Secretary of state said he had not met Donald Trump before he was summoned to Trump Tower to discuss ‘the world’ and was offered the role
March 22, 2017
Julian Borger in Washington
Rex Tillerson has said he did not want to be US secretary of state and only took the job because his wife convinced him to do it.
The former ExxonMobil oil executive revealed his initial reluctance in an interview published after a controversial trip to Asia and hours before the biggest event of his two months at the state department, an international meeting on Wednesday about how to fight Islamic State (Isis).
“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job,” Tillerson told the Independent Journal Review (IJR), in an interview conducted on his official plane during the three-nation Asia trip. “My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”
He said he had not met Donald Trump before being summoned to Trump Tower after the surprise election victory, ostensibly to talk to the president-elect “about the world” and his experiences as an oil company CEO.
“When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned,” he said, adding that at 65 years old, at the end of a four-decade career at ExxonMobil, he had expected to retire: “I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids.”
However, he said that when he returned to his Texas home after meeting Trump in New York, his wife, Renda St Clair, shook her finger in his face and said: “I told you God’s not through with you.”
He said he now feels his wife had been right: “I’m supposed to do this.”
Not everyone shares that view. Tillerson has been the subject of heavy criticism since taking the post as the country’s top diplomat at the beginning of February. He was left out of the loop of several critical foreign policy decisions made in the administration’s early days, most importantly the travel ban for refugees and visitors from a list of Muslim countries.
He has also almost totally dodged the press for the first few weeks in his job. He did not take the Washington diplomatic press corps with him on his Asia tour, breaking with decades-old practice. The sole exception was the journalist from the IJR, a little-known outlet founded by a former Republican operative.
The initial explanation from the state department was that he wanted to save money and take a smaller plane than usual. In his interview, Tillerson repeated that explanation but also suggested it would be his policy to avoid the press until and unless he had a specific message to deliver.
He told the IJR: “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out, but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done.”
When questioned about Russia, the IJR reported: “He was so cagey … his answer wasn’t even worthy of inclusion.”
Tillerson has also been criticised for failing to defend the state department vocally enough in the face of a threatened budget cut of up to a third. Senior Republicans have said the cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid proposed by the White House would not pass Congress. In his remarks to the IJR, however, Tillerson appeared to relish the management challenge of cutting down the size of the US diplomatic establishment.
“Looking at ongoing conflicts, if we accept that we’re just going to continue to never solve any of these conflicts, then the budget should stay at the current level,” he said.
He said he had not yet talked to Trump about what a pared-down state department would look like or how it will be staffed: “We haven’t gotten that far yet.”
While in South Korea, Tillerson was reported in the Seoul press to have snubbed the government by telling Korean officials he was too tired to dine with them.
In response, he accused his hosts of being deliberately misleading. “They never invited us for dinner, then at the last minute they realised that optically it wasn’t playing very well in public for them, so they put out a statement that we didn’t have dinner because I was tired,” he told the IJR.
On Tuesday, the state department was fighting off a new controversy, after it emerged Tillerson would skip what would have been his first Nato foreign ministers’ meeting in early April in Brussels so he could be in Florida for Trump’s first meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.
The state department spokesman, Mark Toner, insisted the administration was 100% committed to Nato and that Tillerson would be meeting many member foreign ministers at the anti-Isis meeting in Washington on Wednesday. Toner said the state department had proposed new dates for a possible Nato meeting.