Tillerson Gets Some Buddy Time With Trump on a Global Road Trip

(Bloomberg) -- It was a moment of striking familiarity: Walking through a hotel lobby in Manila after meeting with India’s prime minister, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gently rested his hand on President Donald Trump’s back.

The fleeting gesture encapsulated Tillerson’s road-trip bonding with the president on a 12-day swing through five Asian nations that provided at least a temporary respite from past signs of strain -- and from speculation of an imminent “Rexit” that would have the former oilman quit or be fired.

Tillerson Gets Some Buddy Time With Trump on a Global Road Trip

Tillerson, who stayed on in the region for two days after Trump’s departure, headed home Friday with his aides boasting of the quality time he’d spent with the president. While the secretary of state flew in a separate plane, Trump and his top diplomat were seldom apart on the ground.

Tillerson frequently briefed the president alone at the start of the day, according to a State Department official who asked not to be identified discussing the pair’s private schedule. He sat at the president’s side at most of his bilateral meetings with other world leaders and rode with Trump in his armored limousine as they crisscrossed Beijing during a two-day stay.

He even got a shout-out from the president at a breakfast gathering of business leaders at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo early in the trip.

“I want to thank Secretary Tillerson -- Rex -- who has done a tremendous job of leading the dedicated men and women of the Department of State here in Japan and around the world,” Trump said.

Low Point

It was a far cry from the low point in October, when Trump offered an IQ-test contest with Tillerson after a report that he’d called the president a “moron.” Tillerson denounced the report, although he left it to his spokeswoman to deny it.

It was even a departure from Trump’s comment in a Fox News interview this month when he was asked whether vacancies are hobbling the State Department’s foreign policy work. “The one that matters is me,” he said. “I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.”

Nor has Trump decided to pause to consult with Tillerson and his deputies before tweeting. On Nov. 6, Trump backed Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince over the arrests of wealthy princes, officials and businessmen before the State Department had completed its review of the dramatic move. “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump said in a tweet.

Post-Tweet Cleanup

So Tillerson has settled into a Trump-mandated routine: The president tweets his impromptu take on an issue -- whether it’s the Saudi Arabia arrests, the futility of talks with North Korea, or his desire to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal -- and then Tillerson will “backfill” to deliver a more nuanced interpretation, according to a second State Department official who also asked not to be identified discussing the strategy.

Tillerson’s one solo stop after Trump headed home also underscored his role filling in gaps in the president’s foreign policy priorities. While Trump emphasized transactional dealings between “sovereign and independent nation” in his Asia travels, he barely mentioned human rights as a concern.

But the role of human rights in U.S. foreign policy was the message behind Tillerson’s brief visit Wednesday to Naypyidaw, the capital of Myanmar. He delivered it while standing beside leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate whose reputation has been tarnished by criticism she’s failed to speak out against her mostly Buddhist nation’s military as more than 600,000 minority Muslim Rohingya refugees have fled to neighboring Bangladesh.

“We’re deeply concerned by credible reports of widespread atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces and by vigilantes who are unrestrained by the security forces during the recent violence in Rakhine State,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson’s trip with Trump is unlikely to erase the rumors that United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley wants his job or that CIA Director Mike Pompeo might get it. But the secretary of state has burnished his credentials as a defender of Trump’s unconventional approach to world affairs.

At a news conference in Beijing, Tillerson cited candor as key to “the chemistry” between the American president and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I don’t sense there’s any reservation on the part of President Xi to express exactly his views on certain issues,” Tillerson said, “and there’s certainly no reservation on the part of President Trump to express his view.”

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.