Why is Rex Tillerson keeping a low profile?

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson flies to Asia tomorrow for high-stakes visits to Japan, South Korea and China, as tensions in the region mount over North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs, but not flying with Tillerson, the State Department press corps, a significant change from prior administrations.

This comes amid reports that Tillerson has been sidelined by the White House on some major international issues, and that it wants to slash State’s budget by 37 percent.

Here to walk us through all this and more is chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner.

Margaret, welcome.

So, what do you make of all this?

MARGARET WARNER: Judy, there is just no doubt this — Rex Tillerson is the lowest-profile secretary of state in modern times.

He has not uttered a word publicly in the United States since arrival comments when he joined state on February 2. Overseas, he does give prepared remarks, but never takes a question from reporters.

This issue about taking the press corps on such an important trip, that began with Henry Kissinger, who recognized it was very useful. He could background reporters, get U.S. policy out there, help shape the coverage.

I’m told that, at the G20 meeting in Germany, where his prepared remarks were very well-received, he had a private meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Obviously, there are a lot of issues there. And he didn’t want to do a joint press conference with Lavrov or have anything to say.

And his aides said, look, if you don’t say something, the Russians get to characterize this meeting.

So, he went before the American reporters who were there and he read a short statement, took no questions.

Here in Washington, he has not been included in allied leaders, important allied leaders’ visits like the Japanese prime minister or Benjamin Netanyahu. He didn’t even present the annual human rights report 10 days ago, which secretaries always do in the Briefing Room to demonstrate how important that issue is to the U.S.

And, in fact, the State Department didn’t have a daily press briefing, as they have had ever since the ’50s, until about 10 days ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how much influence, Margaret, is it believed that he has internally?

MARGARET WARNER: That remains something of a mystery, Judy.

And we can’t discount him. Here’s the former CEO of ExxonMobil. Tonight, he’s going on a really important mission, as you explained in your intro, tomorrow. He’s having dinner tonight with the president and with the national security adviser, General McMaster.

And, so far, there haven’t been opportunities to see. We know he had influence getting Iraq off the Muslim country travel ban list, for example, but, on other big issues, we don’t really know whether he’s going to have influence.

For example, climate change, he’s in favor of staying within the climate change treaty. But what has been happening, in the absence of statements of policy from the State Department, is that policy is made by presidential tweet. He wasn’t involved in former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn saying Iran was officially on notice after this missile test.

He wasn’t consulted when Trump said, with Netanyahu, I’m agnostic on whether it’s a one- or two-state solution.

That upends policy, but I’m told that was negotiated privately between the Israelis and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law.

And the big concern among the veteran diplomats, Judy, is what is the role of this sort of shadow NSC that Bannon, Steve Bannon, who is a real America-firster, has established called the Strategic Initiatives Group? And is that going to really run the show?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, finally, Margaret, is there a sense that there is a design behind all this, that there’s a plan?

MARGARET WARNER: That is the question that people are asking. Did he understand this low profile was part of his job? Did he know that his choice for deputy could be rejected by the president?

And he is now in a department without any policy people to advise him. One person said to me, it’s like a ghost ship. You hear the wind in the sails, but there’s no one’s on deck.

Is he being sidelined by a sort of Bannon-Kushner operation inside the White House? Somebody who knows him well from ExxonMobil said she’s really mystified that — quote — “He’s not the person I knew.”

She saw him as a large, in-charge CEO.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fascinating and, as you said, Margaret, a change from previous administrations going back to Richard Nixon.

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret Warner, thank you.

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