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Amid chaos in Washington, Tillerson strikes tone different from Trump

Tillerson defends Trump

MEXICO CITY -- As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has advanced a measured foreign policy agenda, his efforts have, at times, been eclipsed by events in Washington and developments coming out of the White House. In some cases, the focus on events in D.C. enables Tillerson to push forward with diplomatic efforts without getting a great deal of attention.

The latest example of this was during Tillerson's first extensive trip to Latin America this week. Less than an hour before Tillerson hosted a press conference with the foreign ministers of Mexico and Canada on Friday afternoon, President Trump declassified a four-page memo created by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee alleging abuse of surveillance authority by the Justice Department and FBI. The memo, now public, alleges political bias against Republicans. 

A rush of responses flowed out of Washington following the memo's release, with Democrats saying Mr. Trump could be sparking a constitutional crisis "not seen since the Saturday night massacre." Meanwhile, Mr. Trump said those involved should be ashamed of themselves.  

Trump feels "vindicated" after release of memo

Meanwhile, Tillerson stood at a podium in Mexico City discussing immigration, the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Russia's global efforts to meddle in elections, and the fight against drug flows across the border that the U.S. and Mexico are taking on together. Tillerson made no mention of a border wall -- one of the president's key campaign promises on which Mr. Trump still focuses.

"We still value immigrants, and they bring enormous value to our continent," Tillerson said at a joint news conference with Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Videgaray and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. "And that's what the president, though, is asking is, I want to know how this person who wants to come and live in our country is going to bring value to our country."

He added that Mr. Trump wants to "provide clarity," especially on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, so that there is less confusion for immigrants.  

Tillerson declared the administration's intent to modernize NAFTA, but explained that Tillerson himself understands the benefits the deal delivers to many Americans. 

"Canada and Mexico rank as the first or second-largest export market for 42 U.S. states and support nearly three million U.S. jobs," Tillerson said.

The positions Tillerson discussed on Friday didn't reflect the public stance of the president. Mr. Trump has called NATFA the "worst trade deal ever" and put America's neighbors on edge in warning that he may outright cancel the deal. Yet Tillerson had meetings with Mexico's president, foreign minister and intelligence officials that on Friday that State Department officials described as productive. 

Steve Goldstein, the State Department's Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said, "different people speak different ways but the policy hasn't changed." Goldstein said that in speaking about U.S. foreign policy, DACA, and other issues on Friday, Tillerson "wanted to get resolution, to be fair to people so that people could plan their lives, and he was sincere in that."

"And he meant what he said," Goldstein added.

Canada's Freeland, who joined for a trilateral meeting on NAFTA on Friday, praised working with Tillerson. 

"As for my U.S. counterparts, Luis and I are going to embarrass you, Rex, but it is a true pleasure working with Secretary Tillerson," Freeland said.

Combating transnational crime and the flow of drugs across the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico was also a primary focus of Tillerson's meetings in Mexico.

"Given the deadly nature of the opioid crisis, we must do more to attack the business models of those who traffic drugs and guns," Tillerson said, and he said that work should be done with Mexico. "We are developing and deploying new strategies to disrupt and dismantle these deadly networks that smuggle drugs, that participate in human trafficking and other illicit activities."

Those comments conflicted with remarks Mr. Trump made the same day. Just hours after Tillerson's press conference, Mr. Trump — in a meeting with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents — asked a probing question that seemingly contradicted Tillerson's efforts.

"What are Mexico and Columbia and these other co – what are they doing about it? Nothing?" the president asked. 

"Actually, sir, we're partnering closely with these governments to increase their effectiveness," Acting CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan responded, before he was cut off by the president. "In Mexico, in particular --"

"Do you think they're really trying?" Mr. Trump pushed.

"Well, I think we've had a significant improvement in our dialogue and in our effectiveness with Mexican law enforcement and the military in the last year," McAleenan said. 

The president listed a few countries including Mexico and declared, "these countries are not or friends" and said they are "pouring" drugs in the U.S. even though the U.S. gives them money. 

An official on the trip with Tillerson said the president's comments were not helpful. The official would not elaborate. 

Meanwhile, Mexico's secretary of foreign affairs said Friday that it might come as a surprise but his country's relationship with the United States today is "more fluid" and "closer" than it was with previous U.S. administrations. Mexico has had well-publicized disagreements with Mr. Trump during the past year over trade, immigration and payment for a proposed border wall. 

But Videgaray said that, "with the Trump administration, we're committed to having a very close communication and that has proven to be a tremendous benefit for the relationship." 

"It might be surprising to some people, but that's a fact of life," Videgaray said at a joint news conference in Mexico with Tillerson and Freeland. 

Tillerson's stop in Mexico kicked off a six-day Latin America trip that will also take him to Panama, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica. 

There are times when Mr. Trump's undercutting of Tillerson has been so out-front that it appears to undermine the secretary's efforts. This was the case when Tillerson was traveling in Asia and said of North Korea "we can talk to them." He declared that there are open channels of communication with North Korea. Soon after Mr. Trump tweeted that Tillerson was "wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man." 

Yet when there is big news in Washington, even if it is just personnel tic-toc coming out of the White House, it sucks the oxygen out of the news cycle and off of Tillerson. Friday wasn't an isolated incident. 

In January Mr. Trump tweeted:

"We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect. They don't even want to negotiate a long overdue peace treaty with Israel." And he added "why should we make any of these massive future payments to them?" 

That tweet set off alarms – would the U.S. cut all aid to Pakistan?

As those questions were being asked, Michael Wolff's book, "Fire and Fury" came out. It was filled with Mr. Trump critiques portraying an ill-equipped White House through the eyes of some of Mr. Trump's closets friends. The Washington oxygen was, once again, consumed by the White House's deep frustrations with the book. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders called it "tabloid trash" and claimed most of it was "fraudulent." 

The book was even published early as the White House outcry drove up demand. This distraction gave Tillerson time to come up with a plan. A few days later, because the president had been so distracted, they went to the White House with a plan to withhold a large chunk of U.S. funding to UNRWA, the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency. The all-consuming focus on the book had given Tillerson time to deliberate and press forward on a thoughtful foreign policy approach.

When State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert made the announcement from the State Department podium it was clear that Tillerson had woven Mr. Trump's demands into a less hyperbolic policy.

"We thought that that would have a negative impact," Nauert said of the possibility of cutting all U.S. aid to UNRWA. "I want to note to you the number didn't end up being zero. Today it ended up being $60 million. So we're somewhere."

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