- While Tillerson’s ouster from the State Department has been rumoured for months, Trump’s decision to fire him was abrupt.
- Some are optimistic about his replacement, believing new leadership will help reinvigorate the State Department.
- Others fear a new boss could bring more of the same – or worse.
Rex Tillerson’s ignominious tenure at the State Department came to an end on Tuesday morning, when President Donald Trump announced Tillerson’s firing in a tweet.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reportedly alerted Tillerson to a looming change early on Saturday, while Tillerson was in Africa, though Kelly did not specify the timing. “You may get a tweet,” Kelly reportedly said.
An administration official claimed Trump asked Tillerson to leave on Friday, though another White House official later said Kelly had told Tillerson he would be replaced, but did not give a timeline.
Tillerson cut the Africa trip short and returned to the US on Monday but reportedly first learned of his firing from Trump’s tweet. Steve Goldstein, undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said Tuesday morning that Tillerson “did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason” for his firing and “had every intention of staying.”
Trump, speaking to reporters about his decision to fire Tillerson, told reporters that, “I didn’t discuss it very much with him. I made that decision by myself.”
Trump said he and Tillerson “got along, actually, quite well” but disagreed on a number of issues. “I think Rex will be much happier now,” Trump added, “but I really appreciate his service.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Tillerson said Trump called him from Air Force One a little after noon to deliver the news personally. Tillerson said he would formally step down on March 31 and until then turn over his duties to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who will be acting secretary until CIA Director Mike Pompeo, picked as his replacement, is confirmed.
‘Should I even bother working today’
Tillerson’s ouster left many in Washington and around the world frustrated and surprised. Despite frequent rumours he would be forced out, many assumed Tillerson had settled into the job.
“Should I even bother working today … or should I spend my time sharpening sticks and going full Hunger Games?” a State Department employee told Jeffrey Smith, the executive director of nonprofit Vanguard Africa.
“God damn this day needs to end,” a State Department official told Foreign Policy reporter Robbie Gramer.
Trump’s relationship with Tillerson was often contentious, with the pair differing on key issues and at times contradicting each other in public. Trump also poked fun at his secretary of state – in one instance, Trump jokingly ordered Tillerson to eat wilted Caesar salad to avoid offending their Chinese hosts.
Tillerson was also undermined in his day-to-day duties as the US’s top diplomat.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has assumed a broad foreign-policy portfolio, leading the White House’s interactions with Mexico. Tillerson also reportedly expressed frustration in recent days that Trump decided to pursue talks with North Korea without including him.
North Korea was the biggest factor leading to Tillerson’s ouster,according to CNN, while the president himself cited a disagreement over the Iran Deal.
Tillerson also attracted criticism for his management of the State Department, emphasising his desire to shrink and streamline its operations rather than maintain or extend US influence.
Allies complained that strategic dialogues lapsed without explanation and calls went unreturned. Tillerson also oversaw what many regard as the withering of America’s foreign-policy muscle – a number of State Department employees, including some of its most senior officials, exited, and hiring stalled.
Tillerson reportedly complained that Trump was impulsive and lacked focus. In one high-profile incident, Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” at the end of a National Security Council meeting in mid-2017. Tillerson dismissed questions about that report but never denied making the comment.
‘Confusing and amateurish’
Trump apparently wanted to make the change now in preparation for potential talks with North Korea and forthcoming trade negotiations, three White House officials told The Washington Post.
But the future of the State Department’s role in US foreign-policy decision-making remains unclear.
“President Trump is entering the biggest diplomatic negotiation of his presidency, so it’s an odd time to remove his chief diplomat,” Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, told Business Insider. “Moreover, his nominee, Mr. Pompeo, has no diplomatic experience at all.”
McFaul, now a professor at Stanford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, pointed to Pompeo’s vocal criticism of the Iran nuclear deal as a potential weakness in talks with North Korea about the latter country abandoning its nuclear weapons.
“So Mr. Pompeo will face some major challenges if he is confirmed just on North Korea alone,” McFaul added in an email. “I hope he will move quickly to hire some help.”
“The timing of this move also couldn’t be worse,” Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said in a statement. After announcing plans to meet with North Korea, Engel said, Trump “has let the world know that he’s throwing an already hollowed-out State Department into further disarray with a transition at the top.”
“By dismissing our nation’s top diplomat, President Trump is sending a signal of weakness to the world as we face continued threats from Russia, an upcoming meeting with North Korea, an ongoing crisis in Syria, and the urgent need to fill key diplomatic posts,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
There was a “chasm between the White House and State throughout Secretary Tillerson’s tenure, and it was clear to insiders and foreign governments as well,” said Benjamin Gedan, who worked at the State Department between 2014 and 2016, overseeing day-to-day relations with Argentina.
Gedan told Business Insider that the lack of a working relationship between Tillerson and Trump “was debilitating to efforts to influence” foreign and trade policies.
“Open disagreements between Tillerson and Trump were confusing and amateurish and damaged US credibility,” he said.
While a better relationship between the White House and State Department would increase the latter’s influence in policymaking, Gedan added, replacing Tillerson didn’t necessarily augur broader changes to US foreign policy.
It’s “not clear how big a setback it is for international relations. It’s US policy that has challenged those more than Tillerson’s actions,” said Gedan, who is now a public-policy fellow at the Wilson Center.
Pompeo will be in a position to carry out the State Department’s traditional role of advocating and strengthening ties, he added, “but greater influence over foreign policy doesn’t guarantee a change in the approach to the world.”
Trump has spoken highly of Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, saying the two were “on the same wavelength,” particularly regarding the Iran nuclear deal, of which Pompeo has been a strident critic.
Republican legislators also praised Pompeo’s appointment. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, once rumoured to be Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA, called Pompeo “an outstanding selection.” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio said he would “enthusiastically support” Pompeo’s nomination.
Some at the State Department were optimistic Pompeo’s ties with Trump would win the State Department more influence at the White House. Others are wary, however, in part over Pompeo’s reputation at the CIA of being partisan.
“If people at State disliked Tillerson, they might downright hate Pompeo,” a former State Department official told Politico.
Among State Department staff, “there may be apprehension regarding Pompeo’s reputation as a foreign-policy hardliner, but there will also be an expectation that he will be more supportive of the State Department’s mission and a better advocate for the resources” it needs, Gedan said.
“I don’t think most members of the State Department will shed a tear for Secretary Tillerson, who was seen as hostile to his own workforce and dismissive of diplomacy,” Gedan said.