End of ‘forceful Texan’ reported to have called Trump a ‘moron’ no surprise
Rex Tillerson worked to tame US president’s protectionist and isolationist instincts
US secretary of state Rex Tillerson speaks to the media at the state department after being fired by President Donald Trump in Washington. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters
Donald Trump made no attempt to disguise how far apart he and his secretary of state had fallen on Tuesday as he summarily dispatched Rex Tillerson without directly speaking to him or offering him a reason.
“We were not really thinking the same,” Mr Trump told reporters in an impromptu news conference. While Mr Tillerson was meant to lead critical talks with North Korea, the president added: “I really didn’t discuss it very much with him, honestly. I made that decision by myself.”
If the end was a humiliation for Mr Tillerson, his ejection from the department was by no means a surprise. A boy scout from Texas who liked neither Washington nor the press, Mr Tillerson had long struggled to make a dent on US diplomacy, fighting off dissent within his own ranks as well as the often obvious disdain of the president.
Mr Trump had undercut his chief diplomat regularly for months, on one occasion accusing him of “wasting his time” for advocating negotiations with North Korea. Mr Tillerson, for his part, was reported to have called the president a “moron”, a claim he never directly denied, although he often avowed the relationship was difficult.
Behind the scenes, Mr Tillerson worked to influence adversarial leaders and tame Mr Trump’s protectionist, isolationist instincts. A senior US official said Mr Tillerson had been crucial in pushing back on policy faultlines in the Middle East, where Mr Trump gave his son-in-law Jared Kushner the lead. Opposing Mr Trump, Mr Tillerson made the case for keeping a nuclear deal with Iran, continuing aid to Palestine and softening the president’s criticisms of Qatar in a schism with Saudi Arabia.
He sought to reassure European allies startled by Mr Trump’s abrasive “America First” jingoism and withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, helped pave the way for the forthcoming negotiations with North Korea that Mr Trump will lead, and applied growing pressure on Russia.
He was forceful with Moscow’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in private, cornering him in private discussion.
In recent days, Mr Tillerson’s team had felt confident they were rising to the challenge, developing a more public profile for the former ExxonMobil chief executive. “We are taking foreign policy back,” his new under secretary of state for public diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, told the Financial Times in January. Mr Goldstein was also fired on Tuesday after offering an account of his sacking that defended Mr Tillerson.
His most committed ally, defence secretary Jim Mattis, regularly extolled the virtues of the man he referred to in public as a “forceful Texan” and in private as someone whose position he would always back up. The pair made a decision to never arrive at the White House with positions at odds with each other, and spoke and met regularly.
“I think Tillerson leaned on Mattis. The difference was Tillerson didn’t trust his building and Mattis depends on his building,” said a state department official.
Mr Tillerson faced heavy criticism from within his own ranks. After his arrival in 2017, he set to work cutting roles and personnel. His building was rife with resignations, low morale and the looming threat of massive budget cuts Mr Tillerson supported.
“I’m very disappointed in the way he’s treated the foreign service,” said Nicholas Burns, former senior state department official. It’s been a disaster, his management.”
While some career officials appreciated his no-nonsense focus on action – Mr Tillerson dispensed with the wordy memos that characterised the department in the past – he trusted only a small coterie of people close to him.
“He has damaged the state department considerably,” said Christopher Hill, a former ambassador to Iraq who is now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Not only had Mr Tillerson failed to develop a good relationship with the president, he had failed to develop allies elsewhere in Washington – unlike Mr Mattis.
A senior foreign diplomat said “bits of state department” had slowly started to function and that Mr Tillerson was “generally respected” by outsiders who dealt with him, but that foreign powers could never trust his or his building’s views because of the obvious disparity with the president.
“We were just starting to figure out how everything was going to work and where we all fit in after a year,” said one of many shocked state department officials on Tuesday morning, commenting on the coldness of Mr Tillerson’s abrupt and public sacking.
“It’s crazy. More than anything it’s a strong amount of, ‘Oh my goodness what’s going on’?” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018