Rex Tillerson spent a tumultuous year at the helm of the State Department, frequently undercut by a president he disagreed with on key foreign policy issues and derided by many of his employees who blamed him for marginalizing their role and diplomacy itself.
But after months of denying that he intended to resign, Tillerson was ousted Tuesday just as he seemed to be hitting his diplomatic stride. In recent weeks, he grew even more outspoken in criticizing Russia, more confident that his patient pressure on North Korea was bearing fruit and more comfortable that he would outlast his many critics in the West Wing.
In the end, no one was more surprised that Tillerson was fired than Tillerson himself. As recently as Monday night, while he was flying back from a week-long trip to Africa, an aide said Tillerson was staying put.
In a statement from a top aide about five hours after his plane landed at Joint Base Andrews about 4 a.m., Tillerson made clear that the gulf between the methodical former corporate executive and the mercurial president was as wide as ever.
“The secretary did not speak to the president, and is unaware of the reason,” said Steve Goldstein, the undersecretary of public diplomacy, who was himself quickly fired for contradicting the White House.
Clearly shaken, his voice thin, Tillerson appeared at a State Department lectern shortly after 2 p.m. to read a statement thanking colleagues and tying up some administrative details.
He thanked the American people “for your devotion to a free and open society; to acts of kindness toward one another; to honesty and the quiet hard work that you do every day.”
He did not thank President Trump individually, or even mention him beyond saying that Trump had called him two hours before.
Tillerson’s firing caps a rough couple of weeks. His father died Feb. 25. Two days after returning to Washington from the funeral, he departed on his trip to Africa, where he was sidelined for a day by illness.
His departure followed months of disagreements with the White House over staffing and administrative matters at the State Department. But what may have done him in was a fatal disconnect over what Trump saw as Tillerson’s conventional approach to policy matters.
In picking Rex Wayne Tillerson to head the State Department, Trump told associates he wanted a secretary of state who looked the part. He liked Tillerson’s camera-ready image and acerbic Texas drawl, real as barbed wire from a man who was named after two 1950s Western movie stars, Rex Allen and John Wayne. He also liked Tillerson’s résumé as chairman and chief executive of ExxonMobil.
But the two men, who did not know one another before Trump’s election, never clicked. For Tillerson, despite weekly lunches and frequent phone calls, Trump remained unpredictable and sometimes inscrutable. For Trump, Tillerson embodied “establishment” naysayers.
Tillerson has no singular foreign policy cause or achievement to his credit, but he had worked to open the door to talks with North Korea. Although Trump dismissively said last year that Tillerson was wasting his time trying to reach out to “Little Rocket Man,” as he dubbed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the summit that Trump agreed to last week was partly born of Tillerson’s efforts.
Further undercutting Tillerson, several major foreign policy endeavors, such as Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, were taken away from the State Department and handed to Trump adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.
A part of Tillerson’s legacy is pushback on Trump policies that Tillerson considered unwise, battles he did not often win. He advised Trump to keep the United States in the Paris climate agreement and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has threatened to renounce this spring.
Tillerson also opposed the unilateral decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there. Although he signed documents last week authorizing the renovation of a consulate, a relatively modest step that theoretically could be reversed in the future, he made clear that security — not politics — was his first concern.
There was an element of anticlimax to Tillerson’s exit. Much of his tenure was dogged by rumors that he was fed up and ready to quit, or about to be pushed out. The rumors were persistent enough to spawn the word “Rexit.”
Tillerson consistently and wearily denied it. In January, he told CNN that would still be around at the end of 2018.
His exit leaves Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the most prominent foreign policy voices apart from Kushner.
Trump said Tuesday that with his nomination of Pompeo to become secretary of state, he will be “getting close” to the Cabinet he wants and that he hopes to have the changes in place before his summit with Kim.
Tillerson emerged as one of the administration’s strongest voices critical of Russia.
On Monday, Tillerson told reporters traveling with him that he was “very, very concerned” about Russia’s growing aggression. In his farewell address Tuesday, he warned that Russia is headed toward greater international isolation, “a situation which is not in anyone’s interests.”
Tillerson was fired just two months before Trump must decide whether to reimpose nuclear-related sanctions on Iran as he has said he is inclined to do, effectively withdrawing from the multilateral agreement. Tillerson’s departure suggests that Trump is already out the door on the Iran nuclear deal.
“The biggest problem for Secretary Tillerson is that the president has not been supportive of him at key junctures,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former top diplomat.
“President Trump, frankly, didn’t give him the public support he needed to be a success,” Burns said.
Nor did Tillerson have broad support within the State Department. Dozens of senior officials have retired or been edged out since Tillerson took over, leaving many employees feeling demoralized and adrift.
Tillerson and his small circle of aides often found themselves at odds with Trump aides.
Tillerson had launched a management overhaul at the State Department that is projected to take years, to the annoyance of some senior White House officials eager to dispense political patronage jobs.
Tillerson, in turn, was annoyed at the layers of bureaucracy and what he saw as continued chaos and ineptitude months into the new administration, people familiar with his thinking said.
He also complained to friends about competing power centers and a culture of backstabbing that is very different from the top-down corporate culture he left. That same corporate experience gave Tillerson a background in the sensitivities and demands of a large and diverse workforce, and appeared to inform his disagreement with Trump over last year’s white-supremacist rallies in Charlottesville.
After Trump asserted that “many sides” were to blame for the violence, Tillerson pointedly remarked, “We do not honor, nor do we promote or accept, hate speech in any form.”
Dan Balz contributed to this report.