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Trump has sidelined Rex Tillerson just when the US most needs a strong secretary of State

Trump's State Department's influence is limited compared to predecessors

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) and Mexico's Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray arrive to deliver a statement at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, Mexico February 23, 2017.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (R) and Mexico's Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray arrive to deliver a statement at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, Mexico February 23, 2017.

A picture is beginning to emerge of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's first three weeks as America's top diplomat. It isn't pretty.

On Thursday, a pair of devastating articles in Politico and the Washington Post described how the former Exxon Mobil CEO has been cut out of the loop on major foreign policy shifts, slapped down by the White House on personnel choices, and given virtually no opportunities to make public appearances with President Trump. Per the Post:

The Trump administration in its first month has largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the pre­eminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.

The day-to-day chaos of the Trump White House and mini controversies the new president regularly stirs up on Twitter make it difficult to track what's going on in individual parts of the government, even ones as important as the State Department. And that's why understanding what Tillerson has — and has not — been able to do is so important.

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Here's one thing Tillerson hasn't been able to do: choose his own deputy. Tillerson, who has never worked in government, wanted State Department veteran and longtime Republican foreign policy hand Elliott Abrams. Trump personally rejected Abrams after learning that the former Bush administration official had criticized him during the campaign. Tillerson hasn't found a replacement, and it's not clear if, or when, he'll be able to fill the post.

"The Elliott Abrams example is pretty horrifying," Eliot Cohen, a top to aide to former Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told the Post.

Tillerson also doesn't seem to be much of a player on key foreign policy decisions, even though the job of the secretary of state normally is to help make them. Politico has this eye-opening anecdote:

Sources have told POLITICO that the secretary of state was never consulted when Trump, in an appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, dropped the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians.

That suggests, to put it diplomatically, that Tillerson doesn't have remotely the same power as high-profile predecessors such as Rice, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry.

America's top diplomat has been largely silent and invisible

In a normal administration, the secretary of state is also usually the one to explain new foreign policy moves to both the press and key foreign leaders. That's not happening, either. Tillerson has yet to meet with reporters covering the State Department, and the daily press conferences the department has held since the 1950s haven't taken place for more than a month.

Even when Tillerson does talk with foreign leaders (and he's apparently talked to dozens of them), the administration refuses to say much of anything about what was said. Take this, from the Post:

In some cases, governments of countries that are not democracies have been more transparent than the State Department. Phone conversations Tillerson had with the foreign ministers of Russia and Egypt as well as a phone conversation with Saudi Arabia's King Salman came to light only when the officials told their local press about them.

Tillerson's early struggles would be less worrisome if Trump were sticking to bipartisan tradition on things like the US commitment to NATO, having key officials stay on message publicly, and avoiding staff upheavals like, say, the abrupt resignation of the national security adviser.

In other words, the exact opposite of what's actually been taking place. Trump has suggested he's willing to pull the US out of NATO and abandoned decades of American policy toward the Israel/Palestine conflict; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo have directly contradicted the president's jarringly pro-Kremlin policy proposals; and National Security Adviser Mike Flynn was forced to resign after lying about his contact with a top Russian diplomat.

When Trump nominated Tillerson, many observers wondered what the former Exxon CEO's ties to Russia and history of working with unsavory leaders around the globe would mean for an administration led by a mercurial president with few fixed foreign policy positions. Three weeks in, the question isn't whether Tillerson will have too much influence; it's whether he'll have enough.