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Tillerson blows up at top White House aide

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s frustrations with the White House have been building for months. Last Friday, they exploded.

The normally laconic Texan unloaded on Johnny DeStefano, the head of the presidential personnel office, for torpedoing proposed nominees to senior State Department posts and for questioning his judgment.

Tillerson also complained that the White House was leaking damaging information about him to the news media, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Above all, he made clear that he did not want DeStefano’s office to “have any role in staffing” and “expressed frustration that anybody would know better” than he about who should work in his department — particularly after the president had promised him autonomy to make his own decisions and hires, according to a senior White House aide familiar with the conversation.


The episode stunned other White House officials gathered in chief of staff Reince Priebus’ office, leaving them silent as Tillerson raised his voice. In the room with Tillerson and DeStefano were Priebus, top Trump aide Jared Kushner and Margaret Peterlin, the secretary of state’s chief of staff.

The encounter, described by four people familiar with what happened, was so explosive that Kushner approached Peterlin afterward and told her that Tillerson’s outburst was completely unprofessional, according to two of the people familiar with the exchange, and told her that they needed to work out a solution.

“Colleagues are capable of frank exchanges,” said R.C. Hammond, a State Department spokesman, when asked about the disagreement. “Evaluating nominees did get off to a slow start, but it is now moving along at a pretty good clip.”

It was the loudest manifestation yet of how frustrated Tillerson is in his new role. He has complained about White House attempts to push personnel on him; about the president’s tweets; and about the work conditions in a West Wing where he sometimes finds loyalty and competence hard to buy. Above all, the former ExxonMobil CEO, accustomed to having the final word on both personnel and policy in his corporate life, has balked at taking orders from political aides younger and less experienced than he is.

Disputes between the White House and a Cabinet secretary, particularly over personnel, aren't unusual. The Obama White House told Hillary Clinton that her friend Sidney Blumenthal couldn’t join her at the State Department. Other secretaries in Trump’s Cabinet have also clashed with DeStefano, who has a difficult job balancing White House requests, political considerations and headstrong Cabinet secretaries, many with executive experience.

“It’s very common that there would be some tensions and some tussles between the White House and departments or agencies about senior personnel decisions,” said Matthew Waxman, a senior official in the State Department and National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “It’s just very abnormal that these issues wouldn’t be worked out more quickly.”

Waxman, now a professor at Columbia University, said the fights are likely harder for a Cabinet secretary like Tillerson, who is accustomed to supreme control as a CEO. “But we have a system of government where political appointments run very, very deep,” he said. “It’s the way the system works. The White House has the final say.”

Tillerson’s frustration with White House meddling began early and has been a persistent issue. “He went into this with a very negative attitude towards the White House,” said a former senior State Department official familiar with his thinking, who recounted that during the transition, Tillerson opposed a candidate proposed by Trump’s team simply on the grounds that Trump’s team was proposing him.

He has sometimes conducted talks with potential job candidates without telling the White House, said one person familiar with his actions. Tillerson has told senior officials that Trump promised him autonomy, and that he wanted it, according to people who have spoken to him.

“Rex is a 65-year-old guy who worked his way up from the bottom at Exxon, and he chafes at the idea of taking orders from a 38-year-old political operative,” said a former transition aide who worked closely with Tillerson.

DeStefano worked for years as a senior adviser to former House Speaker John Boehner before he joined the Trump administration, where he has struggled to fill thousands of jobs across the government, though the pace has quickened in recent weeks.

White House spokesman Michael Short blamed some of the staffing delays on “obstruction” from Senate Democrats and said that many diplomatic positions need careful vetting.

“The meeting was productive and there was consensus on the topic of staffing, which is moving forward more quickly,” Short added.

Where Tillerson is concerned, the frustration goes both ways. Many of his proposed nominees have been rejected by DeStefano’s Office of Presidential Personnel either because they are Democrats or because they are Republicans who were critical of Trump during the campaign. Though Brian Hook, the State Department’s director of policy planning, told associates several weeks ago that the department had several people in the pipeline, few have been announced since, and the White House continues to resist Tillerson’s choices.

He’s also faced resistance to leaning on civil servants. Tillerson has expressed his desire to nominate Susan Thornton, a career foreign service officer now serving as the acting assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to take over the job in an official capacity — a move White House staffers have resisted, saying they want a political person in the role.

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Muslim Global: Tillerson blows up at top White House aide
Tillerson blows up at top White House aide
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