Newly confirmed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has little time to adjust to the job of America’s chief diplomat. He has now taken on a key position in the Trump administration that will immediately place him in the pressure cooker of international affairs and his own country’s hostile media.
The former chairman and chief executive of Exxon Mobil has a mission impossible job as President Trump’s clean-up man on controversies like the immigration order and diplomatic spats with Mexico and Australia. But his role hardly ends there.
There are the strains in the relationship with China and Russia; not to mention tension in the Middle East. Before he has laid down his moving boxes, more than 1,000 State Department employees recently signed on to a cable dissenting from a White House order that temporarily halted all refugee resettlement and travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Tillerson needs to convey his approach to a variety of issues. Will he be his own man at State, or a sounding board for Trump? “He gets zero grace period. He gets no honeymoon,” said Alec Ross, who served as a senior adviser on innovation to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ross’s comment is indicative of liberal Washington pundits and lawmakers itching to find immediate fault with Trump’s foreign policy. There will be no honeymoon for Tillerson or any other Trump cabinet appointee.
Trump has sent a clear signal long before Tillerson’s confirmation that he plans to get tough on foreign policy with bold executive orders on immigration and trade since taking office. The president is adamant in his thinking that most of the countries of the world have taken advantage of America’s compassion and generosity.
“We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually,” Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on Thursday. “It’s not going to happen anymore. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
From previous statements Tillerson made at his confirmation hearings, there won’t be much daylight with the president, and the White House will largely dictate the foreign policy approach. Tillerson relentlessly remained non-committal in many of his answers.
The real secretary of State shouldn’t take long to emerge. There are the hacking questions with the Russians and their continued intervention in eastern Ukraine’s affairs. And then there is the Chinese problem with their artificial islands in the South China Sea that are being militarized.
Even though 43 senators voted against Tillerson earlier this week, some Democrats remain somewhat optimistic about his tenure. Friday’s announcement of Iran sanctions came as welcome relief to many and the surprise warning to Israel on settlement construction and demands that Russia withdraw from Crimea.
Tillerson will need to pay attention to morale inside the building, because there needs to be a good synergy between the secretary’s team on the 7th floor and the career foreign service. They have faced many mistakes by Tillerson’s predecessors including John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. Many State employees face quick termination for their partisan actions during the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, the new secretary of State spent his first days on the job making phone calls to the foreign ministers of Canada and Mexico and meeting with the foreign ministers of Germany and Jordan. On Friday, he also met with U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Tillerson has a mission to reshape the administration’s bumpy start. His every move will be scrutinized by a mostly hostile media looking for anything to degrade this administration that beat their candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton. There will be no so-called honeymoon for anybody affiliated with Donald Trump.