As CEO of Exxon Mobil, one of the world’s largest oil companies, Rex Tillerson was accustomed to giving orders and brokering multibillion-dollar deals around the globe.
Now he leads a State Department that was largely sidelined by President Trump’s disruptive phone calls with leaders in Mexico and Australia, provocative comments about NATO and China, and the subsequently blocked order suspending travel from seven Muslim-majority nations.
Secretary of State Tillerson made his debut on the global stage Thursday at a G-20 summit in Bonn, Germany, saying little in public but working behind the scenes to reassure a dozen or so foreign ministers that U.S. foreign policy was nothing to fear.
Tillerson faced a barrage of questions from his foreign counterparts on whether Trump administration policy would hew to traditional lines or follow Trump’s sometimes ad hoc pronouncements. The diplomat mostly stuck to a handful of carefully crafted policy statements.
He described his first formal meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as “productive,” and avoided any mention of the FBI investigation back home into whether Trump’s campaign team or associates had improper contacts with Russian officials.
Tillerson apparently has the president’s ear.
After he spoke to Trump, the White House issued a mild rebuke for the first time to Israel for expanding settlements in the disputed West Bank. Trump repeated the criticism Wednesday at a joint news conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
And Tillerson is winning over skeptics at State who questioned his lack of government experience.
Several officials who have briefed Tillerson say he asks questions and listens patiently. His predecessor, John F. Kerry, a garrulous former U.S. senator with vast diplomatic experience, tended to pontificate rather than listen, these officials said.
Still, with Trump’s foreign policy very much a work in progress, Tillerson has kept an usually low public profile since he was sworn in Feb. 1. Except for a folksy introduction to State Department staffers, he has yet to give a speech, appear on a TV talk show or hold a news conference.
America’s top diplomat was mum when the Trump administration slapped new sanctions on Iran for launching a ballistic missile. He also was silent when North Korea launched a mid-range ballistic missile last week, letting the White House respond instead.
He has said nothing in public about renewed violence by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, or the sighting of a Russian spy ship in international waters off the coast of New England.
One reason, perhaps, is Tillerson still doesn’t have the full team of advisors and aides who normally report to the secretary of State — including a deputy secretary of State, the official who runs day-to-day operations.
Tillerson reportedly favored Elliott Abrams, a controversial neoconservative who had served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. He met with Trump last week, but Abrams told CNN on Monday he was rejected for the job.
Abrams pleaded guilty in 1991 to misleading Congress about the Iran-Contra scandal, although President George H.W. Bush later pardoned him. More importantly to Trump, apparently, Abrams wrote an article during the campaign last year titled “When You Can’t Stand Your Candidate.”
Since taking office, Trump has toned down some of his more provocative foreign policy positions. Whether Tillerson influenced Trump in all of them is unclear, but the shifts put Trump closer to the positions the Texan staked out at his confirmation hearing.
Trump had infuriated Beijing after the election when he took a call from the president of Taiwan and suggested he might renegotiate the “one China” policy that has been the backbone of U.S.-China relations since the 1970s, for example.
Last week, after Tillerson and others reportedly urged him to reconsider, Trump backed down in a long-delayed phone call with China’s president, Xi Jinping.
Similarly, after repeatedly deriding the NATO military alliance as obsolete, causing anxiety across Europe, Trump did an about-face and vowed support. Tillerson had called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization vital.
Critics worry about Tillerson’s friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an issue that dominated his confirmation hearing, and whether he will convince Trump that the Russian autocrat frequently acts against U.S. interests.
It is not unusual for the White House to control foreign policy either through the National Security Council or a small group of advisors, and to marginalize the State Department.
President Obama relied on a key aide, Ben Rhodes, to conduct the secret diplomacy that led to the historic rapprochement with Cuba, keeping the State Department in the dark, for example.
During his first term, Obama appointed special envoys for the Middle East peace process, and for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, reducing the role of his first secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in key areas.
Trump similarly has suggested he would put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — what Trump has called “the ultimate deal” — a task that has frustrated U.S. presidents and diplomats for decades.
Kushner, 36, who has no formal diplomatic experience, has become the primary White House point of contact for foreign leaders. He has held talks with numerous foreign ministers and diplomats — a job normally handled by the State Department.
Sharon Burke, a former State and Defense official in the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, suggested that Tillerson has room to maneuver as a diplomat because Trump’s relatively mild actions overseas so far don’t match his incendiary rhetoric.
“They want [policies] to look like a sharp break from the past,” even if they aren’t, said Burke, now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation think tank.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump’s shifting foreign policy is deliberate, meant to keep his adversaries off guard.
Trump “doesn’t like to telegraph his options,” Spicer told reporters.
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1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with details from Tillerson’s meetings in Germany.
This article was originally published at 6 a.m.