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Donald Trump

Why Rex Tillerson’s job as chief US diplomat got harder before it began

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 7:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 10:43pm

Rex Tillerson’s job as chief US diplomat became harder before it even began because of White House moves that have antagonised Muslim nations, European allies, Mexico and US bureaucrats, current and former US officials said.

Hours after the US Senate confirmed Tillerson as the 69th secretary of state by a 56-43 vote, the former Exxon Mobil Corp CEO was sworn in as the chief foreign affairs adviser to President Donald Trump.

The Senate vote was largely along party lines, with all 52 Republicans voting in favour, along with three Democrats and one independent.

Under any circumstance, Tillerson would have inherited a messy globe with a civil war in Syria, nuclear-armed North Korea threatening to test an intercontinental ballistic missile and challenges from a rising China and an assertive Russia.

Tillerson’s confirmation also comes as relations between the US and Australia get off to a rocky start.

The Washington Post reported late Wednesday that Trump ripped into his Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull during a call last week, with the president apparently fuming at a refugee accord he called “dumb” and cutting the call short.

In the 12 days since Trump’s inauguration, the White House has also taken steps that foreign policy professionals view as self-inflicted wounds.

“We’ve done a series of own goals,” said a senior US official on condition of anonymity.

“There are always mess-ups and friction with new administrations. That’s not new. This is worse than usual.”

On Thursday, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto took the rare step of cancelling a Washington trip to meet Trump, who has repeatedly demanded Mexico pay for a wall on the US border.

On Friday, Trump signed an executive order imposing a four-month hold on refugees entering the United States and a temporary bar on most travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

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The order has not only caused consternation for the nations involved but among other Muslim-majority countries, allies such as Germany and Britain and career State Department officials.

About 900 department officials signed a memo dissenting from the policy, a source familiar with the document said, an unusual rebellion against a new president’s policies.

As reports of the internal dissent spread on Monday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said career officials who disagreed should “get with the programme or they can go.”

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The result has been that two constituencies Tillerson has to manage - foreign nations and the US diplomatic corps - have already got their noses out of joint before his swearing-in.

“He will start at a disadvantage and will have to play catch-up to build trust with his foreign counterparts and with State Department employees,” said John Bellinger, a State Department legal adviser under Republican President George W. Bush.

“Tillerson walks into a situation where he has got an unhappy and suspicious White House and he has an unhappy and suspicious workforce,” said another former State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It would have been difficult enough given the chaos.”

Several current and former US officials said they were dismayed by the process that led to the executive order, with little evidence that there was broad consultation within the government, let alone with Congress or foreign allies.

The secretary of homeland security, John Kelly, was reported to have been largely blindsided by the order. According to the New York Times, he was on a White House conference call getting his first full briefing on it when Trump signed the order.

Loren DeJonge Schulman, a former national security council and Pentagon official, said the belief that Trump did not bring his top advisers into the discussion of the matter would itself handicap the new secretary of state.

“The secretary of state’s power and his influence primarily derive from the idea that he speaks for the president,” said Schulman, now at the Centre for a New American Security think tank in Washington, saying it was an open secret the White House may not be consulting cabinet officials on such matters.

“The fact that foreign audiences will realise that on day one is going to definitely weaken his hand,” she said.