The State Department’s Disappearing Act

Those of us who expressed anxiety about President Trump’s appointment of ExxonMobil’s chief executive as secretary of state may have to shift gears.  Our concern now might have to be whether or not he and his department are actually involved in the making of US foreign policy.  Consider the following:


  • Rex Tillerson has yet to hold a press conference.
  • The State Department has yet to give a press briefing since January 20.
  • Tillerson still does not have a second-in-command since Trump nixed Tillerson’s choice (Elliott Abrams, who had been very critical of Trump during the presidential campaign, but who also was complicit in Guatemala’s genocide in the 1980s and lied to Congress during the Iran-Contra affair).
  • Tillerson did not represent the US at the Munich Security Conference, where the US delegation was headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
  • Tillerson was not present for Trump’s telephone calls to the leaders of Mexico and Australia or for the visit of Israel’s prime minister.


We do know that Tillerson is alive and well.  He has met with the foreign ministers of Britain, Germany, China, and Russia while in Europe.  No doubt he and the Russians will have much to talk about, including shedding tears over the untimely demise of General Michael Flynn, a Russian favorite.  But if Tillerson is as cool a businessman as advertised, he’ll make up for the loss of Flynn with private discussions about some new ExxonMobil contract once the petty matter of US sanctions is disposed of. Tillerson is about to visit Mexico.

The more serious problem here is that Tillerson’s State Department seems to be relegated to a minor role in foreign policymaking.  The fact that he is essentially operating with a skeleton staff is part of the problem. Most of the top-tier professionals are gone, and those that remain are Obama appointees waiting to be replaced.  But the main issue is that foreign policymaking is dominated by Stephen Bannon and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Jared Kushner and Pence.  Donald Trump, lacking no philosophy other than “America First,” relies on Bannon and his Islamophobe aide, Sebastian Gorka, to set the administration’s direction.  Ned Price, a CIA officer who just resigned in opposition to Trump, explains: That’s why the president’s trusted White House advisers, not career professionals, reportedly have final say over what intelligence reaches his desk” (

Notice that Bannon and Kushner say virtually nothing publicly.  They let the others—Tillerson, Mattis, Spicer, Preibus, Conway—take all the flak for the incoherence, insults, and embarrassments that Trump and his inner circle pile up.  Not exactly a “fine-tuned machine,” but certainly one that is leading US foreign policy into unpredictable terrain.  To say the least, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s appointee as national security special assistant, has his work cut out for him.


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