Tillerson Forced to Stay at Sanitarium in German Village for G-20Nick Wadhams and Patrick Donahue
Russian foreign minister asks why reporters were ushered away
Secretary of State is in ‘listening mode,’ official says
On his first trip abroad as U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson was forced to stay at a sanitarium in a German village known for its hot springs, 30 minutes from where other world leaders gathered. Diplomatic security agents mingled in the parking lot with elderly people in wheelchairs arriving for spa treatments.
Tillerson, the former head of Exxon Mobil Corp., was at the sanitarium because Bonn’s hotels were all booked by the time he confirmed his attendance at this week’s Group of 20 meeting. Counterparts including U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had to make a trek out to meet him.
The unusual diplomatic debut continued during an awkward encounter with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. After Lavrov delivered some perfunctory opening remarks alongside Tillerson, U.S. aides quickly ushered reporters from the room. “Why did they shush them out?” Lavrov asked.
State Department officials have stressed that Tillerson is using his initial trip both to engage with the G-20 and to introduce himself to key allies, including Saudi Arabia and the U.K. On discussions about foreign policy hot spots such as the turmoil in Yemen, Tillerson will be in “listening mode,” a State Department official told reporters before the trip began. By 5 p.m., he had held seven bilateral meetings, with more planned.
After his meeting with Russia’s Lavrov, Tillerson did appear before the media to read out a statement, the first time he has done so since speaking to State Department employees on Feb. 2.
“Foreign Minister Lavrov and I had a productive meeting,” Tillerson said. “We discussed a range of issues of mutual concern.” The statement lasted less than a minute, and Tillerson left without taking any questions.
The curious start to his first foreign trip may demonstrate little more than the adjustment Tillerson is making after years of traveling with a small entourage as chief executive officer of Exxon to being a highly sought-after Cabinet member in President Donald Trump’s administration. Two weeks after winning confirmation, Tillerson has yet to lay out his most urgent foreign policy priorities and hasn’t had a news conference.
The lack of outreach to the media extends to the State Department briefing room in Washington, where a spokesman’s normally daily question-and-answer exchanges with reporters have yet to resume since Trump took office almost four weeks ago. Tillerson also continues to lack a deputy secretary, who could help manage day-to-day issues at the department.
The few remarks Tillerson has made reflect the changed circumstances of his new job. In his meeting Thursday with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, the two bantered about Tillerson’s flight from the U.S., which arrived late Wednesday night.
"I’m not used to traveling like that you know,” Tillerson said. “I’m used to getting on at night, spending the night on the plane and then going to work. It’s quite civilized."
Nevertheless, Tillerson’s G-20 counterparts were eager for him to play a large role, saying the State Department should get involved in global issues but playing down any concerns about Tillerson or the chaos that erupted within Trump’s White House with the sudden departure this week of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“It’s clear there is a need for State to chip in and take shape,” Argentine Foreign Minister Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra said in an interview. “I’m not worried -- it’s important to be careful and not to jump to conclusions.”
From seeking better ties with Russia to dropping demands for a two-state solution to Middle East peace, the changes proposed by the Trump administration have been so big -- and presented with so little detail -- that other countries have been caught off balance. That was highlighted by Defense Secretary’s James Mattis’s warning to fellow NATO members that they must come up with plans by the end of the year to boost defense spending in line with alliance commitments.
‘Lack of Clarity’
“That’s where the lack of clarity is hurting us,” said Julianne Smith, senior fellow and director of the Strategy and Statecraft Program at Center for a New American Security. “Allies are anxious and obviously assuming the worse, that the U.S. may be preparing to pull back from the alliance writ large.”
That also ensures reporters will keep tossing questions his way. Earlier Thursday, journalists were allowed in to see Tillerson shake hands with British Foreign Secretary Johnson before their bilateral meeting. A reporter asked Tillerson what message he was delivering to his counterparts about Trump’s limits on immigrants and refugees. He didn’t respond.
“Good try," Johnson said to laughter. As reporters were ushered out of the room, Johnson asked: “Are we still being recorded?"
“They never give up,” Tillerson said.