- Rex Tillerson was a terrible Secretary of State.
- “He has alienated the foreign service, no relationship with the foreign policy establishment, no relationship with Congress to speak of, and not well-liked with the media,” Rich Lowry said of Tillerson last year.
- Despite that, he stayed in the job for 14 months because his boss doesn’t like firing people.
- It’s hard to imagine his successor being worse – but the way this administration has gone, he could be.
Rex Tillerson’s apparent failure to realise that he was about to be fired feels like an appropriate end to his inept and ineffectual tenure as secretary of State.
What was he even still doing here? Couldn’t he take the hint that nobody wanted him around?
Back in October on an episode of Left, Right & Center, my co-panelist Rich Lowry summarized Tillerson’s pointlessness better than I possibly could have.
“As secretary of State, you have a number of constituencies, the first of which is the president, and signs are he tried to develop a relationship with the president from the beginning, but for whatever reason it didn’t work,” he said.
He added: “He has alienated the foreign service, no relationship with the foreign policy establishment, no relationship with Congress to speak of, and not well-liked with the media. And he’s not even the foremost spokesman for US foreign policy. So, I really think if he disappeared tomorrow, most people just wouldn’t notice.”
This was shortly after reports surfaced that Tillerson had called the president a “moron” – reports Tillerson couldn’t bring himself to deny.
Tillerson was able to stay in the job for 14 months despite all that because of the greatest irony of Donald Trump – he hesitates to fire people, even when he wants to.
Sometimes, Trump’s hesitation to fire has been a positive force that has checked his impulses to abrogate the rule of law. Trump would surely like some heads on sticks from the Justice Department that he has so far not obtained.
But in this instance, Trump has (until Tuesday) shied from making a decision that was likely to please a lot of his supporters and his opponents – or at least, would have pleased them if he hadn’t done it on Twitter, and he hadn’t done it just after Tillerson made a firm statement blaming Russia for using nerve agent to murder a former spy in the UK.
Still, despite the circumstances, Politico reports Tillerson’s departure is being met with a “strong sense of relief” at the State Department, despite reservations about his designated replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Tillerson seemed to be almost intentionally tanking morale at the department – for example, by freezing hiring of diplomatic spouses abroad.
Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security offers two non-policy reasons to think Pompeo may be better than Tillerson at running the State Department: He has a functioning relationship with Trump, and he’s managed to run a large government agency – one that, like State, has not infrequently drawn Trump’s ire – without making its staff hate him.
Offsetting that are concerns about Pompeo’s policy views, particularly his hawkishness on Iran. Trump, explaining his decision to fire Tillerson, cited the secretary’s reluctance to exit the Iran nuclear deal. But then, we need to consider the counterfactual: How much success would Tillerson have had continuing to tie the president to a position he didn’t want to take, even if he had stayed in the job?
It is hard to imagine a worse secretary of State than Rex Tillerson. But this administration has a way of doing the unimaginable.