Trump raises doubt about Tillerson's fate ahead of crucial Asia trip

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 16: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump (R), joined by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to the media during a meeting with his cabinet at the White House on October 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump will head to Greer, South Carolina to attend a campaign event for Gov. Henry McMaster.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

President Trump gave a less than ringing endorsement of his secretary of State Thursday night, saying he was not sure if Rex Tillerson would remain in the position for the duration of his term.

"Well, we'll see," he told Fox News host Laura Ingraham. "I don't know who's going to be [here for the] duration," Trump replied. He also ntoed that Tillerson was "doing his best."

This latest undermining of his secretary of State on the eve of the longest and most consequential foreign trip of the young Trump presidency has left diplomats around the world scratching their heads. His dismissiveness of diplomacy - tweeting that Tillerson was wasting his time negotiating with North Korea - and his willingness to break with predecessor's commitments has at times hamstrung his top diplomat. The discordant messages have added to strain among the career diplomats at the State Department charged with implementing the president's foreign policy vision.

After nearly 30 years of service, David Rank quit his job as the acting ambassador to China, after President Trump rejected Tillerson's advice and pulled out of the Paris climate change accord. He felt it was part of what he called the "systematic degradation" of the role of diplomacy.

"I think something's gotta change -- for him to be effective again or to try to be effective, something's gotta change," Rank told CBS News. He argues that any daylight between Tillerson and Mr. Trump damages U.S. influence.

Skeleton staffing has also prompted questions about whether President Trump's foreign policy vision can be fully implemented. Mr. Trump dismissed that idea, telling Fox News it saved money.

"When you don't need to fill slots, don't fill them," the president said. "The one that matters is me. I am the only one that matters."

Secretary Tillerson's aloof management style and cost saving plan to slash around 2,000 positions – roughly an 8 percent cut - has also led to questions about whether he is pushing back against his boss. When it comes to the people that Tillerson does want to hire for executive positions like the head of Asia policy, the White House has blocked his choices. In one of the final interviews before leaving office, adviser Steve Bannon bragged about blocking Tillerson's top choice for assistant secretary of State for Asia.

Three hundred of the most senior positions including those that require Senate confirmation sit unfilled. Forty eight of the 188 ambassador posts are vacant, according to AFSA. One significant vacancy is South Korea.

"You need an ambassador who can work every single day with the government," former Ambassador Kristie Kenney told CBS News. Kenney recently retired after spending the last 10 or so years in Asia said rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula make it vital to have a team in place.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist - forgive the term - to realize that this is a very delicate issue and staying in super close touch with our South Korean, Japanese partners and the Chinese are - is critical," she said.

Particularly for a nervous U.S. ally like Seoul, having a U.S. ambassador serve as the point of contact and coordinator for the 20-30 U.S. government agencies working there is key.

"If you don't have an ambassador, it's kind of like you have the U.S. government, but without -- without the president," explained Ambassador William Brownfield who recently retired after nearly 40 years of service.

It is not clear why the president has not appointed an ambassador to Seoul. Multiple sources -- including Trump administration officials -- told CBS News that the front runner for the ambassadorial post is Bush administration veteran Victor Cha who had been an unofficial adviser during the campaign. Yet Cha has been sitting quietly for months with no movement at the White House to officially nominate him or begin the congressional review required to confirm him for office.

One administration official blamed Secretary Tillerson's chief of staff for the delays while another blamed the White House office of personnel. But a source close to Cha suggested that it was Bannon's opposition to "establishment" Republicans from the Bush administration that may be the cause for the delay. The White House and State Department did not provide official comment when asked by CBS News to explain why President Trump had yet to appoint anyone to the post before his high-profile visit there. In the meantime, Cha remains on the payroll at the think tank CSIS.

Ambassadors Brownfield and Kenney – married to each other for nearly 32 years – have served under both Republican and Democratic administrations and said they had no doubt that Tillerson was making his best effort. Both agreed that the secretary would be better served with a full team in place.

"I have zero hesitation -- absolutely none in terms of saying Secretary Tillerson -- wants a successful U.S. foreign policy and a successful Department of State," Brownfield said.

David Rank was not as optimistic about the trajectory of American diplomacy. He fears that sidelining America's most experienced diplomats and regional experts will damage U.S. national security.

"My recommendation to the president, to the secretary of State would be listen to the people who have been doing this for years, and years, and years," Rank said. "And feel free to disagree, but there's a lot of international knowledge. We have done a lot of things with the Chinese, or whatever country -- in question."

Experience should be used as an asset. "We've probably made a lot of mistakes, and I -- my philosophy has always been to try to make new mistakes," he said.

  • Margaret Brennan

    Principally assigned to the State Department, Margaret Brennan also serves as a CBS News general assignment correspondent based in Washington, D.C.