State Department Dismisses Rumors Of So-Called 'Rexit'

Jul 26, 2017
Originally published on July 26, 2017 6:36 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he is staying on the job.

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REX TILLERSON: I'm not going anywhere.

SIEGEL: There have been rumors of a so-called Rexit, but Tillerson says he'll stay as long as President Trump lets him. Tillerson says he's committed to reorganizing his department. And that, too, is generating uncertainty, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sitting on her porch amid the sounds of cicadas, Michele Bond speaks about her long diplomatic career.

MICHELE BOND: Forty years and two weeks. So the last week of Ford and the first week of Trump, and then the six presidents in between - that was me.

KELEMEN: She was assistant secretary of state for consular affairs, overseeing passports and visas, when she was given two days' notice to clear out her desk in January.

BOND: I can't say that I was stunned by the decision because the issues about who is coming to the United States had been very much a part of the presidential campaign. And so it didn't surprise me that this was an administration that was going to say, we want to put our own person in as the assistant secretary for consular affairs.

KELEMEN: What has surprised her is the renewed debate about moving consular affairs to the Department of Homeland Security. It was one of the recommendations made in a survey commissioned by Tillerson, though Bond says the State Department already works well with other agencies on this.

BOND: What we have right now is a process where a lot of very smart people with different types of specialized knowledge and focus are looking at the travelers who come to the United States.

KELEMEN: The man nominated to replace her, Carl Risch, once advocated moving parts of consular services to Homeland Security, though he told senators in his confirmation hearing that he's changed his position. As for Secretary Tillerson, his spokesperson, Heather Nauert, put it this way.

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HEATHER NAUERT: He believes that the State Department is the rightful home for consular affairs.

KELEMEN: Nauert is also trying to push back on reports that Tillerson is considering other big moves - closing the War Crimes Office, downgrading the envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan and closing other special envoy offices.

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NAUERT: All of those functions will still remain here at the State Department. That is not changing. A different person may handle it. In some instances, it may get combined with an existing bureau. That doesn't mean that the priority goes away.

KELEMEN: Part of the problem is that the secretary, a former oil executive, hasn't consulted much with diplomatic experts or lawmakers. That's according to retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann, who runs the American Academy of Diplomacy.

RONALD NEUMANN: They say so little, they consult so little that it causes rumors to go rife.

KELEMEN: He's worried about Tillerson's proposed budget cuts and a hiring freeze.

NEUMANN: Foreign service recruits at the bottom like the military. And if you don't hire enough lieutenants this year, you won't have the majors you want in 10 years. You won't have the colonels in 20. The Clinton administration made the same mistake with the foreign service, and 20 years later we didn't have enough senior people when we needed them.

KELEMEN: And as longtime diplomats leave the department, many top positions remain unfilled. This all comes amid questions about Secretary Tillerson's position. He's expressed frustration about his dealings with the White House on personnel matters and has been at odds with the president on key foreign policy issues from Iran to Saudi Arabia. The Senate foreign relations committee chairman, Bob Corker, told The Washington Post in an online video conference today that there is dissonance in U.S. foreign policy, though he doesn't see Tillerson quitting over this.

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BOB CORKER: And I think he's willing to deal with all the things that exist to try to ensure that this administration and our nation is successful IN foreign policy.

KELEMEN: Corker, once considered for the job as Trump's secretary of state, says he called Tillerson last night and thanked him for being there. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.