Rex Tillerson was fired as Secretary of State last week week, an unsurprising end to the former Exxon CEO’s tenure as a diplomat. Tillerson and the President clashed publicly and privately throughout Tillerson’s fourteen months as Secretary, and Trump’s tweet (of course it was a tweet) announcing that Mike Pompeo, the CIA Director, would be taking over at the State Department, was only surprising in that it hadn’t come earlier.
Tillerson had previously worked at Exxon Mobil for his entire career, eventually becoming its CEO, before Trump picked him as his nominee for Secretary of State. From the start though, Trump and Tillerson struggled to work together. Krishnadev Calamur pointed out in The Atlantic that the two clashed over the nuclear agreement with Iran that was left over from the Obama administration, NATO, Venezuela, and notably, North Korea. Last week I wrote that the White House had agreed to meet with Kim Jong-Un, a day after Tillerson had said that America and North Korea were a long way from talks.
And then there were the more childish and petty issues that marked the declining relationship between Tillerson and Trump. In October it was revealed that in the summer of 2017 during a meeting at the Pentagon Tillerson referred to Trump as a “moron”, something he did not deny during a press conference. Hilariously, a CNN source then revealed that Tillerson hadn’t just called Trump a “moron”, but instead a “fucking moron.” The emphasis makes a difference, obviously.
But Tillerson’s tenure as Secretary was not just marred by conflicts with his boss. It was marred by the restructure of the state department that he quickly decided was necessary when he was confirmed as the nation’s top diplomat. This restructure, according to Tillerson, was essentially his way of trying to make the State Department more like Exxon Mobil: ‘We [Exxon] had very long-standing disciplined processes and decision-making, I mean highly structured, that allows you to accomplish a lot…Those are not the characteristics of the United States government.’
Tillerson’s restructure however is still unfinished. Many top diplomatic positions within the State Department are unfilled, ambassadors still haven’t been appointed, and hundreds of staff have resigned. Posts being unfilled and resignations aside, Tillerson’s restructure was more of a gutting. The Atlantic reported that Tillerson’s target by the end of 2018 was to have cut 8% of the department’s staff, so it is perhaps unsurprising that his new colleagues made their views known with their feet.
It is fitting then that Tillerson’s firing was as much of a farce as much of his tenure as Secretary. Tillerson’s firing was announced on Twitter at 8:44am on Tuesday morning by the President, in Trump’s usual style: ‘Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!’
The timing of this is worth nothing, as the evening beforehand Tillerson had offered what John Cassidy called in the New Yorker ‘arguably the strongest condemnation of Russian behavior that the Trump Administration has ever issued.’ Tillerson had said ‘There is never a justification for this type of attack—the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation—and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behaviour.’ This is a strong condemnation, and considering Trump’s relationship it is not a huge leap to imagine this being the trigger for Tillerson’s dismissal.
But the White House has said that Tillerson knew he was being fired by Friday the 10th of March, four days before Trump’s tweet, making his statement on Russia less of a cause for dismissal, and more of a man saying what he thinks while he can. But other reports have a Tillerson aide saying he found out he was being dismissed the way the rest of the world did: Donald Trump’s Twitter account. This aide, Steve Goldstein, has now been fired after contradicting the White House.
There’s no point debating who knew when Tillerson would be fired, and how he found out. The fact that there is even room for this debate shows what a disorganised and disorderly place the Trump White House is. Aides, cabinet officials, a chief of staff, a press secretary: all have exited, and this administration is only just over a year old. Staff turnover in an administration is normal, the volume in the Trump administration though, is ridiculous. I find it hard to pity a former CEO of an oil and energy company, and Tillerson is not a man who needs it, yet his treatment during his time as Secretary, and the manner of his firing, means I have managed to find some.
Not much though.
Photo Credit: Hannah McKay/Reuters.