Rex Tillerson, Jared Kushner's Understudy
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was hired to be America’s top diplomat, but less than three months on the job has proven he is definitely not. As president of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson, 65, was one of the most powerful people in the world, enjoying lucrative work away from the spotlight. A few months later, the secretary of state has found himself in a job-share with a 36-year-old foreign policy neophyte married to the president’s daughter.
The administration’s airstrikes in Syria Thursday night brought the low-profile secretary out of hiding, and he became a star of the show, issuing aggressive warnings to the Russian and Syrian governments, seated at President Trump’s side in every photograph. He even plans to shock official Washington Sunday by making his debut on the talk shows.
But as valuable as Tillerson “The Titan” may appear in a high-profile crisis moment, he has been generally relegated to outsider status within the small power circle centralized in the West Wing. Jared Kushner, who like his father-in-law is a real estate heir, has the more final word on foreign policy. And Nikki Haley -- who thus far has been more visible and outspoken than Tillerson in her role as ambassador to the United Nations -- is now viewed as the next secretary of state, prepared to step in after Tillerson bails. Thursday morning, hours before the airstrikes, Axios noted that Tillerson operates in Kushner’s shadow and added a quote from “a friend” who said, “I don't know what Rex does every day.”
Tillerson had vast experience with the Chinese at Exxon Mobil, yet the summit at Mar-a-Lago in Florida this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping was Jared’s project. Indeed, he raced back from a surprise trip to Iraq -- beating Tillerson to the critical hot spot -- to oversee it. Jared, the Boy Wonder, is “in charge” of many things, including a reinventing-government project that will use technology to innovate the bureaucracy, domestic agendas to address the opioid crisis and improve veterans affairs, serving as top envoy to Mexico and Canada, and brokering a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yup.
The administration has not yet reached the 100-day mark, but already, Republicans fond of Tillerson wonder how long he will last in his new job, swallowing the indignity of being diminished so publicly. Several highly accomplished and respected people joined Team Trump, and among a sea of inexperienced people the grown-ups stand out -- Defense Secretary James Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. But even without diplomatic or government experience, it was Tillerson who was viewed as the heavyweight, who had built relationships as a skilled negotiator across the globe, and who was relinquishing the most prized perch.
Yet it appeared the fix was in from the start. During the transition Kushner was sneaking the Russian ambassador through the back door of Trump Tower, while someone high up also OK’d sending Erik Prince -- founder of Blackwater -- on a secret mission in the Seychelle Islands, facilitated by the United Arab Emirates, to meet with someone close to Russian President Vladimir Putin in hopes of establishing a back channel to Moscow.
In his third week on the job, President Trump hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago without Tillerson, though his Japanese counterpart was in attendance. When Bibi Netanyahu visited the White House, not only was Tillerson nowhere to be found, the entire visit was conducted by West Wing officials without any State Department staff.
When Trump proposed the evisceration of the State Department, via a 37 percent budget cut, Tillerson admitted to Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, that the cuts were “draconian,” according to the Washington Post, despite his public support for the plan. And the most egregious incident yet was the presidential nix of Elliott Abrams, Tillerson’s pick for his deputy secretary of state whom even Kushner helped lobby for on behalf of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. That position has yet to be filled, along with scores of other consequential positions.
Reports indicate that Tillerson is content to ignore optics and formalities closely associated with officialdom because -- ironically, just like his counterpart Kushner -- he prefers privacy. Tillerson has so far discarded many of the traditional travel protocols, like allowing the official-note taker to accompany him, and visiting with the State Department employees he leads at overseas embassies. His refusal to travel with the press -- one reporter joined his Asian tour last month -- allows the country he visits to spin any incident that arises to its liking. For example, the South Korean media reported Tillerson skipped an official dinner due to “fatigue” while he was there last month. The State Department, however, denied it and said there were never any meals scheduled with local officials there.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Washington Post that Tillerson needs his staff positions filled, and that Trump must “make clear to the world that it is the secretary and no one else who speaks for the administration when it comes to foreign policy.”
Tillerson will surely remain at the table, yet it's hard to imagine he will ever overrule Kushner, who is reportedly most often the last person to speak with Trump each day. Ultimately, since Kushner will never be blamed, Tillerson’s real job -- in the high-stakes and often-thankless realm of foreign policy -- could turn out to be that of fall guy.