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The astonishing dysfunction of Trump's State Department, in one quote

Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson Meets With Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin At The State Department (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The Trump administration has failed to staff key positions in vital federal agencies. It isn’t clear who is responsible for what, and the White House’s relationship with the federal bureaucracy is rocky.

All of this screws up the US government in ways that are often hard to notice from the outside. But sometimes that dysfunction goes public in really revealing ways. Thursday’s State Department briefing was one of those examples.

Mexico’s foreign minister, Luis Videgaray, was in Washington. The Los Angeles Times’s Tracy Wilkinson asked State spokesperson Mark Toner what the plans were for his visit. Toner, a highly regarded career foreign service officer, apparently had no idea that a key foreign dignitary was even in the city:

Wilkinson did some follow-up reporting, and found out that Videgaray had called Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to tell him he was visiting. However, the visit had been planned entirely through the White House, and Videgary did not schedule any meetings with Tillerson personally. This, as Wilkinson notes, is highly unusual.

“It is customary for foreign secretaries from all nations to be received by their US counterpart when in Washington,” she writes. “But Videgaray said the thrust of his mission meant he needed to speak directly to the White House.”

As my colleague Yochi Dreazen has written, Tillerson doesn’t seem to be much of a player on key foreign policy decisions, even though the job of the secretary of state is to help make them. The former Exxon Mobil CEO has also been slapped down by the White House on personnel choices and given virtually no opportunities to make public appearances with President Trump.

Now this is the latest black eye for the embattled department, already reeling from a proposed 37 percent budget cut.

There are two major takeaways:

  1. Tillerson’s State Department is so poorly staffed (he doesn’t yet have a deputy or a permanent spokesperson) and out of the loop on high-level decision-making that its press secretary wasn’t even informed of a visit by the top diplomat from one of Washington’s most important strategic partners.
  2. Foreign governments appear to be recognizing State’s weakness in the Trump administration and are bypassing America’s trained diplomatic corps. Instead, they’re speaking directly with White House aides whom they see as wielding real influence over the president. That includes ones like Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law, who has no experience in international affairs or diplomacy.

This is what a dysfunctional government looks like.

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