The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts came to the conclusion that Rex Tillerson should resign as secretary of state months ago. That conviction has not wavered since. I am hardly the only person to hold this view. Here’s Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, on Twitter this a.m.:
The question has been raised anew after President Trump seemed to shoot down Tillerson’s desire to negotiate with North Korea. We know from Axios’s Jonathan Swan that White House frustrations with Tillerson were mounting all summer. We know from NBC’s reporting team that the frustration runs both ways and that a few month ago the secretary of state came close to resigning:
Tillerson stunned a handful of senior administration officials when he called the president a “moron” after a tense two-hour long meeting in a secure room at the Pentagon called “The Tank,” according to three officials who were present or briefed on the incident. The July 20 meeting came a day after a meeting in the White House Situation Room on Afghanistan policy where Trump rattled his national security advisers by suggesting he might fire the top U.S. commander of the war and comparing the decision-making process on troop levels to the renovation of a high-end New York restaurant, according to participants in the meeting.
It is unsurprising that Politico’s Eliana Johnson now reports: “[Tillerson] disagrees with the president on so many issues that he has learned to ‘pick and choose his battles.’ ”
Over the past week, however, there has been a small raft of stories making the case that Tillerson should stay — or, at least, that Tillerson’s departure will not change anything. See, for example, Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky in Politico:
The painful reality is that should Tillerson depart, his successor would likely confront the same series of problems, and a president who is unwilling to send a clear signal on where his secretary of state stands in the foreign policy pecking order. There are three keys to success for a secretary of state: opportunities abroad to exploit; the negotiating and political skills to do it; and, most important, the backing of the president. Sure, Tillerson has made some rookie mistakes and unforced errors in running the State Department. But his credibility and effectiveness have largely been undermined by his treatment by Trump.
While Tillerson certainly deserves some blame here for not staffing his agencies, it’s not as if President Trump has publicly expressed his thanks and appreciation for the work that America’s Foreign Service officers and civil servants perform on a daily basis. Trump’s national security team is dominated by acting or retired members of the military; Jim Mattis, John Kelly, and H.R. McMaster hold far more power in the National Security Council than Rex Tillerson does. And that’s not entirely Tillerson’s fault — unless the former Exxonmobil chief is willing to chirp in the president’s ear and annoy him to the point of being shut out entirely, the best Tillerson can do is maintain whatever power the department has.
A [Nikki] Haley-led State Department would be run by a more ideological hawk with no more respect for the institution than Tillerson had, and the conduct of U.S. diplomacy would still be in the hands of someone who has no relevant experience. Tillerson’s resignation wouldn’t fix any of the things that plague the administration’s foreign policy because Trump would still be the same incompetent and irresponsible president that he has been. We have seen how misguided it was to think that the “adults” in the administration could rein him in or teach him some discipline, and nothing will be improved by swapping one of them out for even less-qualified people.
Each of these authors makes a similar point: Any Tillerson replacement would have to deal with the fact that the more important foreign policy actor in the executive branch is Trump. And the president being a moron is the most important variable in the foreign affairs equation.
It is fair to say that any successor to Tillerson will not magically eradicate all the dysfunction in Trump’s foreign policy. Suggesting that a capable replacement would make no difference, however, also strikes me as overlooking a few things.
First, while the “adults in the room” hypothesis has always been exaggerated, they can matter on the margins. The evidence suggests that after John Kelly replaced Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff, the policymaking process improved. A few more own-goals were averted. Troublemakers were eliminated from the deliberation process. The change was not transformative, but still positive.
Second, Tillerson is more incompetent than the garden-variety Trump appointee. Indeed, Tillerson offers the strongest data point that private-sector officials are frequently ill-suited to run government agencies. The contrast between Tillerson and Nikki Haley on this point is particularly interesting. Haley is too hawkish for my tastes, but she seems to have the trust of the president, and that ain’t beanbag. An experienced politician, she would also be more likely to have the good sense staff up her department and learn how to use the bureaucracy. As weak as Tillerson has been in policy debates, he has shot himself in the foot multiple times by alienating his employees, Congress and the media. Again, the contrast with Mattis here is striking.
Third, the above arguments vastly exaggerate Trump’s power. This is understandable: Historically, the president has been the most important foreign policy actor. What is striking about Trump, however, is how ineffectual he is even within his own executive branch. Yesterday his secretary of defense contradicted him on the Iran deal. His attorney general refused to quit, despite Trump’s apparent desire for him to do so. On issues ranging from Afghanistan to transgender troops to NAFTA, Trump has said one thing and acquiesced to doing the opposite. He is the president and will certainly get his way some of the time. Even within executive branch deliberations, however, it is striking how infrequently that happens.
I agree with Rex Tillerson in most of his disagreements with the president. I very much agree with Tillerson’s blunt assessment of Trump as president. But he has been the worst secretary of state in modern American history, and it’s not close. Someone who understands foreign policy, understands bureaucratic politics and understands how to forge coalitions could help nudge a Trump administration toward a less destructive path.
Replacing Rex Tillerson is not a magic bullet. Far from it. But the man has been so incompetent at his job that making the change is unlikely to hurt and very likely to help a little. Maybe a little disruption is in order.