According to Friday’s Washington Post, it has gotten so bad at the State Department that not only do many veteran diplomats there say they have yet to meet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, they say they have been instructed not to speak directly to him or even look him in the eye.
“On many days, he blocks out several hours on his schedule as “reading time,” when he is cloistered in his office poring over the memos he prefers ahead of in-person meetings,” the Post reported under the bylines of Anne Gearan and Carol Morello.
“Most of his interactions are with an insular circle of political aides who are new to the State Department. Many career diplomats say they still have not met him, and some have been instructed not to speak to him directly – or even make eye contact.”
Given the media outlet and public officials involved, it may be tempting to wonder if this is fake news – an attempt by a media outlet clearly hostile to all things President Trump to characterize its chief diplomat as unaccessible, unfriendly, and inept.
But we don’t have to wonder. Matt Lee, who has covered the State Department for the Associated Press for 18 years, confirmed it late Thursday night.
“This is not true and people repeating it are making it more difficult to address very real issues,” Lee tweeted.
Lee tweeted in response to a tweet in The Hill about the Post story that said, “Diplomats instructed to avoid eye contact with Tillerson: Report.”
But he soon found himself responding to those who can’t believe the Post would do this to them.
“Isn’t it possible that some people were told this and you’re unaware of it?” asked one tweeter.
“I would suggest to you I was told of this allegation – weeks ago – and checked it out,” Lee responded.
Then a tweeter who goes by McBlondeLand asked, “How do you know it’s not true?”
“Because,” Lee responded, “I have covered State since 1999. Because I know people who didn’t start in 2009.”
“That means nothing,” wrote Jen Gregory, another tweeter. “Do you have sources who say it’s not true?”
“Yes, I do,” Lee replied.
Tillerson’s working style seems to fascinate the mainstream media. The New York Times wrote a piece mostly on the fact he is moving to a smaller airplane for his international travels because he tends to travel with only an aide or two and a smaller media contingent than the more publicity-minded secretaries who served President Obama – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
The Post made a point of reporting that, on his first three foreign trips, “Tillerson skipped visits with State Department employees and their families, embassy stops that were standard morale-boosters under other secretaries of state.”
Then there were the rumors earlier in Tillerson’s tenure that the 7th floor, where his office is situated, would be remodeled to include cubicles of political appointees to serve as yes-men for his policies.
In fact, Tillerson ordered one of the bigger offices along Mahogany Row, as the 7th floor offices are known, remodeled into a conference room so people could meet there and share ideas.
“The man loves his whiteboards,” an aide told the Post. “He wanted to build out a spot, a working room, to engage with colleagues and map things out.”
The Post story also said Tillerson’s “slow start has rattled other foreign diplomats.” But the only diplomat willing to put a name with a quote was Kim Darroch, ambassador from the United Kingdom. “We are having absolutely no problem, I promise you, with access or accessibility” at the State Department or White House, Darroch was quoted as saying.
As of Friday afternoon, the story on Tillerson, the one clearly called out as being fake news by the Associated Press, is the top-read story on the Post website.