WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with his boss. But President Donald Trump’s top diplomat says he’s comfortable in his job and in his relationship with the commander in chief.
Speaking to reporters at a nearly hour-long news conference at the State Department on Tuesday, Tillerson sought to dispel speculation that he is frustrated and looking for a way out. He said he and Trump have had policy disagreements, notably over the Iran nuclear deal, which the president opposes.
Still, Tillerson noted he has received Trump’s confidence and said the president often calls at unusual times seeking input on various foreign policy matters. Tillerson said he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t express his views, even when they conflict with those of the president.
“We have a good relationship,” Tillerson said. “I talk to him just about every day, I see him several times a week, he calls me late at night, on the weekends when something comes into his head and he wants to talk. He may call me at any moment, at any time.”
“It is a very open relationship and it is one in which I feel quite comfortable telling him my views,” Tillerson said. “We have differences, but I think if we’re not having those differences I’m not sure that I am serving him. I would tell you the relationship between myself and the president is good. That’s how I view it, anyway.”
Differences between Trump, top White House aides and Tillerson and the State Department bubbled to public attention even before a well-publicized spat last month over the Iran deal, which ended with Trump siding with Tillerson while making it clear he wants out of the accord. In June, Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate change accord against Tillerson’s advice. Tillerson also has fumed over the slow pace of White House approvals for senior State Department positions.
Trump hasn’t made Tillerson’s job easy, particularly through sometimes incendiary tweets on foreign policy matters. Trump notably sided with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt in their dispute with Qatar at a time Tillerson sought to mediate. Trump also has taken to Twitter several times to criticize China for not reining in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
It is “part of the environment in which we work,” Tillerson told reporters Tuesday. At the same time, he stressed that Washington doesn’t blame Beijing for North Korea’s behavior, while reinforcing Trump’s point that the U.S. wants greater Chinese determination on the matter.
“We’ll adapt to it,” Tillerson said of Trump’s tweets. “There’s a lot of unexpected things that happen to us in the world of diplomacy and we know how to adapt to that, we know how work with it. I don’t view it as an obstacle, hindrance or as assistance. Whatever the president chooses to express, he expresses, and then that’s information to everybody, us included.”
Tillerson defended his plans to reorganize the State Department — a process that will likely see steep budget and staffing cuts — as necessary to keep the agency relevant in the 21st century. Those plans have been heavily criticized by former diplomats and academics who say he has “hollowed out” the building, destroyed the morale of career staffers and damaged the credibility of American diplomacy.
Tillerson took issue with those characterizations.
“Anytime you have a dramatic change in the administration like we had six months ago, there are going to be individuals who struggle with that,” he said.
“It is to be expected that we will go through some morale issues early on,” he said, holding out hope for “an uptick” soon.
Tillerson twice noted his frustration with appointments at the department, even referencing the young son of his chief of staff, who attended the news conference.
“I decided that maybe if I start naming people to office when they’re 8 or 9 years old, they’ll be of age by the time we can get them through the process,” Tillerson joked. He said he had many “open slots,” with only his deputy and one undersecretary confirmed by the Senate.