Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be “taking a little time off” amid rumors of a rift with President Donald Trump and a staffing shortage at the State Department, as well as several crises abroad.
Tillerson, who has departed for his native Texas for an undisclosed amount of time, made no public comments about the trip prior to leaving. Reporters only learned of his absence after inquiring why his schedule for the upcoming week was blank.
“He does have the ability to go away for a few days, on his own,” Secretary of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert told inquirers Tuesday. “He’s just taking a little time off. He’s got a lot of work.”
When Nauert was asked why Tillerson’s time off was not being directly referred to as a vacation, she said she was unsure what language was typically used for such absences.
“I don’t know what is standard for secretaries of state,” Nauert said.
— CSPAN (@cspan) July 25, 2017
Tillerson’s absence coincides with a number of reports hinting at growing tension between the secretary of state and the president.
One source of acrimony is a severe staffing shortage at the State Department — only 10 of 128 positions have been filled, reportedly due to differences of opinion regarding appointments. Clashes over policy with White House advisers have also loomed large, particularly concerning Trump’s efforts to ban refugees from the United States.
Another terse point has been Trump’s habit of seemingly undermining Tillerson’s efforts abroad, most notably during a recent feud between Qatar and several Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. While Tillerson worked to mediate the dispute, Trump took to Twitter, slamming Qatar and seemingly contradicting his secretary of state’s overtures. Reportedly enraged by the incident, Tillerson was said to be “blindsided” by Trump’s remarks, something that was later worsened when a White House official publicly stated that Trump’s approach took precedent over Tillerson’s.
“Tillerson may initially have had a view, then the president has his view, and obviously the president’s view prevails,” the official said.
Sources told Politico this week that Tillerson feels he is “not being allowed to do his job” and indicated that the diplomat is unsure he wants to stay on for even a full year at the State Department.
Tillerson is also reportedly upset about Trump’s increasingly public feud with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reportedly calling the president’s comments about Sessions unprofessional — leading some to speculate Tillerson himself might be the next member of Trump’s staff to resign.
Tillerson’s time away from Washington also comes at a precarious time for international relations. Qatar has still not fully solved its dispute with its neighbors, Israel is in the midst of controversy amid mass protests from Palestinians, North Korea has threatened a nuclear strike on the United States — only a few of the major world issues currently ongoing. Still, Nauert asserted that Tillerson intends to return to work soon, and remains committed to his job.
“The secretary has been very clear he intends to stay here at the State Department,” she said. “We have a lot of work that is left to be done ahead of us. He recognizes that — he’s deeply engaged in that work.”
Tillerson isn’t the only one taking time off. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is also out this week — according to the Pentagon, he is away on “personal travel.”
UPDATE: A day after Nauert confirmed that Tillerson was taking time off, the secretary of state was reportedly back at work, receiving Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. No reason was given for Tillerson’s abrupt return.