Trump's good cop, bad cop play with Rex Tillerson

The President has a rather unique way of tossing out bombshell comments, or at least cryptic hints, as he breezes past the media on his way to or from various events. With no supporting context, this clearly frustrates the press nearly as much as his Twitter feed, no doubt to the great joy of President Trump. We had another one of those fly-by moments this weekend when Trump attempted to reassure everyone of his confidence in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The President was on his way to Marine One, preparing to lift off for a trip to a fundraising event, when he heaped some praise on Tillerson while seeming to slip a shiv into his back at the same time. (Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he had a good relationship with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson but that Tillerson could be tougher.

Trump, who made the comment to reporters at the White House, did not elaborate.

NBC reported this week that in a session with Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials at the Pentagon, Tillerson had openly criticized the president and referred to him as a “moron.”

As far as I can tell, the media dislikes Rex Tillerson a lot more than Donald Trump does, but I’ll admit that Tillerson’s future with this White House may not be certain. Despite his stark denial of any trouble in paradise at his recent press conference (and his almost but not quite denial of having called the President a moron) Trump seems to be almost trolling him on a regular basis. So does that mean he’s on the way out?

I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Despite complaints from the press corps, Tillerson didn’t get where he is by being a dummy. If he honestly thought Trump was considering giving him the boot he wouldn’t have made such a firm statement of unity at that presser. Assuming that’s correct, then something else is going on with their relationship. Whether it’s North Korea, Iran or the European Union, Tillerson’s message seems to come off as somehow different than Trump’s. This leads the press to claim that they’re not communicating, not on the same page or getting ready to break up. But is that true?

The other possibility is that this is the old good cop, bad cop routine. Trump claiming that he wishes the Secretary of State were “a bit tougher” isn’t so much a dig at Tillerson as a reminder of who the real tough guy is on this team. Rex goes in to talk to diplomats representing foreign powers and makes nice, talking about offers and deals and a path forward. Then Trump stops off for five minutes with the media on his way to a meeting and drops some comments about military options, fire and fury or any other incendiary comments that cross his mind. This gives Rex the chance to answer the next alarmed phone call from the subject of the discussion and basically say, “Well, the President’s a bit upset, obviously, but if we work out a deal this can all be avoided.”

Does that work? In some cases, particularly with the EU members, there’s a case to be made that it does. When it comes to North Korea… not so much. But either way, if that’s how Trump and Tillerson are playing this tag team operation, the Secretary of State probably doesn’t have too much to worry about.

Still, Tillerson remains something of a puzzle to many in the media. If you prefer the gloom and doom version of hot takes on this subject, Dexter Filkins has an analysis at The New Yorker describing Rex Tillerson at the Breaking Point. Filkins seems to think that Tillerson has less of a problem with Donald Trump than he does with the deep state at State. Coming from a background as a CEO at a major company where he could shift corporate policy on a dime without any governance by committee, he’s not used to the pushback he’s getting at State and it’s frustrating him.

There might be something to that theory, and it makes more sense than a running war with Trump. But anything and everything can turn on a dime in Trump’s White House. If either the President or the Secretary of State are sufficiently unhappy with their relationship behind the scenes we’ll know soon enough. If not, it was one more media sideshow which didn’t pan out.