Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stepped in front of the cameras this morning and extolled the spectacular success of the Trump administration’s foreign policy and the glittering brilliance of the president himself, and made clear (in more ways than one) that he wants to keep his job. As for whether he thinks his boss is a moron, on that we’ll just have to keep wondering.
But before we get to Tillerson’s brief remarks and what they tell us about this president and this administration, some context. This morning, NBC News described an incident that reportedly occurred some time ago:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning this past summer amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, according to multiple senior administration officials who were aware of the situation at the time.
The tensions came to a head around the time President Donald Trump delivered a politicized speech in late July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led, the officials said.
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident.
A report like that is the kind of thing that could cost you your job when you’re working for President Trump, a man who demands not just loyalty but also a constant stream of praise. Many people predicted that it would be the last straw for Tillerson, either because the president would fire him or he’d walk away. All along, Trump has been undercutting Tillerson in humiliating ways. To take just the most recent example, while Tillerson was working to open lines of communication with North Korea, Trump tweeted, “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” This informed the world that anything Tillerson does could be reversed at a moment’s notice according to the president’s whims.
In taking the job at the State Department, Tillerson was hampered by his lack of experience in government or diplomacy, but he has made things far worse through a kind of malign neglect of the department he leads. The administration hasn’t bothered to nominate people for most of the senior positions at the State Department; Tillerson has supported the idea of brutal cuts to his department’s budget; and people within the department report that he has ignored the expertise of career diplomats, cocooning himself with a small number of aides. As Foreign Policy magazine described it a couple of months ago:
A hostile White House is slashing its budget, the rank and file are cut off from a detached leader, and morale has plunged to historic lows. They say President Donald Trump and his administration dismiss, undermine, or don’t bother to understand the work they perform and that the legacy of decades of American diplomacy is at risk.
All that has led to one headline after another along the lines of “How Rex Tillerson Is Wrecking the State Department,” “Rex Tillerson Is Running the State Department Into the Ground” and “How the Trump Administration Broke the State Department,” articles that are filled with quotes from shocked and dismayed current and former officials describing the carnage.
The combination of Tillerson’s evident distaste for his own department and his treatment at Trump’s hands made it seem possible that he’d be announcing his resignation today. It seemed all the more likely since, unlike some other members of the Trump Cabinet — such as Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt and Tom Price before he was given the boot — he isn’t pursuing a deeply felt ideological crusade that he would want to continue even in the face of presidential abuse.
But when Tillerson gave his statement today, not only did he deny that the vice president had to persuade him not to resign, as NBC News had also reported, he had to pay tribute to the majesty of Trump:
“Let me tell you what I’ve learned about this president, whom I did not know before taking this office. He loves his country. He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart. He demands results wherever he goes and he holds those around him accountable for whether they’ve done the job he’s asked them to do.”
Lickspittlery accomplished! You’ll note that in those prepared remarks he made sure to say that Trump is smart. But asked whether the report that he called the president a moron was accurate, Tillerson didn’t deny it, instead saying:
“I’m not going to deal with petty stuff like that.”
Which you could see as an admirable unwillingness to entertain such trivial matters, or exactly what you’d say if the report was true and you didn’t want to get caught denying something that would later be confirmed.
So for now, we can hold off on adding Tillerson’s name to the extraordinarily long list of senior aides who have quit or been fired in the first eight and a half months of the Trump administration (Bannon, Flynn, Priebus, Spicer, Price, Dubke, Walsh, Gorka, Scaramucci, McFarland…). But if he’s still in the job a year from now, it’ll be a shock.