Tillerson hits back at critics

'I'm offended,' says Secretary of State

By NICOLE GAOUETTE AND LAURA KORAN, CNN
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Rex Tillerson

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hit back at critics, including lawmakers, who charge that he is hollowing out America's oldest government agency and undermining diplomacy at a time of deepening international crises.

Speaking at the Wilson Center on Tuesday, the former ExxonMobil CEO defended his reorganization plan for the State Department, as well as proposed budget cuts of as much as 30 percent. Citing the hard work of staff who keep the agency running day to day, Tillerson said he was offended by all those who declare the State Department isn't working.

"I'm offended on their behalf when people say somehow we don't have a State Department that functions. I can tell you its functioning very well from my perspective," Tillerson said in a question and answer session after remarks about the US-Europe relationship.

"Can we really keep this up?"

Outlining his thinking behind the cuts and agency reorganization, Tillerson noted that the State Department budget was at a record high of $55 billion in 2016. "Quite frankly, it's just not sustainable," the top US diplomat said of those spending levels. By comparison, the Pentagon budget in 2016 was roughly $585 billion.

"Part of this was just a reality check," Tillerson said of his examination of the agency. "Can we really keep this up? And the truth of the matter is it would be very difficult to keep it up and do it well."

Two recently retired senior US diplomats were the latest to criticize the administration's management of the State Department, writing in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday, "President Trump's draconian budget cuts for the State Department and his dismissive attitude toward our diplomats and diplomacy itself threaten to dismantle a great foreign service just when we need it most."

Lawmakers from both parties have written to Tillerson in recent weeks to express concern about his reorganization, about plummeting morale at the State Department, and about the large number of senior positions that remain vacant.

Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee wrote to ask him about the departure since January of more than 100 senior foreign service officers, raising their alarm about "what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks."

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat who serves on that committee as well as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, penned their own letter to Tillerson pointing to the fact that the State Department's diplomatic power is "being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally."

Tillerson vehemently disagreed and said he found the criticisms personally offensive. "There is no hollowing out," Tillerson said. "These numbers that people are throwing around are just false. They're wrong."

Citing his admiration for career foreign service officers who are working in acting capacities to fill the senior positions needed to run regional bureaus, Tillerson said that he felt the criticisms ignored the work they had done to help him craft policies on Russia, Iran, South Asia and North Korea, among other challenges.

"I take offense to that on their behalf," he said.

In his speech, Tillerson reiterated the United States' commitment to its European allies, but emphasized that the Trump administration will continue to ask Europe to do more when it comes to issues of common defense and security.

Visiting Europe earlier this year, Trump surprised some US allies by initially failing to commit to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which states that all member states must come to the aid of another if attacked. He ultimately made that pledge, but still scolded European leaders for not meeting defense spending targets under the charter.

"Alliances are meaningless if their members are unwilling or unable to honor their commitments," said Tillerson, adding that "the message has resonated" with officials.

Tillerson spoke of the importance of US-European solidarity in countering a variety of global threats, from ISIS and other terror groups, to Russia, which he called out for its "disinformation campaigns," and other belligerent activities.

He chided Moscow's government for its military interference in Ukraine, suggesting it's one of the most important roadblocks preventing better cooperation between the United States and Russia.

"We're never going to get this relationship back to normal until we solve Ukraine," said Tillerson.

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