It’s done. The inevitable has now happened. A secretary of state who was never particularly liked nor trusted by the president has now been unceremoniously fired – the first such removal of a secretary of state in the modern history of the United States. It may be that the thin-skinned Donald Trump decided to can Rex Tillerson after he reportedly called the president “a fucking moron” last year, and only now felt ready to drop the guillotine.
But before Tillerson rides off into the Texas sunset and is dismissed by his critics as the worst secretary of state in decades, let’s be honest about something: Tillerson may have played his hand badly. But the one he was dealt all but guaranteed a premature departure or marginalization. In short, the secretary’s fate was never entirely in his hands the minute he decided to offer honest instead of enabling and toady advice the president. And here’s why:
Trump Never took State or Diplomacy Seriously.
Tillerson was clearly not Trump’s first, second or third choice for the job. The process of choosing a secretary of state – orchestrated publicly like an episode of “The Apprentice” – reflected the president’s scattershot style and also his apparent disinterest in getting the most qualified person for the job. The parade of candidates—Rudy Guiliani, Nikki Haley, Newt Gingrich and even Mitt Romney—was unconventional and the vetting process desultory. Tillerson came late in the process. And while he came highly recommended by respected foreign policy professionals such as Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, he was the first top diplomat in modern American history to lack any government experience. Sometimes we got the feeling that Trump picked him because he looked straight out of central casting and, like Trump, was a wealthy business executive and alpha male. Trump seemed to distrust foreign policy professionals and parked Tillerson at State not to empower diplomacy but to bury it with budget cuts and staffing reductions. And as far as Cabinet appointments went, Trump appeared to turn what is traditionally the government’s second or third most influential position into its least consequential—to the point that most people paid no attention to what the nation’s chief diplomat had to say because he was not seen as speaking for the president. Tillerson certainly didn’t help matters by focusing on redesigning the State Department and running it like a feudal baron managing his serfs, causing morale to plummet and becoming veritably invisible publicly when a secretary of state’s job is to articulate foreign policy to the world.
Tillerson Never Had the President’s Ear.
Based on our experience, to be a successful secretary of state requires two things: first, the support of the president at home and abroad, and second, genuine opportunities beyond America’s shores that offer diplomacy a chance to manage or even fix problems. At least until the North Korean summit opening, a cruel and unforgiving world denied Tillerson the second thing; and Trump denied Tillerson the first. Most, if not all, of Trump’s predecessors at least went through the motions of telling Washington and the world that their secretaries of state were the repositories of the White House’s voice and confidence when it came to foreign policy. There were differences, to be sure. George H.W. Bush had an exceptionally close relationship with James Baker. But most pairs at least respected one another; presidents didn’t embarrass their secretaries of state let alone humiliate them, nor were they embarrassed by them. Trump’s mercurial personality, his foreign policy by tweets and lack of impulse control when it came to discussions with foreign leaders, along with his willingness to delegate a variety of issues to anyone but Tillerson, left little room at the inn for his nominal secretary of state. Son-in-law Jared Kushner got the Arab-Israeli issue and served as special envoy to China, Mexico and Saudi Arabia; what was left of climate change went to Gary Cohn; Mattis—a Tillerson ally—was running three wars; and over at the U.N., Nikki Haley was pronouncing on a variety of issues normally reserved for a secretary of state. Their open disagreement on policy, epitomized by Trump’s tweet when Tillerson was out in Asia that the secretary of state was wasting his time on North Korea diplomacy, said it all: Trump wasn’t empowering Tillerson; on the contrary, he was disempowering him.
They Operated in Parallel Policy Universes.
Tillerson did a terrific version of the old Groucho Marx song “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It.” The secretary made a game effort at pretending that he and the president were always on the same page of the playbook, but who was he kidding? The two men had profound differences on just about every major policy issue. Trump quit the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement; Tillerson was against leaving the pact. Trump pulled the plug on America’s participation in the Paris Climate Accord; Tillerson favored honoring America’s commitment to the agreement. The president wanted to trash the Iranian nuclear deal; Tillerson urged the president to certify Iran’s continued compliance and to stick to its terms. The president slapped steep tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, including from several of our major allies; Tillerson argued against them. Trump called into question America’s security commitments to our NATO allies, Japan and South Korea; Tillerson hit the road several times to tell our allies to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Trump unnecessarily pissed off the leaders of Australia and Mexico in rude phone calls; Tillerson had to clean up the mess the president left behind. Trump has folded to Putin like a cheap card-table; Tillerson showed spine in calling the Russians to the carpet for their many transgressions; the president has slavishly supported Saudi Arabia’s reckless policies toward Lebanon and Qatar; Tillerson pushed for a more balanced and nuanced policy. Trump made an ill-advised decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel; Tillerson recoiled at the notion. The president seemed ready to unleash the mongrel dogs of war against North Korea; Tillerson was a tireless advocate of diplomacy and dialogue and for his efforts was publicly knee-capped by Trump and completely cut out of the loop on his decision to meet with Kim Jung Un. On all of these issues, Tillerson was tilting at windmills because, as Trump often reminded the American people, his voice is the only one that matters on foreign policy. Given all this policy daylight between the two men and the indignities Tillerson suffered at the small hands of Trump, it’s a mystery why the Texas oilman stayed on for as long as he did.
Now that Tillerson is gone, what difference will it make? Like the dog that finally catches up with mail truck, the anybody-but-Rex crowd may look back upon his tenure with, if not regret and a genuine sense of nostalgia, then at least mixed emotions.Trump is more ideologically and politically attuned with Tillerson’s would-be successor, CIA director Mike Pompeo, and therefore the new secretary of state might have more influence over the president—up to the point at which the famously mercurial president goes rogue. And don’t expect Pompeo to be a voice for diplomacy and restraint. He seems inclined by experience, ideology and politics to reach for military over diplomatic solutions and he saw what happened when Tillerson, in Trump’s eyes, got too big for his britches. Is it realistic to assume that the president, under Pompeo’s sway, will have a sudden religious conversion on the importance of diplomacy, expertise, the State Department, alliances, multilateral cooperation and America’s continued leadership of what is left of the liberal international order? Don’t bet on it. When was the last time the president ever admitted he made a mistake, that he was wrong, or that he should have done things differently? The problem was never really Rex Tillerson; it was always Donald Trump.