BRUSSELS (AP) — What do you do when you’re America’s top diplomat, fourth in line to the presidency, and the White House makes it publicly known you’re living on borrowed time? If you’re Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, you brush it off, pack a suitcase and hop a flight to Europe, as if nothing had happened.
Tillerson tours Europe this week under circumstances unparalleled in recent U.S. diplomatic memory. After months of public tensions with President Donald Trump and rumors about Tillerson’s future, the White House signaled last week he could be fired — and possibly soon. White House officials told multiple news organizations a plan was afoot to oust Tillerson and replace him with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, a close Trump confidant.
“It’s laughable,” Tillerson quipped the next day, as aides insisted he was staying in his job.
“FAKE NEWS,” tweeted the president, saying Tillerson was “not leaving.”
Yet such damage to Tillerson’s standing is not so easily erased — certainly not by a single tweet.
In Belgium, Austria and France this week, Tillerson will contend with European officials who now have more reason than ever to question whether he truly speaks for the president, how much credence to give his policies, and if he’ll remain long enough to see them through. For foreign governments, it has created even more uncertainty over dealing with a mercurial administration in which the only voice that seems to matter is that of Trump himself.
Opening his first day in Brussels on Tuesday, Tillerson alluded to the growing doubt about his leadership of the State Department as he greeted diplomats at the U.S. embassy. He acknowledged that “we don’t have any wins yet” and said he’s getting “a little criticism” over the high number of vacancies in key roles — including, in Brussels, no U.S. ambassadors to either Belgium or the European Union.
Still, Tillerson insisted he was making progress on his top priority: a top-to-bottom overhaul of the State Department. He said there would be some “quick wins” coming shortly that he would discuss at town hall meetings about the overhaul he said he’d hold before year’s end.
“The State Department is not missing a beat,” Tillerson said.
In the Belgian capital, Tillerson planned to meet with the EU’s foreign policy chief and other regional diplomats before a conference of NATO foreign ministers. He’ll then fly late Wednesday to Vienna for a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, whose talks with Tillerson are always closely watched.
The former Exxon Mobil CEO will lastly go to Paris for a final round of meetings before returning to Washington. In each stop, key security issues related to Syria, North Korea, Lebanon and Iran are expected to be high on the agenda.
Though Trump insisted on Twitter that he and Tillerson “work well together,” he allowed news stories about Tillerson’s impending demise to percolate for more than 24 hours before pushing back. Trump’s spokeswoman didn’t explicitly dispute that a plan had been hatched to replace Tillerson. Nor did she declare outright Trump’s confidence in the Texas oil man.
In Trump’s Washington, such is often the way. “Trial balloons” are floated in the press, and competing factions swipe and snipe from behind a cloak of anonymity. It’s left to Americans at home to try to discern whether it’s happening against the president’s wishes or at his direct behest.
Earlier this year, Tillerson clashed bitterly with former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and his allies. But Tillerson ultimately remained while Bannon and his associates were pushed out. More recently, Tillerson and his team have bumped heads with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and others in Kushner’s camp, said several administration officials who weren’t authorized to discuss internal disputes and requested anonymity.
Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and Tillerson ally, said it’s clear someone has sought to undermine Tillerson.
“I don’t know who that is,” Corker said after word emerged of the White House plan. “I know he’s taken on some tough issues like the reform of the State Department. I know it hasn’t gone in a spectacular way.”
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner in Washington contributed to this report.