Foreign Policy

Tillerson Never Had a Chance Under Trump

An erratic president rendered him too weak for effective diplomacy. But he's a bad secretary of state, too.

Why stick around?

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insists that he's staying at Foggy Bottom following reports that, after one humiliation on top of another from President Donald Trump, he threatened to quit. On PredictIt, a prediction market for politics, people who think Tillerson will be in his present job at year's end could have put down 71 cents on Thursday morning for a chance to win a buck; a 30-cent wager could win the same dollar if they're wrong.

Go for the bigger payout.

Despite Tillerson's ineptitude as secretary, his departure wouldn't be altogether welcome. He is part of the Trump administration's "sane caucus" led by Defense Secretary James Mattis, bringing rational judgment to decisions on explosive foreign-policy issues involving North Korea, Iran, Russia and the Persian Gulf. The counter caucus is led by Trump himself. 

Perhaps Trump was wrong to tap a chief executive of Exxon Mobil Corp. to manage U.S. foreign policy; the history of CEOs moving to top cabinet posts is mixed at best. But Tillerson never had a fair chance. The latest conflict with his erratic boss came last weekend, while Tillerson was in China working on a diplomatic approach to North Korea's nuclear threat. Trump publicly blasted the effort:

Still, it's impossible to defend Tillerson's tenure. He has ignored or alienated much of the foreign service, and mid-career diplomats are leaving in droves. U.S. foreign policy will pay a price for this brain drain well after Trump is gone. He's obsessed with reorganizing the department.

Tillerson is politically tone deaf. He doesn't appreciate the importance of public diplomacy, has a weak staff—his communications chief was press secretary for Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign—hasn't cultivated good relations with Congress nor consulted much with past secretaries.

Two pillars of the Republican foreign-policy establishment, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and former Secretary of State James Baker, urged Tillerson to take the job, hoping that his international business experience would be helpful to a neophyte president. Another wise predecessor, George Shultz, counseled that the most important initial task was to forge a good relationship with Trump. 

Tillerson tried, but his effort proved to be futile. Trump ignored his chief diplomat, allowing him to be undercut by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has no foreign policy experience. And that was before the public humiliation.

In August, Tillerson distanced himself from Trump's bigoted comments in sympathy with the far-right and neo-Nazi agitators who incited violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. At Exxon, Tillerson won praise for promoting diversity.

As a result of his rift with Trump, Tillerson has limited credibility with foreign leaders. Imagine the reaction of Chinese leaders last weekend.

Mattis has been more successful. For one thing, he's better versed in the ways of Washington. He also appeals to Trump on a visceral level, though for the wrong reason; the president, who fancies himself a tough guy, loves that Mattis's Marine nickname was "Mad Dog." He may not know that it's an ill-chosen label that Mattis doesn't like.

"His nickname 'Mad Dog' is a misnomer," said former Defense Secretary William Cohen. "It should be 'Braveheart' because what really characterizes Jim Mattis is his courage." Braveheart wouldn't cut it with this president.

Many Washington observers expect Tillerson to be replaced by United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley. A former governor of South Carolina, Haley has displayed a good sense of public diplomacy, is politically skillful and excels at one key magic trick: She knows how to flatter Trump without seeming foolish.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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