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Tillerson faces a dispirited State Department corps in rare 'town hall'

Tillerson faces a dispirited State Department corps in rare 'town hall'
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends the NCAA college football game in Philadelphia between the Army and the Navy last weekend. (Associated Press)

He was welcomed to the State Department nearly 11 months ago with polite applause and hopeful anticipation from its diplomatic corps. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson faced the same employees, now demoralized by months of resignations and the Trump administration’s tumultuous foreign policy.

For the most part, however, the diplomats who met with Tillerson in a rare town hall in Foggy Bottom were, well, diplomatic, and asked only the most gentle of questions.

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Of most interest was Tillerson’s description of his controversial plan to “redesign” State’s bureaucracy. He has been excoriated in foreign policy circles and by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress for willingly accepting draconian budget cuts imposed by the White House, and for a reorganization plan that critics say lacks detail and could undermine American diplomacy.

Tillerson pushed back on those criticisms Tuesday.

“This is all about modernizing the department and making it easier to complete your mission,” Tillerson told the assembled diplomats, civil servants and other employees.

Despite speaking for more than an hour about what he saw as the administration’s foreign policy challenges and achievements, including North Korea’s nuclear program and Russia’s interference in U.S. elections, it was the more meat-and-potatoes stuff of the department’s structure and staffing that the audience cared most about.

The first and largest round of applause came when Tillerson announced he was partially reversing a hiring freeze that he had imposed. Although a broader freeze exists department-wide, he said he is lifting the employment restrictions on spouses or dependents of diplomats dispatched overseas.

For decades, some spouses and dependents, many of them well-qualified, have been hired to perform embassy duties. In reinstating the practice, Tillerson conceded: “There is a talent pool we should be using, we should be mining more.”

Tillerson has insisted that he has allowed some 2,400 exceptions to the broader hiring freeze, which many diplomats complain has crippled the U.S. mission abroad. But, he added, he does expect to reduce State’s overall workforce by 8%.

Tillerson said that while he does not plan to close embassies, he envisions a redistribution. London, Paris and Rome might be desirable posts, he said, but those cities might not be where the United States most needs diplomats.

Tillerson’s appearance at the town hall, along with a later speech at the nonpartisan Atlantic Council and upcoming interviews with congressional committees, are meant to address what his aides acknowledge has been a failure to communicate.

“We have to do a better job of communicating broadly, to external and internal audiences, our achievements and vision of the U.S. global position in the world,” said the deputy secretary for public diplomacy, Steve Goldstein. Tillerson, he added, “is committed to that.”

Officials said the foreign service employees needed to see firsthand that their work mattered to Tillerson. Many did not seem particularly impressed. Attendees occasionally applauded, and laughed when Tillerson, asked if he enjoyed his job, replied that he’s “learning to.” Yet the audience remained fairly sober-faced throughout.

Tillerson again marked distance between himself and President Trump on policy, insisting that diplomacy with North Korea still has a chance and soundly criticizing the “warfare” Russia has waged against U.S. democracy. (Trump has said Tillerson’s efforts to push Pyongyang toward negotiations were a “waste of time,” and refuses to concede significant Russian interference in the 2016 election.)

Also in contrast to his boss, Tillerson was more circumspect about what U.S. foreign policy has achieved.

“Do we have wins to put on the board? No,” Tillerson said. “That is not the way diplomacy works.”

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Still, he seemed determined to continue trying, a suggestion that he thinks he will remain employed as America’s top diplomat in 2018 despite persistent reports that the White House is planning to remove him.

Tillerson announced he will travel to Canada next week, and then to unnamed countries in South America and Africa early next year.

Between those trips, he said, he would head to his Texas ranch for the holidays, saddle up his horse, Blue, and survey the cattle.

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