Report: Tillerson, State Department "out of the loop" on administration diplomacy

Maybe this finally explains why Team Trump preferred a dark horse like Tillerson, who had zero government experience, to an old hand like Stephen Hadley or John Bolton. One theory of that was that Bolton was too controversial to get confirmed; another theory was that Trump wanted someone softer on Russia than either Bolton or Hadley would have been. But what if the truth is that they wanted Tillerson because they planned all along to sideline the State Department in the policymaking process and figured that a newbie like T-Rex would find that less offensive than a career natsec official like Hadley or Bolton? What if, in other words, they valued Tillerson first and foremost because he’d be compliant — or at least more compliant — when the White House tried to micromanage State?

Senior state department officials who would normally be called to the White House for their views on key policy issues, are not being asked their opinion. They have resorted to asking foreign diplomats, who now have better access to President Trump’s immediate circle of advisers, what new decisions are imminent

Neither [Tillerson] nor his staff were consulted on the executive order imposing a travel ban on refugees and nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries. A memo strongly dissenting from the policy has been signed by about 1,000 state department employees.

When Trump decided over a dinner to approve a special forces counter-terrorist raid in Yemen, there was no one from the state department present who would normally have highlighted the dangers of civilian casualties from such operations for wider US interests in the region.

That’s part of a pattern of disrespect for Tillerson early on. It began before he was even confirmed as Secretary of State, when he joined Mattis and Pompeo in complaining that Mike Flynn was trying to influence appointments of deputies in his department. Tillerson then recommended Elliott Abrams to be his chief deputy at State — which Trump rejected on grounds that Abrams had criticized him during the campaign. The pattern continued this week with a report that Reince Priebus, after promising Tillerson input on certain key ambassadorships, reduced his sway over the process. It’s reportedly Jared Kushner, not Tillerson, who’s been tasked with facilitating a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, per CBS, a representative from State didn’t attend the Oval Office meeting between Trump and Netanyahu this week even though Kushner did. (The theory is that the three men, all of whom had known each other before, would be able to speak more candidly without outside officials involved.) There are also reports that Trump is holding phone calls with world leaders with “little guidance” from State beforehand, even though traditionally the Department briefs the president before any high-level foreign diplomacy. According to the Guardian, State also wasn’t asked for help arranging Theresa May’s visit. State hasn’t even held a daily public briefing since the inauguration.

And then there are the layoffs. New from CBS:

Much of seventh-floor staff, who work for the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources and the Counselor offices, were told today that their services were no longer needed.

These staffers in particular are often the conduit between the secretary’s office to the country bureaus, where the regional expertise is centered. Inside the State Department, some officials fear that this is a politically-minded purge that cuts out much-needed expertise from the policy-making, rather than simply reorganizing the bureaucracy.

There are clear signals being sent that many key foreign policy portfolios will be controlled directly by the White House, rather than through the professional diplomats.

Those layoffs occurred while Tillerson is traveling abroad, raising the question of how much say he had about them. There was another round of layoffs at State a few days after Trump took office that knocked out a bunch of high-ranking people, including Patrick Kennedy. The right countered left-wing panic over that by noting that new presidents routinely replace bureaucrats held over from the previous administration as part of their new operations, which is true. But usually that’s because they have replacements lined up and waiting to go. That’s not the case in some of the State layoffs; CBS mentions one official who served under Clinton, Bush, and Obama and who’s been let go even though “Tillerson does not intend to fill the counselor’s position anytime soon.” Put all of that together with rumors of a turf war between Bannon and Mike Flynn over national security and reports that Robert Harward, Flynn’s proposed replacement, was afraid that Bannon would try to micromanage him if he took the NSA job and it’s easy to suspect that the White House really is trying to shift power from its various foreign policy arms, like State and the National Security Council, into the White House itself. Even Trump’s much-admired generals, Jim Mattis and John Kelly, aren’t immune to receiving short shrift by the White House on major policy decisions. Remember, both of them were allegedly given very short notice and little time for input before Trump’s travel ban was rolled out. Will their eventual replacements at Defense and DHS be given the full Tillerson “out of the loop” treatment too, especially if they’re not generals?

Exit question: Is this merely growing pains as Tillerson gets comfortable in the job and focuses on his staffing choices or is it a harbinger of State’s diminished role under a White House that likes to keep policy in-house?

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David Strom 5:21 PM on June 02, 2023