WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has publicly acknowledged having no big diplomatic “wins” to notch on his belt, but he scored a significant bureaucratic victory last week when the White House nominated his preferred candidate to become his top adviser on East Asia.
If the Senate confirms Susan Thornton as the assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, she will become the first career Foreign Service officer to be elevated to a permanent slot in the hierarchy of senior officials. Thornton, who is considered one of the pre-eminent Sinologists in the State Department, has held the position in an acting capacity since March.
In a brief interview at the State Department Christmas party, Tillerson said he had come to have “enormous confidence” in Thornton’s knowledge of Asia, exhibited during strategy sessions on China and North Korea. She has accompanied him on trips to Asia, including a harrowing flight to Guam in August when North Korea was threatening to launch a missile nearby.
Tillerson had wanted her in the job for months, but said the turning point was during President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia in November.
“The president spent face-time with Susan during the Asia trip,” Tillerson said. “He had a chance to interface with her and came away very impressed with her.”
Thornton’s nomination says as much about Tillerson and White House palace intrigue as it does about her credentials. And it could help revive flagging morale among Foreign Service officers in the State Department, many of whom have felt Tillerson does not value their advice.
White House advisers had blocked Tillerson’s early efforts to get Thornton nominated. Chief among them was Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist.
Just days before his departure in August, Bannon singled out Thornton in a call to the American Prospect as he boasted of marginalizing the professional Asian hands at the State and Defense departments because they weren’t hard-line enough on China.
“I”m changing out people at East Asian Defense,” he said. “I’m getting hawks in. I’m getting Susan Thornton out.”
Though being castigated by Bannon is a badge of honor to many in the foreign policy field, Thornton may face more broadsides from him now that he has returned to the helm of Breitbart News. The National Interest reported this week that Bannon and “the Breitbart crowd” intend to work against Thornton’s confirmation.
Since joining the State Department more than 25 years ago, Thornton has mostly worked on Asia issues. She has served in embassies in China, Armenia and Kazakhstan.
“I think the world of her,” said Daniel Russel, who was assistant secretary for East Asia until March and recruited Thornton to become his deputy. “She’s an immensely competent Foreign Service officer. When I left, I was confident there was essentially nothing Secretary Tillerson wanted from the assistant secretary that he couldn’t get from Susan. It’s to his credit he stuck to his guns.”
That Tillerson waited Bannon out, and finally got who he wants, suggests he is willing to play the long game. White House officials have repeatedly leaked scathing criticisms of Tillerson and suggested his departure is imminent, but he has dismissed the rumors as false and “ridiculous,” and insisted he plans to stick around.
“Secretary Tillerson, who has famously had a very contentious relationship with the Foreign Service, really saw Susan’s tremendous capabilities,” said Abraham Denmark, Asia program director for the Wilson Center. “I expect a lot of Foreign Service officers will take some comfort in the fact that Susan has been so successful.”
Denmark said Thornton’s nomination could allay skepticism by some Foreign Service officers that Tillerson is willing to seek their input on foreign policy. “It remains to be seen if it’s a one off, or an indication of a broader trend,” he said.
A diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about morale, said other diplomats are pleased at Thornton’s ascent, but it may be too late to change the perception that Tillerson is unapproachable.
“The fact he has been so standoffish and so uninterested in what Foreign Service officers can contribute is well-established, and irreversible,” the diplomat said. “Nobody could mistake this for an embrace by Rex Tillerson of the Foreign Service professionals. It’s clearly an anomaly.”
Tillerson said that he has considered other Foreign Service officers as assistant secretaries, and that they were accepted by the White House but met resistance in the Senate. He said he is open to considering others.
“I’m looking at the full talent pool,” he said. “I don’t have any restrictions. I just look for the best person.”