When former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who successfully promoted Rex Tillerson for her old job during the presidential transition, tried to reach him last month, it was an aide to his chief of staff Margaret Peterlin who called back, asking what Rice wanted to discuss.
The episode illustrates the difficulty even close allies are having reaching Tillerson, a diplomatic and political novice, as they try to help him find his footing at the State Department. While the former ExxonMobil chief has developed a close relationship with President Donald Trump, he hasn’t done the same with his own staff or experienced outside advisers, choosing instead to lean heavily on Peterlin and policy chief Brian Hook, according to 11 current and former administration officials as well as national security experts who interact regularly with the department.
The officials say the pair, friends who worked together in the George W. Bush administration, have cut career staff out of decision-making in an attempt to combat the sort of leaks that have hobbled the White House – and have isolated Tillerson from some of the people who could help him succeed. It’s a setup that risks limiting his effectiveness as he learns the arts of Washington politics and global diplomacy, State Department veterans warned.
“Since he doesn’t come with the kind of background that [George] Shultz or Condi Rice or Colin Powell or Warren Christopher, he is particularly in need of being sure he can mobilize the expertise that is in the State Department,” said L. Paul Bremer, who served as chief of staff to former secretary of State Henry Kissinger and who worked for six different secretaries of state.
Tillerson is intentionally relying on a small cadre of trusted advisers. The secretary of state asked Peterlin to build “a small team to get him through the first few months,” said State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond.
Tillerson himself asked his aides to find out what Rice wanted to discuss when she called, according to Hammond—but the incident jarred Rice, who publicly supported his appointment and whose consulting firm counted Exxon among its clients. She can now reach him directly.
Five months after Tillerson’s confirmation, Hook has told associates that his boss is in no rush to fill the several hundred senior-level posts that require political appointments. Trump has yet to nominate a single assistant secretary, leaving the department’s top posts for regions like Europe, Asia and the Middle East vacant. Instead, Obama administration holdovers– “acting” assistant secretaries – are filling the jobs until their replacements are nominated, a move that is eliciting criticism from department veterans.
“Under what theory of management is there not an assistant secretary for Europe or Asia?” said Dan Fried, a career Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Poland under President Bill Clinton, on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, and was coordinator of sanctions policy until he retired in February. “How do you make an administration effective when your institutions are weak?”
Tillerson tapped Peterlin as his top aide after she guided him through the confirmation process, where Tillerson testified for nine hours without notes. He has even brought her along, occasionally, to his informal private dinners with the president at the White House. “Tillerson seems to have a lot of confidence in her and her judgment,” said Brian Gunderson, who served as chief of staff to Rice when she ran State.
Officials describe Peterlin—a 46-year-old Navy veteran, lawyer, and former Commerce Department and congressional aide—as a fierce gatekeeper who effectively shuts Tillerson off from advice and perspectives that could make him better at his job. She has also helped to impose sharp restrictions on the media’s access to Tillerson, who has interacted with reporters less than his predecessors, though that changed noticeably during the president’s recent overseas trip, when Tillerson took questions from reporters traveling with the president until they had exhausted their inquiries.
But Peterlin has also developed a reputation for being tireless in her new role. “She works incredibly hard,” said one administration official. “Even if you don’t like her, you have to say she’s always in the office, even on the weekends.”
Hook, 48, an Iowan who worked in George W. Bush’s White House and State Department, serves as Tillerson’s policy brain. As director of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning, he cranks out briefing memos for his boss that help to shape the president’s emerging foreign policy.
A moderate in manner and vision who keeps a golf putter in his office for stress-relieving practice swings, he served as a foreign policy advisor to Mitt Romney in 2012 and publicly lauded Trump’s brief consideration of Romney to be his top diplomat in November. Hook advised most of the GOP presidential candidates during the 2016 election.
The two often huddle behind closed doors with Tillerson, including at Saturday “deep dive” sessions to educate the former oilman on global hotspots he never encountered in his work at Exxon. Despite his extensive travel as a CEO, for example, his visit to Israel with Trump last month was his first-ever trip to the country.
In a sign of their closeness to secretary, Peterlin and Hook joined their boss for Trump’s May 24 meeting with the Pope at the Vatican, from which White House press secretary Sean Spicer was excluded.
But, officials say, they are tackling too much on their own rather than leaning on the expertise and resources within the 75,000-person State Department. One result is that the two are overwhelmed—particularly Hook, as he tries to coordinate American policy in dozens of nations. “Brian’s hair is always on fire,” said one current State Department official.
In theory, the Policy Planning office is a kind of in-house think thank that develops long-range strategy, but in practice it often feeds the Secretary of State with views about day-to-day problems. The lack of Trump appointees at the State Department’s regional desks and embassies, and the sidelining of many career diplomats, has added pressure on Hook’s office to develop policy for Tillerson.
It’s also led foreign governments to seek out other avenues of communication. Trump has nominated only a handful of U.S. ambassadors, and some countries have responded simply by reaching out directly to Hook or to other White House officials including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Compounding the problem is what sources described as Hook’s distrust of career officials suspected of leaking unflattering stories about Tillerson to the media. “Brian doesn’t really trust any of the civil servants, so he tries to do it all himself,” said one person in regular touch with State Department officials. At one point, Hook tasked an official with an economics portfolio to draft a memo summarizing the U.S. fight against the Islamic State.
Some State Department officials who have been cut out of the policymaking process have told colleagues they believe it is because they are suspected of being Hillary Clinton supporters.
Others say asking senior aides who were deeply and visibly supportive of an array of Obama-era foreign policy initiatives, including the Iran deal, to reverse, modify, or unwind those initiatives, is difficult if not impossible. Even before Tillerson’s confirmation, the State Department’s dissent channel – an internal venue for career officials to register concerns with the trajectory of American policy – lit up with protests over the administration’s temporary ban on refugees.
Peterlin is also described as militant about preventing leaks from within a department where many employees resent Tillerson’s embrace of Trump’s budget proposal to cut State Department funding by nearly 30 percent. As a result, Peterlin has limited Tillerson’s interactions with career officials at home and abroad. “If everybody thinks the only way to get something to the Secretary of State is through the chief of staff, then it just becomes a bottleneck,” says a former senior State Department official.
One result is that, rightly or wrongly, Tillerson has developed a reputation for imperiousness, though that was not his reputation as CEO of Exxon, according to the journalist Steve Coll in his 2013 book Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. Five years into his tenure, Coll wrote, Tillerson was known as a softer alternative to his “blunt” predecessor, Lee Raymond.
“Under Tillerson, ExxonMobil might be a kinder, gentler place to work, yet some of the old guard feared a loss of the toughness and discipline they had valued under Raymond,” Coll wrote. He added that former Exxon executives wondered whether Tillerson had enough of the “guts and firmness” with which Raymond had led the company.
To the surprise of some career State officials expecting a corporate-style management team, Tillerson did not bring any fellow Exxon executives with him when he arrived in February.
Prior to working at the State Department, Hook was a member of the John Hay Initiative, a 250-member group founded after Mitt Romney’s 2012 election defeat to brief lawmakers and politicians about foreign policy, and which rejected the type of isolationist rhetoric then ascendant in both political parties.
Hook was one of the group’s three founders; the other two— former Bush administration State Department officials Eliot Cohen and Eric Edelman – became leading voices of the “Never Trump” movement.
The vast majority of the Republican foreign policy establishment –- and many of the national security experts Hook worked closely with at the John Hay Initiative, whose members could ease the hiring challenges at the department — have been effectively blacklisted from Trump administration jobs because they publicly criticized Trump during the campaign. Cohen, Edelman and several others (but not Hook) signed letters stating that Trump is “unfitted to the office.”
The president publicly rejected Tillerson’s top choice for deputy, the former State Department official Elliott Abrams, after learning he had criticized Trump during the campaign. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other cabinet secretaries have faced similar challenges.
State Department veterans say it’s a normal inclination for a new secretary to rely on a small team of loyalists; Tillerson’s predecessors, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry both drew heavily from a small and sometimes insular cadre on the Department’s seventh floor. But they warn that doing so may undercut his long-term effectiveness, particularly given that the State Department is structured to marshal the knowledge of its thousands of employees worldwide and channel it to the secretary.
“It’s always a temptation for the secretary of state to want people he knows to be loyal around him,” said a former senior State Department official, warning that Tillerson should not “rely so much on loyalists that he short-circuits or ignores the staff system which, if it’s well used, makes him the most informed principal in the city.”
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.