The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The end of Rex Tillerson may finally be here

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.

On Thursday, news broke that the long-anticipated ouster of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may finally be at hand, with Tillerson potentially to be replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo. Reports suggested Pompeo could then be replaced by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), perhaps the hardest-line hawk in the Senate.

“The plan, hatched by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, is expected to be set in motion over the next few weeks, and has broad support within Trump's inner circle,” according to my colleagues. “But it was unclear whether Trump had signed off on the plan yet, and the president has been known to change his mind about personnel and other matters before finalizing decisions with public announcements.”

Indeed, White House officials appeared to be leaking the story to the press as a way to publicly chastise Tillerson, who has endured his share of barbs and indignities at President Trump's hands.

On the record, Trump administration officials all denied that Tillerson was being forced out, but his departure may only be a matter of time. According to my colleague Josh Rogin, Pompeo has been preparing to take Tillerson's job for quite some time. “Pompeo is quietly looking at staff and figuring out how the department could be reorganized to be effective again,” a White House official told Rogin.

It's no secret that the relationship between Tillerson, a buttoned-up former ExxonMobil chief executive, and Trump, a former TV showman, has deteriorated. Over time, the duo came to spar over a range of issues: Tillerson clashed with Trump over the latter's furious desire to end the nuclear deal with Iran; his efforts to push diplomacy with North Korea were mocked by Trump in public; Trump seemed to undercut the State Department's attempts to mediate the feud between Qatar and its Arab neighbors; and, by dispatching his son-in-law Jared Kushner to be the lead envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Trump sidelined his top diplomat in a key arena of U.S. foreign policy.

Tillerson courted controversy after allegedly referring to Trump over the summer as a “moron.” Trump responded in an interview by challenging his secretary of state to an IQ test. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of the few GOP politicians who has spoken publicly against Trump, described Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as “those people that help separate our country from chaos.” Yet Trump and other White House officials blocked Tillerson from making key appointments within the State Department and systematically seemed to weaken the secretary of state.

The state of affairs has trapped Tillerson in a kind of “purgatory,” as The Washington Post's Dan Drezner, a frequent critic of Tillerson, recently put it.

“I have worked for half a dozen secretaries of state and never has there been anything like this,” Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said to Today's WorldView.

Although Tillerson's troubles with the White House have been bizarre and embarrassing, you could easily argue that he deserved to be fired no matter what. He demoralized his department with a White House plan to slash the State Department budget by 31 percent even as Trump proposed major increases at the Pentagon; State Department employees have blasted Tillerson's supposedly aloof and uninterested relationships with his subordinates; and outside experts deride his understanding of the job. Reports of an agency in crisis have become routine.

“The secretary of state has alienated both onetime allies at the White House and his underlings at the State Department with what many call a highhanded and tone-deaf manner,” my colleagues wrote. “Tillerson’s main project, a downsizing and streamlining of the State Department bureaucracy, is still a work in progress but has drawn widespread criticism on Capitol Hill, from leading congressional Republicans as well as Democrats.”

The project has not been going well. This week, the private-sector official appointed to lead the overhaul left her post after just three months. Meanwhile, prominent former diplomats are sounding the alarm over the hollowing out of the U.S. diplomatic corps.

“The service is already overwhelmed by the growing challenges to the United States on every continent. In our view, Mr. Tillerson has failed to make a convincing case as to why deep cuts will strengthen, rather than weaken, the service, and thus the nation,” wrote former undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to Iraq. “This is not about belt tightening. It is a deliberate effort to deconstruct the State Department and the Foreign Service.”

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, in a lengthy October profile, described how the mismanagement under Tillerson’s watch — “the unfilled ambassadorships, the conferences not attended, the foreign aid not given — amounted to a slow degradation of America’s global leadership.”

But in the form of Pompeo and Cotton, Trump will potentially have two more loyal lieutenants. Pompeo, a noted hawk, shares Trump's desire to end the nuclear deal with Iran, has defended CIA practices amounting to torture and has conspicuously intervened on the president's behalf amid the investigations into the Trump camp's contacts with Russia. Cotton, meanwhile, is still perhaps most famous for authoring a brazen and somewhat foolhardy letter to the theocratic leaders of Iran, warning them over negotiations with the United States.

“This is an awful appointment,” Paul Pillar, a 28-year veteran of the CIA, of Cotton's potential nomination, said to Business Insider. “Sen. Cotton is a highly ideological individual who is not well-suited to lead an agency part of whose core mission is objective analysis.”

Ultimately, though, it may not matter who takes the helm of the State Department. Over the past two decades, analysts point out, decision-making power over foreign policy has steadily shifted from Foggy Bottom to the White House. And under Trump, any secretary of state will struggle to make their mark.

The current climate, Miller said, presents “the perfect storm to blow up in anyone's face.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.