Tillerson Balances Trump's Goals and His Own -- Update

By Michael C. Bender and Felicia Schwartz Features Dow Jones Newswires

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described how he seeks to manage an often-fraught relationship with President Donald Trump, saying he tries to deliver short-term victories to an impatient commander-in-chief while focusing on a longer horizon himself.

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In an interview with The Wall Street Journal Thursday, Mr. Tillerson acknowledged the contrasting styles of the two men and described his effort to bridge the gaps, while rejecting swirling rumors of his impending departure. "I see those differences in how we think," Mr. Tillerson said in his State Department office. "Most of the things he would do would be done on very short time frames. Everything I spent my life doing was done on 10- to 20-year time frames, so I am quite comfortable thinking in those terms."

His solution: "Delivering the incremental wins," he said. "Incremental progress is taking you toward the ultimate objective, which is, as I say is eight, 10 years down the road."

Mr. Tillerson said one of his top long-term priorities is shifting the balance of the trade and national-security relationship with China, even as he adopted Mr. Trump's stern tone on Asia's economic power.

On Thursday, Mr. Tillerson warned China that the U.S. has an arsenal of economic weapons to force Beijing to address trade imbalances and a continuing territorial dispute in the South China Sea.

"We can do this one of two ways," Mr. Tillerson said during the interview, seeming at times to speak directly to his Chinese counterparts. "We can do it cooperatively and collaboratively, or we can do it by taking actions and letting you react to that."

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Tools he might apply include tariffs, World Trade Organization actions, quotas and other mechanisms, he said.

The president and Mr. Tillerson are scheduled in November to visit Asia for a 10-day trip through five countries, including China, where the two former businessmen -- both first-time public office holders -- will push these issues.

Mr. Tillerson said the race to stem North Korea's nuclear program, as well as trade issues with Japan and South Korea, will also dominate the trip. His tough talk on China came as the country's leaders are meeting at the Communist Party Congress, a summit that takes place every five years.

In a response to Mr. Tillerson's recent tough talk, the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Wednesday released a statement. "Through dialogue and cooperation with the countries in the region, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable. Countries outside the region should fully respect these efforts to safeguard regional peace and stability," it said.

"The track record demonstrates that China and the U.S. are better together. We hope the U.S. side can work in the same direction with China to ensure the healthy and sound development of the China-U.S. relationship," the statement continued.

Mr. Tillerson's comments follow a rocky summer in his relationship with Mr. Trump. Signs of tension between them have continued to overshadow the insistence from both men that all is well.

"If I were a world leader -- doesn't matter who -- I wouldn't talk to Tillerson," said Larry Wilkerson, who was chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, citing the public divide between the two men. "The president must feel that this person can do the work for him...this is not the case here. It's becoming antagonistic."

During a meeting at the Pentagon one weekend in July, Mr. Tillerson rolled his eyes as he reluctantly acquiesced to the president's criticism of the Iran nuclear pact. "It's your deal," Mr. Tillerson said in his Texas drawl as he peered in the direction of other cabinet officials, instead of Mr. Trump.

After that meeting, Mr. Tillerson referred to the president as a "moron, " according to people familiar with the conversations. Mr. Tillerson's spokeswoman has denied he made the remark.

Mr. Trump has also disparaged his top diplomat, complaining that Mr. Tillerson doesn't understand his "Make America Great" philosophy and has few original thoughts. "Totally establishment in his thinking," he has told aides.

Asked Thursday if he believed Mr. Trump should be re-elected, Mr. Tillerson paused for a beat, then said, "Well, of course."

"I mean, I don't think about it, quite frankly, right now," he said. "We've got these things we're dealing with, but yeah."

Early on in the administration, Messrs. Trump and Tillerson seemed to have an easy rapport. They are both successful businessmen, and Mr. Tillerson's global experience as the CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp. was a major appeal for the new president as he put his cabinet together.

When they first arrived in their new jobs and their wives had yet to join them in Washington, they often ate dinner together, joined by a combination of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis; John Kelly, now the White House chief of staff; and General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

While those dinners have largely stopped, Mr. Tillerson and the president continue to meet, as they did in the Oval Office on Thursday, in what was at least their second meeting this week. In what a State Department spokeswoman described as a "positive," they had lunch together earlier this month after initial reports of name-calling between them.

Mr. Tillerson's openness to speaking to reporters comes after he was prompted to hold a news conference to address rumors that he was on the verge of quitting and had made derogatory remarks about the president. On Thursday, Mr. Tillerson expressed confusion about rumors of his departure. "Who in the world is telling you that stuff?," he said.

He said he would remain in the job "as long as the president thinks I'm useful."

The secretary pointed to successes on strengthening capabilities of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, particularly on counterterrorism, a peaceful pressure campaign on North Korea, the campaign to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the administration's approach to South Asia.

"Look, I'm my own person, I'm a serious person," Mr. Tillerson said. "And I'm not of any use to president if I'm not that. If I try to be anything other than that, I'm no use to him."

Mr. Tillerson said Thursday he likes to view foreign-policy problems according to region.

"I believe you solve a problem in Afghanistan not by just dealing with Afghanistan," he said. "You solve it by solving a regional problem, and that's the way we're looking at the Middle East."

He has honed that approach in brainstorming sessions that have evolved over his time at Foggy Bottom. In his first months in office, Mr. Tillerson and a small circle of aides convened weekend sessions during which they kicked around policy approaches by sketching ideas on a white board. Those sessions are now twice a week, sometimes on Saturdays when convenient, and include career state department officials, an official said.

The Texas oilman turned chief diplomat said he spends the bulk of his time concentrating on North Korea, Iran, counterterrorism, China and Russia.

Noting that U.S. and China officials have long been able to negotiate their differences peacefully, he repeatedly said China "went too far" in its push to claim resources in the South China Sea, one of the most important trade arteries for the world's largest economies.

"Our view is you're going to have to walk some of that back," he said.

Mr. Tillerson said the Trump administration is seeking agreement on a code of conduct in the region, noting that other countries "are guilty of having done the same thing to a lesser extent" as China. He said the Philippines is looking for "mutually agreeable ways" to share disputed areas without conflict.

"Look, some things have gotten out of whack," Mr. Tillerson said about U.S.-China relations. "We've got to address them."

Write to Michael C. Bender at Mike.Bender@wsj.com and Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 19, 2017 19:47 ET (23:47 GMT)