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Tenacious Tillerson survives ‘Rexit’ rumors

BloombergU.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once seemed such a sure bet to leave the Trump administration that his inevitable departure had its own nickname — “Rexit.”

Just two months later, Tillerson has racked up hard-fought victories over administration rivals such as United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and is pushing ahead with a heavy travel schedule and an agenda to confront North Korea’s nuclear program and counter drug-trafficking, among other priorities.

If there’s a lesson from President Donald Trump’s first year in office, it’s that officials who are praised one day can be savaged in a tweet the next morning. But the top U.S. diplomat appears to be reaping the benefits of a year spent cultivating Trump, working closely with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and learning the rules of the Washington power game that he professed to be unfamiliar with after nearly four decades at ExxonMobil.

“My guess is during this first year he’s probably encountered a lot of things he didn’t expect to encounter, but it feels to me like there’s a reprieve that’s underway,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. “It feels to me like he’s settling in and moving ahead. He’s planning this on out through the rest of the year.”

As recently as December, Trump felt compelled to deny reports that he planned to fire Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, although the president pointedly added that “we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots.)” And that was at the end of a year when Tillerson’s spokeswoman had to deny that he’d called the president a “moron” in a private meeting.

Tillerson won a victory late last year when Trump nominated Susan Thornton for assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, a key voice in the debate over policy toward China and North Korea. Thornton, a career official who has been filling the job as acting assistant secretary, had been publicly opposed by Trump adviser Steve Bannon before his ouster last year.

Tillerson also overruled Trump’s inner circle on their choice for ambassador to NATO, successfully bringing in fellow Texan Kay Bailey Hutchison over Richard Grenell, who went on to be the nominee for Germany instead. Grenell’s nomination is still pending in the Senate.

One of Tillerson’s biggest policy victories came last month when he circumvented Haley, with whom he has repeatedly sparred behind the scenes, and won a reduction of funding for the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees rather than the cutoff she sought.

Tillerson won Trump’s approval for providing $60 million to the agency without Haley’s knowledge, avoiding a debate over the issue in the interagency meetings that would normally precede such a decision. The first Haley’s team heard about the decision was when the State Department announced the funding, according to several officials familiar with the incident. Aides to Haley didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Explaining his first year, Tillerson said last month on CNN, “We had a very successful — in my view — year 2017, pivoting our policies and helping our partners understand those policies. We’re now into the implementation and execution against those policies.”

Now, on Iran, he’s pressing European allies to toughen oversight of the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program. On North Korea, he’s pushing ahead with what he’s called a “peaceful pressure” campaign to choke off its economy and has coordinated with Mike Pence ahead of the vice president’s trip this week to the Olympic Games in South Korea.

Still, Tillerson got a reminder of the precarious nature of service in Trump’s Cabinet during his seven-day swing through Latin America and the Caribbean, which ends Wednesday.

Just before Tillerson’s stops in Peru and Colombia, both recipients of U.S. counter-narcotics funding, Trump said he wanted to “stop the aid” to countries that fail to stem the flow of drugs to the United States. It was an exercise in finger-pointing at odds with Tillerson’s comments in a Texas speech setting the stage for his trip that “U.S. demand for drugs drives this violence and this lawlessness,” a key complaint of other nations and critics of U.S. drug policy.

Trump’s move was reminiscent of a message he sent after Tillerson told reporters in China in October that the United States was talking with North Korean officials through diplomatic back channels. Trump said on Twitter that he told his “wonderful” secretary of state that “he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president’s nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Now, though, Tillerson is more aware that such broadsides could be incoming.

“I don’t get frustrated about anything, so I don’t need to answer the question,” Tillerson responded when asked about Trump’s penchant for undercutting him.

Tillerson and his team acknowledge that they’ve disagreed with some of the president’s foreign policy moves, from his decision to leave the Paris climate change agreement to delays in sending more nominations to Capitol Hill. But they also know there’s no value in Tillerson drawing public attention to such internal disputes.

“With this president it is safer to keep your head down and avoid much of a public profile,” said former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. “He’s becoming more comfortable in the public role and he’s clearly in command of his brief.”

How long that lasts remains an open question because Tillerson continues to clash with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over the Middle East peace process. After intervening with Trump last year over his fears that Kushner was freelancing too much on the sensitive process, their animus hasn’t died down, according to a senior State Department official familiar with the matter.

While Tillerson is an engineer, focused on process, Kushner has vented both to the White House and State Department staff about the secretary’s unwillingness to “strategically break things,” according to one person familiar with the exchanges.

Both current and former staff say morale within the State Department is as low as they’ve ever seen it, although Tillerson dismisses that as a myth manufactured by the media and he’s begun to fill long-vacant slots.

Unlike Colin Powell, who is often cited as an example of a secretary who had the department’s support, Tillerson’s chief legacy among foreign service officers will be an exodus of experienced staff and a “restructuring” effort that has alienated much of the department in combination with calls for steep budget cuts. Those personnel losses include his third-in-command, Thomas Shannon, who announced Feb. 1 that he would retire once a replacement can be found.

But in this administration, with a president who often takes foreign policy into his own hands, it would be hard for anyone to be a clear success, outside analysts say.

“You could have the best secretary of state in the world, and with this president and this White House it probably wouldn’t do you one bit of good,” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. “How Tillerson would have behaved in a Bush administration or a McCain administration or some other Republican that actually embraced or engaged with normal policy making — it’s impossible to know.”Speech

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