It appears that those who have been calling for Rex Tillerson’s head—which includes most of the foreign policy know-it-alls inside the Beltway—may have finally gotten their wish. The Trump administration’s public shaming of Tillerson this week—seeking to degrade and humiliate him into resignation, like something out of “Game of Thrones,” minus the blood, dragons and nudity—doubtless accelerated the likelihood of a “Rexit.
This isn’t a Shakespearean tragedy; Tillerson was a self-made man, had a brilliant career at Exxon-Mobil, has gobs of money and if/when he departs Trumpland, will likely live happily ever after.
On Friday afternoon, Trump himself took to Twitter to deny that change was afoot: “The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon - FAKE NEWS! He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!” Even so, Tillerson’s position appears untenable.
But before we say goodbye to a man who may well turn out be the shortest-tenured secretary of State in modern history, it's critical that his situation at State be properly understood. We don’t come to this space to bury or praise him. But it is important—at least from our vantage point of decades of experience at State—to get a better perspective on what went wrong, in part because whoever succeeds him may well face the same impossible conundrum.
We’d be the first to admit that Tillerson—a veritable ingénue in the strange ways of State, Washington, and the Trump orbit—was probably not the best guy for the job. Alone among secretaries of state in the modern period, Tillerson had no government or military experience and was totally a product of the private sector. He reportedly wasn’t Trump’s first, second or even third choice for the job (we wonder sometimes if Trump selected Tillerson because in the president’s vision of the alpha males, he looked like a secretary of state, straight out of central casting). And, of course, he was working for a president who was a foreign policy Neanderthal.
We agree with many of Tillerson’s critics: He played a bad hand badly. He was too insular and secretive, failing to engage senior and experienced department officials; too willing to accept the White House’s severe cuts to State’s budget without a fight; too invisible, unwilling to engage constituencies and do public station identification on what American foreign policy meant under the Trump Administration; and too committed to a redesign/reform program that seemed devoid of any strategic logic to just about anyone familiar with the State Department.
And yet despite all of these missteps and mistakes, we believe that because of the preternatural strangeness of Trumpland, Tillerson never had chance to succeed. In the end, he was trapped on the one hand between a president with little regard for diplomacy or the State Department (and who possessed, at best, a passing superficial respect for him), and on the other hand, the cruel and unforgiving realities of a world beyond America’s shores, which left him with a bundle of challenges impossible to manage, let alone resolve.
This isn’t a conundrum that will magically solve itself after Tillerson leaves the Cabinet; it may, in fact, be endemic to the job under this president. Because if there’s one thing to learn from the last 10 months at State, it’s that Rex Tillerson is a cautionary tale of what happens in Trumpland when you are too independent, when you speak your mind and are not afraid to tell the president when he is wrong.
It’s often said in Washington that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” From where Trump sits, Tillerson stands atop an institution that the president doesn’t value, respect, or understand—and perhaps even despises. Trump has generally shown contempt for diplomacy and multilateral agreements (many of which were negotiated by the State Department) and little respect for the alliances, partnerships, and coalitions that State spends much of its time building and strengthening.
There can be no doubt that the vindictive and petty Trump never forgave the department for the dissent many of its top officials expressed in January over his first “travel ban” executive order. He has been exacting his pound of flesh ever since, most notably with the draconian cuts he ordered in State’s international affairs budget. Nor can there be any doubt that when Trump looks at the State Department through his warped, outdated, and conspiracy-minded nationalist lens, he sees an internationalist and elitist institution that is the antithesis of his “America First” trope—one that represents the foreign policy establishment that he and the Bannonites loathe and is teeming with disloyal Democrats who voted for Hillary Clinton and are bent on sabotaging his foreign policies. Make no mistake: the president is not interested in reforming or redesigning the State Department to make it more efficient and effective; he wants to emasculate State to salve his own ego and the grievances he nurses against it.
In our decades of working for both Republican and Democratic administrations, every President at least went through the motions of empowering his secretary of state. That’s not to say that every secretary had the same influence with their boss, nor is it to ignore the reality that over the years, both the Pentagon and the National Security Agency have encroached on State’s responsibilities. But all presidents worked to make the nation’s top diplomat the sole repository of authority on foreign policy. The secretary of state helped shape, craft and articulate that policy; and allies and adversaries understood that.
Not so in Trumpland. Not only has this president failed to empower Tillerson, he has actively and consistently undermined him in myriad ways—first by letting a thousand flowers bloom. Trump may well enjoy controlled chaos, but Tillerson quickly found himself in the anomalous position of contending with several would-be de facto secretaries of state: Trump made the inexperienced and politically naïve Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, his point man on Arab-Israeli issues—relegating the State Department to the sidelines for the first time since the Nixon Administration—and on relations with such key countries as China, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico. Aside from Kushner, there was Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, who until leaving the White House in August, was effectively running policy on immigration and travel bans and crafting inflammatory language on all things Muslim. Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was allowed to expound on any foreign policy issue of the day, including giving a major policy address on Iran in Washington that elevated dissembling to a whole new level. Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, was given charge of what remained of climate change policy. And then of course there was the president himself—who, while legitimately occupying the role of “the decider,” was prone to Twitter tantrums and unscripted conversations with foreign leaders, unmoored and untethered from a rational, organized, and disciplined policy process—disconnected, of course, from what Tillerson was trying to do.
Trump’s views broke sharply from Tillerson on just about every issue. Tillerson rightly believed the Saudi campaign against Qatar was overkill, and tried to mediate; the president publicly sided with the Saudis. Tillerson argued for maintaining the nuclear agreement with Iran; Trump disavowed it. Tillerson supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership; Trump scrapped it. Tillerson advocated for the Paris Climate accord; Trump has threatened to pull out of it. Tillerson attempted to open a diplomatic track with North Korea; Trump belittled him for it and undermined his overtures to Pyongyang. Tillerson called for sustaining a hard line against Vladimir Putin on Ukraine; Trump hasn’t shown an interest in doing the same.
Time and again, Trump consistently rejected most of Tillerson’s advice—and so often, this happened in such a public manner that it raised questions about whether Tillerson really spoke for the president, undermining his credibility with allies and adversaries alike.
In the wake of yesterday’s White House shaming of Tillerson, you can probably now hang a “closed for the season” sign on Tillerson’s effectiveness. For as long as he remains at State, he’ll be a lame duck.
The other half of Tillerson’s problem—one that will greet his successor, regardless of his or her relationship with Trump—is the state of the world beyond America’s shores. At least for now, the era of heroic diplomacy is over.
Perhaps Tillerson might have redeemed his tenure with Trump had he been able to solve a problem or even manage it adroitly. But the inconvenient truth is that there’s not a single problem out there that offers an easy and quick solution or that can be resolved in a comprehensive manner.
Whether its North Korea’s nuclear weapons, a China contesting America’s global dominance, an aggressive Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the future of war-torn Syria, or Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East, America faces impossible missions, hopeless causes, and long shots at success. It’s a management rather than resolution game, and to manage you need a strategy, a coherent policy process, a staff that knows what it’s doing, and, above all, a president who shares his secretary of state’s views and is prepared to empower that person in a consistent and sustained manner.
To some degree, talented secretaries of state can make their own breaks. Tillerson had many of the right policy instincts, but none of the assets that would have given him a chance to succeed abroad or at home in the face of a volatile and unpredictable President.
At some point, whether imminently or over the coming weeks, Rex Tillerson will presumably depart, most likely as a result of a negotiated agreement with the president that will allow the secretary of state to make it look like he left on his own terms. His tenure at State thus far has been a sad affair, and his legacy, barring an unforeseen miracle, will be one of frustration and failure. Still, it’s hard to pin most of the blame for those facts on Tillerson. With this president, Tillerson never had a chance.
It remains to be seen whether Mike Pompeo, the CIA director and Trump’s reported favorite to become the next secretary of state, can succeed where Tillerson failed. It is possible that, by dint of a closer relationship to the president, his Beltway political chops, and natural affinity with many of Trump’s views, that the railroad will run more smoothly. But to paraphrase former Secretary of State James Baker, he has to be both the White House’s man at the State Department and the State Department’s man at the White House. It will be a high-wire act where the footing is treacherous, because of the malevolent influence that Trump’s politics, personality, and id exert on his foreign policy and his relationships.
At the end of the day, Pompeo will have to make a choice between standing up to the president—as most good secretary of states must to do from time to time to protect the national interest—or sucking up. Maybe Pompeo will demonstrate the courage and independence necessary to protect the Republic’s interests and find ways to influence the president to do the same. But one thing is certain: Seeing how attempts at independence and speaking truth to power worked out for Tillerson, Pompeo will clearly try to avoid following in his footsteps.