How Rex Tillerson Turned the State Department Into a Ghost Ship

Trump's secretary of state has made choices resulting in rows of empty offices and plummeting morale

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has left a large number of State Department positions unfilled. Credit: Stringer/Getty

When Donald Trump tapped Rex Tillerson, then CEO of ExxonMobil, to serve as secretary of state, expectations weren't high. With zero experience in government or diplomacy, Tillerson got the job after winning the support of Steve Bannon, the iconoclastic former Breitbart News chief, and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law. From the start, he was widely panned for his close ties to the Russian oil industry, including one deal worth a reported $500 billion, and questions were raised about Tillerson's lack of familiarity about tensions with North Korea, the war in Afghanistan, the battle against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, or the Arab-Israeli problem.

Perhaps, then, Tillerson would find smart people to help him along? Well, no. Six months after taking office, Tillerson's State Department is populated by ghosts, with office after office empty, top positions unfilled, key ambassadorships unnamed. Under Tillerson's uncertain leadership, America's diplomatic expertise – its ability to bring experience to bear on knotty international problems, its facility for reconciling warring parties and conflicts from the Middle East to Asia – has been decimated. And that has given the upper hand to the Pentagon. Whereas Trump and Tillerson have announced plans to cut the budget of the State Department by one-third, the White House is seeking a bump of $54 billion for the Department of Defense.

"The militarization of everything is kind of taking place," Max Bergmann, a former senior State Department official under President Obama, tells Rolling Stone.

At Foggy Bottom, where State's imposing edifice is located, the void is eerie. According to a tracker compiled by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, Trump and Tillerson have yet to nominate candidates to fill more than 83 senior-level positions and ambassadorships, and that's only a partial count. At the level of assistant secretary – the folks who actually manage day-to-day diplomacy – out of 22 positions, only two people have been nominated, and one confirmed. Empty offices include assistant secretaries for Near Eastern affairs, South Asian affairs, European and Eurasian affairs, Western Hemisphere affairs, East Asian and Pacific affairs, African affairs, political-military affairs, arms control, population, migration and refugees, democracy, human rights, labor and many more.

One gap is especially ironic. Despite Trump's pre-election harping on the deaths in Libya in 2012, when a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi was attacked and the American ambassador killed, there's no assistant secretary for diplomatic security yet.

All of this is getting noticed.

"The State Department's core is being gutted," concluded the National Review, the conservative monthly. "[Tillerson] is running Foggy Bottom the way a corporate raider might take over a company: firing half of its workforce, repurposing its original mission, scaling back its operations across the globe. Offices are being shuttered, while ambassadorial, assistant secretary, and undersecretary posts remain unfilled." Early in Tillerson's tenure, Julia Ioffe, a reporter for The Atlantic, strolled through the State Department's corridors, talking to more than a dozen current and former diplomats. "They really want to blow this place up," one official told her. "I don't think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner] can do everything. It's reminiscent of the developing countries where I've served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing."

Bergmann, who visited the State Department more recently, came away with the same impression. On the eve of a major international summit meeting, when the building normally would have been humming with activity, he found things quiet. "The only people that are being nominated to be ambassadors are donors – big political donors during the campaign," he tells Rolling Stone. "In the building itself, you have one undersecretary, and at the level of assistant secretary there's no one there. They're all 'acting.' And what that means is, you have some smart career people, but they have little influence with the White House. They're not trusted political actors, and they don't really know what's going on. They only know as much as they're being told, and they're not being told a lot. And there's very limited interaction between the career folks and the political suite up on Mahogany Row, where the secretary of state is."

In June, Bergmann wrote a widely noticed piece for Politico that lambasted Tillerson's reign. Describing it as a "dying organization," he wrote, "The building is being run by a tiny clique of ideologues who know nothing about the department but have insulated themselves from the people who do. Tillerson and his isolated and inexperienced cadres are going about reorganizing the department based on little more than gut feeling."

Following Trump's anti-Big Government mantra about Washington fattening itself while the country declines and senior White House adviser Steve Bannon's call for "the deconstruction of the administrative state," the Trump administration has proposed a 30 percent reduction in spending by the State Department and, according to Bergmann, an eight percent reduction in personnel. On Capitol Hill, opposition to such severe cuts is growing. "A budget this lean would put those who serve overseas for the State Department at risk," said Sen. Lindsey Graham. "And it's not going to happen."

Even Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been critical of the president's slash-and-burn approach to State, fearing that hamstrung diplomacy will lead to more war. "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately," he said.

But the White House and Tillerson aren't backing off. Meanwhile, morale at the department is plummeting. According to a survey of more than 35,000 State Department employees, they're increasingly worried about what's going on. "I am concerned that the dramatic reduction in budget, paired with extended staffing gaps at the most senior level, will result in the loss of not only an exceptionally talented group of people from our ranks, but will hamper our impact to fulfill our mission for decades to come," said one respondent.

Earlier this year, State Department employees showed that they're not unwilling to speak out about Trump's more controversial policies. In an unprecedented action, more than 1,000 professionals at State signed a dissenting letter protesting Trump's Muslim ban when it was first issued. Writing as "consular professionals, Foreign Service officers, and members of the Civil Service," they declared, "Such a policy runs counter to core American values of nondiscrimination, fair play, and extending a warm welcome to foreign visitors and immigrants."

But Tillerson is unfazed. When asked about the wholesale vacancies at his department, he's said he's in the midst of a long-range effort to rethink and reorganize how it's structured, a process that could take well into 2018. In the meantime, the world's crises aren't waiting. To give just one example: In Afghanistan, where Trump has just OKed a new deployment of several thousand American troops in an effort to hold back recent gains by the Taliban, the State Department is on the sidelines. Tillerson has closed the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), and the U.S. has no ambassadors in Afghanistan, Pakistan or India – on top of the position of assistant secretary for South Asian affairs being vacant, as noted above.

As Bergmann concluded in Politico, "He is quickly becoming one of the worst and most destructive secretaries of state in the history of our country."