| WASHINGTON, March 16
WASHINGTON, March 16 While he has swallowed a
big budget cut, had his chosen deputy vetoed, and been dismissed
as invisible in his own building, Secretary of State Rex
Tillerson is playing a patient game to gain influence by
avoiding public conflicts with the White House, six current and
former U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The former Exxon Mobil Corp CEO faces multiple
challenges in his unfamiliar role as chief U.S. diplomat,
including a boss in U.S. President Donald Trump who makes
unpredictable policy pronouncements and does not take kindly to
criticism or contradiction, said four current officials.
Relations between U.S. presidents and their chief diplomats
have varied widely in history, but those between Trump and
Tillerson are especially important because of potential
conflicts between the unsettled state of the world and Trump's
"America First" agenda, two of the officials said.
As a result, they said, speaking on the condition of
anonymity, Tillerson is trying to keep a low profile, which is
his natural instinct, and seeking a way to make his case on
foreign policy without being drawn into losing battles.
One case in point is Thursday's White House proposal to cut
spending on U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid by some 28 percent, a
sign that the State Department and U.S. Agency for International
Development are not Trump priorities.
On Thursday in Tokyo, Tillerson said the State Department's
current spending is "simply not sustainable," and accepted the
"challenge" Trump had given in proposing to cut more than a
quarter of his agency's budget.
"He is making a very sensible calculation," said a former
U.S. official, noting that Congress, not the president, holds
the purse strings. "You state your loyalty to the president, and
then you know that you will not actually have to live with the
NO WAY TO WIN 'HEAD-TO-HEAD' BATTLES
Two current and former officials said Tillerson is no
stranger to cost cuts, having lived through waves of them at
Exxon, and they suggested that he had convinced the White House
to allow him to make many of the cuts himself.
"Tillerson isn't opposed to cutting the budget at all, but
he figured out that he couldn't win head-to-head battles with
the president and the people close to him, so he's pursuing a
different strategy, arguing that he can't make wise decisions
about what to cut until he's more familiar with his department
and its budget," said one veteran State Department official.
Michael Anton, a National Security Council spokesman, said
Tillerson is held in high regard at the White House.
"President Trump has the utmost confidence in the Secretary
of State and looks forward to Mr. Tillerson implementing a bold
agenda to revitalize American foreign policy," Anton said.
While he is delaying some of the drastic cuts the White
House wanted, it is far from clear that Tillerson can prevail
over Trump aides such as Steve Bannon who want to dismantle
parts of the federal government and limit U.S. engagement with
the world, said three of the current and former officials.
The White House veto of Elliot Abrams, Tillerson's choice
for deputy secretary, the department's second-highest post,
"drove that point home," one of the current officials said.
Despite that defeat, a White House official said Tillerson
has good access to the president, including multiple lunches,
dinners and meetings. Tillerson dined with Trump on Monday, the
night before he flew to Asia.
Tillerson's low profile - he held his first news conference
on Thursday in Tokyo seven weeks after becoming secretary of
state - has brought criticism from the media and many State
Department officials that he remains invisible and has failed to
cultivate potential allies in Trump's cabinet and on Capitol
Chas Freeman, a retired diplomat who served as the U.S.
ambassador to Saudi Arabia and as the lead interpreter for
former President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, said
Tillerson's low-key style might be a survival tactic.
"If he says something, he runs a big risk of getting
crosswise with Trump," Freeman said. "This may be a Fabian
strategy," referring to the Roman statesman Fabius who defeated
the Carthaginian general Hannibal by avoiding frontal conflict.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott; Editing by