Rex Tillerson, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil, testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on...
JONATHAN ERNST

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s isolation is a problem

All is not well with the State Department. With Donald Trump in the White House, the agency has been marginalized and ignored in ways without modern precedent. The president seems a little too eager to slash the State Department’s budget – a move that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson inexplicably embraced, further demoralizing the department.

Let’s put it this way: when U.S. military leaders are more concerned about the State Department’s budget than the Secretary of State, there’s a problem.

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.”

It’s against this backdrop that the Washington Post reports today on Tillerson’s increasing isolation.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson takes a private elevator to his palatial office on the seventh floor of the State Department building, where sightings of him are rare on the floors below.

On many days, he blocks out several hours on his schedule as “reading time,” when he is cloistered in his office poring over the memos he prefers ahead of in-person meetings.

Most of his interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly – or even make eye contact.
That’s literally unbelievable. It’s one thing for aides to an eccentric movie star to avoid eye contact with their spoiled boss, but the idea that career diplomats have been told not to make eye contact with the Secretary of State sounds absurd.

Indeed, the Post’s article itself added, “His distant management style has created growing bewilderment among foreign officials who are struggling to understand where the United States stands on key issues. It has sown mistrust among career employees at State, who swap paranoid stories about Tillerson that often turn out to be untrue.”

I can’t help but wonder if the eye-contact anecdote fits into this dynamic.

Regardless, the fact that this story exists at all is emblematic of serious problems within the department. Even if some of the claims surrounding Tillerson are exaggerated for effect, it seems plainly true that the Secretary of State has limited influence with the president, and his relationships within the building he leads is worse.

The Post’s report added, “On his first three foreign trips, Tillerson skipped visits with State Department employees and their families, embassy stops that were standard morale-boosters under other secretaries of state…. Some diplomats have begun meeting with each other to swap notes on how to decipher the fledgling administration’s policies.”

Healthy, functioning cabinet agencies don’t work this way.

State Department

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's isolation is a problem