Most Americans probably won’t get especially worked up by the news that Rex W. Tillerson is out as secretary of state. The 65-year-old former ExxonMobil CEO didn’t rack up a lot of foreign policy accomplishments in his one-year tenure and will likely best be remembered for two things — a singular drive to reduce the staffing within his department (seemingly to the detriment of its diplomatic mission) and a strained relationship with President Donald Trump. One could write a book about how often the president and his secretary of state were not on the same page, including, most famously, the time Mr. Tillerson allegedly referred to Mr. Trump as an expletive-ing “moron.”
On paper, shouldn’t the two men have gotten along better? Both came from the private sector and had no government experience. Both are rich and accustomed to getting their way. Both are friends of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But here’s where things seemed to fall apart: Mr. Tillerson clearly thought he would have the traditional authority of past secretaries of state and that U.S. foreign policy would be, if not devised in Foggy Bottom, at least arrived at in some rational, thoughtful manner with his consultation.
What a silly Texan.
This was a marriage destined to fail because Mr. Tillerson is simply too logical, too possessed with IQ points (more about that in a moment) and too unrelated to President Trump by blood or marriage to have a free hand in setting the country’s diplomatic course. If there’s anything the public is going to miss about the outgoing secretary of state, it’s those special moments when Tillerson reasonableness ran headfirst into Trump randomness like some kind of eight-car pileup on I-95. Their final conflict appeared to be over negotiations with North Korea. Mr. Trump unilaterally decided last week to meet with Kim Jong-un. Mr. Tillerson was left out in the cold — specifically in Africa.
For all his success in the oil business, Mr. Tillerson was probably not a good fit for the current GOP either. He made it clear he didn’t like talking to the media. Despite earlier ties to Mr. Putin, he was willing to point a finger at Russia for meddling in the last election. He recognized that the Iran nuclear deal was too valuable to sabotage or walk away from as Mr. Trump wanted to do. In other words, he didn’t walk the populist party line easily. From the beginning, it was clear he was going to have to compete with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had an outsized role in the foreign policy arena despite having too many conflicts of interest to qualify for a top security clearance.
Surely, the die was cast last fall when the moron remark came to light and President Trump publicly suggested the two men take an IQ test. “I can tell you who is going to win,” the president told Forbes magazine. Alas, the test never happened. (Mental note: Check out “Celebrity Apprentice 2020” when the two might actually get the chance in a couple of years.)
Some may see Mr. Tillerson’s departure as one less adult in the cabinet to help steady an erratic president and a “day care” White House, but we’re not so confident that Mr. Tillerson was doing that so much as getting under the presidential skin while simultaneously failing in what would have seemed his strong suit — managing a large organization — by leaving key posts empty and generally alienating those who were there. CIA Director (and former congressman from Kansas) Mike Pompeo, whom President Trump is nominating to replace Mr. Tillerson at the State Department, is much more of a D.C. insider who seems to have less aversion to drinking Trump’s brand of Kool-Aid. He doesn’t have much experience in diplomacy either, having served on the House Intelligence Committee, not Foreign Affairs, but at this point, that’s probably just quibbling. He’s at least likely to read his daily briefings, which puts him a step ahead of his boss.
Given how much the Trump administration has been a revolving door for White House advisers, this personnel move feels almost overdue. We will miss those moments of Tillerson common sense — like actually calling out Russia for the poisoning of an ex-spy in Great Britain or questioning U.S. military goals in Afghanistan — but we’re not certain that the Trump administration lost its biggest star so much as succeeded in humiliating a once-proud CEO.
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