Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is Quickly Becoming One of Trump’s Most Trusted Advisers

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson looked like he had been cast into social Siberia.

The former ExxonMobil CEO was enjoying a martini with his wife at the BLT Prime steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel on Feb. 25, when President Donald Trump strode in with Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, happened to be at the hotel and was invited to join the president’s dinner party. Tillerson, who came over to say hello as he was leaving, was not.

Viewed as the walled-off leader of a demoralized department, Tillerson in the opening days of the Trump administration was cast as an inexperienced statesman undercut by the White House as the nation’s top diplomat, supplanted in that role by the president’s powerful son-in-law.

But over the past month, as Tillerson has taken a lead on the administration’s strategy with Syria, Russia and China, his status has shifted – and behind the scenes, he’s emerging as Trump’s favorite cabinet secretary.

The 65-year-old self-made Texas oilman has become one of Trump’s most frequent White House guests, often joining him in the residence for one-on-one dinners, or in the presidential dining room, along with Vice President Mike Pence, for lunch.

In Trump’s 83 days as president, Tillerson has had more meetings with the president than any other cabinet secretary, according to multiple White House aides and a review of public schedules. When Tillerson isn’t traveling abroad, the two men schedule a private dinner at least once a week.

In the month of March alone, Tillerson appeared on White House public schedules for a lunch, dinner, or an Oval Office meeting with Trump eight times, usually for private meetings. That tally doesn’t include his regular informal pop-ins to the White House. Tillerson typically spends unscheduled time with Trump in the Oval Office before or after NSC principals committee meetings, which the president does not attend.

In that same period, Trump met in the White House with another favored cabinet member, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, just three times.

“I don’t think it’s ever been true that Tillerson had limited influence,” said Elliot Abrams, the neo-conservative veteran of two administrations who was Tillerson’s initial choice for No. 2 at the State Department, though Trump nixed his appointment. “He’s always had influence, it just wasn’t visible outside yet.”

Abrams said that Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster have formed “a triangle of people with the greatest influence, and that probably grows now because of the Syria strike, because it was so successful in military and political terms.” And Abrams argued that while Trump’s veto of his job at State was “taken to be a slap at Tillerson – I think that was a mistake. I don’t think my situation had anything to do with the president’s view of Tillerson. They spend an awful lot of time together.”

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