Sen. Bob Corker, having already turned on the president, has a new target for his frustration: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The Tennessee Republican and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman has voiced concerns about Tillerson’s management of the State Department and his still-fuzzy plans to restructure it. At a Senate hearing earlier this week, Corker agreed with several criticisms of Tillerson and his team expressed by Democrats, adding that lawmakers need to be “much more focused on holding them accountable.”
Tillerson’s proposed cuts to the State Department’s staff and budget have drawn growing bipartisan fire from Capitol Hill for months. But Corker’s criticism stands out.
Until recently, Corker has been a steadfast ally of Tillerson, whose nomination he championed and whom he has described as one of the adults around Trump who “separate our country from chaos.” In October, Corker defended Tillerson against what he called Trump’s efforts to “castrat[e]” his secretary of state.
Corker has not gone after Tillerson as harshly as Trump, whom the senator has publicly lambasted since since announcing in September that he will not seek re-election.
But Corker’s annoyance with Tillerson also has turned heads because both men have business backgrounds — Tillerson is a former ExxonMobil CEO and Corker make a fortune in real estate — and both wish to make government more efficient. Corker shares Tillerson’s basic goal of reshaping the State Department. But he is frustrated with Tillerson’s execution of the plan, observers said.
“Corker saw in Tillerson a kindred spirit,” said Tom Hill, a former senior staffer on the House Foreign Affairs Committee now with the Brookings Institution. “But the more that this has played out and looked so fumbled, he, as a former businessman himself, feels that these opportunities are being squandered.”
An aide to Corker dismissed the notion that he’s unhappy with Tillerson.
“While Sen. Corker is obviously concerned about the pace of reorganization efforts at the State Department, any notion that he is souring on Secretary Tillerson is way off base. He still has full confidence in the secretary,” said Todd Womack, Corker’s chief of staff.
Asked about the relationship, Tillerson aide R.C. Hammond said, “Secretary Tillerson has enormous respect for Sen. Corker and values his counsel.”
Corker is far from the only one expressing concern about Tillerson’s plans.
Last week, a bipartisan group of Senate staffers met with Tillerson aides to get an update on Tillerson’s plan to reshape his department. The State staffers shared a presentation, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, that infuriated the Senate aides with its lack of substance.
“Part of the frustration is that they briefed entirely on process as opposed to what they actually plan to do,” said a Senate aide who attended the session. “At one point, in frustration, staff offered them the rumors they had been hearing, which the State briefers said they put in the ‘under consideration’ mode but shed no light on.”
In a hearing Tuesday, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blasted Tillerson, pointing to reports of an exodus of senior diplomats from the Foreign Service. He also slammed Tillerson for being slow or simply unwilling to answer lawmakers’ questions about what is happening to America’s diplomatic ranks.
Corker said he agreed with “many” of Cardin’s criticisms and mentioned the “unsatisfactory” meeting between Senate and Tillerson aides.
“I don’t think they’re anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms they want to make there,” Corker said. “And I do think that we need to be much more focused on holding them accountable.”
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) also weighed in Wednesday with a letter to Tillerson that urged him to lift limits on hiring and promotions and to consult more with lawmakers about his plans. “While we support reasonable steps to improve the efficiency of the State Department, such efforts must be fully transparent, with the objective of enhancing, not diminishing, American diplomacy,” the senators wrote.
Other lawmakers and staffers have also urged more consultation with Congress because it’s possible that some of the changes Tillerson wants to make will require legislation.
Corker, a relatively moderate, pragmatic Republican, was once one of the most prominent voices in the GOP to support Trump, and was in the running to be secretary of state.
But in recent months, Trump and Corker’s relationship has derailed over differences on the Iran nuclear deal, taxes and other matters. Corker has questioned Trump’s mental fitness for the Oval Office, saying the president needs “adult daycare” and warning that the Republican commander-in-chief could lead the United States into World War III.
Tillerson’s relationship with Trump has also encountered turbulence. The secretary of state reportedly called the president a “moron,” a claim he hasn’t denied. But, while engaged on major foreign policy issues ranging from how to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program to preventing a genocide in Myanmar, Tillerson has appeared most happy when discussing his desire to restructure the State Department.
“The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient and for all of you to take greater satisfaction in what you do day in and day out,” Tillerson told a group of U.S. diplomats in September.
As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker can make Tillerson’s life even more difficult than it is now. He could schedule more public hearings to demand details on Tillerson’s plans for State. He could also promote legislation that restricts what changes Tillerson can make, a move toward greater micromanagement of the department by Congress.
Already this week, Corker announced a delay in the confirmation vote for Eric Ueland, a budget expert nominated to serve as undersecretary for management at State. It was not clear which lawmaker requested the delay, but many Democrats worry Tillerson is bringing in Ueland to find clever but legal ways to slash State’s funds.
Some observers note that delaying confirmations and threatening funding cuts — traditional tools used by lawmakers to coerce the Executive Branch — may not work on Tillerson or Trump because they desire a smaller, less cash-flush State Department. The administration is reportedly offering $25,000 buyouts to State employees to get more to leave. Trump himself recently dismissed concerns that leaving slots at State empty would hurt U.S. foreign policy, saying, “I’m the only one that matters.”
Although lawmakers from both parties have rebuffed Trump’s proposal to slash by roughly a third the budget of the State Department, Tillerson appears to be moving ahead as if the Trump budget plan will become the law. And lawmakers worry that in his zeal to reduce State’s size and budget Tillerson may ignore budget directives from Congress.
Cardin, in a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, said lawmakers have already started thinking about what legal options they have if Tillerson ignores congressional mandates on spending. The problem, Cardin said, is that the State Department has dragged its feet on sharing its plans with lawmakers.
“We have yet to get answers to our questions, so I think it’s premature for us to say what step will go next. We have been told by senior officials in the executive branch that they intend to carry out the laws,” Cardin said. When a reporter pointed out that the administration’s stalling could be a deliberate tactic, Cardin smiled and said, “We understand that.”
One area in which Tillerson has been somewhat more forthcoming is his plan to cut the ranks of special envoys at the State Department. There have been around 70 such positions, and, in a letter sent earlier this year to lawmakers, at their insistence, Tillerson said he’ll cut around three dozen of the slots.
Sources inside the State Department have told POLITICO that at least two special envoy offices — one dealing with sanctions and one dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan — have been shut down. But, despite multiple requests for an official update, the department has declined to offer any specifics about where the culling process stands.
“We have not moved any funds nor positions regarding the special envoys and representatives,” a department spokesman said in an email. “The State Department continues to carry out the work of the various offices. We are continuing to work with Congress in anticipation of moving forward.”
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