The Silent Secretary

Rex Tillerson, "the phantom of Foggy Bottom."

 The more I think about the way Secretary Tillerson has approached his job, the odder I realize it is.  Along those lines is the following from the NYT:  Tillerson Leads From State Dept. Shadows as White House Steps In.

Describing his impressions, Mr. Kissinger, perhaps America’s most famous diplomatic strategist, chose his words judiciously. “The normal tendency when you come into that job is to increase your visibility and to show that you are present and in charge,” he said in an interview. “He wanted to first inform himself of all the nuances. I was impressed by the confidence and self-assurance that he showed.”

Mr. Tillerson has skipped every opportunity to define his views or give guidance to American diplomats abroad, limiting himself to terse, scripted statements, taking no questions from reporters and offering no public protest when the White House proposed cutting the State Department budget by 37 percent without first consulting him.


He suffered in silence, State Department officials said, when President Trump called, in a matter-of-fact way, to reject Mr. Tillerson’s choice for deputy secretary of state. He has been absent from the White House meetings with key world leaders, and when the State Department issued its annual report on human rights — usually a major moment for the United States to stand up against repression around the world — he skipped the announcement.

All of this underscores why it is unwise to appoint a neophyte to such a position.  And, also, evidence to undercut the canard that people with experience with business can do anything.

And the following ranges from damning with faint praise to the utterly absurd:

Defenders say Mr. Tillerson has been accomplishing far more behind the scenes, including arranging for the first trip of a Saudi foreign minister to Iraq in more than a quarter-century — his first foray into the sinkhole of Middle East politics.

“He’s already developing plans to begin ratcheting back Putin’s nefarious behavior,” Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview — steps that would represent the first known effort by the new administration to face off against President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“He’s won status and respect of the president, of McMaster, and talks all the time to Jared,” the senator said, referring to the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, who has emerged as a prominent voice on American foreign policy.

While we certainly would want the SoS to be successful behind the scenes, it is an odd idea to suggest that all of their success is outside of the public eye.  After all, Tillerson is our main diplomat and it is a job that normally has a substantial public aspect.  This makes him sound like some staffer working in the corner.  And the notion that he has “won status and respect” of the President and National Security Advisor is a strange bit of praise, since it underscores his lack of status coming into the job.  Most SoS’s are appointed because they are already respected and have some status in the area of diplomacy/international relations.  The absurd part is that he “talks all the time to Jared” as if that is worthy of note in terms of his bona fides as SoS.  Really, all that underscores is the diminished role of the SoS in this administration (and the elevated role of the president’s family, an institutional feature more common to developing state autocracies than to well developed democracies).

Within the State Department, Mr. Tillerson, 64, got off to a promising start with a warm, humble greeting to staff members in the drab headquarters’ flag-draped foyer on his first day on the job. He talked about his upbringing and his wife’s belief that he had been preparing for this job his whole life, even if had not known it.

But few have heard from him since. Those who have say they regard him as an impressive manager who knows how to run a crisp meeting, take in a variety of views and give little away about his own.


So, for thousands in the State Department, Mr. Tillerson has come to be viewed as the phantom of Foggy Bottom, scarcely glimpsed and known mostly for his directives to wipe out some of the department’s top jobs.

The piece goes on to ask:

So why is the man many in the State Department call T. Rex so quiet?

And then provides the following possibilities:

There are several theories about Mr. Tillerson’s reticence.

One is that his silence is highly strategic: He wants to cement key relationships in private, make sure he is aligned with a mercurial president and let the policy process at the National Security Council play out before making any grand pronouncements.

The second is that he is waiting for the battles at the White House to burn out. In short, he wants to sidestep Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s top strategist, who believes that China’s rise can be halted and that Iran should be vigorously confronted, and work with Mr. Mattis, Mr. Kushner and Mr. McMaster. Mr. Corker said that “he’s already reached an agreement with Mattis to come to agreement and present ideas together,” something that Condoleezza Rice and Mrs. Clinton often did with their defense counterpart, Robert M. Gates.

The third is that he sees the job as more akin to what he did at Exxon Mobil: Cut your deals, say as little as possible and take the heat.

I would offer a fourth:  he really isn’t well-prepare for the position.  Being the head of large corporation, even one that is global, is not the same thing as being experienced in foreign policy. (I would note all four theories are not mutually exclusive).

And, of course, this doesn’t help:

Clearly, Mr. Tillerson will not have much of a staff for a while; not a single under secretary or assistant secretary — the people who make the policy wheels turn — has been nominated, and only a couple of ambassadors have been named.

And as the piece correctly points out, that is predominantly the President’s fault, not Tillerson’s.

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Mark Ivey says:

    Putin told him to lay low and purge from the shadows…

  2. Gustopher says:

    I’m not going to blame Trump entirely for not nominating any deputies or many ambassadors — I would expect the Secretary of State to have the President’s ear on this, and be offering suggestions or even basically choosing everyone, subject to the President’s approval.

    If the State Department is empty, it’s because Tillerson is unable to fill it.

  3. CSK says:


    Maybe Trump keeps rejecting Tillerson’s picks the way he did Abrams. Or it could be that Trump has told Tillerson that he (or Bannon and Kushner) will do the picking. Or maybe Tillerson will be left by himself to preside over an empty State Department.

    I mean, who the f knows? This is the Trump administration. We keep making the mistake of thinking some sort of rationality obtains here, and judging by previous norms.

  4. @Gustopher:

    I’m not going to blame Trump entirely for not nominating any deputies or many ambassadors — I would expect the Secretary of State to have the President’s ear on this, and be offering suggestions or even basically choosing everyone, subject to the President’s approval.

    But, if Tillerson does not have Trump’s ear, that is ultimately Trump’s fault, being the guy who appointed Tillerson and who now seems inclined to ignore State. And Trump did deny Tillerson his chosen Deputy (who has lots of State experience, although I can’t get choked up about having Elliot Abrams not involved in US foreign policy).

    I am not defending Tillerson, per se, but the responsibility here lies squarely with the President.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    This is to a degree the same problem with the Carter Administration. A group of outsiders who didn’t know how to command the bureaucracy and weren’t interested in learning how found themselves permanently three steps behind.

    The difference is Trump was elected to break things so it’s unclear to me that the problems we’re seeing will undermine his support.

  6. Ben Wolf says:

    It should also be noted that today’s CEOs are salesmen, not administrators or leaders. Being an effective department head requires all-of-the-above.

  7. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Luckily, blame is not a finite resource that we have to parcel out carefully. They are really both to blame.

    And, a strong Secretary of State would find a way to get the President’s ear.

    It’s the problem of both the President and his Sec. of State both being neophytes. And who is to blame for that? The Republicans in congress for confirming Tillerson.

  8. @Gustopher: Sure. But since Trump won’t appoint a strong SoS, I am back to blaming Trump more than whomever is SoS 😉

  9. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    But this is exactly what we should expect Trump to do: appoint weaklings and sycophants.

    His choice of Mattis and McMasters, who don’t appear to be either weak or sycophantish, I attribute more to his fascination with avatars of masculinity. This is a guy who doctor-shopped till he found one who’d be willing to sign off on his very tragic and debilitating condition of having a bone spur in one of his heels (he couldn’t remember which heel when asked by reporters), which enabled him to dodge the draft while maintaining an active schedule of golfing, skiing, and nailing any willing woman (I find it very hard to believe there were nearly as many as he claimed). He probably figures that having he-men around him will make him a he-man by osmosis.

  10. Grumpy Realist says:

    @CSK: speaking as a female, Trump just reeks with lack of self confidence.

    A real man has the integrity and confidence to admit when he is wrong and to apologize when he has wronged someone. Furthermore, he will be devoted to stating the truth.

    Trump? The only thing that drives him is his own ego. He will never sacrifice himself for anything or anyone. He is a weak man.

  11. @CSK:

    But this is exactly what we should expect Trump to do: appoint weaklings and sycophants.

    Indeed: which is why I keep circling back to Trump as being the one with the most responsibility here.

  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    Mr. Tillerson has come to be viewed as the phantom of Foggy Bottom

    o/~ Am I Sec. State or just imagination?
    Disappeared after Senate confirmation
    It’s clear my legacy, won’t be in diplomacy
    But if I hang on there’s just a chance I might
    Win favor with the loonies on the right….. o/~

  13. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Quite. And I suppose we could speculate that most of Trump’s choices are actually Bannon’s and Kushner’s choices, because they don’t want anyone strong enough to come between them and Trump.

  14. @CSK: Very likely.

  15. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I need a drink.

  16. Sleeping Dog says:

    Diplomats? We don’t need no stinking diplomats.

    Given that Tillerson isn’t being invited to meet with foreign leaders when they are at the White House, denied his choice of aid and seems to be completely out of the loop when issues of foreign policy are being discussed at the WH, one needs to wonder, why the guy stays around? Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?

    Yes the issue is Trump and his sycophants.

  17. M. Bouffant says:

    @CSK: Make mine a double.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    It makes you wonder why Tillerson is allowing himself to be humiliated like this. Having some staffer say, on the record, that Tillerson is doing well because Trump’s son in law likes him? Geez Louise…

  19. Barry says:

    @Sleeping Dog: “…one needs to wonder, why the guy stays around? Suffering from Stockholm Syndrome?”

    A $500 billion dollar deal with Putin, on hold due to sanctions.

  20. teve tory says:

    another possibility–tillerson is very smart, spent many hours studying trump the moment he got the job, saw that he was insecure and if you outshine him you’re fired, and is deliberately lying low.

    “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @Grumpy Realist:

    speaking as a female, Trump just reeks with lack of self confidence.

    And it’s a justified lack of confidence – he is in way, way over his little orange head.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Now I know where I’ve seen that face before, it was on a milk carton with the words, “Have you seen me?”

  23. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    The SoS is a diplomatic position. The US will no longer be doing diplomacy.
    We will be at war by the end of 2017…its the only way the orange blob in the WH will be able to cover for his gross ineptitude. And sending other peoples kids to war, after his 5 deferments, is the only way this child will feel like a man.