Rex Tillerson update: March 13 2018

So Rex Tillerson is out as US Secretary of State, effective April 1 (though he’s handed over all his responsibilities to his deputy, John Sullivan, in the meantime). This is big news, inasmuch as the firing of any Secretary of State would be big news. The US Secretary of State is a very important person–he or she gets invited to all the big events, his or her opinion is eagerly sought by media and foreign officials alike on matters of international affairs and he or she meets regularly with leaders all over the world. When a Secretary of State gets canned it affects not just US foreign policy, but its relationships with other countries and international institutions. It resets international affairs to some degree.

It’s especially big news given the Three Stooges routine that surrounded his firing. Tillerson reportedly found out he’d been fired via, of course, Twitter:

But the White House insists that Trump made the decision to can Tillerson late last week. Alpha Male that he is, Trump then asked John Kelly to fire Tillerson for him. Kelly instead apparently called Tillerson, who was touring Africa, and either told him to resign or told him to cut his trip short and come back to Washington, presumably because he, Kelly, wanted to talk Trump out of the decision. I guess he came up snake eyes on that roll. When Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein responded to Tillerson’s firing on Tuesday by emphasizing that the secretary had been fired by tweet and had no idea why (really a remarkable statement from a cabinet agency in this situation), the White House fired him too. Then Tillerson gave an extraordinary speech announcing his termination in which he never once mentioned Donald Trump’s name:

With all that said, Rex Tillerson getting shown the door isn’t that big a deal. Allow me to explain.

First of all, just in case I should stray into language that could be construed as supportive of or deferential to our outgoing Secretary of State, let me be clear: Rex Tillerson sucked. He was lethargic to the point where some days it felt like somebody should check his pulse. He was invisible to a degree almost unfathomable in a guy who is supposed to represent The World’s Only Superpower™ on the global stage. It’s not clear he ever wanted the job and even less clear that he ever enjoyed it, but it is clear that most of his employees wished he had never taken it. He oversaw the gutting of the State Department and the collapse of the foreign service pipeline, his one enduring legacy that will take years if not decades to unwind. And by virtue of his job he’s complicit in every foreign policy decision Donald Trump has taken, even the ones with which he may not have personally agreed. Plus, he actually benefited financially for his time in the cabinet. Goddammit.

The United States is, in short, worse for his having served. He will not be missed.

But wait, you’re already starting to say, wasn’t Tillerson one of the only “adults in the room” or whatever? Wasn’t he one of only a handful of firm hands on the rudder making sure Trump didn’t wake up one morning and, I don’t know, nuke Tierra del Fuego or something? In a word, no. I mean, Tillerson was one of the saner foreign policy voices in this administration, but there’s no evidence that Trump was listening to him anymore and plenty of evidence to suggest that he wasn’t. The list of things on which these two guys disagreed was basically a laundry list of every major foreign policy issue confronting this administration:

  • Iran: this is the area of disagreement that Trump actually brought up in talking about the firing–Tillerson wanted to keep the Iran nuclear deal while Trump clearly wants to scrap it.
  • North Korea: they’ve done a 180 in the past few days, from Tillerson supporting talks and Trump publicly chastising him for it to Trump impulsively agreeing to meet with Kim Jong-un and Tillerson trying to throttle things back a little.
  • The GCC Crisis: Trump was all-in for the Saudis when they first announced their blockade of Qatar, while the UAE has been lobbying to get Tillerson fired because they think he’s Doha’s Man in Washington.
  • Russia: despite his friendship with Vladimir Putin, Tillerson has been harder on Russia than Trump, even up to this past weekend when Tillerson was much more hawkish about the Sergei Skripal incident in the UK than Trump (who only finally, and grudgingly, said something about it on Tuesday).
  • Israel-Palestine: can you remember the last time Tillerson talked about this issue? Because I honestly can’t. Well, there was the time he said it would take years to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, before the administration announced it was making the move this May.
  • Climate Change: Tillerson wanted to stay in the Paris Agreement. Oh well.

I could go on but I feel like I’m clubbing a dead horse here. The president’s idiot son in-law had more diplomatic responsibilities in this administration than Tillerson did. And I haven’t even gotten to the incident last fall when Tillerson referred to Trump as a “fucking moron” after a meeting. Trump is a fucking moron, obviously, but most people can’t expect to say things like that about their bosses and keep their jobs.

This was an untenable situation. No president can be this far off the page on this many issues and have this much apparently personal animus with his chief diplomat and continue on with that person in that role. I’m all for the “team of rivals” approach to forming a cabinet or whatever, but when the Secretary of State says one thing and his boss contradicts him via Twitter 30 minutes later, and that keeps happening over and over again, it’s bad for foreign policy. It’s bad for everybody. And, again, Trump wasn’t listening to Tillerson anymore. He’s not exactly the kind of guy who handles disagreement well.

Which is not to say that things are going to be better with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, just less chaotic. Probably. Pompeo is a little more in line with Trump in that he’s more obviously hawkish, though it’s not clear he’s a huge ideological shift away from Tillerson. The difference is as much stylistic as it is substantive. Trump likes the way Pompeo talks and, as a former congressman Pompeo knows how to kiss rich guy ass, and so Trump and Pompeo will actually communicate with one another, and Pompeo likely won’t be out flapping in the wind as Tillerson so often was. When Pompeo says something, he won’t risk being immediately contradicted by At Real Donald Trump because he and Trump will already be on the same page.

Also, it’s important to emphasize that Pompeo, as CIA Director, was already the one communicating with Trump on a daily basis about foreign policy, whereas the last time anybody can verify Trump and Tillerson being in the same room was probably the time Tillerson accidentally had dinner in Trump’s hotel at the same time Trump was. This move changes nothing about the people to whom Trump is actually listening. Tillerson’s continued presence in this cabinet would have been superfluous to actual decision-making.

What about Iran, which is the issue most people are talking about. Does Pompeo replacing Tillerson change the likelihood that Trump will scrap the nuclear deal? The short answer is “no.” The longer answer is “maybe a little.” Tillerson was heavily involved in negotiations with France, Germany, and the UK to find some cosmetic way to “change” the deal so that Trump could take the ‘W’ and recertify it. You got the sense in recent weeks that Tillerson was almost working with the Europeans, who like him want to salvage the deal, and against Trump. Pompeo won’t be doing that. As an inveterate Iran hawk himself, Pompeo agrees with Trump that the deal is terrible and has to be fundamentally changed, which inevitably means scrapping it because none of the other parties will actually agree to make any fundamental changes. So the deal is a bit more likely to be toast today than it was yesterday, though it was always pretty likely to be scrapped at some point by this president.

One last word on other Trump personnel changes. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is likely to follow Tillerson out the door post haste. His replacement is rumored to be John Bolton, which would be horrifying on many levels but, again, I’m not sure it would significantly change the trajectory of this administration that already seems to be heading into Bolton’s territory. Bolton is extreme in ways that go far beyond even Pompeo though, so that will be a troubling development should it come to pass. Tillerson’s replacement as CIA Director, current deputy director Gina Haspel will be the first woman to serve as Agency director, so hooray for milestones. Unfortunately she also oversaw a CIA black site torture prison in Thailand after 9/11 and participated in the destruction of evidence of said torture. She should be going to prison, not a bigger office, but I guess that would be looking backward when we should keep looking forward.

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