Fogginess in Foggy Bottom: What’s Up With State?

The State Department: Rex’s Home for Imaginary Friends

By Jake Klawans Edited by Ben Purcell

Dark Days in Rex’s Realm

The Department of State is in charge of U.S. foreign policy, so you know something’s up when its current leader is called out as possibly the weakest secretary of state ever. Weakest ever may be too early to call, but Secretary Rex Tillerson’s department does appear to be in a chaotic state.

Relative to recent historical standards, the State Department is dramatically understaffed and about to suffer significant funding cuts at a time when North Korea is testing both missiles and U.S.-China relations.

The Trump administration has declared that State will be restructured and certain aspects of the department scaled down: by what metric, and to what degree, remain unclear. Moreover, even as he downplays the unofficial hiring freeze with a quip that his building is “hardly hollowed out,” speculation persists regarding Tillerson’s future as the department’s leader, leaving foreign policy wonks wondering what will happen next.


  • A nuclear-capable North Korea threatened a retaliatory strike against the United States in response to any perceived threat to the current regime. The North Korean military also has the ability to launch ballistic missiles.
  • The State Department is operating on a ghost staff. While Tillerson can attempt to keep the ship afloat, there are currently zero assistant secretaries confirmed by the Senate. Moreover, key positions for basic function are being evacuated: the head of diplomatic security’s resignation means that there isn’t a team in place to protect America’s embassies overseas.
  • According to CBS, there have been only 30 ambassadors appointed for the 188 open positions. And out of the 22 assistant secretary positions, only 2 have been filled as 2,300 additional jobs are reportedly on the chopping block.

What’s New

  • Multiple sources recounted that Tillerson threatened to resign and otherwise aired his grievances last week. While he’s reportedly committed to staying on until the end of the year, sources added that he’s not happy with the department’s restructuring and his lack of influence in the White House.
  • There’s an emerging power struggle in Washington between Congress and the Executive concerning the State Department’s budget. The White House is requesting what is widely viewed as an extreme budget cut of 37% while Congress is at a relatively modest 10% cut.
  • Tillerson is going to war to drop a number of special envoys. While it may be true that he’s concerned about certain unfilled positions, Tillerson views a number of envoys as wasteful. Among the jobs Tillerson is trying to eliminate–the top diplomat for cyber security.

The Debate

Six months later, there is little indication that the president and his advisors have developed the kind of strategy — what academics call “grand strategy” and pundits refer to as “doctrine” — designed to impose America’s will on the world, rather than vice versa. Indeed, it seems there will never be a Trump doctrine. In resisting the careful patience required to develop and execute a purposive course of action over time, the administration’s method of policymaking is explicitly anti-strategic.

  • Others, such as the chairman of Homeland Security, cast concern over the vacancies as a distraction. Chairman McCaul focuses on what he perceives as the new administration’s hawkish approach to foreign policy:

When President Trump became commander in chief, he decided to take a new approach and unleashed the generals to crush the enemy. From dropping the largest non-nuclear bomb in our arsenal to hit ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan to the American-backed liberation of Mosul in Iraq, President Trump is making good on his word to go on offense in the war on terror and destroy ISIS.

  • Regardless of what shape the administration’s foreign policy has taken thus far, many are in consensus that the depleted staff is taking a toll on the State Department:

Without the appointees in place, State and USAID are at a real disadvantage in policy debates. Note also that the National Security Council does not have development, democracy or human rights positions on their organizational chart, another departure from past Republican and Democratic practice.

Bets of the Week


  • Rexit?
    • Rex Tillerson has denied rumors that he’s on his way out at the department, but has reportedly expressed frustration and is “taking time off.” Will there be a Rexit? Quibbl here
  • What’s a Billion Between Friends?
    • There’s a fight going on about the severity of budget cuts for the State Department. The White House wants to cut more than congress is willing to. Will the White House get its more drastic cut or will Congress prevail? Quibbl here
  • Trump’s Tormenting Tweets
    • President Trump has seemed to undercut Secretary Tillerson by tweeting out statements contradicting the State Department. Will this continue? Quibbl here
  • Aiding State?
    • Republicans want to fold USAID into the State Department. Will Tillerson and Trump get what they want and merge the independent agency with Foggy Bottom’s department? Quibbl here
  • Extra Special Envoy
    • Tillerson and Trump haven’t filled many of the special envoy offices at the State Department. However, as tensions with North Korea show no signs of easing, will the administration appoint a special envoy for east Asia? Quibbl here



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