-- Nearly one year after he took his own oath of office, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has defied all the major headlines about him: He’s still here.
But his record at the State Department is, at best, mixed, with fierce, vocal critics decrying his “hollowing out” of the esteemed agency and steady supporters praising him for being one of the “adults in the room” across from a president with whom he has major disagreements.
If either side makes one thing clear, it’s that Tillerson has a tough job working for a president who has made clear that he makes the decisions.
“The one that matters is me,” Trump told Fox News in November, when asked by the conservative commentator Laura Ingraham why he hadn’t appointed more of his own “people” at the State Department.
“We don’t need all the people that they want,” Trump continued. “I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”
That’s a neat summary of where things stand at State — an agency with many of its top roles still unfilled, with what some describe as low morale and others say has an uncertain future, and with a leader who boldly barrels on, but is often undercut by his own boss.
Since the beginning, Tillerson and his team have had to do battle with the White House over personnel picks, slowing the process down. But a couple weeks shy of Tillerson’s one-year anniversary, there are still 54 senior positions vacant — although the secretary announced in August he would eliminate 20 of those in his “redesign” of the department.
But that redesign process has left many scratching their head — with a deeply unpopular hiring freeze still in place and the first wave of minor changes to personnel and IT policy announced only last month.
It’s led to some very public criticisms, from retired ambassadors or fleeing foreign service officers — and even the president of the foreign service union, who questioned if there were ulterior motives at work.
Among the other senior roles, 22 are filled by officials in an acting capacity. Although there are people doing the work, they do not enjoy the full legal authority of their role or the image of speaking on the administration’s behalf to the world. There were about a half dozen more, but they were in acting roles so long, that they were required to return to their original roles by law.
It’s not just in Washington either. Some 30 ambassador posts are still empty, with the embassy’s second-in-command, or charge d’affaires, leading the U.S. mission. Those include ambassadors to key allies where there is a desperate need for diplomacy, like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.
“People don’t know who to contact at State anymore or in the administration in general,” one European source told ABC News. “It’s hurting the U.S. diplomatically — and others are quick to step into that power gap.”
By year’s end, Tillerson had made some progress, according to top aides, who point in particular to the case of Susan Thornton. The acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs is a career diplomat who hit the ground running with Tillerson on the North Korea threat.
The two developed a rapport, but despite Tillerson’s intention to give her the job full-time, he was blocked by the Steve Bannon, and the nationalist-wing of the White House who saw her as too weak on China.
Last month, the White House announced Trump’s nomination of Thornton in what Tillerson aides touted as a victory — one symbolic of his intention to stay, they said.
That’s the looming question that has dogged the former ExxonMobil CEO for more than half of his tenure now. It’s no secret he disagrees with his boss on the Iran nuclear deal, climate change and the Paris accord, the Gulf crisis, North Korea, and Russia — among other things.
He has also been repeatedly undercut or caught off guard by Trump’s tweets and statements and, perhaps more critically, made some enemies in the White House, sources tell ABC News.
That lead to a series of leaks that painted an unflattering portrait of the Tillerson-Trump relationship, however accurate, that hit a low-point after NBC News reported that Tillerson called Trump a “moron” and threatened to quit after a meeting at the Pentagon. The press-averse Tillerson held a special press conference that morning to trash the report, although critics like to point out he refused to specifically deny calling Trump a “moron.”
The cycle was renewed in late November when the New York Times reported a White House plan to imminently fire Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a Trump favorite. Almost immediately, several other outlets, including ABC News, were able to confirm the report citing senior White House officials.
But Tillerson did not budge: “You all need to get some new sources because your story keeps being wrong,” he told reporters days later.
More than a month since then, he seems to be partially right, as he remains standing as secretary with no plans to quit: “I intend to be here for the whole year,” he told CNN in what aides say will be the first of many more interviews in 2018, as he prepares for a more public role, with two big trips planned to Latin America and Africa soon.
Still, it remains an open question how effective the nation’s top diplomat can be when he doesn’t seem to have the support of the president or his department’s people. 2018 will require a lot of work on both those relationships.
ABC News will begin livestreaming coverage of the State of the Union Address on Tuesday night starting at 8:15 p.m. EST. Then at 9:00 p.m. EST you can watch the full State of the Union Address followed by the Democratic response on abcnews.com, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and the ABC News app.