Earlier this week, U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The move came as a surprise even though the president’s dissatisfaction with Tillerson was well known and the departure had been rumored for months. Dismissal is the president’s prerogative, but the manner in which it was done does not inspire confidence that this move will remedy problems that have engulfed this administration in general, and foreign policy in particular.
Trump picked Tillerson to be his secretary of state after a distinguished career at ExxonMobile, concluding as its chief executive. He had no formal training in diplomacy — although that job required him to negotiate with heads of state and navigate geopolitical currents — but Trump reportedly thought he looked the part.
Tillerson had a rocky tenure at the State Department. He quickly alienated staff by adopting an insular style that relied on a small circle of intimates, seemingly ignoring and disdaining career foreign service officers and he focused on cutting the department by one-third. He embraced rather than fought draconian budget cuts. Senior officials retired, depriving the State Department of knowledge and experience, and morale plummeted among those who remained. Post-mortems — like analyses before he was fired — concluded that Tillerson will be remembered as a disastrous secretary of state.
More important than those assessments was the president’s view of Tillerson’s performance, and his dissatisfaction was on full display. The reasons were many: Important differences in opinion between the two men on issues as important as the Iran nuclear deal, the U.S. move to Jerusalem, exiting the Paris climate accord, dealing with North Korea and relations with Russia.
Perhaps more damning than policy disagreements in the president’s eyes was Tillerson’s disapproval of Trump’s behavior. Tillerson was said to be ready to resign over Trump’s politicization of his appearance at the Boy Scouts of America 2017 Jamboree — Tillerson is a lifelong scout and was president of the group from 2010-2012. He distanced himself from Trump’s comments equating both sides in the wake of the Charlottesville violence. And Tillerson reportedly called Trump “a [expletive] moron” after one national security meeting.
At the end of last year, rumors of Tillerson’s imminent departure had reached a crescendo, but he remained in office and appeared to have turned a corner, winning the president’s confidence as well as turning the tide of opinion in Foggy Bottom. But Trump still fired him Tuesday morning. The trigger is unclear: The week before, Chief of Staff John Kelly had told Tilllerson that his departure was imminent but no time frame was set. The president announced the news by tweet; Tillerson was not contacted for another three hours, reported Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public affairs. That truth telling, which contradicted the White House version of events, got the undersecretary fired as well.
While the departure was messy, it is for the best for the State Department. It is essential that the secretary of state enjoy the president’s confidence and that his interlocutors know that he speaks for the president. There was no such guarantee that when Tillerson spoke he did, in fact, represent the president. As Trump himself explained, “we were not really thinking the same.” Trump’s readiness to undermine his secretary fatally damaged Tillerson’s credibility and the practice of U.S. diplomacy.
Mike Pompeo, the current CIA director and former congressman who has been nominated to replace Tillerson, should not have that problem. Trump has made clear his affection for Pompeo — they bonded over the morning intelligence briefing that Pompeo often delivers in person to the president — and has praised how their thinking is in sync. Both men have hawkish views, especially on Iran. Pompeo has mischaracterized the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in U.S. elections in ways that accord with Trump’s view that Moscow played no role in his 2016 win.
Ironically, Trump is most distant from Pompeo on North Korea. Tillerson was the loudest voice in the administration calling for negotiations with Pyongyang, a view the Trump disdained until he accepted Kim Jong Un’s offer to talk. Foreign Minister Taro Kono traveled to the U.S. this week in a bid to ensure that U.S. and Japanese positions remain aligned on North Korea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will follow up with a visit in April. Kono has called the dismissal “unfortunate” and said that he will miss the “frank and trustworthy” Tillerson. Tillerson’s departure means that U.S. foreign policy is likely to take a harder line. Personnel shake-ups will likely continue, with Kelly and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster reported to be soon to go. Regardless of who replaces them, U.S. partners and especially Japan, must prepare for uncertainty and confusion in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. That seems to be the president’s preference — an alarming, if not inexplicable, approach.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.