President Trump was utterly dismissive of reporting, back in October, that his relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had frayed to the point of almost breaking.
“It was fake news,” Trump said of one report from NBC, in particular, that Tillerson had considered resigning and had even called the president a “moron.” Trump insisted that he had “total confidence in Rex.”
But the message Trump delivered to Tillerson on Tuesday can be summarized in the two-word phrase he used to deliver with gusto on “The Apprentice”: “You're fired.” The president said he plans to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to Tillerson's former post.
Trump's ouster of Tillerson is surprising only if you believed the White House's claims that months of press accounts about the impending breakup were way off base. The president and his surrogates consistently criticized reports that Tillerson would not last long — reports that now appear to have been well-founded. Tillerson exits shy of 14 months on the job, making his one of the shortest tenures for a secretary of state in U.S. history.
The shake-up does not necessarily validate every detail of every report about Tillerson, but it does strike another blow to the credibility of Trump's “fake news” battle cry. The reported friction between the president and his chief diplomat was very real.
News outlets began reporting on strained relations between Trump's White House and Tillerson's State Department soon after both men took office. In February 2017, for example, The Washington Post's Carol Morello and Anne Gearan reported that “the Trump administration in its first month has largely benched the State Department from its long-standing role as the preeminent voice of U.S. foreign policy, curtailing public engagement and official travel and relegating Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a mostly offstage role.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary at the time, sought to portray a more harmonious dynamic, saying that “the secretary is having an ongoing and productive exchange with the president and his team.”
By July, CNN was reporting that a frustrated Tillerson planned to hang on until the one-year mark but might quit earlier than that.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, newly installed as Spicer's replacement, pushed a different narrative at the time.
“I've spent a good bit of time with quite a few Cabinet secretaries over the last couple days, and morale is high,” she insisted at a July 26 media briefing.
White House efforts to counter reporting on Tillerson intensified in the fall. The Post's Gearan, Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker reported on Oct. 4 that “the already tense relationship between the two headstrong men — one a billionaire former real estate developer, the other a former captain of the global oil industry — has ruptured into what some White House officials call an irreparable breach that will inevitably lead to Tillerson's departure, whether immediately or not.”
At a media briefing two days later, Sanders said that “nothing has changed, despite what you may read in the media or watch on TV. I would certainly trust the president and my comments far above those of other reporters.”
Rucker and Parker broke the news of Tillerson's firing on Tuesday.