What in the world is going on at Donald Trump’s State Department? And where in the world is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?
The answer to that second question, at least as of last week, was Asia, where according to foreign journalists he truncated his meetings with South Korean officials after he reportedly felt fatigued. But wait. Tillerson later claimed the Koreans had invented this diagnosis to save face after they failed to invite him for dinner and then suddenly realized in a panic that this was a massive faux pas.
What actually went down during the Caper on the Korean Peninsula? We can’t be certain because Tillerson only decamped to Asia with one journalist in tow, an unusual departure from protocol under which a squawking gaggle of press follow the secretary of state everywhere. The lone reporter, Erin McPike, later filed an extensive story revealing Tillerson as a seemingly recalcitrant public servant. “I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job,” he told her. “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”
Boys and girls, have you ever considered an exciting career in the Foreign Service?
Tillerson also disclosed to McPike that he’d never even met with Trump before being offered the State Department portfolio, which should be all the verification you need that Tillerson exists firmly outside Trump’s inner council. The man wasn’t even allowed to name his own deputy, for goodness sake, and the best that Senator Bob Corker could insist in his defense is that he “talks all the time to Jared.” Tillerson isn’t a cheap jewelry collector; Corker means Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and possibly the real seat of diplomacy in the United States today.
It was Kushner who jettisoned the traditional American insistence on a two-state solution with the Palestinians; Tillerson learned about that geopolitical earthquake on television. Vanity Fair, which recently profiled Kushner, claims that the son-in-law is so powerful that he’s become a shadow state secretary, hovering over Tillerson’s shoulder on every decision of consequence.
Is it any wonder Tillerson is so full of ennui?
Meanwhile, over at the State Department itself, dust is amassing on the tables and cobwebs are gathering in the corners. According to a revealing report by journalist Julia Ioffe, Foggy Bottom has been left listless, with dozens of top-echelon positions still vacant and staffers habituated to working 14 hours a day reluctantly checking out at 5:30 p.m. “The cafeteria is so crowded all day,” one mid-level official said. “No one’s doing anything.” With diplomacy charged to Kushner, State, historically a formidable bureaucratic fortress, appears to have reached the nadir of its power.
No doubt that’s tasty news for many on the right, who have long viewed the State Department’s mission with suspicion and its budget as wanting for scissors. You’ll get no disagreement from me that federal departments should see cuts this year—even one of Ioffe’s Foggy Bottom sources acknowledges that “nothing will make you a libertarian faster than working in the federal government”—but the Trump budget would mutilate State’s funding by 28 percent, the most of any agency save for the (deserving) EPA.
That’s a static-free message about where Trump places his priorities, especially given that the larded-up Pentagon is slated for a ludicrous $54 billion spending hike. Diplomacy, soft power, calm discussions in ornate rooms—these things matter less than they did before.
The secretary of state was one of America’s first cabinet positions and dates back to the Washington administration when it was occupied first by John Jay and then by Thomas Jefferson. It fulfills necessary constitutional duties assigned to the president, those of making treaties and appointing ambassadors.
And while State under the Obama administration was known chiefly for its belligerence, with Hillary Clinton war-whooping against the Libyan regime and John Kerry thundering against Bashar al-Assad, historically Foggy Bottom has been a valuable balm on presidential aggression. This was never so true as during the Bush administration, when then-secretary of state Colin Powell’s objections to the war in Iraq proved so vexatious to Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld that they waged a campaign of media leaks against him (Powell did eventually and regrettably fold).
Also, given our president’s motor mouth, might it not be useful to have a strong corps of diplomats that can smooth things over with, say, an insulted Australian prime minister? Or furious British intelligence agents? Amidst all the worthless subjects of federal largesse, the State Department really does have a vital function. So why is Trump defanging it?