Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke at the Atlantic Council earlier this week, and was expected to address the administration’s foreign-policy challenges in a general sense. Instead, Donald Trump’s chief diplomat made some news.
Asked about diplomatic prospects with North Korea, Tillerson replied, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”
As the New York Times reported, it wasn’t long before the White House rejected Tillerson’s line.
The secretary’s comments were remarkably conciliatory for an administration that has repeatedly threatened North Korea with military action, and ruled out any negotiations, if it did not curb its missile and nuclear programs. But a few hours later, the White House distanced itself from his overture.
In an unusual statement released to reporters on Tuesday evening, the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Mr. Trump’s position on North Korea had not changed – namely, that talks were pointless if the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, continued to menace his neighbors.
This might be less embarrassing if it weren’t so common. In October, after Tillerson spoke about diplomatic efforts with North Korea, Trump announced that his cabinet secretary is “wasting his time.”
In August, Tillerson seemed eager to ease tensions with Pyongyang, stating publicly, “We’re trying to convey to the North Koreans, we are not your enemy…. We would like to sit and have a dialogue with them about the future that will give them the security they seek and the future economic prosperity for North Korea.” Almost immediately thereafter, Trump declared via Twitter, “The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!”
It was around this time that Rachel noted on the show that the State Department and the White House don’t even agree on what North Korea would have to do in order for the administration to consider negotiations.
As we discussed soon after, we’re left with an untenable dynamic. Confronted with a burgeoning nuclear crisis, what’s the Trump administration’s position on North Korea? It apparently depends on the day – and whether one is inclined to believe the president or his chief diplomat.
The conflicting messages not only make the administration appear lost and confused, they also signal to the world that what Rex Tillerson says doesn’t necessarily reflect the administration’s position. This, in turn, makes foreign talks with the Secretary of State rather pointless, since foreign officials have every reason to be skeptical of Tillerson’s authority and influence.
We’re left with a cabinet secretary who isn’t just hollowing out the State Department to a dangerous degree, he’s also spinning his wheels on the international stage.