The Trump administration in its first month has largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the preeminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.Decisions on hiring, policy and scheduling are being driven by a White House often wary of the foreign policy establishment and struggling to set priorities and write policy on the fly.
In most presidential administrations, Secretary of State is the cabinet post. Though officially no cabinet secretary is above his or her colleagues, being the nation's chief diplomat, traveling the world representing the United States and directly shaping the foreign policy of the world's strongest superpower, is a unique public-service opportunity.At least, it's supposed to be.Rex Tillerson, Trump's Secretary of State, is in Mexico today, trying to clean up the mess the president created by antagonizing our neighbor. There's been a lot of that happening lately, with Tillerson in "perpetual cleanup mode," trying to reassure countries rattled by the president's antics.Making matters worse, the Washington Post reports that the State Department itself has been sidelined by the White House.
For weeks, it seems the president has largely ignored Tillerson, not bothering to even alert him to developments that would affect his duties. When the White House unveiled its Muslim ban, for example, no one provided Tillerson with any details about the policy in advance, and Tillerson was forced to tell West Wing officials "that he was baffled over not being consulted."When Trump balked at a two-state solution in the Middle East, the Secretary of State learned about it by watching the comments live on television, and no one from the State Department was welcome at the meeting between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When the White House put Iran "on notice" a week earlier, no one checked in with State about this, either.There are 116 positions at the State Department that require Senate approval, and as of this morning, 111 don't yet have nominees. By some accounts, these slots are vacant because of a standoff between Tillerson and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus over who would take the lead in choosing personnel.Tillerson, you'll recall, wanted Elliott Abrams as his deputy -- a choice Trump vetoed because of Abrams' pre-election criticism of his candidacy.Politico reports today, meanwhile, that Tillerson is struggling with the perception that he's "out of the loop on major foreign policy decisions," and "just three weeks after Tillerson took office, it's clear that his tenure is already in trouble."I'd love to know what Trump told Tillerson before he was offered the job, and whether the former ExxonMobil CEO had any idea what he was getting himself into.