Since “Missing Richard Simmons” can’t hold our attention forever, maybe some public-minded citizens should get cracking on a podcast called “Missing Rex Tillerson” instead. Tillerson, you may remember, is widely rumored to be Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, which was a fairly conspicuous job once upon a time. Anyhow, it’s not generally a first resort for people looking for inventive ways to fake their own deaths. But Exxon’s top dog apparently had urgent, if mystifying, reasons for wanting to vanish from public view, and getting himself stashed away at Foggy Bottom seems to have done the trick.
Tillerson is also touring Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing this week, but odds are we won’t hear much about whatever he gets up to in Asia. That’s partly because he isn’t letting any press come along on the trip, save for one reporter from a mediocre newssite, which is more or less unprecedented when a Secretary of State travels. Another, maybe more embarrassing reason, however, is that nothing of any particular consequence is likely to transpire unless he gets caught shoplifting. To whatever extent the Trump administration even has a foreign policy, it’s already clear that nobody inside the White House exactly makes it a priority to fill Tillerson in on what that policy is, let alone solicit his opinion.
Remarkably, when Mexico’s foreign minister Luis Videgaray came to Washington last week for a confab with Jared Kushner and NSC adviser H.R. McMaster, among others, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner had to admit that he didn’t know Videgaray was in town. Even a pro forma meeting with Toner’s boss wasn’t on Videgaray’s itinerary, and this appears to be standard practice. If Tillerson got to so much as shake Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hand during Abe’s own U.S. visit with Trump, no record of it has come to light. Although the Secretary himself was abroad at the time, no State Department subordinates were included in Trump’s huddle with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, either.
If this sounds like nothing more than a question of being cheated of photo ops, guess again. Blatantly cutting the State Department out of the foreign-policy loop is the clearest evidence yet that Trump’s White House intends to run (or ruin) the country with as little professional input as possible, which is especially alarming when it comes to international affairs. It’s not just that they’re ignorant; it’s that they don’t see any point in acquiring knowledge. They’ve defined expertise as their enemy more crudely than any administration in living memory.
Unsurprisingly, this thrills Trump’s base, which sees intellect as a form of snobbery. Because they don’t represent any domestic constituency, our diplomatic corps’ endlessly fretting eggheads have been a traditional object of heartland contempt ever since Harry S Truman, or someone, nicknamed them “the striped-pants boys” almost 70 years ago, even though that didn’t stop Truman from relying on Dean Acheson—the stripiest, so to speak, of them all. Still, it’s a novelty for the people in charge to be so openly contemptuous of this and other government agencies’ basic functions; that is, their reasons for being. “They really want to blow this place up,” one Foggy Bottom staffer recently told the Atlantic’s Julia Joffe. “I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist.”
Joffe’s piece painted a memorable picture of a demoralized department with key positions unfilled, no guidance from the top and, quite simply, not a whole lot to do to fill up the day. To say Tillerson hasn’t been assertive in counteracting this growing aura of purposelessness is an understatement. He hasn’t protested against the administration’s proposed budget slashes or tried to stop career people from leaving, and he meekly put up with the White House’s veto of his own choice for a No. 2 (Iran-Contra alum Elliott Abrams, not what you’d call one of the Good Guys, but not a fool either). There haven’t even been any leaks hinting that he’s is at all unhappy with his situation, which is something you notice in these leak-happy times.
What makes this so puzzling is that Tillerson hardly got where he did in the private sector by being a ninny or a pushover. When his appointment to Trump’s Cabinet was announced, people hoped that he’d be one of the “grown-ups,” a steadying influence on POTUS’s nuttier impulses. Now it seems obvious that he’s got no White House influence at all, and doesn’t even seem interested in running his own department as best he can. Before our eyes, he’s turning into the Incredible Disappearing Secretary of State. In fact, if Richard Simmons ever comes out of hiding, he might do a better job, and certainly a more enthusiastic one.