President Donald Trump this week abruptly dropped the nation’s commitment to a two-state solution for Middle East peace — without reviewing the specifics of his new strategy with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
State Department officials and Tillerson’s top aides learned about the president’s comments in real time, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. Tillerson himself was in the air when Trump announced the change in the longstanding U.S. position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the White House, there was little thought about notifying the nation’s top diplomat because, as one senior staffer put it, “everyone knows Jared [Kushner] is running point on the Israel stuff.”
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For a president who declared on Thursday he had assembled “one of the great Cabinets in American history,” sidelining Tillerson was an unorthodox way to utilize one of his top-tier picks. But it follows a pattern from Trump’s first month in office, where the president is operating without seeking much input from his more experienced Cabinet secretaries — including Defense Secretary James Mattis and Tillerson, as well as Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo — a group one GOP source called “the grownups.”
Trump’s West Wing, a team of rivals marked by seemingly endless infighting, leaking and inexperience, has helped unify the partially formed Cabinet into an actual team, according to interviews with more than a dozen senior staffers inside the agencies and the White House who were not authorized to speak on the record.
In their first weeks on the job, the heads of these sometimes competitive departments and agencies are working together, fighting to staff the agencies they lead and to maximize their collective influence over an administration struggling to find stability. Their shared hope: that things will get better.
“I wouldn’t take the snapshot of the situation today and say that’s what things will look like in June,” said Elliott Abrams, whom Trump nixed as Tillerson’s undersecretary of state because he’d criticized the then-GOP nominee during the campaign. “Once all the jobs are filled at State, Defense and NSC, I think you’ll see a more orderly process.”
Even though the administration is less than a month old, both Tillerson and Mattis have been in perpetual cleanup mode, making calls to leaders around the world with far less drama and unpredictability than Trump’s own calls and traveling to assuage the anxieties of key allies in Asia and Europe. Both have spent much of their first weeks in office in other countries, reassuring allies about Trump’s ad hoc approach to foreign policy that is being driven largely by the president’s son-in-law.
Kushner, officially a White House senior adviser, has become something of a foreign policy proxy in the White House — a “shadow secretary of state,” as one administration source described him — corresponding with governments at Trump’s request. That’s causing consternation at Foggy Bottom, as top State Department officials, foreign policy experts and embassy officials are frozen out of foreign policy decisions and often unsure who is doing what, or who is responsible.
Mattis, Tillerson and Pompeo continue to butt heads with the White House over personnel decisions, fighting to pick their own staffs against an administration that has rewarded campaign staff with government positions and remains wary of establishment figures. According to a source close to the CIA director, Pompeo is not happy that Trump, frustrated by leaks from the intelligence community, floated the idea of appointing a hedge funder and political supporter, Stephen Feinberg, to investigate his agency.
Tillerson, who was confirmed after Mattis and Kelly, arrived at the State Department with just two staffers of his own and found that it was teeming with political appointees, according to a source close to Tillerson. Many of those appointees are part of “beachhead teams,” campaign veterans assigned to serve for the first 120 days of the administration. Whether they remain there will be up to the Cabinet secretaries, who can hire them to permanent positions or replace them after they are confirmed, the White House said. “Senate Democrats have done everything they can to stand in the way of getting our highly qualified Cabinet nominees confirmed for these key positions,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary. “Once we are able to get our nominees confirmed, we have a process to expedite getting key staff in place.”
As Tillerson and Mattis have tried to staff their respective departments, they have faced resistance from the White House and reluctance from many potential top appointees who are ambivalent about joining this chaotic administration. Vice Admiral Robert Harward, Mattis’ former CENTCOM deputy and a preferred choice to replace Michael Mike Flynn, who resigned his post as national security adviser Monday night, turned the job down Thursday in part over concerns about whether he would have authority over policy and his own staff hiring.
“There’s a real danger here,” said Eric Edelman, a former undersecretary of defense who worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 defense transition. “If you have a former Navy SEAL like Harward turning down his commander in chief, he must have some real concerns about the way this is structured.” Harward, in a statement Thursday, cited personal and financial concerns as a main reason for turning down the job.
Flynn’s resignation marked a win for Mattis and Tillerson. An early Trump campaign supporter and the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency with a penchant for indulging conspiracy theories, Flynn helped crystallize an early partnership between Mattis and Tillerson.
When Mattis met with Republican senators in January ahead of his confirmation hearings, Republican senators simply thanked him for his willingness to serve the incoming administration. His own confirmation assured, Mattis asked the senators to help Tillerson, whose nomination appeared less certain and who he thought might be an important ally in the Cabinet.
“He said, ‘You’ve got to get Rex [Tillerson] over the finish line for me,” one GOP senate staffer recalled, “because Flynn is crazy.”
But even with Flynn out of the way, the secretaries’ efforts to stabilize Trump’s approach to foreign policy and to create greater autonomy for themselves within their respective departments are only just beginning.
Tillerson has tried to stay away from the West Wing infighting, sources say, and from the White House altogether. Next week, Tillerson will fly to Mexico, a nation Trump has already alienated more than any other, with Kelly. Tillerson was not present for Wednesday’s visit from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leaving a day early for this week’s G-20 foreign ministers meeting in Bonn, Germany. Similarly, he missed Monday’s White House meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and also skipped a lunch this week with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
Tillerson has quietly met with top officials at the State Department and reassured them he would listen to expert opinions and that he is writing his own remarks. He has pushed to bring people from outside the Trump orbit into the West Wing, one of these people said, but has received resistance from the White House, which doesn’t want officials who have criticized the president taking jobs inside the administration.
Discussions are ongoing about several other spots, with White House officials weighing whether to approve the hires, several sources say. While he’s been away, White House staff has been interviewing potential State Department staffers, including Fox News anchor Heather Nauert, who visited the White House this week and is under consideration to serve as Tillerson’s spokeswoman, according to two West Wing sources.
“There was a lot of discussion in the beginning of the transition that Cabinet secretaries were going to get a lot of deference in terms of staffing, but that doesn’t seem to be happening,” said Edelman. “And if there’s an impasse over staffing, you have to ask if there are folks in the White House who think it’s just fine to have agencies unstaffed because you can force through executive orders and it increases their power given their proximity to the president.”
The Strategic Initiatives Group, a new group in the West Wing led by Kushner and White House senior adviser Steve Bannon, has been set up to serve as a shadow National Security Council, which worries Edelman and other mainstream conservative foreign policy and defense experts concerned about the outsize influence of less experienced ideologues like Bannon ally Sebastian Gorka.
By next week, Mattis will have spent almost two weeks of his first month on the job oceans away from Trump, traveling on what are effectively reassurance tours. After allaying the concerns of leaders in Japan and South Korea last week that the new U.S. administration isn’t planning any dramatic moves, he’s spending this week in Europe talking to NATO allies worried that the new president is less than fully committed to an alliance that now serves as the biggest bulwark against an expansionist Russia.
The missteps by Trump’s political team have given Mattis and Tillerson a bit of an opening. Mattis was upset when Trump nominated Vincent Viola, a billionaire Wall Street trader, to serve as his Army secretary without consulting him (Viola has since bowed out because of personal financial issues). Since the blowup, he’s had more influence over top appointments—he pushed hard for Phillip Bilden’s appointment as Navy secretary — but continues to spar with a White House determined to bar the doors of the federal government to those who opposed Trump during last year’s campaign or who disagree with him on critical policy positions.
Tillerson, meanwhile, is privately expressing his own dissatisfaction that the administration has reneged on its promise to allow him to pick ambassadors, grievances that are now spilling out into public view ahead of any official announcements.
Tillerson is primarily peeved at Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff who recently got Trump to sign off on a list of 15 ambassador appointments even though they’d promised their secretary of state that he could fill those slots if he agreed to take the job.
A person involved in the confirmation process said the administration had chosen at least a dozen ambassadors, who are currently filling out their “form 86s,” for national security clearance. Some have already turned in the forms, this person said, which will spark background checks. “You’re going to see the names start leaking out because you have third-party groups going out and doing background checks,” this person said.
According to one source familiar with Priebus’ list, hedge fund manager and campaign bundler Lew Eisenberg will be named ambassador to Italy; Duke Buchan, another Wall Street financier who was among the earliest to bet big on Trump, will be ambassador to Spain; and Georgette Mosbacher, an entrepreneur and Fox News contributor, is likely to serve as ambassador to either Luxembourg or Belgium.
“They certainly were not chosen by Tillerson,” the source familiar with the list explained. “These were not Tillerson choices at all.”
According to a source close to Trump’s vetting process for ambassadorships, it’s not unusual for a president to have a list of big donors and others for plum ambassador jobs, but it is a little unorthodox to be nominating so many ambassadors before other key positions were filled, like deputy secretary jobs. Hillary Clinton, for instance, had more sway in picking the ambassadors when she was secretary of state, but President Barack Obama’s top aides also provided a list.
Tillerson responded to these slights as he did to reports of Trump’s softening the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution in the Middle East — with practiced calm. He has been annoyed, two sources say, but has not yet gone “off the deep end at the White House,” according to one of these people. He has tried to strike a diplomatic tone. Much of that, another source said, is due to his solid personal relationship with Kushner, who, the source continued, “understands the president better than anyone else but also understands that he doesn’t know the military like Mattis, that he doesn’t know foreign leaders better than Tillerson. He knows what he doesn’t know.”
The ambassadors were not chosen for their diplomatic or foreign policy experience, this person said. “They are political types and donors, the usual suspects for ambassadors,” this person said. “The ambassadors are not ‘drain the swamp’ kind of people.”
Eliana Johnson, Tara Palmeri and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.