners with Trump at his Washington hotel, Tillerson favors trips home to Texas to see his grandchildren or to Colorado to visit his nonagenarian parents.

2. The Trump-Tillerson relationship is actually really bad

The Times piece is filled with details about petty sniping between the Trump and Tillerson camps in the administration. One Trump adviser told the Times that Trump is "always saying, ‘Rex’s not tough,’ and ‘I didn’t know he was so establishment.'"

And the animosity goes both ways, according to the Times:

According to a former administration official, in private conversations with aides and friends, Tillerson refers to Trump, in his Texas deadpan, as the dealmaker in chief. And in meetings with Trump, according to people who have attended them, he increasingly rolls his eyes at the president’s remarks. If Trump disagrees with Tillerson, the official said, his secretary of state will say, “It’s your deal.”

Tillerson was apparently not really vetted for his position. While he was referred to the position by some very establishment names: Condoleezza Rice, Robert Gates, and Stephen Hadley, the former Exxon CEO didn't have any government experience. He was, however, clean-shaven, which, the Times reported, won him points over other contenders like former UN ambassador John Bolton -- who sports a walrus mustache.

3. Staffing at the State Department has been slow because Trump values loyalty more than competence

The State Department seems to have been carved into separate factions, leaving little room for anyone but administration loyalists. Immediately purged were any potential staffers who were part of the "NeverTrump" movement. It also didn't take much for potential hires to eventually land on the rejected pile:

According to a senior administration official, other potential hires were knocked out of consideration for sins as minor as retweeting some of Marco Rubio’s “little hands” jokes about Trump. “The hiring pool is very different from your normal hiring pool,” the official says. “The people the Senate would expect to confirm have all been taken off the table.”

There are factions in the West Wing that have been going against each other with regularity. The war between the White House turned the State Department into a battleground between them. That's one of the reasons why the department is so understaffed.

In the early days of the administration, according to State Department officials, White House officials, especially Bannon, sent over many names for State Department posts. But Tillerson, after looking at their résumés and in some cases conducting interviews, felt he had no choice but to reject them. “They didn’t meet the qualifications for the actual jobs,” another senior administration official says.

4. Trump v. Tillerson is, in part, about Barack Obama

That insular approach started before Trump was even sworn in, and it made things really difficult for incoming UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who wasn't even allowed to talk to State Department staffers who worked under President Barack Obama:

In December, Nikki Haley, Trump’s nominee for ambassador to the United Nations, set up a conference call with two senior State Department officials: Kristie Kenney, the State Department counselor, and Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management. Haley wanted to ask them questions about the logistics of her new job: basic matters like what her salary and benefits would be and where her family would live in New York City. Kenney and Kennedy told her about the federal employee health insurance plan and offered to send her floor plans of the U.N. ambassador’s apartment. When word of the call got back to Trump’s transition team, the two department officials were reprimanded by Glazer and told never to speak with Haley again.

5. There are two great theories about why Tillerson is still serving

Depending on who you ask, Tillerson's exit before next year would either be costly or expensive. Trump staffers are worried that him being fired or resigning would look really bad:

The question among many people inside and outside the Trump administration is not necessarily what’s keeping Tillerson from resigning; it’s what’s stopping Trump from firing him. One Trump-administration official offered me a tentative theory: “Losing a chief of staff in the first year is a big deal, but losing a secretary of state is an even bigger one.”

Tillerson himself stands to lose a boatload of money if he leaves too soon:

Other [State Department insiders] speculated that Tillerson had asked to delay his exit until he’d been in his position for a year, in order to avoid a huge capital-gains tax hit on the stocks he had to divest from in order to take the job.

6. The White House's press shop is sounding like a propaganda machine

Sean Spicer may no longer be around to tell us how large the president's inauguration was, but the White House is still filled with experts who can deliver some fantastic lines about how great they are. Here's what the White House had to say about the Times' report:

The president has assembled the most talented cabinet in history and everyone continues to be dedicated towards advancing the president’s America First agenda. Anything to the contrary is simply false and comes from unnamed sources who are either out of the loop or unwilling to turn the country around.

Make sure to save that "unnamed sources" skepticism for the next time Trump's White House gloats off the record.


Charlie May

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