Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by President Donald Trump, according to White House officials’ statements on Tuesday morning. He was in office for a little over a year, one of the shortest tenures in modern history — and it was not, experts say, a distinguished one.
Tillerson just returned from a trip abroad to Chad and Nigeria, before cutting his trip shortto refocus on North Korea.
Trump’s suprise announcement took place less than four hours after Tillerson’s flight landed.
“I want to thank Rex Tillerson for his service,” Trump said briefly in a statement. “A great deal has been accomplished over the last fourteen months, and I wish him and his family well.”
The White House said that Trump wanted a fresh approach to his administration’s diplomatic efforts, and wanted to have his team in place in time for negotiations with North Korea.
Trump also announced that Deputy Director of the CIA Gina Haspel take Pompeo’s place as Director of the CIA, the first woman to be appointed to the job.
The former ExxonMobil CEO, whose nomination was initially greeted warmly by prominent foreign policy hands, will leave without any major accomplishments. This is largely because he failed to wield any significant influence in internal administration debates over issues like North Korea or Russia, in fact actively alienating the president during several key policy debates.
“Tillerson would be at or near the bottom of the list of secretaries of state, not just in the post-Second World War world but in the record of US secretaries of state,” says Paul Musgrave, a scholar of US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
His push to slash “inefficiencies” in the State Department and seeming disinterest in working closely with longtime staff were even more damaging. Under Tillerson’s watch, 60 percent of State’s top-ranking career diplomats resigned and new applications to join the foreign service fell by half, according to a November count by the American Foreign Service Association. This hollowing out of the foreign service, combined with Tillerson’s inability to appoint people to vital positions like Ambassador to South Korea, delayed American responses to major crises and weakened the State Department for a “generation,” according to George Washington University’s Elizabeth Saunders.
This can’t all be blamed on Tillerson: even a skilled and experienced diplomat would have had trouble maintaining influence in the chaotic Trump White House, a place where foreign policy is often made by tweet. As if to underscore the point, Trump announced Tillerson’s departure in a tweet — before the secretary himself could make a statement.
Yet scholars and foreign policy practitioners across the political spectrum agree that he deserves much of the blame.
"I think he really will go down as one of the worst secretaries of State we've had," Eliot Cohen, counselor to the State Department under President George W. Bush, told Axios’ Jonathan Swan. “He will go down as the worst Secretary of State in history,” tweeted Ilan Goldenberg, an Obama-era State Department official.
Tillerson was expected by many to be one of the “adults in the room,” helping Secretary of Defense James Mattis rein in some of Trump’s most wild ideas. His attempts to play that role backfired — his ham-handed attempts to manage Trump alienated the president, who has reportedly complained about his “totally establishment” views on foreign policy.
When you combine the lack of influence over Trump with Tillerson’s dismantling of the State Department’s staff — he made more of a mess of the department in a shorter amount of time than any other secretary of state in history — you have a truly disastrous tenure in Foggy Bottom.
“He took the job and made it smaller,” Musgrave says.
When Trump announced Tillerson as his pick for secretary of state, back in December 2016, the foreign policy community was of two minds on the appointment.
As CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest corporations, Tillerson seemed to be more than qualified to effectively manage a sprawling bureaucracy like the State Department. Mainstream GOP foreign policy experts like former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley all praised the pick.
"He would bring to the position vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with dozens of governments and leaders in every corner of the world,” Gates said in a statement. "He is a person of great integrity whose only goal in office would be to protect and advance the interests of the United States.”
Critics, though, worried about his close relationship with Vladimir Putin and Exxon’s willingness to strike deals with corrupt foreign dictators and history of lobbying against action climate change (though the corporation now says it accepts climate science). During his January confirmation hearings, senators grilled him about both Russia and climate, with Democrats clearly unsatisfied by his answers.
"Do you lack the knowledge to answer my question, or refuse to answer my question?" Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) puffed, after Tillerson repeatedly stonewalled his questions about Exxon funding climate change denial. "A little of both,” Tillerson replied.
Tillerson was confirmed in late January 2017 nonetheless, in a vote that basically fell along party lines. Quickly, he set about upending everyone’s views about him. As soon as March, it had become clear that the convention wisdom was 100 percent wrong. The fears about Tillerson’s policy views had proven overblown, mostly because he had been completely overshadowed in internal White House deliberations over issues like Syria and Russia.
“More than a month after he became America’s top diplomat, Rex Tillerson is like no other modern secretary of State: he’s largely invisible,” the LA Times’ Tracy Wilkinson reported at the time. “His influence at the White House is difficult to discern. He appears to be competing with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, both of whom have Trump’s ear on foreign policy.”
The optimism about Tillerson’s management acumen, by contrast, had clearly been badly misplaced. Tillerson failed to place political appointees in a number of vital leadership positions, failed to spend a lot of time with his own employees, and pushed out longtime employees without clear replacements in mind. Morale inside the organization collapsed.
“I used to love my job,” one staffer told The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe at the time. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”
What was true in March remained true for the rest of Tillerson’s brief tenure. On issue after issue, Tillerson proved to be out-of-touch with the president’s foreign policy positions.
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