The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been rather adamant in advocating that Rex Tillerson resign as secretary of state. Back in August, my argument was threefold:
- “Tillerson allocated all of his political capital to ingratiating himself with Trump. There were defensible reasons for this choice, but it’s increasingly clear that it hasn’t worked … [and] he has no other political goodwill to draw upon.”
- “Tillerson has prioritized the reorganization of Foggy Bottom to the exclusion of pretty much everything else [in foreign policy].”
- “Tillerson’s emphasis on reorganization has resulted in the hemorrhaging of human capital from the State Department.”
What is impressive is that, in the seven weeks since I made that argument, each piece of the argument has gotten stronger. After the ‘moron’ comments, Trump and Tillerson are obviously more estranged than they were in August. The Senate’s rejection of Tillerson’s proposed budget cuts highlights the lack of congressional deference. I have heard from multiple sources inside and outside Foggy Bottom that the only thing that animates Tillerson these days is the reorganization of State. The hemorrhaging of personnel from Foggy Bottom continues apace.
Yesterday, however, Jason Zengerle’s New York Times Magazine story on Tillerson’s time at State hit the Web. I know this because I play a small cameo role in the article that you have to read to believe.
Honestly, though, that’s not the most important part of Zengerle’s story. Nor is Tillerson’s blunt admission that a Trump tweet “certainly kind of comes out that even I would say, ‘I wasn’t expecting that.’” Nor is the White House’s growing disaffection with the secretary of state (because, among other reasons, Tillerson doesn’t pal around with Trump on the weekends). Nor is the Trump transition team’s strategy of not interacting at all with State Department employees.
To be clear, all of this is worth reading. It all reaffirms what the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has been saying for months. It buttresses the reporting done by Robbie Gramer in Foreign Policy and Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker on Tillerson’s catastrophic management of the State Department.
You should read the whole thing, but Zengerle’s closing section is the most devastating. He highlights two dynamics that have to change for anyone interested in advancing the national interests of the United States: Tillerson’s political idiocy and the long-lasting damage he has wreaked on the State Department.
On Tillerson’s political cluelessness, read these paragraphs:
Although Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have already declared Trump’s State Department cuts a nonstarter — and, in September, passed an appropriations bill that funded the department for the next three months at about last year’s level — Tillerson still intends to slash the department’s staff by 8 percent, or roughly 2,000 people. According to one senior State Department official, Tillerson originally wanted to cut the staff by 15 percent, until he was told that to do so the State Department would have to fire people. (The 8 percent reduction will be accomplished through attrition and some buyouts.)
“I have just the utmost respect for the Foreign Service officer corps here, and they’re vital,” Tillerson told me. “They’re vital and critical to the country’s ability to carry out its foreign policies.” As for the perception by many inside and outside Foggy Bottom that he wants to gut the Foreign Service, he said he doesn’t quite know how to respond. “I’m mystified by it,” he said. “I’m perplexed by it.”
If Tillerson is actually perplexed by this perception, then he needs to leave public service right damn now. It’s hard to interpret cutting staff by 8 percent and hastening the retirement of high-ranking civil servants as anything but gutting the Foreign Service. If Tillerson is mystified by that, then Trump probably would beat him in an IQ test.
When Tillerson said earlier this month that he wasn’t from inside the Beltway, he clearly meant it as a good thing. But if you can’t understand the politics of running a department, then you have no business exercising power in Washington.
On the long-lasting effects at the State Department, Zengerle writes:
In nearly 300 embassies, missions and consulates around the world where State Department officials work to promote and defend America’s interests, diplomats complain about not just a dearth of resources but also a lack of guidance. “I’d request instructions on action items, saying I need a decision, and I’d hear absolutely nothing,” a recently returned ambassador said. Meanwhile, foreign leaders are increasingly emboldened in their attempts to drive a wedge between America’s diplomatic corps and the president. Earlier this year, according to Foreign Policy, Trump pushed out the United States ambassador to Jordan at the request of the country’s king. And this month, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has cultivated a close relationship with Trump, declared the American ambassador to his country persona non grata after a visa dispute. “We do not see him as the representative of the United States in Turkey,” Erdogan said.
A result, according to the nearly two dozen current and former State Department officials with whom I spoke, is that the department’s morale has never been lower. For that, almost all of them blame Tillerson. “When we’re put up for confirmation and swearing in, we thank the president and the secretary of state for having confidence in us, but I’m not sure I can honestly say that anymore,” the 25-year veteran of the Foreign Service confessed. “It’s not even about the president for me. It’s that I am deeply, deeply anguished about the secretary of state, and I have never felt like that.”
Even if Tillerson leaves, the fear among many in the State Department is that the hangover from his tenure will be long-lasting. The Foreign Service officer recalls a recent meeting of acting assistant secretaries, where the most pressing matters discussed were the backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests and the number of typographical errors in memos to the secretary’s office. “The world is going to hell in a handbasket,” the Foreign Service officer fumed, “and the greatest minds in our diplomatic service are talking about FOIA requests and [expletive] typos.”
The longer Tillerson stays, the greater the long-term damage to the State Department. And to paraphrase Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, if the State Department gets ransacked, then the Pentagon will need to buy a lot more ammunition.
It still looks as though Tillerson will be around for a spell — which is a shame, because at this point almost anyone else would have a better chance at doing the job. And yes, that includes some guy who has the thing at The Post.
In Zengerle’s profile, Rex Tillerson comes across as a decent person with foreign policy preferences that are superior to the president. That does not matter anymore. He has alienated the White House, Congress, and the State Department. He has zero political instincts. Intentionally or not, he is eviscerating the diplomatic corps. He is in way over his head, and he needs to exit the stage as soon as possible.