Political News

Trump administration defends Tillerson's absence for Jerusalem announcement

Posted December 6, 2017 3:34 p.m. EST

— When President Donald Trump announced US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital on Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was an ocean away in Europe. At Trump's side was Vice President Mike Pence, who will represent the administration on a Mideast trip later this month.

The secretary's absence was deliberate, but administration officials argue it didn't reflect the narrative of Trump-Tillerson tension that has enthralled Washington -- even though the top US diplomat opposed the announcement.

As the President unveiled his decision -- one that foreign and religious leaders, current and former officials, and Mideast and security analysts say could alienate allies and disrupt the region -- administration and State Department officials said Tillerson had been making Trump's case with some of the US' most important counterparts on Mideast peace in Europe.

But where administration officials stressed Tillerson's role spearheading their diplomatic outreach, critics saw yet another chapter in the saga of a marginalized secretary and his diminished department.

"He hasn't been a part of this process from the get-go," said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center and former State Department adviser on Arab-Israeli relations. "It shouldn't be a surprise to anybody that he's in Europe."

Miller was among many who pointed out the highly unusual nature of the announcement and of the President's foreign policy team, one in which Tillerson doesn't play a high profile role on one of the most high profile issues. Trump handed the Mideast portfolio, traditionally the purview of the secretary of state, to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, tasking him with crafting a peace plan, "the ultimate deal."

"Anomalous, like everything else in the Trump administration"

"It's no surprise," said Miller, who argues that to find a comparable situation, you'd have to go back to the 1970s, when President Richard Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, sidelined Secretary of State William Rogers. Miller added that the announcement in the White House Diplomatic Reception room was "anomalous, like everything else in the Trump administration."

Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, argued against any recognition or embassy move in the absence of a peace deal. When Trump made clear his determination to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, they argued for him to sign a waiver delaying the embassy move, which he did.

After the announcement, Tillerson offered full throated public support, releasing a statement that said Trump's "decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital aligns US presence with the reality that Jerusalem is home to Israel's legislature, Supreme Court, President's office, and Prime Minister's office. We have consulted with many friends, partners, and allies in advance of the President making his decision. We firmly believe there is an opportunity for a lasting peace."

Administration and State Department officials argued Tillerson was performing a useful role away from Washington. Close allies have been so vocal in their opposition that an administration official said the White House was glad to have Tillerson in Brussels at a NATO meeting this week to make their case.

Diplomatic outreach

"He's been able to do a lot of our diplomatic outreach in person," said an administration official who spoke anonymously to discuss the issue. Pointing to Tillerson's presence at the annual and long planned NATO meeting in Belgium, the official said, "There's a whole matrix of people he could talk to -- it helps that he's in a different time zone, so he could make calls when we couldn't, and then he's there and able to talk to people in person."

Speaking of the NATO members, including many European nations and Turkey, the official said that, "it's no secret that they're not happy about this."

Tillerson spokesman R.C. Hammond said, "He happens to be the secretary of state and he's going to travel abroad and he's going to keep doing it. He just spent the last 40 hours walking around NATO headquarters talking to NATO members about this topic."

The administration official and others said Tillerson's trip wasn't intended to feed into the perception that he wasn't involved in the discussions leading up to Trump's announcement, or that he's on the outs.

"He's been involved in all of the meetings; he's been speaking to the president, speaking to heads of state, talking about this issue," Hammond said.

The administration official echoed that, saying, "There were lots of meetings when people phoned in and videoed in and [Tillerson] was always there in every meeting I took part in."

"Not everybody agrees on everything"

The internal debate on the policy was intense, and not all parties agreed, the official said. "Not everybody agrees on everything," they added. "I don't want you to think it's garden of Eden over here. I mean, Secretary Tillerson looks at it and thinks about his people and his assets, Secretary Mattis thinks about it from a security standpoint. Everyone is very clear about it: I don't agree and here is why, this is my piece."

CNN has reported that Tillerson has expressed concerns about Jared Kushner's plan to pursue a peace agreement with the support of Saudi Arabia's new crown prince that would create a Palestinian state and normalize relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors in exchange for US support for the prince's plans to counter Iran in the region.

Additional reports have said that Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, Trump's adviser on Israel, have kept Tillerson and his team in the dark about his talks with Arab leaders, an account that the administration official called "weird."

"I assume the secretary and Jared disagree on things periodically, but what I've seen is Jared go out of his way to be deferential and the secretary be appreciative of their efforts on the peace process, Jared and Jason, particularly because he's got plenty to keep him occupied," the official said, referring to nuclear tensions with North Korea.

Tillerson and Mattis asked Trump for a week to beef up security at US missions and embassies in the region before making the announcement. The President agreed to the request.

Hammond tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that, "The Secretary asked the President to allow for time for the State Dept to prepare before an announcement was made. Safety is always a top consideration."