Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looked like he had been cast into social Siberia.
The former ExxonMobil CEO was enjoying a martini with his wife at the BLT Prime steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel on Feb. 25, when President Donald Trump strode in with Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, happened to be at the hotel and was invited to join the president’s dinner party. Tillerson, who came over to say hello as he was leaving, was not.
Viewed as the walled-off leader of a demoralized department, Tillerson in the opening days of the Trump administration was cast as an inexperienced statesman undercut by the White House as the nation’s top diplomat, supplanted in that role by the president’s powerful son-in-law.
But over the past month, as Tillerson has taken a lead on the administration’s strategy with Syria, Russia and China, his status has shifted – and behind the scenes, he’s emerging as Trump’s favorite cabinet secretary.
The 65-year-old self-made Texas oilman has become one of Trump’s most frequent White House guests, often joining him in the residence for one-on-one dinners, or in the presidential dining room, along with Vice President Mike Pence, for lunch.
In Trump’s 83 days as president, Tillerson has had more meetings with the president than any other cabinet secretary, according to multiple White House aides and a review of public schedules. When Tillerson isn’t traveling abroad, the two men schedule a private dinner at least once a week.
In the month of March alone, Tillerson appeared on White House public schedules for a lunch, dinner, or an Oval Office meeting with Trump eight times, usually for private meetings. That tally doesn’t include his regular informal pop-ins to the White House. Tillerson typically spends unscheduled time with Trump in the Oval Office before or after NSC principals committee meetings, which the president does not attend.
In that same period, Trump met in the White House with another favored cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, just three times.
“I don’t think it’s ever been true that Tillerson had limited influence,” said Elliot Abrams, the neo-conservative veteran of two administrations who was Tillerson’s initial choice for No. 2 at the State Department, though Trump nixed his appointment. “He’s always had influence, it just wasn’t visible outside yet.”
Abrams said that Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have formed “a triangle of people with the greatest influence, and that probably grows now because of the Syria strike, because it was so successful in military and political terms.” And Abrams argued that while Trump’s veto of his job at State was “taken to be a slap at Tillerson – I think that was a mistake. I don’t think my situation had anything to do with the president’s view of Tillerson. They spend an awful lot of time together.”
One person close to the White House said that Tillerson’s slow start is less important than his strong end to the first 100 days of the presidency. “Trump is a business guy, he judges things in quarters,” said one operative who remains close to the White House. The military strike on Syria, the operative said, “was a solid way to end the first quarter for Tillerson.”
On Wednesday, Trump watched Tillerson’s tense press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow live from his private study connected to the Oval Office, according to a White House official. Trump called his envoy afterward to let him know that he thought he did a “wonderful job” and “exuded confidence.”
And while he has been distancing himself from White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Trump has been heaping praise on his secretary of state. “Rex is doing an outstanding job,” Trump told Fox Business News anchor Maria Bartiromo Wednesday. “He’s got a great sense. Look, he ran ExxonMobil for many years and it was flawlessly run…. We’re proud of him.”
Every Secretary of State forges a unique bond with the president he or she serves. President George W. Bush’s relationship with his first Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was strained, and Powell’s stature was diminished by rival power centers in the Bush White House. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in contrast, was one of Bush’s closest advisers, a veteran of his father’s administration who bonded with the president over workouts and often accompanied the family on trips to their Crawford ranch.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared a complicated history with former campaign rival, President Barack Obama, but saw him at the White House almost every day she was in Washington, D.C., according to a former State Department aide. Her line about two “fierce competitors” evolving into “true friends” became part of her 2016 campaign stump speech.
Trump and Tillerson, in contrast, have no history, complicated or otherwise. They met for the first time in November.
And while their growing closeness is benefiting Tillerson’s standing internally – he’s affectionately referred to as “T-Rex” by West Wing aides – there remains a disconnect with how he’s viewed outside the White House walls.
“There is not a perception that they are very close,” said Jen Psaki, a former spokeswoman for Secretary of State John Kerry. “People want someone who has the ear of the president. Tillerson doesn’t project himself as speaking on Trump’s behalf. But they don’t seem to view public diplomacy as part of their job.”
Indeed, his former colleagues at Exxon have been shocked to see his stature seemingly reduced. “There is a pretty high degree of surprise that he does not seem to have the kind of authority that Secretaries of State routinely have,” said one former Exxon official who did not want to speak on the record about the standing of his former boss. “This is not in keeping with how he ran a multi-national corporation.”
In his old job, the former executive said, Tillerson would travel to Manhattan for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, to set up meetings with three or four world leaders in one place. “You can’t have a job like that without well-defined diplomatic skills, which he has,” the official said. “He seems to be operating with these shackles.”
Yet if there are shackles, they may be self-imposed. Tillerson has broken precedent by traveling abroad without a dedicated press corps aboard his plane, and prefers closed-door meetings to public events, so far. On Wednesday, he appeared outmaneuvered by Lavrov, a veteran of the world stage.
The personal relationship between a president and his secretary of state is critical to how the nation’s top surrogate abroad can perform on the job – perception of power is critical in international diplomacy, and the secretary of state is more powerful if he or she is seen by foreign leaders as being a true proxy for the president.
Internally, among Trump’s top aides, Tillerson has been given a long leash for his perplexingly quiet start. “He’s trying to produce the results first and talk about it later,” explained one top White House official of his approach. “That is an approach that the president respects and understands.”
Part of Trump’s affection for Tillerson is that he views him as a peer – someone who has been successful in business, but didn’t make his millions on Wall Street. Trump, those people said, also appreciates Tillerson’s low-key approach and avoidance of the media all together. He’s one of the only top advisers who isn’t being referred to in the media as a “shadow president,” and aides who keep a low public profile seem to rise quickly in Trump’s orbit.
He also “isn’t striving to score points in the Washington political milieu,” said Jeremy Bash, who served as chief of staff under Leon Panetta at the Defense Department and then at the CIA. “That can go over very well overseas. Foreign leaders want to know the secretary is closest to the president and can deliver – and that’s what they are hearing from their diplomats.”
And Trump appears to be empowering him.
Abrams recalled of the Oval Office meeting he attended with Trump, Tillerson and Kushner on Feb. 6, the president “listened very carefully to Tillerson, at length and without interruptions” as they discussed Syria, Turkey and the Kurds. “The president was in a listening mode. It gave me the impression that he respected Tillerson and was paying attention to what he was hearing.”
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