And so, at long last, here we are. Tillerson may be gone in a few weeks, according to The Washington Post’s reporting. If that happens, he will be one of the shortest-serving secretaries of state in American history — and the only one who was in that position for less than a year because the president he served was frustrated with his performance.
If Tillerson is gone by Dec. 15, he will have served for 318 days. Only 12 of the 69 tenures leading the department have been shorter. Of those, eight were truncated by a presidential transition. One ended when the secretary died. One, Edward Stettinius Jr., left to serve as ambassador to the United Nations after helping to form that organization. Another, William Day, left to lead a Peace Commission after the Spanish-American War. Elihu Washburne served only briefly, as an honor bestowed by President Ulysses S. Grant.
A tenure of less than a year for a Cabinet member isn’t itself that unusual. It has happened a number of times during the past few administrations. On the chart below, blue bars indicate varying Cabinet tenures. Red bars indicate those who served all eight (or, in the case of George H.W. Bush, four) years in the same position.
Tillerson won’t have lasted quite as long as Alexander Haig, the most recent secretary of state to leave his position under fire — but the example of Haig demonstrates that such a move fairly early in an administration is not without precedent.
It’s just that Tillerson’s time at the State Department has been fraught from the outset and, if the reports on Thursday are accurate, his tenure unusually short.
But, again: This is not really a surprise.