WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says his relationship with President Donald Trump is solid, but he is expressing concern about the glacial confirmation process and the double-digit number of vacancies in senior positions in his department.
In his first appearance in the State Department briefing room since taking office six months ago, Tillerson on Wednesday began by referencing the son of his chief of staff in a quip about confirmations — or lack thereof.
"I decided that maybe if I start naming people to office when they're eight or nine years old, they'll be of age by the time we can get them through the process," Tillerson joked.
By his own admission, Tillerson has a lot of "open slots."
With the retirement last week of acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Bruce Wharton, five of the six under secretary of state positions are vacant. The one post that is filled is that of under secretary for political affairs, which was given to Ambassador Tom Shannon, a holdover from the Obama administration who stayed on in the position.
Twenty-two of 24 assistant secretary positions also are either vacant or filled by those in an "acting" capacity. The other two are also holdovers from the Obama administration.
The Trump administration has nominated four people for those 27 open senior positions after six months in power. Several of the career foreign service officers temporarily filling the positions and nearing the end of their careers have stopped waiting for their replacements and are starting to retire.
"We have been dealing with a lot," Tillerson acknowledged Wednesday. "We've accomplished a lot and we continue to progress a lot because there are remarkable, talented professional Foreign Service officers in this building. And every one of them has stepped up and not a one of them has said, 'I don't want to do that.'"
And yet he said that not everyone has been on board.
"We have had individuals who did not want to serve in a certain role, and I said, 'Fine, find something else for them to do.' I don't want to force anybody into a position they're not committed to," Tillerson told reporters. "It is to be expected that we will go through some morale issues early on. I hope as the redesign goes forward that people become more engaged."
Tillerson also stressed to reporters that his relationship with Trump is just fine.
"I talk to him just about every day," Tillerson said. "I see him several times a week. He calls me late at night, on the weekends, when something comes into his head and he wants to talk. He may call me at any moment, at any time."
His comments come on the heels of tensions between the White House and Secretary of State that grew so thick this month as to spark speculation about Tillerson’s possible resignation. Last week, Tillerson dismissed those rumors when he turned around at the top of a bilateral meeting to shouted questions to respond, "I’m not going anywhere."
A beginning report on the plans for a reorganization of the State Department are due to the Office of Management and Budget in the middle of September, but Tillerson has told Congress the reshuffling will not begin in earnest until the end of this year or beginning of 2018.
In the meantime, the Secretary of State said Wednesday that the majority of people he comes into contact with are excited about the redesign of the agency, which he describes as an "employee-led effort."
He has repeatedly said there are no preconceived outcomes of the restructuring but that it runs in parallel with an expected 30 percent budget cut at the department and the shuttering of many offices under special envoys and representatives whose future remains uncertain.
The results of a survey of over 35,000 employees at the State Department compiled last month revealed concern about management of the agency, including frustration with existing structures, but also the future of the department under both Tillerson’s leadership and the Trump administration.
"One way people can look at that is they can take it as a lot of criticism and complaining and moaning," said Tillerson on Wednesday. "When I look at that information and what they're saying to me, I hear them saying, 'Help, help, please help us fix this!'"