In normal times, a visit by the foreign minister of one of America’s closest allies would be coordinated by the State Department from start to finish, with a meeting between the minister and the secretary of State in the midst of it.
But in US president Donald Trump’s Washington, not only did secretary of State Rex Tillerson not meet Mexican foreign minister Luis Videgaray on a March 9 visit; his chief spokesman didn’t even know Videgaray was in the city. Mark Toner told reporters who asked about the visit:
Good question. We’ll take that and get back to you. I was unaware that he was—the foreign minister was in town. And I’m not sure—I can’t speak to whether there’s going to be any meetings at the State Department at any level.
The Los Angeles Times then reported that that Videgaray had called Tillerson “the night before to let him know he was arriving in Washington.” But Videgaray met Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in the White House instead. In an official statement (link in Spanish), Mexico’s foreign ministry didn’t mention Tillerson or the State Department either.
This is astonishing. Tensions between the US and its southern neighbor are at a decades-long high; there are crucial talks over trade deals and mass deportations. But the US’s chief diplomat, the globe-trotting former CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil, is excluded from his counterpart’s visit, and informed only as an after-thought.
This plays into a narrative that has grown from whispers among worried diplomats into shouts in national op-eds: the State Department is being shut out, and the White House—in particular, Kushner—has taken over foreign policy.
The department itself seems rudderless and uninformed. After Trump rejected his choice of deputy, Tillerson, a political neophyte, still has no “sherpa” to guide him through its complex workings. The fact that he himself didn’t tell his spokesman about Videgaray’s trip speaks volumes.
Until Toner restarted them this week, the department’s daily press briefings—a tradition dating back to the 1950s—had been suspended. That deprived diplomats in embassies across the world of messaging on the administration’s stances. Sources at State say that, at least until the end of February, all press releases had to be cleared through the National Security Council—not unknown during a transition, but it certainly clogs up the information flow. Tillerson has dealt himself another self-inflicted blow with the highly unusual move of traveling to Asia without a press corps.
Unsure what they should be doing under Trump, diplomats have been continuing with old policies and toning down their language when they’re unsure. With precious little work to do, career foreign service officers instead spend their time fretting in Foggy Bottom’s cafeteria about whether the diplomatic corps will be turned into a visa-stamping machine.
Update (3:2opm ET): White House spokesman Sean Spicer said today that the press corps was invited, but would have to travel by commercial air rather than on a State Department plane, as is traditional. “The plane that the secretary is taking does not accommodate” the press corps, he said, mentioning budget cuts. “There is an element of cost savings that the president is trying to achieve.”
A previous version of this article stated that Tillerson was traveling to North Korea. He is in fact traveling to Japan, South Korea and China.