The Trump administration in its first month has largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the preeminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.
Decisions on hiring, policy and scheduling are being driven by a White House often wary of the foreign policy establishment and struggling to set priorities and write policy on the fly.
The most visible change at the State Department is the month-long lack of daily press briefings, a fixture since John Foster Dulles was secretary of state in the 1950s. The televised question-and-answer session is watched closely around the world, and past administrations have pointed proudly to the accountability of having a government spokesman available to domestic and foreign press almost every day without fail.
Tillerson has also been notably absent from White House meetings with foreign leaders. The State Department was represented by the acting deputy, Tom Shannon, at the president’s discussions with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Because he was en route to Bonn for a Group of 20 meeting, Tillerson did not join Trump’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although the two had a working dinner the night before.
It is still early in Tillerson’s tenure, and former State Department officials, from Republican and Democratic administration alike, say his performance reflects the disarray in the White House. The administration had sent mixed signals on key issues such as U.S. policy toward China and commitment to the NATO alliance even before Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign last week.
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