One Word Keeps Dogging Rex Tillerson: Absence

The secretary of State has kept an extremely low profile thus far
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 6, 2017 8:46 AM CST
One Word Keeps Dogging Rex Tillerson: Absence
In this Feb. 10, 2017 file photo, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is seen at the State Department in Washington.   (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

A word that has been dogging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: absence. Absence from the spotlight, from a high-profile human rights event Friday, and from the press, though that's set to change, somewhat, as of Monday. A rep for the State department attempted to answer the question of where, exactly, Tillerson has been, noting 32 phone calls with representatives of foreign countries and 15 in-person meetings on US soil with "foreign interlocutors" (plus two trips abroad), per Politico. The latest:

  • The State Department has historically held a daily press briefing on each business day; under Tillerson, there have been none. That's set to change Monday, though the approach has been tweaked: There won't be briefings on Fridays, and two of the weekly briefings will be conducted over the phone.
  • Politico's take on the lack of briefings thus far: "The long silence has irritated American diplomats who have watched other foreign ministry spokesmen ... try to seize control of narratives without State being able to respond."

  • Another absence that irritated and confused some: Tillerson didn't attend Friday's release of the department's annual report on human rights around the world. CNN reports that for decades the secretary has given the introduction at the high-profile event, and points out that during two exceptions under George W. Bush, the secretary was on a trip abroad; that wasn't true of Tillerson.
  • He's also been absent from President Trump's first three summit meetings with his foreign counterparts: Canada's Justin Trudeau, Japan's Shinzo Abe and Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, though Tillerson has met with Netanyahu. Just Security sees this as "very odd ... especially for someone who has no foreign policy experience and most likely does not have prior relationships with these leaders. Plus, being present at a meeting with the president shows foreign leaders—and the public and the State Department staff—that the president trusts and listens to you."
  • Some say it's just Tillerson doing what made him so successful as CEO of Exxon: "He's an engineer and engineers learn the facts and follow where they lead. He's a systems guy, a step-by-step guy ... He's starting out slow as he learns the job," a former national security adviser for George W. Bush tells the Los Angeles Times.
  • We may see what Tillerson is made of soon enough, though. The White House has indicated it plans to slash the State Department's budget. Tillerson has yet to publicly comment on the news (the LAT points out Mitch McConnell has, saying the Senate isn't likely to greenlight extreme cuts).
  • But this after "he lost ... his first battle with the president," as one State employee tells the Atlantic: Tillerson's choice of (past Trump critic) Elliott Abrams as his No. 2 was vetoed by the president. The position remains open.
  • At Vanity Fair, Emily Jane Fox sees a "curious silver lining" for Tillerson. "While the Russian intrigues swirling around the president continues to ensnare more members of his administration, the one man who knows Putin best has managed to stay off the radar by remaining off the grid. It may just be that his diminished role role might be what allows him to walk away the least scathed in the end."
(Read more Rex Tillerson stories.)

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