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“It's just weird”: a former employee on Rex Tillerson’s empty State Department

And why it matters.

The U.S. State Department in January, 2017.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Details coming out of Rex Tillerson’s State Department tell a story of staff vacancies, scarce meetings, and general bewilderment from aides who have worked through multiple administrations. The emerging picture is of a secretary of state who has given little direction to his team on how he plans to run the diplomatic wing of the US government.

State Department employees are even discouraged from making eye contact with Tillerson while he’s in the office, the Washington Post reported last week.

Tillerson’s unconventional leadership style comes at a time when the White House is signaling decreased importance of the State Department. President Trump has proposed cutting their budget by a third while announcing that his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner will handle diplomacy with the Middle East and China.

To get a sense of what this means for the State Department, and how unusual new leadership really has been, I spoke to a former State Department employee who worked under the Obama administration and resigned when the Trump administration took over. They asked to remain anonymous so they could speak frankly about the State Department.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Based on your experience at the State Department, what makes Tillerson’s tenure so unusual?

I think it's two things primarily. One is the relative silence coming from Tillerson in terms of his public persona. How little he's speaking out in public, how little he speaks when he hosts another foreign leader, for instance, even with just a little brief thing at the top. He rarely says anything. Given the importance of the role, the public speaking element of diplomacy, what you say in public matters a great deal. I think that's been one of the troubling aspects, an aspect that I hope changes for the sake of American leadership because I know it's really important.

The second thing isn't necessarily Tillerson's fault per se, but the fact that the White House has left so many senior levels at the State Department unfilled. There are all these undersecretaries and assistant secretaries who have not been appointed yet. It's not just that they haven't been confirmed by the Senate. It's that they haven't even been named.

There are these important positions that oversee different regions and different issues, such as arms control, for example, where leadership is vacant or there's an acting person. This acting person is by definition temporary, meaning that people we're dealing with abroad don't necessarily know if this person is there long term or not, which adds uncertainty to the process. So those are two things — the public speaking or lack thereof thus far, and also the dearth of appointments at senior levels of the department, at the leadership level of the department.

What about the reports that have been coming out about people not allowed to make eye contact with him? Is that true?

It's just weird. Very odd. I've definitely heard that from folks, probably four or five, who are still in the building that are career diplomats. I’ve also heard it through the grapevine and read it in the paper as well. It’s a strange thing to make into a policy in the office. The problematic part of it is that it can be reflective of a lack of faith in the bureaucracy and the career diplomats at the State Department who really know how this works.

These [career diplomats] have gone through Democratic and Republican administrations. They have developed relationships abroad and worked in different countries; they've worked in Washington running different desks for different regions on different issues. These people really can help you get up to speed.

Having worked on a secretary's staff, you get a sense of how important the people immediately around you are, whether they're political appointees or temporary or career diplomats there for a long time. You get to know how important that core staff is, having a good relationship with folks who have your back but also the folks who keep you informed when the going gets tough, so to speak.

With Secretary Tillerson, his staff says he carves out time during the day to study up [on memos]. That is great, but if you're not making eye contact with the people who can help you understand all these issues more rapidly and make you more effective abroad, which is the secretary of state's role, then you're sort of missing out on a large resource, which is going to hamper your ability to do a good job.

Now, maybe that's intentional, but again, I don't ascribe motives to anybody. But the lack of eye contact thing, in addition to being strange, is reflective of an unwillingness to get to know the people who could help you the most, which are the career diplomats who really know their stuff.

Can you give an example of a time where career diplomats surrounding the secretary of state really proved to be an advantage, in your own experience?

One is travel. The career diplomats at the junior level all the way up to very senior levels, whether they're in embassies abroad or based here in Washington, they've done trips with secretaries of state before. They've hosted diplomats before or even other secretaries or officials who might be coming. They know how it works.

They understand the logistics: who needs to be checked off in terms of who to meet with. This is very important in terms of diplomacy and policy in the long run. These diplomats have the institutional knowledge of how the travel is supposed to work, and, more and more, travel has become a huge part — especially as travel has become easier — a huge part of what the secretary of state does.

You go to different countries or foreign leaders come to you, which is in the same bucket of logistical responsibility. And that's how you build relationships, and that's how you develop good policies between countries or between the United States and a region or a coalition of countries, whatever it is.

I was very proud to work with someone like John Kerry, who had a deep-seated belief in the importance of diplomacy — that we could address problems more easily if you sat down across the table from someone and had a conversation. The career diplomats can help facilitate that. And for some of them, it’s their job to facilitate that travel, those meetings and that kind of thing, getting you from point A to point B. So that's one area I think is important.

The other one is connected in terms of institutional knowledge, but especially with the longtime diplomats who have been around in certain embassies in the political section or the press section or covering legislatures in other countries. They just have a knowledge of the history of these relationships that is completely invaluable. So if you're going into something and you want to get a briefing or prep for a speech or conference, it’s having the knowledge and background of how this was done before and what’s in the news right now, like our relationship with China as it relates to dealing with North Korea or our relationship with the Gulf states as it connects to Iran.

I think those two elements are very, very important, and I saw that every day — because I traveled with the secretary and because I was producing materials for him, so I relied heavily on the folks in the building who were working the country desk or regional desk in the past. They knew how things were changing, how the trends looked, and could help us then shape what we were doing on a public-facing level through that knowledge.

Do you have thoughts on the budget cuts that are happening?

I've seen the reports that [Tillerson is] not doing much to try to fight to protect the budget, which is, behind the scenes, part of the job not only of the secretary of state but also some of the other deputies or undersecretaries: to fight for every penny. We don't spend that much money on diplomacy or foreign aid in the grand scheme of things.

I just read a quote from Gen. [James] Mattis, now secretary of defense, "If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition." This was his way of saying that the diplomacy is vital for keeping us from having to use our military.

Military use of our soldiers, our sailors and marines and our military personnel, should be an option of last resort. The military, I think, would agree with that. And the way you ensure that's the case and that we're only using our military when absolutely necessary is by using every other tool at our disposal.

This is largely invested in the State Department, which is the diplomatic side, in USAID, foreign aid, developmental aid from within State and other agencies, our trade policy, our economic policy, which comes from within State and Commerce — all these different things that we have as part of our global leadership arsenal [need] the resources behind them to work. Otherwise we rely far too heavily on our military, which is dangerous.

Personally, I don't want to send young men and women into harm’s way if we don't absolutely have to. We've seen it time and again in our history where a rush to war is a result of a failure of diplomacy or lack of diplomacy. But the diplomacy can only work if you invest in it. If you're going to propose to cut the State Department by a third, even though Congress has final word on that, but if that's the signal you're sending, that means the rest of the world is going to think, okay, well, we should really just be dealing with their military and hope they don't attack or start another war.

Now, I'm being crass about it, which I hate doing, but that's the message you send to the rest of the world. If you have the ample resources that at least will sustain the State Department at the current level, whether they're increased or not, then at least you're sending a message that this remains a priority and a major part of what the United States believes in.

Is there anything news watchers should understand about the State Department, or red flags to keep in mind to stay on top of what Tillerson is doing?

Building off of what we were talking about, keeping track of the budget. Because as a previous boss of mine, not at the State Department, liked to say: The budget is a statement of our values. And if our final budget that comes into law later this year, in theory, involves a massive rollback of funds for the State Department, that will be a statement of what we value as a country.

Another thing, going back to what I said in the beginning, is Secretary Tillerson's public persona and public role. If he continues to be cut out of visits of foreign leaders when they come to meet with the president, if he continues to stay silent in the face of major crises or major issues, if he continues to not have a senior leadership just beneath him in the flowchart of the State Department, that's going to be another troubling sign that the State Department is being sapped of its role and influence. So that's another thing I'd say.

Personally, I want to make it abundantly clear that while I have vehement disagreements with the current administration — and probably will continue to have them and in terms of the State Department — I want them to succeed and continue to do good things. I want to see some of the programs that were created continue, whether it's helping women and children in terms of health care abroad or our diplomacy on nonproliferation, some of the issues that don't get a lot of press. I want to see that stuff continue.

I want to see the State Department do a good job even if I disagree with the people in charge. I think a lot of my former colleagues would agree with me. My worries stem from a desire not for them to fail but to succeed.