You say the photo accompanying this post isn’t of Rex Tillerson?That’s right; it’s because Tillerson never answers press questions, so various State Department employees are having to stand in for him. About 3 weeks ago I wrote on “The State Department’s Disappearing Act” in light of the virtual disappearance of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson from public view. Not that he isn’t on the job; but his rare appearances suggest that he is being systematically sidelined in the policymaking process.
Since that last blog, Tillerson seems determined not only to keep a very low profile but also, and more disturbingly, to prevent access to him or his department.
Here are the signs:
- Rex Tillerson has yet to hold a press conference, and refuses to answer questions at photo-ops. When Andrea Mitchell of NBC persisted at the last such event, she was asked to leave the room.
- The State Department has given exactly one press briefing since January 20. “Briefing” is actually too generous: the department’s spokesman, asked on March 8 why Tillerson was not meeting with Mexico’s foreign minister who was in Washington, expressed surprise that the minister was in town.
- Tillerson still does not have a second-in-command since Trump nixed Tillerson’s choice of Elliott Abrams for deputy secretary. (Abrams had been very critical of Trump during the presidential campaign. But Abrams should not have been selected for a far more important reason: he 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.
- Tillerson is about to pay a visit to Asia, just as US relations with China and North Korea are again very tense and South Korea’s president has been impeached. But he has indicated that the press will not be invited along, an extraordinary decision that is being sharply criticized by the major media organizations.
So the questions persist: Why is Tillerson being so secretive? Is he making a substantive contribution to policymaking? Is the State Department in a permanent state of limbo, with a skeletal staff and disregard for its professional expertise?