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New top US diplomat gets to work amid Trump turmoil

AFP , Thursday 2 Feb 2017
Rex Tillerson
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps away after touching the name of Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in 2013 in Benghazi, Libya, as he visits a memorial wall plaques in the lobby of the State Department that honors employees who have given their lives in the line of duty, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, upon his arrival at the State Department in Washington (Photo: AP)
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Washington's new top diplomat Rex Tillerson started work Thursday with a full in-tray after an extraordinary two weeks of taunts aimed at friend and foe alike from the White House.

President Donald Trump's pick for US secretary of state arrived to take charge of a department already simmering with indignation at the new administration's policy departures.

In an unprecedented show of defiance, around 1,000 diplomats have signed a "dissent memo" denouncing Trump's suspension of refugee arrivals and a visa ban on seven Muslim countries.

And there is also deep disquiet about the aggressive stance that Trump, guided by his nationalist White House strategist Steve Bannon, has taken in the field of foreign relations.

Overnight, Trump unleashed another angry diplomatic barrage, warning that Iran is "on notice" after its latest missile test and denouncing a deal to accept Australian-housed refugees.

Into this maelstrom stepped Tillerson, the 64-year-old Texan oilman who left the chief executive's suite at ExxonMobil to come to Foggy Bottom and run Trump's foreign policy.

"Hi, I'm the new guy," he said, introducing himself in a speech to around 2,000 diplomats and civil servants gathered in the State Department's flag-lined main entrance hall.

The White House has reacted angrily to stirrings of revolt from the diplomatic corps, with spokesman Sean Spicer warning they "should either get with the program or they can go."

But Tillerson sought to reassure his assembled employees that he respects their expertise and patriotism, receiving several rounds of warm but relieved applause during his speech.

"I know this was a hotly contested election and we do not all feel the same way about the outcome," he told them, two weeks after Trump took office and a day after his own confirmation.

"Each of us is entitled to the expression of our political beliefs, but we cannot let our personal convictions overwhelm our ability to work as one team," he urged the staff.

Admitting that, while the State Department's 75,000 employees have an average of 11 years experience each, he had only been in his new post for 25 minutes, he vowed to get to work.

His meetings were to get underway immediately, with Jordan's King Abdullah and Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in town and eager to build ties with the new administration.

Earlier, Trump had hailed Tillerson at a national prayer breakfast, declaring that the oilman's friendship with foreign leaders like Russia's Vladimir Putin would prove an asset.

"Some people didn't like Rex because he actually got along with leaders of the world," Trump said, referring to concerns that Tillerson is too close to the Russian president.

"You have to understand that's a good thing, not a bad thing. He is respected all over the world and I think he will go down as one of our great, great secretaries."

If, as supporters of the veteran executive predict, Tillerson does prove to be a smooth hand on the tiller, not only US diplomats but America's friends abroad will be relieved.

Since coming to power Trump has issued a series of edicts and late-night tweet storms that have triggered dismay and anger around much of the world and rocked the international order.

In one of the latest exchanges Trump seems to have picked a fight with Australia, long one of Washington's closest and most useful allies, in a telephone rant at its prime minister.

Both Washington and Canberra have played down reports that last week's call turned fiery and that an exasperated Trump hung up on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

But Turnbull admitted the exchange was "frank and forthright" -- diplomatic language normally associated with a row.

And Trump was clearly annoyed to be asked to fulfill a deal made by his predecessor Barack Obama to accept 1,600 refugees held in Australia's notorious offshore detention centers.

"Do you believe it? The Obama Administration agreed to take thousands of illegal immigrants from Australia. Why? I will study this dumb deal!" he tweeted.

Trump's critics in Washington were horrified by his tone.

Senator John McCain, a leading Republican foreign policy hawk, described Australia as one of America's "staunchest allies" and called its ambassador to apologize for Trump's behavior.

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