On Africa trip, Tillerson blames clearance issues for diplomatic vacancies

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Photo by: Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores / CC BY-SA

NAIROBI — Dozens of key U.S. diplomatic appointments lay vacant globally, despite the Trump administration entering its 14th month in office. This can be blamed on the slow clearance process of nominees, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a press conference in Nairobi.  

The Trump administration has been criticized for the sluggish pace at which it has staffed key appointments globally, such as failing to appoint a U.S. ambassador to South Korea at a time when tensions between the U.S. and North Korea continue to escalate.

This also includes failing to staff up roles in parts of the world in turmoil, including ambassadors to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic, where observers have called for increased efforts to find a political solution to the escalating conflicts. Some of these positions are still waiting for a nominee, while others have nominees pending confirmation.

“Along the way, not surprisingly, things come up and people decide they don’t want to proceed any further, or things come up that disqualify individuals,” said Tillerson, noting that he doesn’t “lose a wink of sleep” over the vacancies, saying the U.S. Department of State is fully functional despite the vacancies.

“We are moving the policies forward and nothing is being held up because the positions are open,” he said. These comments come just weeks after the White House’s budget request for 2019 called to slash U.S. foreign affairs spending by roughly one-third.

Tillerson is in Kenya as part of a five-country tour of African nations, visiting also Ethiopia, Djibouti, Chad, and Nigeria. The trip is focused heavily on enhancing security cooperation, as well as opening up trade and investment opportunities between the U.S. and the continent.

In a speech at George Mason University right before leaving on the trip, Tillerson said one of the reasons he is visiting Kenya, in particular, is the country’s success in the implementation of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The program was launched in 2003 by U.S. President George W. Bush and supports more than 13.3 million HIV positive people with antiretroviral treatment.

But this program was on the chopping block in Trump’s budget request, with calls to cut the program by $1.2 billion, in comparison to the funding levels in 2017, even after PEPFAR received a $400 million boost when the budget deal was announced, according to the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. This is the second year that the White House’s budget proposals have called for funding cuts to global efforts to fight HIV/AIDS. Congress rejected those cuts and maintained levels of spending of PEPFAR.

“Despite the fact that cuts haven’t happened yet, years of flat funding poses its own insidious threat. There are still significant treatment gaps and other resource-driven limitations that will prevent us from ending AIDS as an epidemic — a prospect that is very possible with adequate resources,” Jessica Bassett, director of communications for Health Gap, told Devex.

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About the author

  • Headshot sarajerving

    Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is Devex's East Africa Correspondent based in Nairobi. She is a reporter and producer, whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Nation magazine, among others. Sara holds a master's degree in business and economic reporting from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow.