As the dust (almost) settles on both the Rex Tillerson and Bob Corker brouhahas, it is worth contemplating whether these kerfuffles means anything. Other GOP members of Congress are not exactly rushing out to back up either person. Maybe this is just another Trump temper tantrum that will blow over.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts disagrees. Indeed, as someone who has repeatedly called for Rex Tillerson to resign, I have come to one inescapable conclusion: Rex Tillerson will hang around as secretary of state longer than anyone wants him to be there — including Rex Tillerson.
To understand why, let me rely on an old political science standby, the 2×2 schema. When it comes to Trump’s foreign policy and national security appointees, there are two dimensions one can use to organize them. The first dimension is whether they self-identify as nationalists or internationalists. The second dimension is whether, given their preferences, they are competent at their job.
That leads to the following typology:
Trump may be disgruntled that Jeff Sessions recused himself, but the attorney general is working like gangbusters to remake the Justice Department in Trump’s image. Trump may be unhappy with James Mattis, but everyone else is pretty happy with that appointment, so the president cannot really fire him. Wilbur Ross might be the stereotype of a world politics buffoon, but he’s trying to do what Trump wants and he’s really rich.
The trouble with Rex Tillerson in a Trump administration is twofold. He’s an internationalist, which means Trump does not trust him. He’s also incompetent, which means no one else has great faith in him either.
In a perfect world, Trump would fire him. The world Trump is currently operating in, however, is about as far from perfect as one could get. First of all, Trump is already coping with a fair amount of Cabinet churn. It’s been more than two months and Trump has yet to announce a replacement for John Kelly as secretary of homeland security. The president must also find a new secretary for health and human services.
Second of all, in antagonizing Corker, Trump has made it that much harder to replace Tillerson. The trigger for Trump’s fury at Corker was the senator’s statement that Tillerson, Mattis and Kelly were the “people that help separate our country from chaos.” He subsequently told the New York Times that, “I know for a fact that every single day at the White House, it’s a situation of trying to contain [Trump].”
As the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker would exercise considerable influence over how that body would treat any Trump nominee to be the next secretary of state. Trump might very well prefer, say, John Bolton to Rex Tillerson right now, but there is no way Bolton would be confirmed. Even Nikki Haley might face a tougher grilling than before. That raises the transaction costs of replacing Tillerson considerably.
So to sum up: Trump probably prefers someone to replace Rex Tillerson. Internationalists would prefer anyone more competent than Rex Tillerson. Rex Tillerson has to be so sick of being a human punching bag that he wishes someone would replace him. But because Trump has poor impulse control, Corker thinks Tillerson is a valuable check on the president of the United States. So the secretary of state will not be going anywhere for a while.
This purgatory period in which Tillerson remains at his post will be very bad for the United States. For internationalists, the only option worse than Tillerson running the State Department is zombie Tillerson running the State Department. The only thing a discredited secretary of state is good for is providing Stalinist rhetoric to White House press releases. As Dexter Filkins reported in the New Yorker, the United States is already feeling the effects of Tillerson’s mismanagement at the State Department:
Several current and former diplomats told me that what was happening at the State Department — the unfilled ambassadorships, the conferences not attended, the foreign aid not given — amounted to a slow degradation of America’s global leadership. “My fundamental concern is that he is so decimating the senior levels of the Foreign Service that there’s no one to show up at meetings where the U.S. needs to be represented,” a retired diplomat told me. “Whether it’s the oceans, the environment, science, human rights, broadband assignments, drugs and thugs, civil aviation — it’s a huge range of issues on which there are countless treaties and agreements that all require management. And, if we are not there, things will start to fall apart.”
In small ways, the breakdown is already showing. The secretary of state’s office has typically sent guidance to diplomats on how to speak publicly about important decisions. According to the longtime diplomat in Asia, after the withdrawal from the Paris accords the State Department sent paraphrases of Trump’s speech denouncing the accords. “The guidance we got was juvenile,” the diplomat said. (A more thorough memo came twenty-four hours later.)
The larger effects may become apparent in a moment of crisis, or they may develop only in the long term. “You look out over the next ten, twenty, maybe thirty years, and the United States is still going to be the preeminent power in the world,” Bill Burns told me. “We can shape things, or wait to get shaped by China and everybody else. What worries me about the Trump people is that they’re going to miss the moment. There are sins of commission and sins of omission. And sins of omission—not taking advantage of the moment—cost you over time.”
On Tuesday Elizabeth Saunders explained why the combination of an enervated State Department, disaffected Senate Foreign Relations chair, and Trump’s hollow rhetoric are damning for American foreign policy. As Saunders wrote, “there is no domestic consensus or coalition for Trump’s foreign policy, so it has no signal boost or coherence internationally.” The president is big on trying to send signals to other actors in world politics. The problem is that few Americans agree with Trump on the signals. Trump’s troubles with Corker and Tillerson show that few elites agree with him as well. No wonder the president’s repeated attempts to sound threatening on the global stage never work out the way he intends.
So here we are. I think it would be an excellent idea for Rex Tillerson to resign. So might Donald Trump. Even Tillerson might think the idea has merit. But he’s likely not going anywhere. American diplomacy will suffer for the next half-year.