Where in the World Is the Secretary of State?
When Republican President Donald Trump announced that former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson would be his pick for Secretary of State, he promised that having a businessman with no political experience would shake up foreign relations as we knew it, setting a new standard in treating diplomatic relationships like business deals. Instead, just a few weeks into the term, Tillerson has taken to hiding from the media as much as possible – and the public eye.
After years with former Senator John Kerry and former Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton – both tested dignitaries and politicians – running the foreign policy arm of the White House, it’s not surprising to see a new, untried SOS fumble as he gets started in his new job. But by trying to protect himself from any public gaffes, Tillerson instead appears to be making the issue worse. Instead of possibly exposing his lack of experience, he’s looking very much like someone with something to hide.
“Tillerson’s State Department has been largely walled off from the press. The department finally held its first briefing on Tuesday, and Tillerson has refused to take questions from reporters in his few public appearances,” the Washington Post reported. “When NBC’s Andrea Mitchell attempted to ask questions during a photo op involving Tillerson and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin this week, she was escorted out of the room.”
This hide and seek game with the mainstream media is only getting worse as time progresses, too, as he continues to block news outlets from coming with him on meetings and missions. He will be taking a trip to Asia, but the press pool won’t be coming with him.
Then again, it’s unclear if he’ll be doing anything meriting news coverage to begin with. Showing an unusual break with tradition, Tillerson’s role is (or at least is perceived) to be figurehead at best, as a recent visit from a foreign dignitary showed.
“Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray met at the White House with President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, along with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn, a top financial aide, the Mexican government announced. Striking in its absence from that announcement was any mention of a meeting with officials from the State Department,” the L.A. Times reports. “It is customary for foreign secretaries from all nations to be received by their U.S. counterpart when in Washington, currently Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But when asked whether any sessions were scheduled at the State Department, the spokesman, Mark Toner, said he didn’t know Videgaray was in town.”
Does Tillerson really have a job to do, or is he window dressing so that someone else – perhaps the President’s son-in-law – can have the actual power? It very well may be the latter, as foreign policy experts dub Tillerson the weakest Secretary of State in history.
“Normally the most important position in the cabinet, the secretary of state has had little impact on the Trump administration so far. And, if anything, his role appears headed for further decline,” explains Robert Jervis over at Foreign Policy.com. ”The secretary of state draws his or her power less from the U.S. Constitution or the laws than from five sources: backing from the president, advice and support from his or her department’s career officials, admiration from and alliances with other leaders in the government, praise from the press and public, and positive evaluations of his or her competence and power by foreign diplomats. These individuals and groups do not act independently but rather depend on each other and interact to build up or tear down the secretary’s power. Perceptions and reality blend as to be seen as powerful or weak, and that can readily become self-fulfilling in the Washington echo chamber.”
So far, Tillerson appears low in the president’s circle of power, and is cutting off the press as an ally. With those two significant factors against him already, it’s hard to see how he can turn the ship around. If not, he may very well remain Secretary in name only for the next 46 months.
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