Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson heads to Mexico City for a delicate diplomatic mission Wednesday, but he is going at a moment of tremendous uncertainty back at the office, where more than dozen key assistant secretary positions are still without even a proposed nominee from the White House.
Mr. Tillerson will travel with Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Francisco Palmieri. But he will otherwise have little backup because, a month into the Trump administration, there is still no deputy secretary of state, no new ambassador to Mexico and no clear sign of when those and other diplomatic positions will be filled.
The State Department’s press office and Mr. Tillerson’s office have declined to comment on the more than 100 management posts and foreign ambassadorships awaiting even a nominee, let alone a Senate confirmation. Just three ambassadors — to China, Israel and Britain — have been named.
Several officials, speaking on background Tuesday, rejected the image of Mr. Tillerson as a general who has no troops to lead into battle.
Appointments take time, said one official, who stressed that midlevel career diplomats are working as acting managers for most of the department’s many bureaus, which include specific regions of the world; political-military affairs; democracy, human rights and labor issues; and international narcotics and law enforcement.
But the paucity of nominations to fill high-level spots — seven of the department’s top nine politically appointed management jobs are vacant — has become a case study in the new administration’s growing pains.
What’s worse, reporters can barely get an answer about those pains because the understaffed department held its last traditional daily news briefing on Jan. 19, the day before Mr. Trump was inaugurated.
Information has been scarce with regard to Mr. Tillerson’s Mexico trip, which comes at a sensitive moment marked by trade fights and Mr. Trump’s vow to erect a border wall financed by Mexicans.
Mr. Tillerson’s one-day trip will be his second journey abroad as secretary of state. He was in Germany last week to participate in the Group of 20 conference of world economic powers. His entourage was almost entirely nonpermanent senior support staff.
In the interim, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. has had almost no interaction with the press and has yet to appoint an official press secretary.
Clash over deputy
The personnel problems have been exacerbated by the clash over Mr. Tillerson’s first choice to be deputy secretary of state — a position essential to managing messaging and policy across a department whose mandate spans the globe.
Mr. Tillerson favored Elliott Abrams, who held various assistant secretary positions under Presidents George W. Bush and Reagan. But the White House vetoed the choice, reportedly over Mr. Abrams’ sharp criticisms of Mr. Trump and his foreign policy platform during the presidential campaign.
Mr. Tillerson has surrounded himself with a team of unofficial media advisers including Jennifer Hazelton, who worked on Mr. Trump’s campaign in Georgia, and R.C. Hammond, who served as a press secretary for Newt Gingrich during the former House speaker’s 2012 presidential run. Mr. Hammond did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
While the State Department’s press office continues to be staffed by career officials, many of whom were in their jobs during the Obama administration, friction between Mr. Tillerson’s media advisers and the press has heated up.
Mr. Hammond was quoted over the weekend as downplaying reports that Mr. Tillerson had discreetly alerted some two dozen career diplomats — who had been manning the now-vacant office of the deputy secretary for management and resources, and the office of the department counselor — that their services were no longer needed.
When asked about the situation Tuesday, the State Department’s press office said in a statement that “in some cases, we are redeploying people to new assignments where they can immediately put their talents to work.”
The press office had even less to say about the future of the daily briefings, which, while not as theatrical as the highly publicized and televised White House briefings, have been held on a near-daily basis on weekdays for decades.
The press office said in a statement that while there will be no briefing for at least the coming week, “the department continues to be responsive to media queries and requests, and continues routine business.”
Since 2012, the briefings have been live-streamed on the department’s website and are known to be watched closely by allies and adversaries alike as the central public conduit through which official American foreign policy is projected. The daily briefing is also often the first place to hear any changes or subtle adjustments to those policies in the careful answers prepared by the department’s various agencies and embassies.
Reporters asking foreign policy questions at the White House are often referred to the State Department — as was the case on Tuesday, when White House spokesman Sean Spicer dodged a reporter’s question about the administration’s reaction to turmoil in Brazil by saying, “I think that’s a question for the Department of State right now.”
The department has held no daily press briefings for more than a month, and reporters are wondering whether Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump ever plan to resume them.
By comparison, 18 daily press briefings were held in same period after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was sworn in under President Obama in 2009.
Career department officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have said that Mark Toner, a career Foreign Service officer who often briefed reporters during the Obama administration, would likely conduct press briefings on Mr. Tillerson’s behalf in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has announced just a handful of top-line diplomatic appointments, including Mr. Tillerson and Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon Jr., who served as acting secretary of state while Mr. Tillerson was awaiting confirmation, remains the top management official beneath Mr. Tillerson.
Several career department officials say privately that many working inside Foggy Bottom believe Mr. Tillerson and Mr. Trump are keen to reorganize the department’s management structure and likely get rid of many of the politically appointed positions that have swelled in number since the late 1970s.
In 1975, the State Department had 18 deputy secretary, undersecretary, assistant secretary and “counselor of the department” positions. Eleven — just over 60 percent — were filled by career Foreign Service employees. The other seven posts went to political appointees.
As of 2012, according to data compiled by the American Foreign Service Association, the number of leadership positions had nearly doubled to 36, with two-thirds now filled by political appointees.