Home LIFESTYLE Style News “Too Little, Too Late”: Diplomats Yawn as Rex Tillerson Kvells About His Vaunted State Dept. “Re-Design”

“Too Little, Too Late”: Diplomats Yawn as Rex Tillerson Kvells About His Vaunted State Dept. “Re-Design”

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Standing before a full house in the Dean Acheson Auditorium on Tuesday, Rex Tillerson offered a candid assessment of his controversial tenure at the State Department. “Do we have any wins to put on the board? No. That’s not the way this works,” he conceded, pacing back and forth. “Diplomacy is not that simple.” For Tillerson, the town-hall style event was an opportunity to both ingratiate himself with the diplomatic corps and defend his record. For months, the beleaguered secretary of state has battled rumors that he will resign in January, less than one year after joining the Trump administration, where he was assigned the unenviable task of downsizing the agency. More than 100 senior staffers have left the State Department since January, part of an ongoing talent exodus that has left America’s diplomatic corps depleted and demoralized. Those who heard the speech were mostly unimpressed. “Too little, too late,” one staffer told me.

Tillerson, however, seemed uncharacteristically upbeat, projecting a rare affability as he answered largely pre-screened questions and eagerly previewed his plans to overhaul the 75,000-person bureaucracy. Aided by PowerPoint slides, he grew animated as he described redesign initiatives ranging from modernizing the agency’s Human Resources systems to possibly curtailing its diplomatic footprint in London, Rome, and Paris. It was, perhaps, a fitting denouement for the former ExxonMobil C.E.O., a self-effacing engineer who often seems more comfortable with Excel spreadsheets than with the glamour and high drama of international diplomacy. It was “funny,” another State Department staffer told me, “to hear him launch eagerly into the first of the redesign proposals, remarking on [the] intention to move to cloud-based e-mail.”

Tillerson, who has bet his legacy on the Deloitte and Insigniam-led re-org, is under pressure to resuscitate his reputation in Washington before his expected departure next month. But among the diplomats I spoke with, Tillerson’s closing arguments were largely met with ambivalence. “No one is ever going to be as excited about the redesign as the secretary himself,” the current State Department staffer said. “It is just not a sexy subject . . . Everyone understands what that really means—it means people losing their jobs.” Indeed, Tillerson’s biggest applause line was the result of a fumble—he declared that he would lift the hiring freeze, forgetting the qualifier for “family-member employment.” Even the secretary himself admitted that some of the changes seemed insignificant, while offering assurances that they would bring a heightened efficiency to the State Department. “These are not transformational, but the important thing is they’re going to give you back time, and time is the most valuable thing you have,” he said. “It’s the most valuable thing we have.”

Tillerson’s performance was, miraculously, an improvement. Just last month, the secretary had drawn sharp criticism for repeatedly referring to career ambassadors—the foreign-service equivalent of a four-star general in the military—as “career diplomats,” suggesting a lack of understanding of the State Department and its culture. On Monday, Tillerson appeared to be in damage-control mode, making the rounds in the Harry S. Truman Building cafeteria, shaking hands with diplomats and joining them for lunch. And his town hall arguably received “the kindest response” of any of his public events, according to a third State Department staffer.

Still, Tillerson’s image is widely seen as beyond rehabilitation at this point. “It’s an uphill battle though to fight the ‘aloof’ and ‘distant’ narrative [he has] allowed to grow by checking out on internal engagement for the past few months,” the third State Department staffer told me Tuesday. “There’s a bit of regret in the air because he earned a substantial amount of goodwill today, but many believe it may be too late.”

Under Tillerson’s leadership, morale has plummeted and the State Department continues to bleed talent from its ranks. On her way out the door last month, Elizabeth Shackelford—a diplomat who was widely viewed as a rising star—lambasted Tillerson, blaming him for thinning the diplomatic ranks and hamstringing U.S. foreign policy. “I have deep respect for the career Foreign and Civil Service staff who, despite the stinging disrespect this administration has shown our profession, continue the struggle to keep our foreign policy on the positive trajectory necessary to avert global disaster in increasingly dangerous times,” Shackleford wrote in her resignation letter. “With each passing day, however, this task grows more futile, driving the Department’s experienced and talented staff away in ever greater numbers.”

The brain drain has struck close to Tillerson, too. Tuesday was the last day at the State Department for R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s top communications adviser. And last month, the fate of the redesign effort, which has largely lost support on Capitol Hill, was thrust into uncertainty when its architect, Maliz Beams, resigned unexpectedly after three months amid tensions with the secretary’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and her deputy, Christine Ciccone. (Ciccone has since been put in charge of the overhaul.) When I asked what might happen to Tillerson’s reorganization, the second State Department staffer told me, “That’s the million-dollar question. But we are moving forward . . . though with great hesitation.”

Within hours of the town hall, Senator Ben Cardin, the ranking democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed his continued concerns about the hiring freeze Tillerson enacted at State. “Secretary Tillerson missed an opportunity today to put the State Department back on a path to full health and definitively end his poorly conceived and ill-executed hiring freeze . . . We do not yet know the extent of the damage the hiring freeze has done to State and USAID, but it is likely to be felt for years to come,” the Maryland lawmaker wrote in a letter Tuesday. “It will take a lot of hard work to help State and USAID recover from the damage the freeze and rudderless ‘redesign’ have done.”

It is hard not to see Tillerson’s most recent moves as a last-ditch effort to improve his standing before leaving the mess he created at State for someone else. Diplomats I spoke with expressed disappointment that Tillerson is only displaying an appreciable level of engagement in the twilight of his tenure—an effort many are writing off as more of a P.R. strategy than a turning point.

Despite his repeated denials of an imminent departure, even Tillerson seemed to signal that time is short. “We could wait until the new year, but let’s do it now, and then we hit the new year—really hit the ground running,” he said in the opening of his speech. According to the first State Department staffer, it is unusual for town halls to be held this late in the year. “This is a time when things generally shut down or the secretary is traveling,” this person told me. “Obviously, this is to respond to those critiques. The problem is that you are sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t . . . You set the course in such a strong way that it is really difficult to turn around.”

As I reported earlier this month, Tillerson “wanted to go out on his own terms” and had the framework of an exit strategy. But when news broke that the White House planned to name C.I.A. Director Mike Pompeo as his successor and elevate either Senator Tom Cotton or Vice Admiral Robert Harward to run the C.I.A., Tillerson was caught off guard. His team of top advisers, cloistered among the executive offices on the seventh floor of the State Department, scrambled to contain the fallout.

When asked on Tuesday if he liked being America’s top diplomat, Tillerson laughed somewhat nervously and replied that he was “learning to enjoy it.” But within certain corners of Foggy Bottom, Tillerson’s re-engagement is seen as an 11th-hour attempt to salvage his legacy and regain control of the narrative. “I think that it cut deeply, in the sense that it talks about something that he values deeply, which is his legacy. A lot of people started questioning not just what he has done at State, but questioning even his success at ExxonMobil,” the first State Department staffer said of the criticism Tillerson has weathered as secretary. “Is ExxonMobil so big and successful that anybody at the helm could have run that thing—that you literally couldn’t make a mistake? That’s what people starting thinking because [of the] gross negligence here.”

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