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Tillerson Comes into His Own

Walter Russell Mead

Reports of Rex Tillerson’s isolation and ineffectiveness have been greatly exaggerated, says Politico:

Viewed as the walled-off leader of a demoralized department, Tillerson in the opening days of the Trump administration was cast as an inexperienced statesman undercut by the White House as the nation’s top diplomat, supplanted in that role by the president’s powerful son-in-law.

But over the past month, as Tillerson has taken a lead on the administration’s strategy with Syria, Russia and China, his status has shifted — and behind the scenes, he’s emerging as Trump’s favorite Cabinet secretary. […]

In Trump’s 83 days as president, Tillerson has had more meetings with the president than any other Cabinet secretary, according to multiple White House aides and a review of public schedules. When Tillerson isn’t traveling abroad, the two men schedule a private dinner at least once a week.

A lot of people underestimated Tillerson and wrote him off, taking his lack of press visibility as proof that he was isolated from the White House and not up to his job. That was a mistake. When somebody with Tillerson’s experience and track record goes quiet, it isn’t to sit in a funk and wait for failure to knock on the door. He was planning, working, and starting to master a complicated new job.

It is much too early to say whether he will be a successful Secretary of State: the world is a difficult place, the job is hard, and the swamps of DC are rich in predators. But so far, he’s focused on what ought to be Job Number One for every incoming Secretary of State, and especially for those without a lot of history with the Big Boss at 1600: build a relationship with and gain the confidence of the President. Forget about pacifying the press or preening on the world stage; the SoS has an audience of one, especially in the beginning.

On top of that, Tillerson seems to be working closely and effectively with his most important colleagues: the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor. This is a reassuring sign; Mattis and McMaster are among Trump’s most knowledgable and experienced aides, and all three men seem to be exerting more influence in recent days. And Tillerson deserves credit of his own for some savvy diplomatic moves that have gone under-appreciated, from his terse and menacing posture on North Korea to his underreported successes at the Moscow summit.

Maybe, just maybe, thirty years of rising through the ranks of the world’s largest oil company and ten years running it taught Rex Tillerson a few skills.

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