Tillerson has received mixed reviews during the first few months in his new post
He was the only American at Trump's side on Friday for the much anticipated first face-to-face meeting with Putin
For the first time since taking office, it appears that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is taking center stage on several foreign policy fronts, accompanying President Donald Trump to the G20 and a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, ahead of his own key solo trips to Ukraine, Turkey and Kuwait.
Tillerson has received mixed reviews during the first few months in his new post but seems to be taking on a more prominent role as the US confronts a series of major foreign policy challenges.
He was the only American at Trump’s side Friday for the much-anticipated first face-to-face meeting with Putin and served as one of three top aides who prepared Trump for the sit-down.
Tillerson has experience in negotiating with Russia from his previous role leading ExxonMobil. But his first encounter with Putin as secretary of state did not go well. He emerged from their consultations in Moscow in April saying there was a “low level of trust” between the two countries.
But his presence at Friday’s meeting indicates he is still a major player in helping shape US-Russia relations.
Following the meeting with Putin, Tillerson will travel to Ukraine on Sunday, then to Turkey to discuss the ISIS fight and finally to Kuwait for meetings over the crisis in Qatar.
Those trips come as Tillerson is seeking global assistance in dealing with North Korea following Pyongyang’s successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier this week.
Facing a myriad of challenges ranging from North Korea’s nuclear threat to an evolving crisis in the Middle East, Tillerson’s status as the administration’s top diplomat has been called into question at times with Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner taking the lead on several foreign policy initiatives.
In addition to recent criticism over a watchdog report that the State Department is failing to adequately track billions of dollars for foreign assistance as the administration seeks to make dramatic cuts to its foreign aid budget, Tillerson has publicly butted heads with the White House over the process of staffing senior positions in his agency with both sides trading blame over the issue.
Asked last week whether he was satisfied with the pace of staffing for these jobs, which include nearly all undersecretary and assistant secretary positions as well as dozens of ambassadorships, Tillerson responded simply: “No, I’d like to go faster.”
The comment comes after a testy exchange at the White House two weeks ago between Tillerson and Johnny DeStefano, who leads the presidential personnel office, which was first reported by Politico. Two officials familiar with the meeting, which took place in White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ office, confirmed to CNN that Tillerson let his frustrations over the process be known.
They say Tillerson was unloading his frustration over the pace of appointments, and what he sees as White House interference, on DeStefano but also on Priebus and Kushner, who was also present.
While it is not unusual for these kinds of clashes to occur between Cabinet officials and the White House personnel, one official familiar with the meeting described this particular conversation as “intense” and “uncomfortable.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about the meeting.
One key cause of the hiring delay, two officials tell CNN, is a loyalty test – a message permeating from the White House that people hired within the administration must be sufficiently loyal to Trump, and not have said anything against him.
Earlier this year, the White House nixed Tillerson’s top pick for the deputy Secretary of State post, Elliott Abrams, after Trump learned Abrams had been critical of him during the 2016 campaign.
But the rule doesn’t appear to be absolute. Trump tapped former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley – who was sometimes critical of him during the campaign – as ambassador to the United Nations.
Balancing Trump’s expectations of loyalty with implementing key policy initiatives has also presented issues for Tillerson and other Cabinet members who are jockeying for influence within the administration.
The President has publicly contradicted Tillerson and others on several occasions, which has created some confusion about US priorities around the world as Trump continues to promote the “America First” philosophy that has drawn criticism from traditional allies.
Trump and Tillerson have pushed different messages on key issues including the crisis in Qatar, where the President tweeted that he hoped Qatar’s isolation would hasten “the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!” Trump also used remarks in the Rose Garden in June to reinforce his message.
In a sharp contrast to Trump’s tone and messaging, Tillerson called on Gulf nations to de-escalate the crisis with Qatar, citing humanitarian, economic and military costs.
But in the weeks since the President initially intervened, Trump appears to be letting Tillerson take the lead on the issue, much in the way that he has deferred significant decision-making responsibilities to Defense Secretary James Mattis.
In the past few days alone, Tillerson has met with several of the Qatar standoff protagonists publicly, including the Qatari foreign minister and the Kuwaiti acting information minister, who like Tillerson has become a middle man trying to manage a way out of the crisis.
Tillerson will travel to Kuwait in the coming days to engage in further talks related Qatar’s standoff with its Arab neighbors.
As fighting ends in Syria, the real regional power plays will begin in earnest as Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi vie to realize their ambitions. Cauterizing the Qatar rift now could help the US maintain its leverage in the region in the future and make dealing with a post-ISIS Syria more manageable.
Going forward, Tillerson certainly has his work cut out for him as the situation in North Korea continues to escalate and the conflict in Syria evolves into a proxy war that threatens to destabilize the entire region.
But despite his lack of diplomatic experience, Tillerson is beginning to position himself as a key voice on US foreign policy.
Whether that trend continues will be determined not only by the way he navigates emerging global crises but also how he manages his relationship with a White House that has not always been on the same page through the early months of Trump’s presidency.
CNN’s Nic Robertson and Laura Koran contributed to this report.