“Why is Tillerson still there?” Matt Lauer asks after a report from Andrea Mitchell and Carol Lee on tensions between Donald Trump and his secretary of state. Three months ago, the tensions rose so high that Mike Pence — once again in ambassador mode — had to intervene to keep Rex Tillerson from resigning. In fact, the relationship deteriorated to the point where Tillerson called Trump a “moron” in a Pentagon meeting, Lee reports:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning this past summer amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, according to multiple senior administration officials who were aware of the situation at the time.
The tensions came to a head around the time President Donald Trump delivered a politicized speech in late July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led, the officials said.
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident.
While it’s unclear if he was aware of the incident, Vice President Mike Pence counseled Tillerson, who is fourth in line to the presidency, on ways to ease tensions with Trump, and other top administration officials urged him to remain in the job at least until the end of the year, officials said.
The State Department denies that this happened, and Trump himself seems to reject it as well. He issued a somewhat cryptic tweet that appears to respond to NBC’s story:
Tillerson later held a press conference to deny everything:
Sec. of State Rex Tillerson: "I have never considered leaving this post." pic.twitter.com/hyNe9RWjAI
— ABC News (@ABC) October 4, 2017
What about the “moron” quote? Tillerson was a little less specific on that, even as CNN “confirmed” the comment:
Tillerson did not deny the report that he privately called Trump a “moron” in a Pentagon meeting, saying he won't "deal with petty stuff."
— NPR (@NPR) October 4, 2017
TILLERSON on POTUS: he’s smart and demands results
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) October 4, 2017
Honestly, though, what real value comes from this leak? I’ve worked for plenty of good bosses who’ve frustrated me to the point of invective, and them toward me.* Petty describes this part of the scoop pretty well.
This leak comes at a curious time. First, as Lauer notes in the clip above, there have been conflicting messages between Tillerson and Trump, especially on North Korea of late, which prompts the question of whether the two are on the same page. But more curiously has been the recent push in the media to get Tillerson out of the job. Lauer refers to that as well, and Daniel Drezner has a pretty good round-up of recent media activity on that front, noting “a small raft of stories” supporting his retention, too. Drezner believes that Tillerson’s been on the correct side in his disputes with Trump, but that he’s still too incompetent to remain:
Third, the above arguments vastly exaggerate Trump’s power. This is understandable: Historically, the president has been the most important foreign policy actor. What is striking about Trump, however, is how ineffectual he is even within his own executive branch. Yesterday his secretary of defense contradicted him on the Iran deal. His attorney general refused to quit, despite Trump’s apparent desire for him to do so. On issues ranging from Afghanistan to transgender troops to NAFTA, Trump has said one thing and acquiesced to doing the opposite. He is the president and will certainly get his way some of the time. Even within executive branch deliberations, however, it is striking how infrequently that happens.
I agree with Rex Tillerson in most of his disagreements with the president. I very much agree with Tillerson’s blunt assessment of Trump as president. But he has been the worst secretary of state in modern American history, and it’s not close. Someone who understands foreign policy, understands bureaucratic politics and understands how to forge coalitions could help nudge a Trump administration toward a less destructive path.
Replacing Rex Tillerson is not a magic bullet. Far from it. But the man has been so incompetent at his job that making the change is unlikely to hurt and very likely to help a little. Maybe a little disruption is in order.
There seems to be pressure to push Tillerson out at the State Department, too. Nik Steinberg, a former aide to Samantha Power, wrote a long dissertation for Politico today on the brain drain at Foggy Bottom under Tillerson. This leak to NBC might be part of a concerted effort by careerists and Obama-era holdovers there to change leadership — perhaps especially because of the budget cuts on the department.
The campaign of leaks might end up working, especially with Trump and Tillerson at cross purposes as often as they are. But if that results in Nikki Haley taking over the reins at State, the same leakers will probably have the same problems they do now, and a much less vulnerable target at which to take aim. Perhaps they should be careful for what they wish.
At any rate, Tillerson made clear today, he’s not going anywhere. For now.
Tillerson: "My commitment to the success of our President and our country is as strong as it was on the day I accepted his offer." pic.twitter.com/NiQ2gEMAMW
— Fox News (@FoxNews) October 4, 2017
* – Current bosses excepted, of course … [checks e-mail inbox nervously]