Tillerson scores personnel win with East Asia adviser nomination
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 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 K. 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