Secretary of State Rex Tillerson largely disappears in the Trump Cabinet

More than a month after he became America’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson is like no other modern secretary of State: He’s largely invisible.

Tillerson’s absence was conspicuous Friday at the release of State’s annual report on human rights around the world, a normally high-profile event that other governments closely monitor and previous secretaries rarely missed.

But Tillerson has given no media interviews and has not held a single news conference. He has made two brief trips abroad — and was overshadowed both times by other Cabinet officials. His news releases are chiefly independence day greetings to other nations.

The White House blocked him from appointing his choice for a deputy, so he still has none. Dozens of assistant secretary positions, the diplomats who head bureaus for specific regions and issues, also are unfilled.

Foreign diplomats who previously studied the near-daily State Department briefings for guidance on U.S. policy on matters large and small have little to go on. The last public briefing was on Jan. 19, the day before Trump took office; they are set to resume on March 6, but on an irregular schedule.

Tillerson had dinner with President Trump last week but his influence at the White House is difficult to discern. He appears to be competing with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, both of whom have Trump’s ear on foreign policy.

One test of Tillerson’s influence is looming. The White House is considering deep budget cuts for State that could significantly curtail his ability to conduct the global diplomacy that has been the backbone of U.S. foreign policy under previous administrations.

At least in public, Tillerson has yet to explain his view on those cuts. Opposition already is growing in Congress, however. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week that sharp cuts to foreign aid and the State Department are unlikely to clear the Senate.

Previous secretaries of State — John F. Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, among others — were global celebrities.

It might be argued how much power each ultimately wielded, but all were highly visible, frequently seen at his or her president’s side or in top-level encounters with world leaders.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who served under six secretaries of State, described a marginalized Tillerson heading an “incredibly shrinking State Department.”

“A way has to be found to empower Tillerson,” Miller said. “Without that, it takes five seconds for allies or adversaries to understand that the secretary of State does not have a whole lot of weight.”

Other foreign policy experts worry that the administration has been so slow to fill scores of policy and operational positions at State, leaving acting appointees in charge.

“Some are very good, but it still means none have any authority,” said Henri Barkey, a former State Department official who now heads the Middle East program at the non-partisan Wilson Center think tank.

“There is no policy out there, and it is not clear Tillerson knows what he’s supposed to do,” he added.

In Washington, foreign diplomats and non-governmental organizations that routinely work with the State Department say it appears rudderless.

“There is no one under him,” said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified because the diplomat’s embassy must deal with the State Department. Visiting delegations “have meetings but find everyone in listening mode.”

“Clearly no one below Tillerson is making any decisions, and people are trying to figure out what he wants,” said the representative of an advocacy group who also asked not to be identified because the group is partially funded by the State Department.

It’s unclear if Tillerson’s under-the-radar style reflects his personality, or if he is following a script from a White House that has taken control of foreign policy in the Middle East and with Mexico, and has stressed a robust military buildup over diplomacy and foreign aid.

At a news conference last week, White House spokesman Sean Spicer defended Tillerson’s relationship with Trump, saying the president regularly seeks and receives the diplomat’s input “in terms of foreign policy interaction."

Stephen Hadley, former national security advisor for President George W. Bush, said the new secretary is moving carefully in a challenging new environment.

“He’s an engineer and engineers learn the facts and follow where they lead,” Hadley said. “He’s a systems guy, a step-by-step guy… He’s starting out slow as he learns the job. People need to give him some time."

As a CEO of the global energy conglomerate Exxon Mobil before he joined the administration, Tillerson preferred flying to global capitals with a small entourage, swooping in to make deals. He answered to a corporate board of directors and shareholders.

With the FBI and several congressional committees investigating whether the Trump team had improper contacts with Russian authorities, perhaps it’s not surprising that Tillerson — who was close to Russian President Vladimir Putin several years ago — has kept his head down.

But his semi-disappearing act at State after decades of high-profile, globe-trotting secretaries of State could have far-reaching implications for America’s position in the world.

Since taking office, Trump has alarmed allies by deriding the role of international institutions and trade pacts, squabbling with leaders of Mexico and Australia, challenging decades of policy with China and announcing a neo-isolationist “America First” policy toward the rest of the world.

“My job is not to represent the world,” Trump said Tuesday night in his first speech to Congress. “My job is to represent the United States of America.”

Tillerson felt compelled to weigh in the next day, issuing a statement that seemed aimed at salvaging his role as well as America’s use of soft power and persuasion around the world.

The State Department “will continue to engage to advance U.S. interests in the world in cooperation with our partners and allies,” Tillerson said. “American foreign policy must promote our core values of freedom, democracy, and stability.”

Tillerson’s defenders say he is methodical in his approach to diplomacy and is not concerned about making what he views as media splashes.

The silver-haired Texan prefers not to make pronouncements unless he “really [has] something to say,” according to a senior State Department official familiar with his thinking.

But he also appears cut out of the White House loop at times.

When Michael Flynn, then the national security advisor, announced last month that the administration was putting Iran “on notice” for testing a ballistic missile, Tillerson had not been consulted on what normally would involve the State Department.

Early in the administration, analysts had predicted that Tillerson would join forces with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, both retired generals, in creating a troika of steady hands to help guide the inexperienced president and his team.

Instead, Tillerson faded from view on his debut trip to a G-20 ministerial meeting in Bonn, Germany. While he was there, Mattis and Vice President Pence drew global attention when they spoke to a high-profile security conference in Munich.

Tillerson brought only a skeleton staff to Bonn. A photograph showed him beside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, where the Russian was flanked by numerous aides while Tillerson sat with three.

Tillerson’s other trip was an overnight visit with Kelly to repair a diplomatic rift with Mexico City about Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay to build a border wall. Mexican officials have flatly refused.

But Kelly grabbed the headlines when he announced that Homeland Security would not carry out mass deportations or use the U.S. military to enforce immigration laws — hours after Trump had boasted of a military-style roundup of undocumented immigrants.

Neither Tillerson nor Kelly took questions from a salon full of U.S. and Mexican reporters, some of whom had flown from Washington and who waited hours for what turned out to be the reading of prepared statements.

tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

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