WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s plans to slash spending on diplomacy won’t be the only concern for lawmakers when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears before Congress this week to defend his department’s proposed budget. They’ll likely question him about seemingly contradictory foreign policy messages coming from the State Department and White House.
Tillerson and his agency have repeatedly appeared out of sync with comments from Trump and the White House on critical matters, at the risk of sowing confusion and anxiety among U.S. friends and foes.
The secretary’s appearances Tuesday and Wednesday before House and Senate committees come days Tillerson and Trump issued divergent messages on the Qatar crisis received widespread attention. But that was only the latest example of conflicting messages.
Last month, Tillerson was overruled by the president after urging him not to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Tillerson said he supported staying in, to preserve U.S. leverage on other countries. His former company, Exxon Mobil, also supported staying in the deal. When Trump chose to withdraw, Tillerson and the State Department remained quiet as other Cabinet agencies praised the decision.
And while Tillerson worked to allay NATO allies’ uncertainties about the U.S. commitment to the alliance, Trump alarmed them by refusing to commit to their mutual defense pact during his visit to NATO headquarters last month. Trump finally voiced a commitment last week.
The dissonance has raised concerns about whether Tillerson can be effective in executing a foreign policy that Trump sometimes seems to make up on the spot, often on Twitter without advance notice. But Tillerson has insisted he understands Trump’s objectives and has successfully clarified them with Trump when he does not.
“I understand I have to earn his confidence every day with how I go about those affairs and how I go about conducting the State Department’s activities consistent with the direction he wants to take the country,” Tillerson said last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The most glaring show of discord came Friday when Tillerson and Trump seemed to veer in opposite directions over the course of a mere afternoon about Qatar, the focal point of a diplomatic crisis that threatens stability in the Arabian peninsula and beyond.
At the State Department, officials had spent part of the week trying to refocus attention on the need for a mediated resolution, rather than on Trump’s tweets blaming Qatar for allegedly funding extremism. In a hastily convened press appearance, Tillerson called for calm and for “no further escalation,” urging Arab nations to ease their blockade on Qatar.
Shortly afterward, Trump added fuel to the conflict by ramping up criticism of Qatari authorities for funding extremism while saying the time had come for the region to take a stand. Tillerson watched from the front row in the Rose Garden.
The whiplash was jarring enough that both Trump’s team and Tillerson’s scrambled to try to smooth it over. The White House dispatched a senior administration official to tell reporters on Air Force One that the two men were “on the same page,” though, as is often the case, it refused to allow the official to be named. Meanwhile, the State Department compiled a side-by-side comparison of Tillerson’s and Trump’s remarks to try to show they’d referenced similar arguments.
R.C. Hammond, a senior adviser to Tillerson, downplayed suggestions of dissonance while acknowledging that the messages might not mirror each other.
“They each have different audiences that they are speaking to,” Hammond said in reference to Qatar. “The secretary was speaking to Gulf leaders on the need to de-escalate and the president was saying in a news conference with the Romanian president that ending terrorism is what is important to him. Both were part of a concerted effort by us to calm things down.”
He noted that within 24 hours, both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain had taken steps to make humanitarian exceptions to the blockade.
Still, the discrepancies have been glaring enough that foreign policy experts have taken note. Jon Finer who served as chief of staff to Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, said they weren’t just confusing U.S. friends and foes, but potentially counterproductive.
“If people are taking different public positions on big issues, then the world will begin to tune out everyone but the president, who ultimately makes the decisions,” Finer said
Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, called it a sign of “administration disarray.” He wrote for The Middle East Institute that the Qatar incident demonstrated an “apparent inability of the Trump administration to articulate a coordinated U.S. position.”
But Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, said that Trump and Tillerson might sometimes be creating ambiguity as a strategy. He pointed to the fact that the Trump administration has remained intentionally vague about what steps the U.S might take in response to North Korea’s nuclear provocations.
“There’s some deliberate lack of clarity in some policy areas, and it’s inadvertent in other areas,” Schaefer said.
On one controversial topic — the State Department budget — Tillerson and Trump have been united. Even as lawmakers from both parties push back on Trump’s proposal to cut the budget roughly one-third, Tillerson has firmly defended the need to trim his funding and streamline his agency.