Rex Tillerson says he did not seek to be US secretary of state but was persuaded to take the job by his wife, who told him “God’s not through with you”.
“I was supposed to retire in March, this month. I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids,” the 64-year-old former oil executive told the Independent Journal Review in his first full-length interview since taking office.
The man charged with framing US foreign policy for the next four years said he had never met Donald Trump before the then president-elect invited him to New York for a conversation “about the world”.
“When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned,” he told the IJR.
Mr Tillerson said when he got home his wife shook her finger in his face and told him: “God’s not through with you.”
“My wife convinced me. She was right. I’m supposed to do this.”
The admission in the IJR, a little known media operation founded by a former Republican party official, comes as Mr Tillerson prepares to host a big international counter-terrorism conference in Washington on Wednesday.
In the interview, conducted behind his desk in the back cabin of the state department’s Boeing 737 on the way back from Beijing, Mr Tillerson gave few hard details on how his approach to foreign policy would differ from that of the Obama administration.
But he strongly defended Mr Trump’s mantra of putting “America First”.
“In Bonn, it came up in every discussion I had,” Mr Tillerson said, referring to a series of meetings he had with foreign ministers at a G20 summit last month.
He also argued it was the Obama administration’s foreign policy that represented a “dramatic shift” and what he was working on was more consistent with US diplomacy of previous decades.
He said the Trump approach was about “simply bringing back to a point where you can believe once and for all that you can win”.
But he also warned: “Every administration knows it only has so much time.”
Mr Trump has attacked the cautious approach of the Obama administration in tackling Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Mr Tillerson signalled the administration would take a more activist stance in the Middle East.
“We can’t get to deconflicting the rest of the region with Isis in the way,” he told the IJR.
He was critical of the Obama administration’s strategy against Isis, pointing out the original term they had used was “degrade”.
“All that did was drag out the agony for everyone,” he said.
Mr Tillerson has been criticised in the US for his low profile since taking office. Detractors say he was left out of the loop of several critical foreign policy decisions made in the administration’s early days, including the travel ban for refugees and visitors from a list of Muslim-majority countries.
“I would hope that people can maintain their patience in these early days and recognise I’ve only been at it six weeks,” he said in the IJR interview.
Critics also note he has not gone out of his way to woo the influential Washington press corps, as previous secretaries have done.
But Mr Tillerson indicated the administration was working on achieving results. “I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it. I understand it’s important to get the message of what we’re doing out, but I also think there’s only a purpose in getting the message out when there’s something to be done.”
Last week the Trump administration announced it was cutting the state department budget by 28 per cent. Mr Tillerson says spending was at a record high last year. But in an oblique criticism of the budget cuts, he acknowledged that more spending would be needed if the US hoped to tackle some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.
“In the context of the budget, the fiscal year 2017 was a record high for the State Department,” he told the IJR. “Looking at ongoing conflicts, if we accept that we’re just going to continue to never solve any of these conflicts, then the budget should stay at the current level.”
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