Tillerson Distances Himself From Trump's Charlottesville Comments

Aug 29, 2017
Originally published on August 29, 2017 8:16 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United Nations Security Council is holding an emergency meeting later today to talk about the latest threat from North Korea. The regime fired a ballistic missile over Japan last night, a provocative move that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be addressing today. But Tillerson is already in a hot seat of a different kind after a comment to Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." He was referring to President Trump's handling of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

REX TILLERSON: I don't believe anyone doubts the American people's values or the commitment of the American government or the government's agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.

CHRIS WALLACE: And the president's values?

TILLERSON: The president speaks for himself, Chris.

MARTIN: Speaks for himself. It was not the first time Trump's top diplomat has seemed out of sync with the White House. Joining us to talk about this is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, Tillerson is clearly putting some distance between himself and President Trump. Is that a tenable position for him?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, Rachel, I happen to be in Charlottesville and put that question yesterday to Bill Antholis. He runs the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, which focuses on presidential studies.

BILL ANTHOLIS: That in itself is a really complicated thing for a secretary of state to say because when then does the president speak for himself and when does he speak on behalf of the government? If other governments aren't clearly hearing who's speaking - is it the person or the office? - any particular statement gets discounted.

KELEMEN: And I've heard that argument before that usually countries need to know that a secretary of state is speaking on behalf of the president, that they're really in sync for secretaries to be effective.

MARTIN: Yeah. So it's also not the first time that this administration has sent out mixed messages, right?

KELEMEN: That's right. You know, North Korea, which you mentioned, the secretary's been stressing the hope for diplomacy while President Trump is warning of fire and fury. It's also complicated the secretary's attempts to resolve a deep rift among key Arab allies. President Trump has sided with Saudi Arabia against Qatar and Tillerson has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to push for a solution.

MARTIN: Switching gears a little bit because we're hearing a lot recently about the hollowing out of the State Department, that there have been lots of departures of mid-level officials, some top-level officials, not many appointments so there are a lot of vacancies. What does that mean for the State Department right now in American diplomacy?

KELEMEN: It was another topic that I raised at the University of Virginia when I caught up with Philip Zelikow. He was a top advisor in Condoleezza Rice's State Department. He worries that the building isn't staffed if there's a major crisis. And he's also worried that diplomats don't seem to factor much in the administration's thinking. Take for instance Afghanistan, Zelikow says President Trump's recent speech focused on the military goals and there were few details about a political strategy.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: If I'm only talking to the military people about what they need so that the military side does a little bit better, I've got, like, a one-handed strategy. And it feels like the military strategy is wagging the political tail. It actually should be just the other way around.

KELEMEN: And he says he feels that's true for a lot of other policies, he just doesn't know what the diplomatic and political goals are. And because of that, he says he can't give Secretary Tillerson a good grade.

MARTIN: What do we know about Rex Tillerson's stability right now? I mean, is he on solid footing?

KELEMEN: Well, his aides say that his lunch at the White House yesterday was uneventful and focused on policy and not on the future in the administration. But he definitely has a fraught relationship with the president. And in the meantime, he's been busy finishing up the redesign of the State Department. So I would assume he's going to be committed to staying for that.

MARTIN: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thanks so much.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.