President Trump has gotten his man at the State Department.
Rex Tillerson was approved by a 56-43 vote Wednesday in the Senate. Four senators who caucus with the Democrats crossed the aisle and joined all of the Republicans in voting for Tillerson. They were Democrats Mark Warner of Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, as well as independent Angus King of Maine.
Tillerson, the former head of Exxon Mobil — the world’s largest and most powerful oil company — will now guide American foreign policy and be tasked with enacting Trump’s world view.
That worldview, however, isn’t entirely clear. Trump has expressed nationalistic and protectionist views and even isolationist tendencies, but he has also said the U.S. needs to do more about ISIS. He has promised to “bomb the s*** out of them” and suggested it could potentially take 30,000 troops to defeat them.
In addition to his controversial travel ban instituted in the first days of his presidency, Trump has ordered the U.S. out of trade deals, threatened import tariffs with America’s adversaries (China) and allies (Mexico), questioned the importance of NATO, praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he thinks torture works and, during the campaign, floated the idea (that he later seemed to walk back) that perhaps more countries should have nuclear weapons to defend themselves without the U.S.’s help.
Tillerson will be tasked with defending the United States under Trump around the globe, while walking the line when he disagrees. Tillerson faced tough questioning from Republicans and was almost derailed because of his relationship with Putin. But Tillerson talked tough in those hearings about Russia and, unlike Trump, said he fully believes Russia was responsible for the hacks and leaks of the Democratic emails during the presidential campaign.
Tillerson, who has no diplomatic experience aside from his myriad of international business ties as Exxon Mobil’s chief, will be tasked with overseeing the State Department bureaucracy. He is not well-known in the State Department, but those who have briefed him are sounding fairly upbeat about his management style. As CEO of Exxon Mobil, he oversaw a vast company with employees working in dozens of countries.
The difference is that Exxon Mobil has one goal: drilling for oil and making money for shareholders.
His job at the State Department may be especially complicated by apparent unrest in the ranks. NPR has reported that some 900 State Department officials signed a letter that went viral within the agency decrying Trump’s visa and refugee ban as not making America safer.
And the White House isn’t making the task of internal diplomacy any easier for Tillerson. White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Tuesday urged American diplomats to “get with the program” or go.
But dissent is ingrained in State Department culture. In fact, the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association, gives awards every year for it.
The State Department’s manual says there can be no retribution for employees who use the dissent channel, and some in Congress concerned about Spicer’s comments are now looking into ways to codify those protections.
Trump, though, doesn’t exactly welcome dissent. While the new president is known for surrounding himself with differing factions — and even appeared to encourage his Cabinet nominees to have different points of view in their confirmation hearings — he also fired Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama holdover at the Justice Department, for speaking out against and refusing to defend the travel ban, and he said he has a “running war with the media.”
“So much of the media seems to be the opposition party,” Trump said Wednesday, echoing his chief strategist Steve Bannon. He added, “They’re very dishonest people.”
At the State Department, Tillerson will be hearing from diplomats who are worried about where the Trump administration is heading and whether he and Trump will overlook human rights abuses in countries where Americans want to do business.
So, the mood in the State Department is uneasy. The Trump administration nudged out several professional diplomats even before naming anyone to replace them.
One example is Tom Countryman, a career foreign service officer who was acting undersecretary for arms control. He was on NPR’s Morning Edition Wednesday, where he echoed a very powerful retirement speech he gave Tuesday to the State Department. He noted that State employees proudly serve in both Republican and Democratic administrations and implied they are feeling sidelined now.
“We still have a duty,” he told the State employees. “You have a duty — to stay and give your best professional guidance, with loyalty, to the new administration, because a foreign policy without professionals is — by definition — an amateur foreign policy. You will help to frame and make the choices. Because that is what we do. Our work is little understood by our fellow Americans, a fact that is sometimes exploited for political purpose. When I have the opportunity to speak to audiences across this amazing land, I explain ‘We do not have a Department of State, we do not have a foreign policy — because we love foreigners. We do it because we love Americans.”
He also said something that directly relates to Trump (and perhaps even Tillerson). Countryman drew a distinction between business and diplomacy, and he seemed to dispute Trump’s foundational view of America.
“Business made America great, as it always has been,” Countryman said, “and business leaders are among our most important partners. But let’s be clear: Despite the similarities — a dog is not a cat; baseball is not football; and diplomacy is not a business. Human rights are not a business. And democracy is, most assuredly, not a business.”
He added, “We want Americans to prosper, to sell the world’s best food and the world’s best products everywhere in the world. We want Americans to be protected and safe when they are abroad, whether they are missionaries, tourists, students, businessmen or (for those you have done consular work) the occasional false Messiah.”
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