How Rex Tillerson alienated every ally he needs - Axios
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How Rex Tillerson alienated every ally he needs

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

The most challenging task in Washington, these days, is finding somebody who'll enthusiastically endorse Rex Tillerson. In just nine months, the Secretary of State has managed to alienate nearly every constituency that matters:

  • The President — not only has there been tension on a personal level, but the president has undercut and clashed with Tillerson over key policy issues like Qatar, North Korea and Iran.
    • Recall a few weeks ago when we reported Trump was growing increasingly frustrated with Tillerson, telling colleagues: "Rex just doesn't get it, he's totally establishment in his thinking."
    • The White House didn't challenge our report and ultimately issued the blandest statement — from a spokesperson, not Trump — in support of Tillerson.
  • The State Department rank-and-file — a typical story about their rock bottom morale, here, and about the department's dysfunction, here.
  • The White House — this goes well beyond the National Security Council. Tillerson's Chief of Staff Margaret Peterlin has accumulated an astonishing number of enemies across the administration.
    • The exchange of "Margaret stories" — including the time she reportedly vetted Condoleezza Rice's request for a phone conversation with Tillerson — has become a frequent topic of conversation among administration officials who've dealt with her.
  • Capitol Hill — Republicans repudiated Tillerson's proposed funding cuts and straitjacketed his organizational proposals. Democrats, well, just read this blistering letter from Sen. Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "If the State Department were a private company, it is hard to imagine that it would be allowed to operate for the better part of a year, and maybe longer, without critical senior management."Last week, the Washington Free Beacon reported there were tensions between the State Department and both the White House and key Republican senators, including Tom Cotton, over whether Israel should return $75 million in U.S. aid to comply with an Obama era agreement.
    • Tillerson's spokesman R.C. Hammond categorically denied the report: "The conversations are figments of somebody's imagination." I asked the White House and Capitol Hill sources close to the issue whether they'd corroborate Hammond's statement. Radio silence.
  • The media — Tillerson got off to a bad start, by breaking with precedent and refusing to allow the press corps to travel with him.
  • The foreign policy establishment — Eliot Cohen, who founded an influential foreign policy network with Tillerson's top adviser Brian Hook, told me: "I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we've had."
    • There's been a series of brutal reviews calling Tillerson everything from an "unmitigated disaster" (Tufts' Daniel Drezner) to "quite possibly the most ineffectual secretary of state since America's rise to global prominence in 1898." (Max Boot, who told me the only pushback he received after it was published came from one of Tillerson's appointees.)

How did Tillerson get into this mess? We've spoken to 17 sources inside the White House, on Capitol Hill, in the State Department and among leaders of the foreign policy community.

  • A former top Bush administration official sums it up most pithily: "He's got no support from the left on management and no support from the right on policy."
  • What the official means: Tillerson alienated his natural constituency — moderates who view him as a restraining influence on Trump — by what he's done, or failed to do, managerially at the State Department. He's surrounded himself by a tiny circle and hasn't sought much advice from outsiders. And he's got no ideological constituency on the right because he doesn't embrace the forward-leaning posture on human rights, or the aggressive stance on Russia, that Republicans typically expect of their top diplomats.
  • With the media, Tillerson simply didn't try. The New York Times' influential foreign policy columnist Tom Friedman told me he twice asked Tillerson's spokesman whether he could come in for a briefing. He said he was ignored both times. "When I want to think about or discuss U.S. foreign policy today I go to people in the Pentagon," Friedman said.
In Tillerson's defense: Struggling to find influential figures willing to publicly defend Tillerson, I reached out to Tillerson's spokesman, Hammond. He connected me with John Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on whose board Tillerson served.
The case for Tillerson, from his allies and defenders:
  • Making best of a tough situation: Hamre says Trump dealt Tillerson a tough hand from the outset by issuing a travel ban that sparked protests from hundreds of State Department officials. Tillerson's friends also argue it's not fair to blame him for the failure to staff his department, saying the White House has been making life hard for him.
    • (The counter-argument, from administration officials, is that after some rough starts, every other cabinet secretary has ultimately managed to work with the White House on appointments.)
  • Strategic thinker: Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told me: "I believe that he is a strategic thinker who is trying to think through not just the next step but several steps beyond that so that our nation will be best served."
  • Quiet relationship-builder: Hamre says a number of heads of state have personally told him Tillerson has restored confidence about their relationships with the U.S. He points to South Korea, China, and Japan as three countries with which Tillerson has been "quite instrumental" in building constructive relationships.
    • "You have to remember, Mr. Bannon was waging war against China. It was Secretary Tillerson that was able to help structure a much more constructive relationship with China."
  • Restraining influence on Trump: Sources close to the White House point to Tillerson's relationship with Mattis as crucial to keeping Trump on an even keel and restraining him from his most reckless impulses.
  • He's "changing": A House GOP aide told me that after a very slow start, Tillerson has begun to get serious about outreach over the past two-three months. He's having breakfasts and calls with key members, and his staff is facilitating briefings for staff with top officials. "It's a move in the right direction," the source said.
    • Hamre points out that Tillerson spent his whole career in private industry, where it didn't make business sense to "engage the press on the press's terms."
    • Hamre says Tillerson came into the Secretary of State role "without the understanding of the role that the popular media plays in his job. I think he has been changing. Now, he's not changing to the speed that all of you guys want. But he is changing."

Bottom line: Tillerson appears to be making a belated effort to become a public figure and do the normal outreach and human rights advocacy expected of his role. We'll learn soon enough whether he's left it all too late.

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School named after Jefferson Davis renamed for Barack Obama

Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

A Mississippi elementary school will be changing its name from Davis Magnet International Baccalaureate Elementary — after Confederate leader Jefferson Davis — to the Barack Obama Magnet International Baccalaureate Elementary.

Why it matters: PTA President Janelle Jefferson said Obama was the "number one choice" among the students. Jake McGraw, public policy coordinator of the University of Mississippi's Institute for Racial Reconciliation, told NBC News the students' choice "shows that we don't need to shy away from exploring these controversial topics."

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U.S. support of South Sudanese military may have broken the law

Madut Quat wears a T-shirt depicting Barack Obama as he stands in the overcrowded United Nations' protected camp in Wau, South Sudan. Photo: AP

The U.S. government may have broken its own law by providing support to the South Sudanese military, which has displaced over a million people in what the U.N. labeled "ethnic cleansing," according to an AP investigation. Per the AP, this is the "largest exodus of civilians in Africa since the Rwanda genocide in 1994."

Why it matters: A U.S. Defense Department official, Kate Almquist Knopf, told the AP this is happening "on America's watch." South Sudan's government received over $1 billion a year in support under both the Bush and Obama administrations. And in 2016, a letter from President Obama to Congress allowed training for the South Sudanese army, which "circumvented a law blocking U.S. support for countries that use child soldiers," the AP reports.

What happened:

  • The law in question says that the U.S. is prohibited from supporting "any unit that has committed a gross violation of human rights."
  • Obama sought a long-term relationship with the South Sudanese military, trying to "fix" it, the AP reports. That was after South Sudanese soldiers "killed a journalist, gang-raped women and beat people, including Americans, as they rampaged through a hotel."
  • The United Nations did not send requested peacekeeping troops to the region, and it is currently still considering sending a permanent peacekeeping force. There are currently 12,000 peacekeepers in the country, but there would need to be around 38,000 more to fully secure South Sudan, the AP reports.
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy called U.S. support a "red flag." A State Department spokesperson told the AP that those who received U.S. support were vetted.
The bottom line: A South Sudan researcher, Alan Boswell, told the AP that the U.S. stance was that America did not cause the problem, which meant "we were not going to try and stop it."
Why you'll hear about this again: U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, is visiting South Sudan next week to seek a solution to the ongoing, four-year conflict.
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Trump urging House Republicans to pass Senate budget as shortcut to tax reform

Photo: Evan Vucci / AP

President Trump has begun calling House Republicans to urge them to pass the Senate budget without going to conference, according to three sources familiar with the calls.

The House passed a budget earlier this month that has more conservative wins, particularly on spending cuts, than the one expected to pass the Senate. But the budget process is primarily a vehicle to get to tax reform, and Trump doesn't want to wait for the House and Senate to work out a compromise. Paul Ryan has previously indicated that he plans to take the budgets to conference.
Why this matters: Trump needs a win urgently and wants to move on to tax reform as quickly as possible. But expect some consternation among fiscal conservatives in the House if Trump gets his way and they're asked to vote on the Senate budget.
Featured

Blue Apron announces layoffs

Bree Fowler / AP

Blue Apron, the meal kit company that went public earlier this year, announced on Wednesday that's its cutting about 6% of its staff company-wide, according to a new SEC filing. The layoffs will cost the company $3.5 million in expenses such as severance packages.

Background: Blue Apron, which ships individually packaged kits for preparing meals, has been struggling since it went public in June. Shortly after, Amazon announced its plans to start selling meal kits, and at last two groups of shareholders later filed lawsuits against Blue Apron, alleging it misled investors about its business before going public.

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Cochran says he has no plans to retire despite health questions

Sen. Thad Cochran. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senator Thad Cochran, who has faced many questions about his health over the years, told reporters on Wednesday that he isn't retiring, according to Politico.

Why it matters: Cochran, who turns 80 years old in December, is the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, overseeing billions of dollars in government spending every year. And, as he's up for reelection in 2020, Politico reports the GOP is "desperate for him to stay in office and avoid a special election."

Concerns about his health were raised this week, as he seemed confused when asked if he would remain Appropriations chairman, and had to be reminded where the Senate chamber was located, per Politico.

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White House drafted, but shelved, Niger response

Soldiers bring home the body of Army Staff Sgt. Dustin Wright of Lyons, Georgia, who was killed in the Niger ambush. Photo: Staff Sgt. Aaron J. Jenne / U.S. Air Force via AP

A staffer drafted a statement of condolence for President Trump to issue on Oct. 5 — the day four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush in Niger — but Trump never delivered the remarks, Politico reports.

Why this matters:

  • At a Monday press conference, nearly two weeks after the ambush and the drafting of the statement, Trump fielded criticism about his silence in light of the soldiers' deaths. He responded with the false claim that past presidents, including Obama, never called the families of soldiers killed in action.
  • Tuesday, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Trump called all four families to offer condolences. But the White House found itself embroiled in another controversy as Rep. Fredericka Wilson called the president "a sick man" for telling one widow her husband "knew what he signed up for." Trump denied that he said those words, but Sanders did not.

The drafted statement, via Politico:

"Melania and I are heartbroken at the news that three U.S. service members were killed in Niger on October 4 while providing guidance and assistance to Nigerien security force counter-terror operations. We offer our deepest condolences to the families and friends of these brave American soldiers and patriots. They will remain in our thoughts and prayers. We are also praying for the two U.S. service members who were injured in the incident. We wish them a complete and swift recovery. The heroic Americans who lost their lives yesterday did so defending our freedom and fighting violent extremism in Niger. Our administration and our entire nation are deeply grateful for their sacrifice, for their service, and for their patriotism."


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Trump’s mixed signals on health care deal

Trump met with Senate Finance Committee chairman Orrin Hatch and other committee members this morning. Photo: Susan Walsh / AP

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders now says President Trump doesn't support the bipartisan Senate health care deal in its current form. That should settle questions about his position for now, but that's after 24 hours of mixed signals that left some of his own advisers unclear where he really stands, as recently as this morning.

What we're hearing: Before Sanders' briefing this afternoon, a senior administration official told us that everyone is hearing what they want to hear, and nobody knows exactly what Trump wants from hour to hour or where he will land. To some extent, his own advisers are never completely sure. But it's fair to say that everyone who is remotely conservative inside the administration is pushing not to keep funding the Affordable Care Act's insurer subsidies without serious concessions.

What's at stake: The deal by Sens. Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray would fund the insurer subsidies for two years, as well as the rest of this year, after Trump said he was going to cut them off. In exchange, states would get an easier waiver process so they don't have to follow all of the ACA coverage rules.

What Trump has said:

  • Yesterday, after meeting with the Greek prime minister: “it is a short-term solution so that we don't have this very dangerous little period — including dangerous periods for insurance companies, by the way ... For a period of one year, two years, we will have a very good solution. But we're going to have a great solution, ultimately, for health care."
  • Last night, in speech to the Heritage Foundation: "While I commend the bipartisan work done by Senators Alexander and Murray -- and I do commend it -- I continue to believe Congress must find a solution to the Obamacare mess instead of providing bailouts to insurance companies."
  • This morning on Twitter, after Axios event with Alexander: "I am supportive of Lamar as a person & also of the process, but I can never support bailing out ins co's who have made a fortune w/ O'Care."
  • This morning, before a meeting with Senate Finance Committee members: "If something can happen, that's fine. But I won't do anything to enrich the insurance companies."

What Sanders said this afternoon: "A good step in the right direction," but “it's not a full approach, and we want something that goes a little bit farther."

Who's against the deal: House Speaker Paul Ryan — which would make it hard to get the bill through the House, even if it gets through the Senate. Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney has also said the administration wouldn't support an Alexander-Murray bill without big concessions.

Who's for it: It's clearly in Democrats' interests to keep the ACA markets from falling apart, but there's also significant support among Senate Republicans for stabilizing the markets, Sen. John Thune told Caitlin Owens yesterday.

Go deeper: Mike Allen on Trump's improvisational style.

Featured

Ex-Google exec: Sun may be setting on Silicon Valley

Section 32 founder Bill Maris

Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images

Former Google Ventures CEO Bill Maris, who currently runs a San Diego-area VC firm called Section 32, offered some words of warning today during a Wall Street Journal tech conference:

It wouldn't surprise me if the sun is setting on the golden age of Silicon Valley.

Maris added that he also wouldn't be surprised if federal regulators try breaking up tech giants like Google or Facebook, saying that such companies "are more powerful than AT&T ever was."

Featured

Forest degradation makes Amazon vulnerable to mega-fires

Smoke billows from the Amazon Rainforest. Photo: Dado Galdieri / AP

This year is on track to be the worst on record for forest fires in the Amazon, per the Brazilian government. The fires are doing the most damage in the areas of the forest already hit by human-caused forest degradation, Mongabay reports.

  • Distinct from deforestation, forest degradation is the process of felling just the valuable trees in a forest and leaving behind flammable tree limbs and debris, creating a ground zero for wildfires.
  • Why it matters: Climate change, deforestation and forest degradation are causing mega-fires that are devastating large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Carbon emissions from the fires have the capacity to impact climate around the world.

The details:

  • The Amazon is currently experiencing a prolonged drought — lasting up to four months in some parts — which is contributing to the spread of the fires. And "the dry seasons in Brazil seem to be becoming drier and more frequent," scientist Luiz Aragão told Mongabay.
  • As of October 5, 208,278 hot spots have been seen in the region using thermal sensing. Fire brigades lack the manpower and resources to control them.
  • Forest degradation has transformed the Amazon from a carbon sink to a carbon source. Meanwhile, the uptick of carbon emissions around the world are contributing to bigger fires globally. The concurrent trends comprise a recipe for more mega-fires, scientists say.
  • "If Brazil is to have a chance at controlling the intensity of fires in the Amazon, it needs all countries — including the U.S. — to successfully reduce carbon emissions," Mongabay reports.
Facts Matter Featured

Puerto Rico, by the numbers

A boy accompanied by his dog watches the repairs of Guajataca Dam, which cracked during the passage of Hurricane Maria. Photo: Ramon Espinosa / AP

Exactly one month after Hurricane Maria first made landfall in Puerto Rico, the island is still far from resembling any sense of normalcy. 81% of the island is still without power, 28% is without potable water, and 10% of grocery stores are still closed.

The official death toll is still 48, but the actual number is expected to be much higher as several parts of the island remain cut off from communication. A recent Vox report, which cross-referenced what the government had been saying with reports on the ground, puts the real number of casualties much closer to 450, with another 69 people still missing.

What they're saying

  • Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the Trump administration is "continuing to do everything that we can to help the people of Puerto Rico," and announced that Gov. Ricardo Roselló will at the White House tomorrow.
  • Gov. Roselló said his visit is timed to press the Senate to quickly pass the $4.9 billion relief package that's been proposed. "Time is of the essence and we need quick action," he said. "If we are not considered in equal terms to Florida, the Virgin Islands, Texas and so forth, Congress will have to deal with a worsened humanitarian crisis, massive exodus from the island, health care problems and more."
  • Celebrity chef José Andrés launched a relief effort, #ChefsForPuertoRico, through his nonprofit World Central Kitchen. Together, Andrés, his team and hundreds of volunteers have served more meals on the island than the Red Cross."When we go to a place, we take care of that place until we feel it has the right conditions to sustain itself. That's what a relief organization should be," said Andrés.

The facts

The latest on what we know from Puerto Rico, per FEMA and the PR government site:

  • Boots on the ground: More than 20,000 federal civilian personnel and military service members, including more than 1,700 FEMA personnel, are on the ground in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • State help: 31 U.S. states are helping in PR, and 20 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Electricity: 19% of the island has power, up from 14% Monday. Roughly 46% of cell towers have been restored.
  • Food: Approximately 90% of grocery stores are open (410 of 456).
  • Gas: Roughly 79% of retail gas stations are operational (873 of 1,100).
  • Shelter: 4,702 people remain in shelters across the island, down from 5,037 Monday. 100 shelters are open and operating.
  • Transportation: Only 392 miles of Puerto Rico's 5,073 miles of roads are open. All commercial airports and federally maintained ports are open, some with restrictions.
  • Water and waste: Approximately 72% of Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) customers have potable watey. 56% of waste water treatment plants are working on generator power, the same as Friday.
  • Medical care: 95% (64/67) hospitals are open, down from 97% Friday. Many remain on backup power systems, and are without air conditioning. 95% (46/48) of Dialysis Centers are open, the same as Friday.
  • Banks: 65% of bank branches (203 of 314) are open and operating.
Go deeper: Puerto Rico Mayor Javier Garcia Perez delivers food and finds desperation (CNN); Puerto Rico faces a demographic disaster (Washington Post); FEMA Chief Blamed for Katrina Response Says Same Problems Are Happening in PR (TIME)
This post is being updated with the latest information on the Puerto Rico recovery efforts.