By Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott
WASHINGTON, March 16 (Reuters) - While he has swallowed a big budget cut, had his chosen deputy vetoed, and been dismissed as invisible in his own building, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is playing a patient game to gain influence by avoiding public conflicts with the White House, six current and former U.S. officials said on Thursday.
The former Exxon Mobil Corp CEO faces multiple challenges in his unfamiliar role as chief U.S. diplomat, including a boss in U.S. President Donald Trump who makes unpredictable policy pronouncements and does not take kindly to criticism or contradiction, said four current officials.
Relations between U.S. presidents and their chief diplomats have varied widely in history, but those between Trump and Tillerson are especially important because of potential conflicts between the unsettled state of the world and Trump's "America First" agenda, two of the officials said.
As a result, they said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, Tillerson is trying to keep a low profile, which is his natural instinct, and seeking a way to make his case on foreign policy without being drawn into losing battles.
One case in point is Thursday's White House proposal to cut spending on U.S. diplomacy and foreign aid by some 28 percent, a sign that the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are not Trump priorities.
On Thursday in Tokyo, Tillerson said the State Department's current spending is "simply not sustainable," and accepted the "challenge" Trump had given in proposing to cut more than a quarter of his agency's budget.
"He is making a very sensible calculation," said a former U.S. official, noting that Congress, not the president, holds the purse strings. "You state your loyalty to the president, and then you know that you will not actually have to live with the president's budget."
NO WAY TO WIN 'HEAD-TO-HEAD' BATTLES
Two current and former officials said Tillerson is no stranger to cost cuts, having lived through waves of them at Exxon, and they suggested that he had convinced the White House to allow him to make many of the cuts himself.
"Tillerson isn't opposed to cutting the budget at all, but he figured out that he couldn't win head-to-head battles with the president and the people close to him, so he's pursuing a different strategy, arguing that he can't make wise decisions about what to cut until he's more familiar with his department and its budget," said one veteran State Department official.
Michael Anton, a National Security Council spokesman, said Tillerson is held in high regard at the White House.
"President Trump has the utmost confidence in the Secretary of State and looks forward to Mr. Tillerson implementing a bold agenda to revitalize American foreign policy," Anton said.
While he is delaying some of the drastic cuts the White House wanted, it is far from clear that Tillerson can prevail over Trump aides such as Steve Bannon who want to dismantle parts of the federal government and limit U.S. engagement with the world, said three of the current and former officials.
The White House veto of Elliot Abrams, Tillerson's choice for deputy secretary, the department's second-highest post, "drove that point home," one of the current officials said.
Despite that defeat, a White House official said Tillerson has good access to the president, including multiple lunches, dinners and meetings. Tillerson dined with Trump on Monday, the night before he flew to Asia.
Tillerson's low profile - he held his first news conference on Thursday in Tokyo seven weeks after becoming secretary of state - has brought criticism from the media and many State Department officials that he remains invisible and has failed to cultivate potential allies in Trump's cabinet and on Capitol Hill.
Chas Freeman, a retired diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and as the lead interpreter for former President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, said Tillerson's low-key style might be a survival tactic.
"If he says something, he runs a big risk of getting crosswise with Trump," Freeman said. "This may be a Fabian strategy," referring to the Roman statesman Fabius who defeated the Carthaginian general Hannibal by avoiding frontal conflict.
(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed and John Walcott; Editing by James Dalgleish)