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Ex Tillerson's team was fighting again. "So, who's going to go in with him?" Margaret Peterlin, his chief of staff, was saying. She looked me up and down with an expression that suggested she'd discovered a pest in the house. We were standing at the wide double doors into the Secretary of State's office on Mahogany Row, the opulent, wood-panelled corridor on the seventh floor of the State Department's Washington, D.C., headquarters, which houses the most powerful offices in American foreign policy. Steven Goldstein, the Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, folded his arms and stared daggers at Peterlin. "Well, I guess I won't be," he told her. "Heather can go." Goldstein tilted his head toward Tillerson's spokesperson, the former Fox News anchor Heather Nauert. Peterlin narrowed her eyes at Goldstein. "Are you sure?" she said, with theatrical displeasure. Goldstein didn't reply. Tillerson strode up to the door, cutting the tension. Nauert and Peterlin joined the interview, along with Tillerson's director of policy planning, Brian Hook. Goldstein remained outside. (Peterlin said that she was following a rule enacted by Secretary Tillerson that only one communications officer be allowed in his interviews.) Such discord often simmered just under the surface in the year before Tillerson's unceremonious firing, in March, according to multiple members of his embattled inner circle. Often, it emanated from Peterlin, a formidable attorney, U.S. Navy veteran, and former congressional staffer who helped draft the Patriot Act after the September 11th attacks and guided Tillerson through his confirmation process. When she was passed a note indicating I'd arrived that day, she'd given the rest of the team an ultimatum: from the public-relations staff, only Goldstein would be permitted in the interview. Goldstein had pointed out that Nauert, as spokesperson, would be responsible for answering ensuing public questions. Peterlin insisted that there was simply no room. One staffer present said that there was another motivation: Peterlin had been lobbying to get Nauert fired. (Peterlin said that she did not lobby to fire Nauert, and pointed out that Nauert still holds her position as spokesperson today.) The standoff hadn't been resolved by the time I was ushered in to see Tillerson, nor as I left, when a second contretemps erupted over who would stay behind with the Secretary. (Goldstein again insisted on Nauert, visibly vexing Peterlin.) This squabbling barely qualified as drama, but displaying it so openly in front of a reporter was at odds with the kind of tightly organized messaging prized by most of Tillerson's predecessors. It provided a small window into a State Department that appeared to be plunged into chaos at every level. In that meeting, in January, Tillerson was wearing a charcoal suit and a canary-yellow tie, patterned with horseshoes. He was sitting, legs crossed, in one of the blue-and-gold upholstered chairs in the Secretary's office. Tillerson had redecorated, replacing the portraits of dead diplomats with scenes of the American West. He got compared to a cowboy a lot, and, between the d├ęcor and the horseshoes, he appeared to be leaning into it. The name helped: Rex Wayne Tillerson, after Rex Allen and John Wayne, the actors behind some of Hollywood's most indelible swaggering cowboys.
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