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Rex Tillerson heads to Mexico this week. It's his second international trip since becoming secretary of state. As with his first to Germany, he's expected to try to keep a low profile. Tillerson hasn't said much in public since taking office. He still lacks a deputy, leading some to wonder whether the White House has sidelined him, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For two days in Bonn last week, reporters tried to get Tillerson to weigh in on some of the key foreign policy issues facing this administration. He was meeting with his counterparts from the group of 20 leading economies.
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REX TILLERSON: Met a lot of people, made a lot of new friends.
KELEMEN: The former ExxonMobil CEO is new to politics. His aides say he was mainly in listening mode on his first trip. He was also trying to reassure nervous allies in Europe about where the Trump administration is heading. U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told his colleagues at the security conference in Munich that he's impressed by Tillerson.
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BORIS JOHNSON: Rex clearly understands and has thought deeply about some of the conflicts that everybody's now looking to the U.S. to address but particularly Yemen, Libya and of course Syria and Iraq. I am optimistic about this, folks, not least because I have no option.
KELEMEN: But some diplomats are wondering just how much influence Rex Tillerson has with the White House. The secretary of state was not part of Trump's recent meetings with the leaders of Canada, Japan and Israel. He hasn't gotten a deputy approved by the White House yet, and there are many high-level jobs yet to be filled. That worries one former State Department official, Tom Countryman.
TOM COUNTRYMAN: The very slow pace at which the White House seems to be paying attention to filling those vacancies is an indication I fear that the White House is content to have empty agencies across the government that cannot interfere with the edicts that are issued by the White House.
KELEMEN: Countryman was one of the senior Foreign Service officers effectively forced into retirement after the Trump administration nudged him out of his arms control job. Since then, the administration has moved to eliminate one of the deputy positions and the counselor's job, another holdover from the Obama administration. That's not unusual, says Brett Schaefer, who has written about reforming the State Department for The Heritage Foundation.
BRETT SCHAEFER: You've seen changes in the structure of the organization by pretty much every secretary that's come in. They've either established new positions or shifted boxes around to try and comport to their ideas of what a more efficient structure should be.
KELEMEN: Schaefer says the Obama administration hired many special envoys and expanded the budget for the State Department.
SCHAEFER: But what you haven't seen is a sense that the State Department is functioning more efficiently and championing and advancing the foreign policy priorities of the United States.
KELEMEN: He gets the sense that Tillerson would like to move more quickly to get his team in place. Countryman, the retired diplomat, says that's key.
COUNTRYMAN: Diplomacy is not like other businesses.
KELEMEN: Countryman says the U.S. needs a lot of high-level diplomats to interact with countries around the world.
COUNTRYMAN: Even if they operate with a very small staff and with a flexible set of responsibilities, it gives you greater capability to respond to allies and friends who need a high-level touch from the United States.
KELEMEN: The Trump administration is giving a high-level touch to Mexico this week. Secretary Tillerson will be traveling there and joining Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly. They're trying to put the relationship back on track after Trump's phone call with the Mexican president and his tweets demanding that Mexico pay for a border wall. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.
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