Washington, United States, Feb 2 – US President Donald Trump stepped up his war of words against the world, firing on friend and foe alike even as his new top diplomat arrived for work.
Even Russia, with which Trump hopes to mend ties, was not spared: US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said sanctions will stay until it ends its occupation of Ukraine.
Trump also returned to the charge against Iran, his spokesman insisting “nothing is off the table” when asked about options for a military response to Tehran’s latest missile test.
The White House is drawing up expanded sanctions against Iran, hours after National Security Adviser Michael Flynn put Tehran “on notice” over the missile and support for Yemeni rebels.
Sources familiar with the planning told AFP the sanctions will likely be levied on individuals or entities linked to Iran’s missile program and imposed under existing presidential powers.
Trump himself said many countries are “really terribly taking advantage of us” and even accused Australia of trying to foist more than a thousand “illegal immigrants” on the United States.
And, not content with bashing one close ally, he repeated his claim that the 23-year-old NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada had been a “catastrophe” for the US economy.
And into this maelstrom, on Thursday, walked the man that will have to help him guide US foreign policy through the years ahead, newly anointed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
– The new guy –
The 64-year-old Texan oilman, who left the chief executive’s suite at ExxonMobil to come to Foggy Bottom, was greeted on arrival at the State Department by around 2,000 staff.
“Hi, I’m the new guy,” he told the crowd of diplomats and civil servants, before thanking them for their service and laying out the principles of his management style.
Trump’s pick as Washington’s top diplomat arrived to take charge of a department already simmering with indignation at the new administration’s hardline immigration policy.
In an unprecedented show of defiance, around 1,000 diplomats signed a “dissent memo” denouncing the suspension of refugee arrivals and a visa ban on seven Muslim-majority countries.
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.
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.
“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.
On his first day he spoke by phone to his Canadian and Mexican counterparts and met with Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, eager for assurances on European security.
Mark Toner, the department’s acting spokesperson, said in a statement that in all of his introductory calls the new secretary “stressed America’s steadfast commitment to its key allies and partners as it works to protect the interests and safety of the American people.”
– ‘Not a bad thing’ –
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 the new secretary proves to be a steady hand on the tiller, not only US diplomats but America’s friends abroad will be relieved.