Tillerson Defends Effort To Restructure State Dept. After Top Staffer Leaves

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participates in a conversation with Wilson Center President and CEO Jane Harman at Wilson Center in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz)
Sait Serkan Gurbuz/FR171401 AP

The day after news broke that a top State Department staffer tasked with carrying out a reorganization of the agency had resigned, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday defended his plan to overhaul the department.

During a question and answer session following a speech Tillerson gave at the Wilson Center, the think tank’s director, former Rep. Jane Harman (D-CA), asked Tillerson about the proposed budget cuts at the State Department and reports that there is a “hollowing out” at the agency.

Tillerson rejected the characterization.

“There is no hollowing out. These numbers that people are throwing around are just false. They’re wrong,” he said.

“I’m offended on their behalf when people say somehow we don’t have a State Department that functions,” he added later, referring to State Department employees. “Because I can tell you it’s functioning very well from my perspective.”

Tillerson said that the State Department’s budget is “just not sustainable” and argued that by slashing the agency’s budget, the Trump administration would be returning funding closer to historic levels.

He also defended his plans to restructure the agency, which has come under scrutiny recently. After a group of senators sent a letter to the State Department warning that Tillerson’s staffing decisions “threaten to undermine the long-term health and effectiveness of American diplomacy,” a spokeswoman for the department acknowledged that there is a “morale issue.”

Tillerson said on Tuesday that State Department staff has been highly involved in the effort to restructure the agency, and he said that he simply wants to help State Department staffers operate efficiently. He also said that while he instated a hiring freeze, he has made a significant number of exceptions, and he argued that the department has not seen as significant of a drop in staff as some reports suggest.