Tillerson finds it's hard for a CEO to become a secretary

Story highlights

  • Tillerson is building a reputation on the world stage as a calm, steady presence
  • But back home there is concern that he is struggling to navigate Washington

Washington (CNN)It's the tale of two Tillersons.

Nearly a month into his tenure as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson is winning over foreign governments but alienating many employees at the agency he leads and raising questions about his ability to wield power in Washington.
Meanwhile, Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and a top adviser, is emerging as a shadow secretary of state -- a key interlocutor with world leaders and ambassadors and the keeper of prized diplomatic files like the Middle East peace process. Steve Bannon, Trump's chief political strategist, has also taken on an outsized role in formulating foreign policy. 
Tillerson is still lacking much of his senior staff and, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, is in a struggle with the White House over choosing appointments after President Donald Trump vetoed his choice for deputy secretary. Questions about Tillerson's influence have spilled out into the open. Media reports that he has been marginalized abound, including a blistering New York Times editorial titled "Calling Secretary Tillerson." And the perception among the State Department rank-and-file is chilling.
The Washington foreign policy establishment -- both Republican and Democratic -- cautiously welcomed news of Tillerson's appointment. While he had no diplomatic experience, many were hopeful that the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, one of the world's largest corporations, would provide strong, pragmatic counsel to a brash and unpredictable president.
America's top diplomat is indeed building a reputation on the world stage as a calm, steady presence in the perceived sea of chaos that has enveloped the White House. Conversations with aides to Tillerson, career foreign and civil service officers, lawmakers and current and former administration officials paint a picture a goal-oriented career executive bringing a CEO mentality to reforming the State Department, and perhaps the job of secretary of state.
But back home at Foggy Bottom there is also anxiety that the former executive is struggling with the parry and thrust of Washington politics -- particularly given that he is up against a highly politicized presidential inner circle looking to exert its own influence over foreign policy. 

A rocky start

Tillerson arrived at Foggy Bottom to great enthusiasm. His introductory remarks to employees struck a moderate, respectful and assuring tone to demoralized career officers worried about the direction of foreign policy under Trump.
Since then, more than two dozen senior staff in the Secretary's suite of offices were abruptly reassigned while Tillerson was in Europe.
Tillerson has reduced the number of "all-hands" meetings, preferring smaller meetings and short two-page briefing memos instead of the traditional process of consensus-building hashed out during in-person sessions. Tillerson's chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, has also kept a tight rein on all communications with the secretary.
"He is all about hierarchy, chain of command and structure," a longtime foreign service officer said. "It's not a happy building."
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That unhappiness has been magnified in recent days in light of reports the White House aims to drastically cut the agency's budget by as much as 30%. 
That Tillerson would look to make reforms to the agency was no surprise. On Day One he pledged to "do my part to make sure we are functioning in the most productive and efficient way possible."
"Change for the sake of change can be counterproductive, and that will never be my approach," he said. "But we cannot sustain ineffective traditions over optimal outcomes."
Aides and defenders see Tillerson's CEO mentality as a benefit and key to what they believe will be a successful run at the helm of the State Department.
"Everything he does has to have a purpose," RC Hammond, a senior adviser to Tillerson, told CNN. "He is not motivated by the politics of perception."
Aides to Tillerson describe their boss as in the "first phase" of a strategic approach toward reforming the State Department to meet what he feels are the needs of modern diplomacy over the next 20 years. His seventh-floor suite of offices is populated with white boards littered with diagrams and organizational charges.
"This phase involves focusing on relationships and probing to find out where the problems are and what needs to be fixed," Hammond said. "The next phase is going to create an opportunity for everybody to be a part of the solution -- and the status quo is not necessarily the solution."
That includes a concerted effort among Tillerson's top aides to stem leaks within the building. Tillerson has let it be known that he wants to establish an environment where employees feel empowered to debate policy within the department without the discussions becoming public.
"He is an engineer and is going to have a very methodical way of learning the facts and following where the facts lead," said former George W. Bush national security adviser Steven Hadley, who recommended Tillerson to Trump. "He is going to be cautious and work his way into the job, which is not what some people want to see him doing. But what he is doing is probably the right thing for him."

Power struggles emerge

But even those rooting for Tillerson's success worry his business-minded approach of delegating important work leaves him ill-equipped to combat the power struggles common to Washington.
Traditionally, the secretary of state attends all meetings between the President and world leaders. The former businessman, however, has skipped most of Trump's meetings with world leaders and several career diplomats voiced concern after he was left out of early key policy discussions, such as on the President's statements that he'd be open to a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that he was putting Iran "on notice" for its most recent ballistic missile test.
Tillerson sent his acting deputy, Tom Shannon, to Trump's meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
And the secretary was on his way to the G-20 meeting during the President's meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although he did have dinner with Netanyahu the night before.
After a quick trip at the G-20 ministers' meeting in Bonn, Germany, Tillerson returned to Washington while Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly continued consultations with key figures abroad.
In a political town where clout is judged by your closeness to the President, the optics of missing those meetings can have consequences.
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Several supporters said it shows Tillerson is not seeking the limelight and has confidence in where he sits within the administration.
"His general take is, if the President is meeting with someone, he has it covered. So why does he have to be there?" one of his aides said. "This is a man very comfortable in his own skin, knows what his role is and is very focused on the goals in front of him."
With daily calls and twice-weekly meetings with Trump, Tillerson has no shortage of access to the Oval Office. His most recent opportunity for quality facetime came Wednesday night when he dined with the President.
One aide said Tillerson's take on his new job can be chalked up to the motto of the Texas rangers of his home state: "one riot, one ranger." It's a phrase that captures his belief that if other members of the team are dealing with a foreign policy issue, he doesn't need to be in the room.
A longtime diplomat offered a less flattering view of Tillerson's tendency to stand back and delegate: "He doesn't understand that he is not he is not the CEO. He is now staffing the President. He is not the top dog anymore."
Several of the near two-dozen foreign ministers who have met Tillerson since he took office describe the former oil titan as a serious, thoughtful, independent-minded interlocutor on top of his brief and eager to engage on issues ranging from Syria to North Korea, even as he remains honest about the fact that the Trump administration's policies across the board are still being formed.
With virtually no senior staff, though, Tillerson is ill-equipped to provide comprehensive policy guidance to the White House, where decisions are being made at warp speed, typically without interagency debate.  
And foreign policy insiders cautioned the approach is denying Tillerson an opportunity to both see how world leaders operate and study his new boss to influence his thinking.
"If you aren't in the room, I think you are missing a lot of data that would make it helpful to do your job," said Wendy Sherman, who led negotiations for the Iran nuclear talks under President Barack Obama.
While Tillerson has praised the work of career employees serving in temporary capacities, the lack of appointed aides has left diplomats gravitating toward the White House -- and Trump aides like Kushner and Bannon -- for information about policy deliberations.
One Tillerson ally described the secretary as frustrated with Kushner and Bannon's diplomatic interference, such as their side dialogues with Mexican officials in advance of his visit to Mexico City. Officials said Tillerson also intervened to delay a White House meeting with top Saudi officials over a plan to combat ISIS because he felt there was not enough planning for it. 
Other allies and aides deny any tension between the two men and say Kushner has been very helpful, both in getting the secretary's input and focusing the President's attention on issues important to Tillerson. 

A brighter future?

Aides say Tillerson's subtle hand is already being felt on key foreign policy issues. He successfully lobbied behind the scenes to persuade Trump to recommit to the "one China" policy and has been quietly pushing China to put more pressure on North Korea. Immediately after a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China cut all coal imports to North Korea.
Tillerson supporters predict once Tillerson has a staff in place the pendulum will swing and his influence in the administration will be felt more concretely.
Elliott Abrams, whom Tillerson selected as his No. 2 but was vetoed by the President because of his criticism of Trump during the campaign, attributed Tillerson's relctance to fully engage to the "growing pains" of fitting into a new role, particularly in a non-traditional White House.
Abrams is among other Tillerson supporters who said it is too early to make a judgement on the secretary's ability to influence policy and predict once he gets a staff in place, things will change.
Part of the problem could be Tillerson's self-imposed low profile. Aside from a brief statement to the G-20 ministers and another last week in Mexico, Tillerson has said little more than 100 words in public.
He has not taken questions from the press or appointed a spokesman, and has taken only small press pools on his first trip few trips instead of the customary group of diplomatic reporters. The daily State Department press briefing, a tradition dating back to the Eisenhower administration, has yet to resume, although it is expected to start again next week.
Tillerson's supporters feel he has been smart to lay low while he learns the job and builds a relationship with the President. They also note his approach has kept the State Department from becoming embroiled in the controversies and mixed messages coming out of the White House.

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But they acknowledge his own influence, and that of the State Department, will depend in part on his strength as a public figure and his ability to win the support of Congress, interest groups and the American public.
"Certainly what he is used to is sitting down with presidents and kings and sheiks and doing business. The public part of this he is less familiar with," Abrams said. "Clearly being a public figure matters; it is part of being secretary of state. But he's got to figure out what combination of public and private pressure works best with the President."
Wendy Sherman, who served as a top adviser to the last four Democratic secretaries of state, said that while it's common for new secretaries to put their own stamp on Foggy Bottom, "it's not enough to just make changes."
She continued, "People are hungry for more. He needs to share what his vision is. How he is going about his work. How he plans to do this job. How he plans to relate to the press. People are picking up signals and it is making a lot of people very anxious."
If Tillerson is feeling the heat, though, he doesn't seem to be showing it. Instead, aides and supporters say he is hunkering down with precision focus on distilling complex foreign policy issues, establishing relationships with allies and assessing the massive bureaucracy he inherited.
"I found him really impressive," one foreign minister said after meeting with Tillerson last month in Washington. "Often ministers rattle off talking points at one another, but he was engaging me on what I was saying. I have to say it was a fresh perspective."
One ally of Tillerson outside of goverment called his friend a "pro and a soldier" who is "not threatened by anything" and predicted he would find his way. 
"He understands how to play the long game," the ally said.
This story has been updated.