ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on the release of a report by the National Petroleum Council on oil drilling in the Arctic, on March 27, 2015, in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Beleaguered Secretary of State raises stakes with North Korean warning

All is not well at the State Department, which in the Donald Trump era, has found itself marginalized and ignored. This week, the White House announced plans to slash the State Department’s budget – a move that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson inexplicably embraced, further demoralizing the department.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 3/16/17, 9:52 PM ET

Trump's proposed State Department budget cuts put US at risk

Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of State, talks with Rachel Maddow about Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the State Department’s budget by a third, and the implications that will have on fighting terrorism and epidemics like Ebola.
As Rachel noted on the show last night, Tillerson told reporters yesterday that the administration believes it can afford to dramatically cut the State Department’s funding because “there will be fewer military conflicts that the U.S. will be directly engaged in.”

It’s an odd response. For one thing, investing in diplomacy helps reduce the chances of military engagement. For another, the Trump administration is pushing for vastly larger spending at the Pentagon, apparently in anticipation of new military operations.

And finally, the day after Tillerson said he expects fewer conflicts, he said something very different about U.S. policy towards North Korea.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Friday that military action against North Korea was “on the table” if the country continued to develop its weapons program.

“If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action then that option is on the table,” he told a press conference in South Korea.

“Certainly we do not want for things to get to a military conflict,” he added. “But obviously if North Korea takes actions that threaten the South Korean forces or our own forces then that would be met with an appropriate response.”
One might expect quite a bit of follow up with Tillerson from the American journalists who routinely travel with a Secretary of State during overseas visits, but in this case, Tillerson left most reporters at home. (White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the decision was intended to save money – an explanation no one seriously believes.)

There have been quite a few incidents along these lines in recent weeks, leaving the State Department facing conditions with no modern parallel. Foreign officials from allied countries have visited D.C., for example, and no one bothered to tell the State Department. The release of the State Department’s annual human rights report, traditionally one of the most important moments of the year for the cabinet agency, turned into an embarrassment two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, with the Trump White House failing to even send key nominations to the Senate, a wide variety of key offices in Foggy Bottom remain empty, and holdovers from the Obama administration who were prepared to stay on were sent packing.

The Atlantic recently spoke to one unnamed State Department officer who said, in reference to White House officials, “They really want to blow this place up…. I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist.”

A couple of years ago, Rick Santorum said he wanted to “abolish the State Department,” a comment that made the former senator appear quite foolish at the time. Nearly two years later, it’s hard not to wonder how many officials in Trump’s West Wing are having the same thought.

Foreign Policy, North Korea and State Department

Beleaguered Secretary of State raises stakes with North Korean warning