President Trump has done the impossible. He has made me feel sorry for Rex Tillerson.
I urged a “no” vote on his confirmation, because he had no background in foreign policy and his tenure at ExxonMobil suggested that would pursue an amoral approach. He did prove as uninterested as his boss in promoting democracy and human rights, for example stripping out language relating to racial, sexual and ethnic discrimination from an upcoming human rights report.
But I would never have guessed that someone who had been the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies could turn out to be such a poor manager. Tillerson pushed a roughly 30 percent cut in State’s budget, refused to fill vital jobs and unleashed management consultants with a mandate to re-engineer the department — as if it were the underperforming division of a conglomerate determined to raise its stock price.
The result was plummeting morale and an exodus of talent. Nearly 30 percent of the most senior officials — career ambassadors and ministers — walked out. This would be the equivalent of the Defense Department losing a third of its three- and four-star generals. Meanwhile, the number of applicants taking the foreign service exam dropped 33 percent from a year earlier. Legendary former diplomats Nicholas Burns and Ryan C. Crocker warned that Tillerson was “Dismantling the Foreign Service.”
Tillerson was as unsuccessful at managing the president as he was his own department. It was a relationship beyond repair after Tillerson refused to deny that he had called Trump a “moron.” The secretary of state’s lack of influence became apparent as differences surfaced over issues such as Qatar (Trump wanted to back the Saudi squeeze, Tillerson wanted to serve as an honest broker), the Paris climate accord (Trump pulled out, Tillerson wanted to stay in) and the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel (Trump announced he would move it to Jerusalem, Tillerson wanted to keep it in Tel Aviv). The final humiliation was Trump’s decision on Thursday to hold a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without first consulting Tillerson.
For all these reasons, I stand by my judgment that Tillerson was the worst secretary of state since the United States’ rise to global power began in 1898. If he had any self-respect, he would have resigned long ago.
And yet the manner in which “Rexit” finally occurred was despicable. Trump became famous on television for saying “you’re fired,” but it turns out that in real life he is too cowardly to look people in the face when he is getting rid of them. FBI Director James B. Comey found out he was canned from seeing the news on television; Tillerson reportedly from Twitter. No one deserves to be treated this way. Trump demands maximum loyalty from his followers, but he does not give any loyalty — or respect — in return.
So now Trump will get the secretary of state that he has long wanted. CIA Director Mike Pompeo was openly campaigning for the job even while running the CIA. In October, for example, Pompeo claimed that the intelligence community concluded that Russian meddling did not affect the outcome of the 2016 election. Only it wasn’t true: The CIA issued an embarrassing statement correcting its own director by noting that it had made no assessment of the electoral impact of Russian interference. This Sunday, Pompeo was on TV defending Trump’s decision to rush into a summit with Kim Jong Un, claiming the president had made “no concessions,” when the very act of giving the North Korean leader a meeting with the U.S. president is a huge concession.
It’s a good thing that Pompeo has better chemistry with Trump than Tillerson did — it’s important to have a secretary of state who speaks for the president. But it’s worrisome that Pompeo may get along so well with the president in part because he doesn’t tell him what he doesn’t want to hear.
Trump tweeted out Tillerson’s firing one day after Tillerson fingered Russia as the likely culprit behind the nerve-agent attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain. He said that he was “extremely concerned about Russia.” Will Pompeo be willing to call out Trump’s buddy Russian President Vladimir Putin as forthrightly?
Or what about the Iran nuclear deal? In explaining why he fired Tillerson, Trump cited their disagreement over the deal, while adding that he shared “a very similar thought process” with Pompeo. Does that mean that Trump is now likely to scrap the Iranian nuclear deal at the same time that he is meeting with Kim to discuss the denuclearization of North Korea?
This is a schizophrenic approach that is likely to lead to failed talks with North Korea, which could in turn lead to a renewed push within the administration to launch Korean War II. For all his faults, Tillerson knew that a war with a nuclear-armed state was a bad idea. Does Pompeo?