Rex Tillerson, in meeting with U.S. diplomats, says Russia ‘interfered’ in election

The Daily Beast reports: Beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson acknowledged in a closed-door meeting with U.S. diplomats on Tuesday that Russia “interfered in democratic processes here,” something President Trump still describes as “fake news” intended to delegitimize his presidency.

It’s a precarious position for Tillerson to take, even privately. Tillerson’s job is on thin ice, as rumors swirl that he will be swapped out for CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Within the department, Tillerson’s support is wafer-thin, as diplomats have come to see his purpose as hollowing out U.S. diplomacy.

Publicly, Tillerson has been a bit more circumspect about the Kremlin question. In April, Tillerson called the “question of Russian interference” in the election something that was “fairly well-established.” In August, Tillerson told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that the election meddling engendered “serious mistrust between our two countries.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. ready for talks with North Korea ‘without preconditions’, Tillerson says

The Guardian reports: Rex Tillerson has said that the US is ready to begin exploratory talks with North Korea “without preconditions”, but only after a “period of quiet” without new nuclear or missile tests.

The secretary of state’s remarks appeared to mark a shift in state department policy, which had previously required Pyongyang to show it was “serious” about giving up its nuclear arsenal before contacts could start. And the language was a long way from repeated comments by Donald Trump that such contacts are a “waste of time”.

Tillerson also revealed that the US had been talking to China about what each country would do in the event of a conflict or regime collapse in North Korea, saying that the Trump administration had given Beijing assurances that US troops would pull back to the 38th parallel, which divides North and South Korea, and that the only US concern would be to secure the regime’s nuclear weapons.

Earlier this week it emerged that China is building a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile (1,416km) border with North Korea, in preparation for a potential exodus that could be unleashed by conflict or the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime. [Continue reading…]

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Kushner is leaving Tillerson in the dark on Middle East talks, sources say

Bloomberg reports: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is increasingly alarmed by what he sees as secret talks between Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — fearful that the discussions could backfire and tip the region into chaos, according to three people familiar with Tillerson’s concerns.

The central goal of the Kushner-Prince Mohammed negotiations, as described by two people with knowledge of the talks, is for an historic agreement featuring the creation of a Palestinian state or territory backed financially by a number of countries including Saudi Arabia, which could put tens of billions of dollars toward the effort.

A lasting Middle East peace treaty has been a U.S. goal for decades, and at the start of his administration Trump assigned the 36-year-old Kushner to head up the effort to make it happen.

Tillerson believes Kushner hasn’t done enough to share details of the talks with the State Department, according to the people, leaving senior U.S. diplomats in the dark on the full extent of the highly sensitive negotiations. [Continue reading…]

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Trump rejects reports that he’s about to replace Tillerson

The New York Times reports: President Trump on Friday rejected reports that he would soon fire Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson as “fake news,” but declared that “I call the final shots” as he acknowledged his disagreements with his top diplomat.

The president’s tweet was posted a few hours after Mr. Tillerson described reports this week that the White House wanted him to resign as “laughable.”

“He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!” Mr. Trump wrote in a midafternoon tweet defending Mr. Tillerson.

It marked an operatic turn in Mr. Tillerson’s tenure after months of reports that he would soon leave the Trump administration. The latest round was fueled by a plan to force out Mr. Tillerson that was conceived by John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, and unveiled by senior administration officials on Thursday.

The State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, denied on Thursday that Mr. Tillerson was leaving. But the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, notably did not, saying only that “there are no personnel announcements at this time” when asked whether Mr. Tillerson was on his way out.

Mr. Trump had also sidestepped questions on Thursday about Mr. Tillerson’s future. “He’s here. Rex is here,” Mr. Trump said then, in an underwhelming display of support that did not challenge the reports of Mr. Tillerson’s pending departure. [Continue reading…]

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White House plans Tillerson ouster from State Dept., to be replaced by Pompeo

The New York Times reports: The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday.

Mr. Pompeo would be replaced at the C.I.A. by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who has been a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan. Mr. Cotton has signaled that he would accept the job if offered, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations before decisions are announced.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Trump has given final approval to the plan, but he has been said to have soured on Mr. Tillerson and in general is ready to make a change at the State Department. Mr. Tillerson was at the White House on Thursday morning, although he was not listed on the White House public schedule. [Continue reading…]

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Dismantling the Foreign Service

Nicholas Burns and Ryan C. Crocker write: Both of us served overseas and in Washington for decades as career diplomats. We were ambassadors during both Republican and Democratic administrations. We are proud of the nonpartisan culture of our brethren at the State Department. President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can count on them to work tirelessly, loyally and with great skill for our country.

But we are concerned the Trump administration is weakening the Foreign Service by a series of misguided decisions since taking office. It has proposed a 31 percent budget reduction for the State Department that would cripple its global reach. It has failed to fill the majority of the most senior ambassadorial positions in Washington and overseas. It is on track to take the lowest number of new officers into the service in years.

It has even nominated a former officer with a scant eight years of experience to be the director general of the Foreign Service, the chief of its personnel system. The nonpartisan American Academy of Diplomacy (of which we both are members) advised Congress that this would be “like making a former Army captain the chief of staff of the Army.”

As a result, many of our most experienced diplomats are leaving the department. Along with the senior diplomats who were summarily fired by the Trump team early this year, we are witnessing the most significant departure of diplomatic talent in generations. The drop in morale among those who remain behind is obvious to both of us. The number of young Americans who applied to take the Foreign Service officer entry test declined by 33 percent in the past year. This is particularly discouraging and will weaken the service for years. [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson is fiddling with PowerPoint while the world burns

David McKean writes: Imagine holding the job of representing the most important country on the planet, facing an exploding array of crises around the world, and focusing not on diplomacy but on fiddling around with your org chart and mundane tasks like fixing the email system.

Yet that’s what Rex Tillerson has done in his bizarre and disappointing 10 months as America’s secretary of state—a position held by such giants as Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and James Baker. Unlike his predecessors, who generally left the day-to-day management of the State Department to others, Tillerson has reportedly immersed himself in a mysterious, corporate-inflected overhaul of Foggy Bottom’s bureaucracy.

The staff of the State Department has not taken kindly to Tillerson’s ministrations: Experienced and talented diplomats are fleeing; top posts have inexplicably gone unfilled; and those left behind are demoralized and adrift. Applications for the foreign service are down by half. As the head of the Foreign Service Association, an alumni group, recently pointed out, the number of career ministers—the diplomatic equivalent of three-star generals—is down from 33 to 19, while minister counselors—equal to two stars—has fallen from 431 to 369.

Like any bureaucracy, the State Department tends to resist change; past secretaries have made attempts at reform with mixed success. But what’s happening to the department under Tillerson looks to many not like reform but sheer incompetence, if not deliberate sabotage. And what’s especially strange about his focus on management issues is that, for a former CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations—ExxonMobil—he doesn’t seem very good at it. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson’s redesign chief quits after three months

Bloomberg reports: The senior State Department official charged with overseeing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s effort to overhaul the agency has resigned after just three months on the job, according to a department official.

Maliz Beams was named counselor to the department on Aug. 17, according to her biography on the State Department’s website. She has decided to return to her home in Boston, and Christine Ciccone, Tillerson’s deputy chief of staff, will step in to lead the redesign effort, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.

The departure is a blow for Tillerson, who had brought in Beams to oversee the signature initiative of his term so far — a restructuring intended to eliminate inefficiencies and overlap at the department. The plan has run up against resistance within the department and in Congress, where critics say it has contributed to key positions going unfilled and plummeting morale. [Continue reading…]

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Diplomats sound the alarm as they are pushed out of the State Department in droves

The New York Times reports: Of all the State Department employees who might have been vulnerable in the staff reductions that Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has initiated as he reshapes the department, the one person who seemed least likely to be a target was the chief of security, Bill A. Miller.

Republicans pilloried Hillary Clinton for what they claimed was her inadequate attention to security as secretary of state in the months before the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Congress even passed legislation mandating that the department’s top security official have unrestricted access to the secretary of state.

But in his first nine months in office, Mr. Tillerson turned down repeated and sometimes urgent requests from the department’s security staff to brief him, according to several former top officials in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Finally, Mr. Miller, the acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security, was forced to cite the law’s requirement that he be allowed to speak to Mr. Tillerson.

Mr. Miller got just five minutes with the secretary of state, the former officials said. Afterward, Mr. Miller, a career Foreign Service officer, was pushed out, joining a parade of dismissals and early retirements that has decimated the State Department’s senior ranks. [Continue reading…]

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State Dept. revolt: Tillerson accused of violating U.S. law on child soldiers

Reuters reports: A group of about a dozen U.S. State Department officials have taken the unusual step of formally accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of violating a federal law designed to stop foreign militaries from enlisting child soldiers, according to internal government documents reviewed by Reuters.

A confidential State Department “dissent” memo not previously reported said Tillerson breached the Child Soldiers Prevention Act when he decided in June to exclude Iraq, Myanmar, and Afghanistan from a U.S. list of offenders in the use of child soldiers. This was despite the department publicly acknowledging that children were being conscripted in those countries.

Keeping the countries off the annual list makes it easier to provide them with U.S. military assistance. Iraq and Afghanistan are close allies in the fight against Islamist militants, while Myanmar is an emerging ally to offset China’s influence in Southeast Asia.

Documents reviewed by Reuters also show Tillerson’s decision was at odds with a unanimous recommendation by the heads of the State Department’s regional bureaus overseeing embassies in the Middle East and Asia, the U.S. envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the department’s human rights office and its own in-house lawyers.

“Beyond contravening U.S. law, this decision risks marring the credibility of a broad range of State Department reports and analyses and has weakened one of the U.S. government’s primary diplomatic tools to deter governmental armed forces and government-supported armed groups from recruiting and using children in combat and support roles around the world,” said the July 28 memo.

Reuters reported in June that Tillerson had disregarded internal recommendations on Iraq, Myanmar and Afghanistan. The new documents reveal the scale of the opposition in the State Department, including the rare use of what is known as the “dissent channel,” which allows officials to object to policies without fear of reprisals. [Continue reading…]

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Donald Trump’s war on diplomacy

In an editorial, the New York Times says: American diplomats in recent decades have helped bring about an Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany, the end of the Bosnia war and a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. That record testifies to the power and influence of America as well as the skill of secretaries of state and other diplomats who worked to advance international stability and the national interest.

That isn’t the way the Trump administration approaches the world. Rex Tillerson is widely seen as ill suited to diplomatic leadership and determined to dismantle his own department, which has been central to America’s national security since Thomas Jefferson ran the place. The department is being undermined by budget cuts, a failure to fill top jobs, an erratic president and a secretary who has called reorganization, rather than policy, his most important priority. Given the aggressive behavior of North Korea, Russia and China in a world that seems shakier by the day, the timing could hardly be worse.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is going gangbusters. The State Department’s budget has been targeted with a 31 percent cut, to $37.6 billion, but Congress is moving to raise the Pentagon’s spending level roughly 15 percent from the $549 billion allowed under the Budget Control Act. Aircraft carriers and tanks are obviously much more expensive than diplomatic pouches and airline tickets. Even so, such lopsided budget priorities could favor military solutions over diplomacy and development.

In recent weeks, alarming new data from the American Foreign Service Association, the union representing diplomats, shows just how far Mr. Tillerson has taken things. Since January, more than 100 senior foreign service officers have left the department, depleting the ranks of career ambassadors, the diplomatic equivalent of four-star generals, by 60 percent, while the number of career ministers (akin to three-star generals) is down 42 percent. The hiring of new foreign service officers has slowed almost to a halt, and the number of young people seeking to take the foreign service exam has fallen to less than half the 17,000 who registered two years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Pompeo emerges as favorite to succeed Tillerson

Politico reports: President Donald Trump has turned his daily intelligence briefing — a routine that in previous administrations has been a dry, formal affair — into a free-flowing conversation during which he peppers his CIA director, former House member Mike Pompeo, with questions about everything from national security threats to the internal dynamics of Congress.

After their 10 a.m. sessions, which Pompeo conducts in person about four mornings a week, Trump often asks Pompeo to accompany him to his next meeting — whatever it is.

The CIA director’s favored status in the West Wing has made him the odds-on choice to succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, according to more than half a dozen administration officials and outside advisers familiar with the White House’s current plans. It’s not clear when Tillerson might leave — he has vigorously denied rumors that he plans to resign anytime soon — but Pompeo has told associates that he expects the president to tap him for the position and that he’d accept the job if it’s offered to him. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. embassy in Moscow hires security firm of former Russian spy who worked with Putin

The Telegraph reports: The US embassy in Moscow is to be guarded by a company owned by a former head of KGB counter-intelligence who worked with British double agent Kim Philby and young Vladimir Putin, after cuts to US staff demanded by Russia.

Elite Security Holdings was awarded a $2.83 million contract to provide “local guard services for US mission Russia,” which includes the Moscow embassy and consulates in St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok, according to a post on a US state procurement website.

The contract and background of the firm came to light in a Kommersant newspaper report on Friday.

Elite Security, a private company and the oldest part of the eponymous holding, was founded in 1997 by Viktor Budanov and his son Dmitry, according to a Russian business registry.

A 2002 article posted on the site of Russia’s foreign intelligence service identified Mr Budanov as a major general in the agency who became a Soviet spy in 1966 and retired a year after the collapse of the USSR.

His long work in Soviet and Russian intelligence could raise questions about whether the guard services contract poses a security or intelligence risk to the US mission. [Continue reading…]

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Rex Tillerson’s continuing efforts to eviscerate the State Department have crippled diplomats’ morale

In the service of a moron who wants to invest more in nuclear weapons than diplomacy, this makes sense:

The New York Times reports: The State Department will soon offer a $25,000 buyout to diplomats and staff members who quit or take early retirements by April, officials confirmed on Friday.

The decision is part of Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson’s continuing effort to cut the ranks of diplomats and Civil Service officers despite bipartisan resistance in Congress. Mr. Tillerson’s goal is to reduce a department of nearly 25,000 full-time American employees by 8 percent, which amounts to 1,982 people.

To reach that number, he has already frozen hiring, reduced promotions, asked some senior employees to perform clerical duties that are normally relegated to lower-level staff members, refused to fill many ambassadorships and senior leadership jobs, and fired top diplomats from coveted posts while offering low-level assignments in their place. Those efforts have crippled morale worldwide. [Continue reading…]

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Top U.S. diplomat blasts Trump administration for ‘decapitation’ of State Department leadership

Foreign Policy reports: Two former ambassadors have rebuked the White House in an increasingly vocal backlash against its efforts to sideline the State Department.

“Our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed,” Barbara Stephenson, a former U.S. ambassador to Panama and current president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union for foreign service officers, wrote in a letter for the December 2017 issue of the Foreign Service Journal.

Scores of senior diplomats, including 60 percent of career ambassadors, have left the department since the beginning of the year, when President Donald Trump took office, according to the letter. There are 74 top posts at State that remain vacant with no announced nominee.

“Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry,” Stephenson wrote.

It’s not just top leadership that is fleeing. New recruitment is falling dramatically as well, shrinking the pool for future talent. The number of applicants registering to take the Foreign Service Officer Test this year will be fewer than half the 17,000 who registered just two years ago, she wrote.

Stephenson wasn’t the only top diplomat with harsh words for the White House this week.

“Quite frankly, this administration is categorically destroying the Department of State and devaluing diplomacy as something important in this world,” said Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs at the under President Barack Obama, speaking Nov. 6 at Foreign Policy‘s Diplomat of the Year event in Washington (Sherman was named this year as National Security Diplomat of the Year). [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson says Assad family’s reign ‘is coming to an end’ in Syria

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not remain in power, but that negotiations about the country’s future should continue while Mr. Assad was in charge.

“The United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for Bashar al-Assad in the government,” Mr. Tillerson told reporters, adding, “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. The only issue is how that should that be brought about.”

The comments came after Mr. Tillerson met in Geneva with the United Nations special envoy on the Syrian crisis — the last stop on a weeklong visit to the Middle East and South Asia in which he dashed among capitals in the region, often spending only a few hours on the ground before getting back into his motorcade and heading to the next stop.

While he came home with no major accomplishments, the trip was also not interrupted by tweets from President Trump contradicting his efforts, as happened early this month with the secretary’s efforts on North Korea.

Mr. Tillerson’s visit on Tuesday to Pakistan was perhaps the most interesting of the trip, since Mr. Tillerson had just the week before heaped praise on India, Pakistan’s longtime rival, while bluntly insisting that Pakistan had to do more to fight terrorism.

The Pakistanis nonetheless showered Mr. Tillerson with kindness. When they sat down for talks, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi gave an effusive statement for the gathered reporters that Pakistan was fighting terrorism more than any other country. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration three weeks late on Russia sanctions. But it’s killed the office that coordinates them

Foreign Policy reports: The State Department shuttered an office that oversees sanctions policy, even as the Donald Trump administration faces criticism from lawmakers over its handling of new economic penalties against Russia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson eliminated the Coordinator for Sanctions Policy office, which had been led by a veteran ambassador-rank diplomat with at least five staff, as part of an overhaul of the department, former diplomats and congressional sources told Foreign Policy.

Instead, the role of coordinating U.S. sanctions across the State Department and other government agencies now falls to just one mid-level official — David Tessler, the deputy director of the Policy Planning Office. The Policy Planning Office, which previously operated as a small team providing strategic advice to the secretary but did not manage programs or initiatives, has grown in power under Tillerson’s “redesign” of the department. [Continue reading…]

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Bill Clinton sought State’s permission to meet with Russian nuclear official during Obama uranium decision

The Hill reports: As he prepared to collect a $500,000 payday in Moscow in 2010, Bill Clinton sought clearance from the State Department to meet with a key board director of the Russian nuclear energy firm Rosatom — which at the time needed the Obama administration’s approval for a controversial uranium deal, government records show.

Arkady Dvorkovich, a top aide to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and one of the highest-ranking government officials to serve on Rosatom’s board of supervisors, was listed on a May 14, 2010, email as one of 15 Russians the former president wanted to meet during a late June 2010 trip, the documents show.

“In the context of a possible trip to Russia at the end of June, WJC is being asked to see the business/government folks below. Would State have concerns about WJC seeing any of these folks,” Clinton Foundation foreign policy adviser Amitabh Desai wrote the State Department on May 14, 2010, using the former president’s initials and forwarding the list of names to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team.

The email went to two of Hillary Clinton’s most senior advisers, Jake Sullivan and Cheryl Mills.

The approval question, however, sat inside State for nearly two weeks without an answer, prompting Desai to make multiple pleas for a decision. [Continue reading…]

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