The Cable

Rex Tillerson (Finally) Goes On the Record

A rare on-the-record interview gives a glimpse into the mind of America’s quietest diplomat-in-chief.


Being America’s top diplomat means constantly being in the limelight, the nominal face of U.S. foreign policy around the globe. Some, like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, embrace that side of things to excess, reveling in photo ops, glitzy press conferences, town halls, and interviews all over the the world.

But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, unlike his boss Donald Trump or his Pentagon counterpart James Mattis, has largely shied away from the spotlight and back-and-forths with reporters — until now.

At the end of an eight day trip, Tillerson gave two State Department press pool reporters a rare 10-minute interview Thursday evening in which he talked about the Gulf crisis, the difficulties of his new job, and the jarring culture of shock of going from chief executive of an oil giant to diplomat-in-chief.

Qatar’s diplomatic showdown with its Gulf neighbors, which started in June, has ground down into an impasse. Tillerson, who traipsed through the Gulf this week to try to nudge the ball forward, was light on specifics wins he gained. “We tabled some documents with both sides while we were here which lays out some ways that we might move this forward,” he said.

For a quiet and behind-the-scenes secretary, the Gulf crisis is where he’s made the biggest splash in his first few months in office, talking almost daily to the Saudis, Emiratis, Bahrainis or Egyptians on the one side, Qataris on the other, and Kuwaitis in the middle; they’re leading mediation efforts. Tillerson’s been reticent to get out in front and lead mediation efforts; the administration appears to view this dispute as a Gulf “family matter.” Some critics say that, in large part, is why the Kuwaiti-led talks have stalled.

Tillerson conceded his trip didn’t resolve the crisis, but insisted the intangibles still count for a lot. “In my view there’s a changed sense of willingness to at least be open to talking to one another and that was not the case before I came,” he said.

Then he mused on his new job. In an unusually candid moment, he admitted how difficult it was to navigate the dense thicket of bureaucracy in Foggy Bottom. “It is a lot different than being CEO of Exxon because I was the ultimate decision-maker. That always makes life easier,” he said.

The massive, unwieldy U.S. foreign policy making machine is a far-cry from Exxon — a company simultaneously shrouded in secrecy but legendary in the energy industry for its hyper-efficiency and centralized hierarchy. “Those are not the characteristics of the United States government,” Tillerson said. “And I don’t stay that as a criticism, it’s just an observation of fact, it’s largely not a highly disciplined organization, decision-making is fragmented and sometimes people don’t want to take decisions, coordination is difficult through the interagency — has been for every administration,” he said.

“And you know in all honestly we have a president that doesn’t come from the political world either,” he said. Beyond Trump’s mercurial viewpoints and penchant for lobbing diplomatic bombshells out through Twitter, his administration has yet to fill key senior posts at the State Department. Career diplomats quietly lament this has kneecapped the day-to-day slog of U.S. foreign policymaking.

Tillerson’s thrown his own curveballs at the Department, pushing to slash its budget and overhaul its structure. It’s something many lawmakers and veteran diplomats say is long overdue. But his deliberative, behind-the-scenes approach, coupled with the glaring lack of senior lieutenants and Trump’s overall rejection of seven-odd decades of American engagement with the world, seems to have left the rank-and-file at State unmoored and disenchanted, as recent employee surveys show.

Lawmakers, even a small handful of Republicans, have sharply rebuked Tillerson.

“I’m tired, I’m tired, been a long trip, I bet you all are tired too,” Tillerson told the two reporters as he returned from his spate of shuttle diplomacy in the Gulf.

Still, he said his time as Exxon CEO prepared him well for running State. “In my old life, I spent a lot of time around the political world because I had to deal with governments all over the world so I’m quite, I’m quite comfortable in these settings,” he said.

“Engagement with the rest of the world is actually very easy for me.”

Photo credit: Adrian Dennis-WPA Pool/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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