Tuesday’s public firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, by presidential tweet no less, is a bizarre and veritable head-exploder.
Having worked for half a dozen secretaries of state, I thought I’d seen most everything when it came to bureaucratic intrigue and soap opera politics, particularly regarding relations between the White House and State Department. Well, welcome to Trumpland.
Here are my takeaways from Tuesday’s announcement:
Unprecedented decision: If you needed further evidence that the Trump administration is the most idiosyncratic of any in the modern period, this decision should remove all doubt. The firing of a secretary of state on social media is both humiliating and without precedent. Two have resigned over principle — William Jennings Bryan over Woodrow Wilson’s policies toward the war in Europe and Cyrus Vance over Jimmy Carter’s failed rescue mission of the Iranian hostages. And one, Alexander Haig, left because of rivalries within the Reagan administration. But none, since 1945, has been fired. And this is all the stranger given Tillerson’s desire to stay.
Yet also inevitable: It is likely that Tillerson’s days were numbered almost from the beginning. Trump considered any number of candidates, including Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and others, before settling on Tillerson. And Tillerson was never a major influencer of Trump’s thinking, even once he had been appointed — and perhaps it’s because they differed on major policy issues from Iran to North Korea to Russia. It’s no surprise that Trump blindsided Tillerson on the North Korean summit just last week. If anything, it was a reflection that Tillerson had already been completely marginalized by this administration.
But Tillerson didn’t help himself. He was critical of Trump — after the latter’s response to violence last year in Charlottesville, Virginia, Tillerson said, “The President speaks for himself,” and several months later, reports surfaced that Tillerson had called Trump a “moron.” Tillerson also chose to focus on State Department reform, which created huge morale problems internally and painted him as more of a CEO than a committed foreign policy player. Worse yet, he made himself barely visible in the public conversation.
The reality is that with this President, Tillerson never had a chance. As early as last fall, reports circulated that Trump was considering replacing Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Was a planned summit with North Korea the reason for the firing? What precipitated the decision to fire Tillerson is unclear. Trump has said they disagreed on key foreign policy issues. But it may well be — and we can only speculate — that the approaching summit on North Korea played a role. The summit will require coordination and seamless planning, not strong suits of this administration. And it would have required a point person to lead and to prepare the President.
There was no one in the administration well-positioned to play this role, and I’m certain that Trump cringed at the thought of having Tillerson — someone he neither likes nor trusts — assume such responsibility. But Pompeo kills both birds with one stone: He is a Trump loyalist and confidant and someone whose views on dealing with North Korea reflect Trump’s harder line approach. It was Pompeo, after all, who spoke publicly about regime change in Pyongyang.
Will Pompeo make a difference? That depends. The real issue is this: Will the President empower him publicly to be the sole repository of authority on foreign policy and to speak for the President? Trump certainly didn’t do that with Tillerson. And will Pompeo be able to influence Trump in a way Tillerson could not? Clearly the two share similar views. But when they don’t, will Pompeo speak forcefully in private or just enable Trump’s worst impulses?
Clearly, Tillerson’s firing is a cautionary tale. Pompeo likely won’t cross Trump publicly. But perhaps their affinity for one another will allow Pompeo to make counter-arguments when they disagree.
If Pompeo doesn’t challenge Trump at all, it may make the foreign policy trains run more smoothly, but it will do little to serve the national interest. The President will be denied what he needs most: someone whom he respects and who can offer him honest counsel and alternative solutions — and most importantly, someone who will tell him when he’s wrong.