Tillerson’s Enigmatic Chief of Staff Wields Power, Not the SpotlightBy
Former Hill staffer Peterlin also catches flak for missteps
Known for leaving Post-it notes with staff to assign tasks
One unfamiliar name stood out among the coterie of family and aides President Donald Trump brought into his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican last week: Margaret Peterlin.
The presence of Peterlin -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s chief of staff -- underscored the former congressional staffer and Mars Inc. lawyer’s growing clout in the administration. Not even Press Secretary Sean Spicer, a practicing Catholic who interacts with Trump almost daily, made it to the Papal audience, which included Tillerson as well as Melania and Ivanka Trump.
Peterlin, a Navy veteran who as a congressional aide helped draft the Patriot Act after the Sept. 11 attacks, gained Tillerson’s trust by navigating him through his Senate confirmation hearings in January. With most top State Department jobs unfilled, Peterlin has more power than any chief of staff in recent memory, bringing in key associates to fill critical openings.
From touring the Korean demilitarized zone to joining a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Peterlin is almost always right at Tillerson’s side -- even when that means U.S. diplomats or policy experts get pushed farther down the negotiating table. But her public anonymity -- her biographical page on the State Department website is blank almost four months after she started -- obscures her influence on Tillerson as the oilman-turned-diplomat works to carry out Trump’s “America First” foreign policy agenda.
“There are many different models for chief of staff,” Brian Hook, the head of the State Department’s policy planning office and a former colleague who was brought on board by Peterlin, said in an interview. “Margaret goes about this work very quietly, in a very disciplined and orderly way and is somebody who -- uniquely for Washington -- does not seek the spotlight.”
People who have attended meetings with Peterlin say she operates efficiently, cutting down on small talk, keeping meetings short and rarely revealing anything about herself.
She’s become famous within the State Department for the Post-it notes she leaves on staff members’ computer monitors asking them to chase tasks. Other times she prints out emails and attaches Post-its to them, with instructions on how to proceed.
Peterlin didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on her role and how she views her position as chief of staff.
Peterlin’s perch comes with a price: fairly or not, she catches blame for the department’s missteps. Critics point to several unforced errors, such as Tillerson’s refusal to discuss with State Department staff his support for Trump’s plans to slash the agency’s budget by 30 percent.
In a speech to employees earlier this month, Tillerson justified Trump’s new vision and smaller budget by saying the department was stuck in a Cold War mentality -- an idea that struck many staff as off base, in part because so much of the agency’s growing budget has been a response to the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Worse to some was that Tillerson refused to take questions after the speech or address staff concerns head on.
Treated Like Siri
One official said Tillerson and his staff treat career officers like Siri or Google, seeking concise answers to questions but not wanting any discussion or debate.
“If you’re going to take hard decisions you ought to at least be willing to discuss them with the staff,” said Laura Kennedy, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush. “A chief of staff ought to be attuned to just basic things like the morale of the building, and I’d pretty much give them an ‘F’ on that.”
And it was Peterlin, according to two people familiar with the matter, who bore some responsibility for a spat with the South Korean government during Tillerson’s trip to Seoul in March over a dinner meeting that wasn’t on the official U.S. agenda.
During the trip, South Korean media reported Tillerson had canceled the dinner at the last minute, pleading exhaustion. In a interview later with the Independent Journal Review, Tillerson suggested South Korean officials made up the story. But according to the two people, the South Koreans had asked for a meeting -- and career State Department and embassy staff recommended it -- but Tillerson and Peterlin rejected the advice.
Not Overtly Political
For a White House that prizes loyalty, Tillerson’s decision to hire Peterlin struck many as a surprise because she wasn’t involved in the Trump campaign. While she worked for two Republican congressmen in the early 2000s, friends say she has never been overtly political.
“She’s not someone who I think of as a Trump supporter,” said Muftiah McCartin, a lawyer at Covington & Burling LLP who is one of Peterlin’s friends and worked with her on Capitol Hill. “She’s also a person I can see being of the mind of ‘Somebody’s got to get in there and help out.”’
While Tillerson meets with Trump weekly and they sometimes dine together at the White House -- access almost no other Cabinet member has -- he and Peterlin have struggled to get their footing when it comes to internal management, according to more than a dozen people who requested anonymity discussing their leadership. Tillerson arrived with the business and diplomatic skills required of the chief of a global oil company -- and valued by Trump -- but no government experience. Peterlin found herself in a job that’s part policy adviser and part bureaucratic bodyguard.
Several people interviewed said Peterlin and Tillerson’s style means the secretary’s office is cut off and isolated from the 75,000 employees worldwide that they are meant to lead. Requests for policy direction frequently go into his office and are never answered, or are answered too late, undercutting U.S. initiatives, according to the people. Some top staffers describe the day-to-day running of the department as “Margaret’s Show.”
To Peterlin’s backers, the image of a secretary of state cut off from his staff is untrue.
“He intentionally started with a small team. Get a group that works well together and can cover multiple responsibilities, succeed small, then grow,” said R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications adviser. “Margaret is the quarterback.”
Born in Alabama, Peterlin founded the Chicago Journal of International Law at the University of Chicago Law School. She went on to a clerkship with Jerry Smith, a judge on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Houston, whose other past clerks include Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
Peterlin’s career trajectory accelerated when she joined the staff of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, as a foreign-affairs adviser in the summer of 2001. That role, as well as Peterlin’s later job as national security adviser for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, put her in a prominent role at a crucial time.
Under Armey, Peterlin helped write the Authorization for the Use of Military Force governing the U.S. war on terrorism, the single-page statute that remains in effect to this day. She also helped shepherd through Congress the Patriot Act and the legislation that established the Department of Homeland Security.
“A lot of people can claim credit for being there at the conception of any one of those things but very few can credibly say they played a meaningful role in all three, and I think Margaret did,” said Viet Dinh, the assistant attorney general at the time who also helped write the Patriot Act.
After time at the U.S. Patent Office, where she participated in international delegations, and posts at Mars and XLP Capital, Peterlin was tapped by the Trump transition team to help navigate nominees through the confirmation process. When Tillerson was picked, she worked with the leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on his ethics forms and divestiture agreement while prepping him for his testimony.
“It says a lot about Margaret that she quickly got Tillerson’s trust and he kept her on,” said Brian Gunderson, an Armey adviser who hired Peterlin and went on to be chief of staff in Condoleezza Rice’s State Department. “I could tell that the two of them just clicked.”
The mystery still puzzling people at the State Department is whether Peterlin is responsible for limiting access to Tillerson -- or whether she’s doing exactly what he wants her to do.
“The learning curve would be immense particularly working for Tillerson, who just isn’t fitting at the State Department -- he just has different instincts,” said Alberto Mora, the former Navy general counsel who worked with Peterlin at Mars. “Margaret’s misfortune -- if that’s what it is -- is to be associated with a secretary of state and a president who are either unknown or seen as hostile to the State Department and its mission.”