On the menu at the White House Wednesday night for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s dinner with President Trump: a batch of open ambassadorships that need filling, says an aide to the nation’s top diplomat.
The dinner comes just a day after President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress — a speech Tillerson contributed edits to just hours before delivery. According to Tillerson’s aide, the new president handed the sections that concerned foreign affairs to the former Exxon Mobil CEO, who penned some notes for his boss and handed them back.
That episode followed an Oval Office meeting between the two former businessmen on Monday, another one last Wednesday, and another two weeks before. This past Saturday night, both of them dined — separately — at the Trump Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. And the night after, Tillerson had a prime spot for dinner with Trump and company at the Governors’ Ball.
No other Cabinet secretary is enjoying the same amount of face time with Trump — at least not in a way that’s winding up on the president’s public schedule.
“And that doesn’t count all the phone calls,” his aide said.
For Tillerson, though, it’s a piece of his strategy to keep his head down while he sets out to make the State Department more efficient.
So far, the headlines coming out of Foggy Bottom have been decidedly bad. “Out of the loop: Rex Tillerson finds State Department sidelined by White House,” from The Guardian is just one example that followed multiple reports chronicling staffing challenges.
Questions abound such as: Is Jared Kushner the acting secretary of state? Is Tillerson being marginalized? Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday nothing could be further from the truth.
And then there’s the budget blueprint that landed with a thud in the diplomatic community on Monday for an early White House projection to cut about a third of the State Department’s funding.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer argued strenuously on Wednesday that it doesn’t take money to follow through on President Trump’s pronouncement Tuesday night that the United States will pursue a foreign policy of robust engagement around the world.
To that end, Tillerson is dialing back the globe-trotting made famous by the last two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Clinton logged more miles than any of her predecessors, reaching almost one million. And then Kerry came along and outdid her. But Tillerson’s team has taken a dim view of that contest.
He intends to travel only when he has intensive diplomatic work to do rather than a panel to headline. The White House boasted for several days of Tillerson’s trip with Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to Mexico, in part because they did something Trump is loath to do: acknowledge U.S. faults. The secretaries conceded that the United States needs to do more to curb illegal drugs and weapons from flowing southward into Mexico, as well.
High on his list — and Trump’s — is tackling the threat North Korea poses on a bigger scale by engaging with countries outside Asia to show that the rogue nation poses a global threat rather than a regional one.
Instead of more frequent travel, he’s working through how to restructure the State Department and is resetting budgetary priorities in the longterm, his team says.
And Trump calls his cell phone with some frequency to talk through diplomatic footwork. They huddled before Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for a weekend earlier this month, and they talked again before the two heads of state made a joint statement condemning North Korea’s ballistic missile test that same weekend.
“If Trump closes the deal, Rex is the person who makes the deal,” said Tillerson’s aide.
It’s a comment that suggests Tillerson may have figured out how to ingratiate himself well with his TV star boss: eschew the cameras and make the boss look better.