Secretary of State Rex Tillerson symbolically kissed the ring of President Trump on Wednesday in affirming his desire to remain in his post, despite reports of sharp friction between him and the White House. But how long will this gesture of loyalty secure his position?
Tillerson’s desire to remain on the job is a stabilizing move, at a moment when the United States is locked in a potential nuclear confrontation with North Korea and Trump is headed for a key November meeting in Beijing. Although Tillerson has been a poor public communicator at the State Department, he knows the world and can speak the language of America’s global partners and potential adversaries. His departure now would be widely seen as damaging to America’s already fragile position in a world disrupted by Trump’s erratic policies.
The question, as always with Trump, is whether this profession of loyalty will appease what has appeared to be the president’s growing anger with his chief diplomat. For Tillerson, the question is whether, after humbling himself in such a public manner, he can remain an effective and confident representative for the United States abroad.
Tillerson sought to rebut an NBC News report that he had to be talked out of quitting in frustration last summer and that he had called the president a “moron” after a meeting at the Pentagon. He said he had never considered resigning. But on the “moron” comment, he refused to answer such “petty nonsense,” a non-answer that to some ears will sound like a confirmation.
Tillerson rang all the bells in his adulatory comments about Trump. He said he had learned that Trump “loves his country,” is “smart” and properly insists on “accountability.”
Tillerson also listed the administration’s foreign-policy accomplishments, including working with China to pressure North Korea, traveling to the Riyadh summit in May and strengthening the commitment of Saudi Arabia and its neighbors to fight terrorism, pushing NATO to spend more on defense, recommitting to remain in Afghanistan and being on the brink of extinguishing the Islamic State. That’s probably the same list that the White House would draw to assert Trump’s “wins.”
“What we have accomplished, we have done as a team,” Tillerson said. He invoked other key players, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, with whom Tillerson said he communicated almost daily. Tillerson’s reference to Mattis is especially important, because the bond between these two has been something of an anchor in the storm of the Trump presidency. Mattis has never swayed from his commitment, expressed during his first weeks as defense secretary, to coordinate all major policy positions with Tillerson.
Mattis’s camp has been steadfast in supporting Tillerson, seemingly unaware of any White House unhappiness and standing by the secretary of state. But presidential pique has been growing in recent weeks. It’s said that the president felt undercut by Tillerson’s separate positions on the Qatar-Saudi dispute, by his public statement that Trump “speaks for himself” after the Charlottesville unrest, and by his lean toward keeping the Iran nuclear deal intact. Tillerson’s public discussion of diplomatic channels with North Korea last weekend in Beijing also angered the White House, since it came at a time when Trump was advertising his confrontation with “Little Rocket Man,” his mocking description of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Trump was upset that Tillerson hadn’t cleared his comments with the White House.
Whether Tillerson’s recommitment to the job is temporary — sufficient to get the president through the Beijing meeting in November, but not long-term — remains to be seen. In a sense, Tillerson faces a paradox: To be effective as secretary of state, he must communicate better with the country and the world; but to maintain the confidence of this prickly president, he must avoid comments that seem to question the president’s personality or policies.
Tillerson, like everyone else in Trump’s world, is living under a volcano. The former ExxonMobil chief executive doesn’t need this job; he’s a wealthy man who obviously dislikes Washington. He probably should be taken at his word when he says that he remains in his post at the State Department, despite the constant nastiness and occasional humiliation, because he’s trying to serve his country.