Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan pushed back against reports of deep unhappiness with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in the face of a redesign and looming cuts that could slash the country’s oldest Cabinet agency by as much as 30%.
“The notion that’s been out in the press and the media of a hollowed-out State Department that is not effective is counterfactual,” Sullivan told reporters at the State Department.
Sullivan sat down with reporters as Tillerson continued his travels in Asia. The top diplomat’s trip to the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia is focused on the need to contain North Korea, improve counter terrorism efforts and bolster US economic ties to the region.
Pointing to the secretary’s efforts to rein in North Korea – and the passage of a UN Security Council resolution against Pyongyang on Saturday – and other work Tillerson has done, Sullivan said “the fact that the secretary and the department have been able to accomplish what they have is evidence that we are hitting on all cylinders.”
He noted that this was happening despite deep staffing shortfalls.
A series of articles have portrayed dysfunction at the department, which remains understaffed, and deep uneasiness among foreign service officers and career civil servants.
Tillerson has been portrayed in reports as remote, surrounded by a few handpicked staff and isolated from the rest of the building. And the reorganization, which Tillerson says will be “employee-led,” is seen as turning the department into a more rigidly top-down environment that resembles ExxonMobile, where the former CEO spent his entire career before coming to the State Department.
Those stories, Sullivan said, are “twisted in a way that makes it look as if the secretary is out of touch, mismanaging whatever.”
“The guy is committed to the mission of the department, is engaged with career staff who brief him,” Sullivan said. “I think there is really a misconception of the department and what we are doing in the department and his role in the department.”
Sullivan batted back concerns that Tillerson is alienating career staff, pointing out that acting Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton is with the secretary in Asia and that Deputy Assistant Secretary Tim Lenderking is in the Gulf, along with special envoy, retired General Anthony Zinni, working to resolve a diplomatic dispute between Qatar and its neighbors.
The deputy secretary, confirmed in May and tasked largely with management of the building, said he sees Tillerson three to four times a day when the top diplomat is in town.
He said the redesign and cuts haven’t affected their ability to fill management positions, but acknowledged that many remain unfilled
“No one here would say that we’re pleased by the fact that we don’t have more of our under secretary and assistant secretary slots filled,” Sullivan said, “but we’re working hard to do that. Those slots are not being frozen or not filled because of the redesign that’s under way.”
Sullivan said he spends “an hour a day either interviewing candidates or trying to get candidates through the process,” and that now roughly 60% of the undersecretary and assistant secretary slots are either confirmed, nominated or in the process of getting the security clearance.
“We hope to get all of those slots filled as quickly as we can,” he said.
Town hall meeting
Sullivan met with reporters after speaking at a State Department town hall, where he faced questions from more than 400 employees.
Some in attendance said he earned loud applause when he told the audience that he and Tillerson were committed to strengthening, not destroying, the State Department.
Sullivan has won high praise throughout the department since taking office in May for his plainspoken style and efforts to reach out to staff, many of whom are anxious about their future in the face of Tillerson’s plans to restructure the department.
Sullivan is new to diplomacy, but has built a career in Republican administrations and, in the private sector, at the intersection of law, international business and national security.
At the law firm Mayer, Brown, Rower and Maw, he advised companies on managing US sanctions, international trade disputes and export controls in the US, the Middle East and Russia, among other countries.
“The noise out there”
He worked with major oil, gas and petrochemical companies, according to the bio, making him familiar with the world view that Tillerson brings to the State Department.
Sullivan has been a stalwart of previous Republican administrations, serving in the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush and in the Defense and Commerce departments under President George W. Bush. He is also the nephew of the last US ambassador to Iran, William H. Sullivan.
While he called his new position “the best job I’ve ever had,” he acknowledged that it’s sometimes hard to tune out the criticism. He said he tried to take the advice of New England Patriots football coach Bill Belichick to “do your job and don’t pay attention to the noise out there, but in this town it’s sort of hard to miss when your friends and colleagues start calling you and emailing you.”