In the first 11 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, U.S. diplomats have been forced to respond to crisis after crisis triggered by the White House—all without a secretary of state to guide them.
Now that Rex Tillerson is on the verge of being confirmed, State Department employees hope he can bring some order to the chaos. So far, career diplomats have been impressed by the former ExxonMobil chief’s willingness to hear them out: “It’s all been very positive. He’s been asking a lot of questions,” one State Department source said.
But in the wake of Trump’s firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates, appointed by President Barack Obama, many of those same diplomats are wondering if Tillerson will have the authority to guide American foreign policy—and the willingness to stand up to Trump if necessary.
“Being secretary of state is all about relationships, maintaining them, improving them, and forging new ones,” said another State official, a veteran of the department. “What he faces is unprecedented — trying to maintain or improve relationships that are being undercut by the White House.”
During briefings at State, Tillerson has indicated that he wants to include subject-matter experts in briefings, as opposed to relying on more senior officials, a move that would boost morale in the rank-and-file, multiple people inside the department said. Usually, those experts share their opinions and analysis with higher-ups who then pass assessments to the secretary. Along the way, some of the nuance can get lost, frustrating the lower-level employees.
His approach has been noticeably different than that of his prospective boss. Trump’s first full week included a Twitter fight with the Mexican president and an executive order on immigration and refugees that stranded travelers and outraged much of the world. The events left State Department officials using curse words when describing the scene at Foggy Bottom.
Since winning the election in November, Trump has largely ignored the expertise of the foreign service — rejecting their offers of briefings before his calls with international leaders; making moves and statements that have gone against decades of U.S. foreign policy; and insisting that career State Department officials who have served presidents of both parties quit politically appointed posts.
On Monday, as word spread that some U.S. diplomats were circulating a secret internal memo stating their opposition to Trump’s executive order suspending the admission of refugees and barring entry for non-citizens from seven Muslim nations, the White House lashed out at State in ways that raised fears of reprisals.
“These career bureaucrats have a problem with it?” White House spokesman Sean Spicer asked. “I think they should either get with the program or they can go.”
The memo was formally submitted to State Department leaders Tuesday through what’s known as the Dissent Channel, which was set up in the Vietnam era to give diplomats a means of voicing concerns about the direction of U.S. policy. State Department regulations expressly forbid retaliation against people who sign the memos, and the department typically gets four or five such missives a year. Several hundred diplomats have so far signed on to the one opposing Trump’s executive order.
Numerous divisions at State are currently being run by interim leaders because the Trump team has yet to name officials to critical posts, including undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. One key slot that remains unfilled is that of the deputy secretary of state. Several names have been floated for the post, including Elliott Abrams and Paula Dobriansky, both of whom worked for President George W. Bush.
One person who’s been prominent during Tillerson’s interactions with the State Department is Margaret Peterlin, a former U.S. Patent and Trademark Office official with extensive government and private sector experience. State Department officials believe Peterlin could wind up serving as Tillerson’s chief of staff.
The State Department press office has yet to hold a traditional daily briefing since Trump took office. When Bush and Obama were sworn in, the department held a press briefing within three days. Like much of the rest of the government, the press office appeared blindsided by Trump’s executive order and struggled to answer to basic questions about how it would affect its consular section.
Career diplomats say there was little real outreach or discussion about their priorities and ideas by members of Trump’s transition team, which urged the president to turn the department’s focus more toward counter-terrorism and away from issues such as climate change or democracy promotion.
Tillerson indicated in his confirmation hearing that he’d largely defer to the president-elect on policy. He also took a softer line on Russia than many lawmakers of both parties, or members of the Foreign Service, were comfortable with.
When senators pressed Tillerson on what he would do if Trump created an international firestorm via Twitter while he is trying to pursue delicate negotiations, he replied: “I have his cell phone number. And he’s promised me he’ll answer.”
Tillerson could not be reached for comment, and his aides either declined to speak or did not respond to requests for interview.
Former Department officials said Tillerson, who’s spent his career at Exxon, may be surprised by what he finds at Foggy Bottom.
“Exxon is a rule-based culture, it’s an accountability culture, it’s an engineering culture—it’s very linear. It’s not a culture for free-thinkers and dissent,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official. “And that’s not the State Department. The State Department, they’re free thinkers. There’s a premium on being creative and speaking up.”
If Tillerson does want to make significant changes to the way the 75,000-employee department operates, he’ll have to win the goodwill of his staff.
“The State Department is like an iceberg. The view from the outside is deceiving,” said David Wade, who served as a chief of staff for Kerry. “It’s a huge managerial and organizational challenge different from any other.”
Wade said morale is a hugely important issue, and that the first few weeks will be critical. “The building will size him up to learn whether he is in the loop, out of the loop, or able to move the White House on areas he cares about and which matter to the department,” he said.