Tillerson’s State Department is adrift, say diplomats

WASHINGTON — On his first day as Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson vowed to try to get to know everyone at the State Department. But senior diplomats say they never saw him again.

As President Donald Trump faces a collection of world leaders at his first United Nations General Assembly this week, U.S. officials are working behind the scenes to allay fears among foreign delegations that America's foreign policy decisions have become too dominated by the West Wing, and that the U.S. State Department, where many crucial positions remain unfilled, is adrift.

At the center of this concern is Tillerson, whose diminishing role in the administration is being blamed for the State Department's lagging clout, according to seven U.S. diplomats and four foreign diplomats who spoke to NBC News. The officials insisted on anonymity to discuss the administration's internal dynamics.

13 PHOTOS
Rex Tillerson through his career
See Gallery
Rex Tillerson through his career

Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

(REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool)

Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

(Jason Reed / Reuters)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

(REUTERS/Michael Fiala)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

(Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

(Photographer: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Three senior State Department officials told NBC News that there a number of meetings with foreign delegations at this week's UNGA that Tillerson either ignored or refused to attend, forcing either Vice President Mike Pence or U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley to step in.

Haley and Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, spearheaded a briefing for journalists at the White House on Friday instead of Tillerson, and it was McMaster who was by Trump's side at his UN meetings on Monday.

On CNN'S State of the Union Sunday, Haley dismissed recent speculation that Tillerson's days as secretary are numbered and that she may step into the role.

"Rex Tillerson is not going anywhere," she said, adding that she took herself out of the running during the transition because "I just knew at that time (Trump) could find someone better."

A Withering State Department

Eight months into his presidency, many of Trump's more jaw-dropping foreign policy views have been tempered by a handful of generals who, since the start of the year, formed a stabilizing coalition in an administration whose earliest days were marked by turmoil.

But this unconventional foreign policy structure has resulted in a withering State Department, crippled by budget cuts and staffing delays that have muddled the once-clear diplomatic channels to Washington, according to the U.S. and foreign diplomats.

To date, five of the six under secretary of state positions remain unfilled and the sixth is held by an Obama-era holdover. Ambassador posts in critical locations like Riyadh, Cairo, Berlin, Doha, Kabul and Seoul also remain vacant.

Tillerson told Congress last month that most special envoys -- including those for climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, Afghanistan-Pakistan, and closing the Guantanamo Bay detention center -- will be abolished and their responsibilities reassigned as part of a wider State Department restructuring.

Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, defended the cuts last week, saying that his primary objective is making the department "more efficient."

But the U.S. and foreign diplomats who spoke to NBC News describe broken channels of communication between Washington and many foreign capitals, saying that long-established relationships with the State Department have been undermined as a result of the overhaul.

State Department detailees to the National Security Council have been trimmed as a result of the budget cuts and, in many cases, Department of Defense detailees were brought in to fill the void, raising concern about an increasingly military-dominated culture within the White House's main national security apparatus.

The foreign officials noted that their U.S. counterparts are often unable to speak with authority when interacting with their foreign counterparts, either because the administration's positions on some key issues remain undecided, or because they are not looped in to the decision-making process.

Senior U.S. officials stationed abroad say they constantly wait for guidance from Washington which, in many cases, never comes. Two State Department officials said that they are frequently forced to turn to the Department of Defense for readouts on Cabinet-level meetings because the State Department has stopped informing diplomats about those discussions.

State Department officials note a perceived lack of interest by Tillerson to engage in some programs that are a centerpiece of the department's work. He is the first secretary of state not to attend the rollout of its annual Human Rights Report, unveiled in March this year.

"He doesn't understand the concept of an interagency process, of working with other departments toward a unified goal and he doesn't understand symbolism," one senior diplomat said of Tillerson. "I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I thought he could bring a corporate, globalist perspective, but it's been a disaster. It's as if he wants to dismantle the State Department."

"‎I strongly refute these claims. They don't add up," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. "The State Department is focused on important matters of diplomacy. In fact, at this moment Secretary Tillerson is chairing a meeting with the foreign ministers of 15 like-minded countries and the EU on Syria."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Teaching Trump

When Trump was elected president last year, it was clear that the new American leader was a foreign policy novice.

As a candidate, he accused China of currency manipulation; he lashed out at Mexico for failing to stop "rapists" and criminals from entering the U.S.; he called the UN an "underperformer."

But Trump's inner circle of advisers -- dominated by former and current military generals including McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, and chief of staff John Kelly — have patiently worked to school the new American leader on some of the most critical national security challenges, both new and inherited.

16 PHOTOS
Melania and Ivanka Trump arrive in Saudi Arabia
See Gallery
Melania and Ivanka Trump arrive in Saudi Arabia
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump wave as they arrive in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. first lady Melania Trump (from L-R, seated) holds the attention of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman at a Saudi welcome ceremony for U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) at the Royal Court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ivanka Trump (C-L) and Jared Kushner (C-R) arrive to attend the presentation of the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump wave as they arrive in Riyadh during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017.Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C, in brown and white) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump (top, 3-R) with a military honor cordon after they arrived aboard Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (C) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump (R) to a tea ceremony in the Royal Terminal after they arrived aboard Air Force One at King Khalid Airport International in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (C) and his wife Ivanka Trump walk on the tarmac after arriving with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One at King Khalid Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R), U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump (C) are greeted with flowers by children in an arrival ceremony at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Ivanka Trump (C-L) and Jared Kushner (C-R) arrive to attend the presentation of the Order of Abdulaziz al-Saud medal at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (lower left, back to camera) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump as they arrive aboard Air Force One at King Khalid Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House senior advisor Jared Kushner (C) and his wife Ivanka Trump walk on the tarmac after arriving with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets with U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (2-L) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and first lady Melania Trump as they arrive aboard Air Force One at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump step off Air Force One upon arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Ivanka Trump (L) and Jared Kushner (C) walk across the tarmac after arriving in Riyadh with US President Donald Trump (unseen) at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

In Riyadh this year, Trump — who is seeking a temporary ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority nations and a longer-term ban on refugees — called on Muslim nations to join forces with the U.S. to defeat "radical Islamic terrorism."

Having once described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as "obsolete," Trump has recently embraced the military alliance but continues to urge member nations to meet spending targets.

Still, there is only so much his advisers can do. Where carefully crafted policies ideally precede public messaging, even Trump's most influential advisers now often scramble to reshape policy to catch up with the president's tweets and public declarations.

Last weekend, Trump tweeted that the suspect in London's latest attack was "sick and demented," prompting British Prime Minister Theresa May to note that his comments were not "helpful."

And his Twitter reference to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, as "rocket man" is leading many current and former diplomats to warn that his inexperience could exacerbate already delicate attempts at diplomacy.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.