Rex Tillerson went rogue, constantly disagreed with the man who hired him and reportedly called him a “moron” — an “(expletive) moron,” actually. The secretary of state’s boss did what aggrieved bosses do — fired him, by tweet, of course.
That Tillerson stayed as long as he did in the Trump administration is nothing short of amazing. President Trump increasingly humiliated him at every turn, finally saying straight out on Tuesday that he and the country’s chief diplomat were “not really thinking the same.”
In exercising his prerogative, the president did absolutely the right thing. Trump, like any commander in chief, needs a secretary that’s in sync with his thinking, whose opinion he’ll trust, who will not be at odds, publicly with the boss. That person, Trump announced Tuesday, will be CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who will step into the secretary’s position — for how long, we wouldn’t dare guess. The revolving door delivering then dispatching top administration officials has been spinning so fast as to create another nor’easter.
The sniping back and forth between Tillerson and Trump undercut any credibility that the secretary of state might have carried with him around the globe. Who could take him at his word when Trump stood ready to kneecap him when he returned home?
Trump has no use for the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris Accord on climate change. Tillerson pushed back. While Trump traded braggadocious tweets with Kim Jong Un, even threatening to attack if pushed to the brink, Tillerson sought to walk softly — and without a big stick. Last week, while Tillerson pooh-poohed the possibility of negotiations with North Korea, Trump leaped at the chance — the very same day — to meet Kim. The secretary thought moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was a bad idea. It’s going to move.
And Russia. Always Russia. When criticizing Vladimir Putin, Tillerson could never gain any traction in the Trump White House, which is no surprise at all. It has been reported that the final straw was Tillerson’s resolute comments to reporters that the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, was “clearly” the work of the Russians. Indeed, from the weird chemical used to the public nature of the act, the poisoning bears Putin’s hallmarks. For his part, Trump, not known for nuance, was fuzzier, pledging to do some fact-checking and “condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”
Plus, Tillerson’s job is done, isn’t it? The president seems to have a deft touch in appointing to his cabinet people who have undisguised antipathy for the departments they lead and the Americans those departments are supposed to champion. Think Betsy DeVos, and her dismantling of a range of protections, from student disability rights to making it harder for students scammed by for-profit college loan programs to receive loan forgiveness. Think Ben Carson dropping anti-discrimination language from HUD’s mission statement, a move he now is rethinking.
Under Tillerson, the U.S. State Department has been gutted by attrition, policy creep and neglect. The push for human rights was sidelined. A dubious reorganization sent long-time professionals of the diplomatic corps out the door.
Tillerson wasn’t listening to them, anyway.
Pompeo could be good for Trump. He’s much more in sync with Trump’s hardline views and improvisational policy whims. Whether Pompeo is good for the United States and its position as the democratic standard bearer in the world is an iffier proposition.