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Secretary Of State Tillerson Holds Town Hall At State Department


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is showing no signs that he's on the way out the door. He's planning some trips next year to Africa and Latin America. He's also pushing ahead with his plan to redesign the State Department, brushing off accusations that he's gutting it. Tillerson held a town hall with State Department employees today. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For more than an hour the former Exxon Mobil CEO walked the stage, talking about foreign policy challenges. He says U.S. diplomats are trying to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, pushing back against Iran's nefarious behavior, and rallying the world to pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.


REX TILLERSON: And so I think we have had an incredibly active year. Do we have any wins to put on the board? No. That's not the way this works. Diplomacy is not that simple.

KELEMEN: The audience only seemed to perk up when he started talking about some of his reform plans. The secretary won applause when he promised to streamline security clearances and when he said he's lifting his hiring freeze for spouses of State Department employees.


TILLERSON: This is a talent pool that we should be using. We should be mining it more. It's going to make our work easier. It's going to make our work more effective.

KELEMEN: Retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann gives Tillerson good marks for that, though he says it took the secretary 10 months to realize that it saves the government money to hire spouses of diplomats already living overseas. Neumann says Tillerson's plans to improve IT systems will also be popular.

RONALD NEUMANN: But those things come with a big price tag. So now a big question is, how are you going to do that and a 30 percent cut in your budget? Does that mean he's going to fight for a larger budget or that we've got some further draconian cut coming someplace in order to finance that stuff?

KELEMEN: The secretary ruled out the idea of closing down any U.S. embassies or consulates to save money, but Tillerson says he will look at how they're staffed.


TILLERSON: I know London's a great location. I know Paris is a great location and Rome is a great location. I'm not sure we need the footprints we have there because we don't have the same issues of urgency necessarily that we have in other parts of the world where we really need talent deployed.

KELEMEN: Ambassador Neumann, who runs the Academy of Diplomacy, says it makes sense to rebalance capacity every now and then. And he gives the secretary credit for trying to boost morale.

NEUMANN: He traced a whole series of ambassadors working on very tough issues. By the way, every one of those is a professional, a career officer. But that bench is now getting very, very thin.

KELEMEN: He says Tillerson didn't really address the fact that experienced diplomats are leaving in large numbers and the number of new hires is, in Neumann's words, ridiculously low.

NEUMANN: Like the military, if you don't bring in enough lieutenants today you won't have enough majors in 10 years. You won't have your colonels in 20 years.

KELEMEN: When an intern asked Tillerson if there's any future for young people, the secretary encouraged him to study hard and apply. The secretary also seemed at pains to break the image he has of a leader who's isolated from his employees. He says he has periodic lunches with small groups to hear their concerns, and he's learning to like the job. But he was most at ease talking about his holiday plans to head home to Texas.


TILLERSON: I hope I'm going to see most of my cowboys on the ranch. Those are the guys I like to hang out with. I'm a great fan of the Western culture.

KELEMEN: And, he says, the code of the West, where your word is your bond and you don't need a bunch of lawyers.


TILLERSON: I'm going to saddle my favorite pony Blue up, and I'm going to go out and check on some cows.


TILLERSON: Y'all have a great holiday.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO SONG, "WASH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.