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Rex Tillerson’s last act: Leave quietly or go down fighting

Will Tillerson mimic Al Haig on his way out the door?

Rex Tillerson’s departure as secretary of state is not a surprise. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the quote from Rex Tillerson in the second paragraph came from March 2016. It came from March 2017. 

On Tuesday morning, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson by tweet (hours before actually talking to the secretary personally). Only the timing and method come as a surprise: The former Exxon chief executive’s exit was foretold in March, June, July and through most of October and November. Tillerson’s coup de grace was so drawn out that it even earned its own Beltway shorthand: the Rexit.

Being removed may be a relief for Tillerson, who has bucked many of the secretary of state’s traditional obligations, confiding in reporters as early as March 2017 that he “didn’t want this job.” But before his potential successor, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, takes the reins, Tillerson has one final decision to make: how to leave.

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Like his predecessors in the Trump administration, Tillerson, who is scheduled to leave March 31, faces a choice: He can end his rocky tenure by departing quietly or by stoking controversy, going along with the transition or salvaging his own reputation. For an administration fundamentally confused about the role of diplomacy in achieving the objectives of U.S. foreign policy, the choice will have important consequences for the State Department that Pompeo inherits.

The experience of Alexander M. Haig, President Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state and the most recent to leave amid controversy, illustrates the importance of this decision.

From the start, Haig was an awkward fit among Reagan’s “Kitchen Cabinet” of advisers, who had followed the president from his governorship of California to the White House. A Henry Kissinger protege and former supreme allied commander of NATO, Haig came recommended by former president Richard Nixon as someone who could apply a steady, experienced hand to the administration’s vision for reasserting U.S. power abroad. Reagan selected Haig, but the secretary’s establishment pedigree elicited suspicion from the president’s political advisers. Haig, in turn, treated his colleagues as subordinates.

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Within hours of his swearing-in, Haig raised his detractors’ ire by declaring himself “vicar of foreign policy,” a quotable gaffe that haunted him for the remainder of his tenure. His reputation soured further two months later when — in the wake of an assassination attempt on the president — he awkwardly seized the White House press podium and declared, in front of the cameras, “I’m in control here.” Rather than correct course after this ignominious start, Haig doubled down, taking the opportunity to pose on the cover of Time magazine with hands on hips and the words “Taking Command” emblazoned across his chest.

But Haig’s problems were not just personality-based: On issues from U.S.-Soviet arms control efforts to a planned trans-Siberian pipeline to relations with China, Reagan’s political advisers and National Security Council staff came to view Haig’s pragmatism as out of step with the president’s priorities. Leaks abounded, allowing Haig’s disagreements with his colleagues to play out in public view. The press coverage fanned the flames, revealing salacious details of backroom bickering and private insults, deepening the divide between Haig and nearly every other senior adviser. Enraged, Haig repeatedly threatened to resign.

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Tensions came to a head in June 1982, when the Israeli invasion of Lebanon precipitated a crisis in the Middle East. As Haig tried to negotiate an end to the conflict, he found himself cut off from Reagan and undermined by White House officials, who interfered in foreign policy decisions and undercut his authority abroad.

Haig’s efforts to dictate the administration’s response annoyed Reagan, who had avoided restraining his secretary. The president chastised Haig for circumventing the White House decision-making process, leading the secretary to suggest that maybe he should resign after the upcoming midterm elections. Reagan demurred, but the secretary’s influence weakened as the crisis dragged on. By June 19, he was forced to admit to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that he no longer spoke for the administration.

On June 24, Haig again tried to use the threat of resignation to brush back his antagonists during a meeting with the president. This time, however, his strategy backfired. Haig left the meeting confident he had communicated his grievances and safeguarded his position; Reagan left convinced that Haig would finally follow through on his threat to leave.

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Reagan immediately moved to secure George Shultz as Haig’s replacement. The next day, the president summoned Haig and handed him a letter accepting his as-yet-unwritten resignation.

But the end was not the end for Haig. Embittered by his treatment, concerned about the direction of U.S. foreign policy and, yes, harboring his own political ambitions, Haig was determined to hold onto power until the final second.

Reagan gave him the opportunity, requesting that Haig stay on as something of a secretary emeritus to manage the growing Middle East crisis until Shultz could be confirmed. Haig agreed but refused to conceal the reasons for his departure, making sure the public knew that he had resigned because Reagan’s foreign policy was “shifting from that careful course that we had laid out together” and not — as Reagan would have it — over personal friction.

Haig was also not someone who would let a thing like being fired get in the way of serving as secretary of state. In the wake of the firing, who actually spoke for the government on particular diplomatic matters became unclear. While Reagan left for a two-week vacation, Haig set up a department in exile at the luxurious Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. He ordered his subordinates to ignore Deputy Secretary Walter Stoessel, who was technically acting secretary, and to circumvent the White House “debating club” altogether. Between games of tennis, Haig insisted that he remained the face of American diplomacy.

The result was greater confusion and disorganization as policymakers and foreign allies alike struggled to determine the administration’s policy. Reagan was loath to intervene from California, confident that the previous week’s confrontation with Haig had resolved his administration’s personnel problems. It therefore fell on George Shultz to break the impasse in a tense evening of high-stakes telephone diplomacy, as recently declassified transcripts from Haig’s papers reveal.

On July 5, Shultz called Haig and gingerly suggested on behalf of the president that Haig should shift greater responsibility to Stoessel and assume a more informal role as a consultant to the president. In response, an insulted Haig ranted that he would not “play a public relations charade for some godd‑‑‑ Hollywood actors.”

Shultz called back an hour later suggesting it was time that Haig “step aside completely.” Out of options, Haig relented. The call in which Reagan finally relieved Haig lasted only a minute. When it was over, Haig told an aide that “the president had told him that he loved him, that he was a great American, ‘and all that other horse s‑‑‑.’ ”

Haig’s (second) firing proved to be a pivotal moment in Reagan’s presidency. With Haig out of the way, the administration was able to focus on preparing his replacement. With the department back in order, Shultz sailed through his confirmation hearings, a stark contrast to the drama and controversy that had surrounded his predecessor, and which typically engulf those nominated in midterm election years. This political boon allowed the new secretary to hit the ground running, and he quickly gained the trust of his department and consolidated his relationship with the president.

The dividends for the United States were substantial. Whereas Haig’s 18 months had been defined by confusion and disorganization, Shultz’s 6½-year leadership was a period of extraordinary American diplomacy, during which he strengthened the Department of State and helped to orchestrate a peaceful resolution to the Cold War.

Trump — who built his public persona on the catchphrase “you’re fired” — is likely betting on a similar pivot. But a smooth transition at the State Department will require more forethought and discipline than the administration has thus far been able to muster.

By nominating Tillerson’s replacement, the administration has potentially cleared the first and easiest hurdle of any such transition. But Haig’s messy departure reminds us that a lame duck can still cause trouble. A smooth transition requires the White House to act decisively to maintain a clear chain of command during the change in leadership and to avoid further undermining the State Department’s role in managing U.S. foreign relations. This White House has already struggled with this, as Trump’s tweets often stoke diplomatic conflict.

The Reagan administration learned this lesson the hard way, and the cloud surrounding Haig’s resignation periodically returned over the remainder of the presidency. Yet even in the midst of Haig’s tumultuous departure, Reagan and Shultz refused to publicly criticize the outgoing secretary, choosing to preserve the dignity of the office even while distancing the administration from a former official. If the previous year has been a guide, it’s unlikely that Trump will show similar restraint, which could prompt a potentially debilitating feud.

In either case, whether Tillerson sees value in going quietly, or, like Haig, chooses to defend his reputation, is now beyond the administration’s control. Ironically, Haig’s words to an aide moments after his final removal offer sound advice: “Don’t get bitter … there’s still our country to worry about.”