Tillerson fired: Why top diplomat was never a good fit with disruptor-in-chief

Despite his unconventional remaking of the State Department, Rex Tillerson was otherwise too conventional a diplomat. The policy differences were many, not least on Iran, and he may have been insufficiently deferential to the president. Why Mike Pompeo may be more likely to develop a rapport with Trump.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson participated in a national space council at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., in October 2017. His last day in the post will be March 31.

In the end, Rex Tillerson was simply not enough of a disruptor to last as President Trump’s secretary of State.

Time and again over the course of Mr. Trump’s first year in office, his chief diplomat sounded a cautious and conventional note on foreign policy matters that the president had chosen as issues on which he could stand apart from the traditional approach to American statecraft.

The president who came into office on an anti-establishment wave seems to have realized fairly quickly that he had picked a solidly establishment secretary of State.  But it wasn’t until Tuesday, a little over a year into his presidency, that Trump announced that Mr. Tillerson was out – to be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

White House aides suggested the disruptor-in-chief wanted to make the change before embarking on perhaps his most unorthodox diplomatic initiative yet – a sit-down meeting “before May,” as Trump announced last week, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

But the signs of a missed fit between a convention-scorning president and a business-leader-turned-foreign-policy traditionalist, who was informed of his dismissal while on an official tour of Africa, had piled up over the past year.

Tillerson begged Trump not to up-end an already fragile and torn Middle East by moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. An annoyed president dismissed Tillerson’s (and much of his national security team’s) concerns and forged ahead on the embassy move.

The president ridiculed Tillerson’s insistence on diplomacy – and a reliance on traditional pressure-intensification measures such as sanctions – to address North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons and missile programs, publicly chiding his diplomat even as he was in Asia that he was “wasting his time” with talks.

And perhaps most grating for Trump, Tillerson backed sticking with former President Barack Obama’s signature foreign-policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, advocating working with European allies to strengthen the accord rather than simply jettisoning it.

Iran on his mind

Indeed some foreign policy analysts say that while the writing of Tillerson’s departure has been on the wall for some time, it was very likely unreconciled differences over the Iran deal that – along with the coming North Korea summit – spelled the top diplomat’s unceremonious firing.

“I don’t think people are giving enough weight to the differences over the Iran nuclear deal in explaining why, for this president, Tillerson had to go,” says Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “It’s been very clear that Trump has hated this deal since Day One and has been set on getting the US out – and yet there he was with a national security team, led by Tillerson and H. R. McMaster, that insisted on the disaster it would be to pull out every time the deal came up.”  

In comments Tuesday on his snap decision to replace Tillerson with Mr. Pompeo, Trump made it clear that differences over the Iran deal were uppermost in his mind as he made a national security staff change that had been rumored for months.

“[Tillerson and I] disagreed on things [like] the Iran deal,” Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for a trip to California to tout his signature border wall project. “We were not thinking the same. With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process.”

Trump went on to underscore his conclusion that Pompeo – who unlike Tillerson had publicly supported candidate Trump’s presidential bid – will be a better fit with his national security vision.

“I'm really at a point,” he added, “where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.”

Some analysts heard in Trump’s “very close” comment a hint that changes in the national security staff are not quite complete. Indeed Mr. Kazianis predicts that General McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, is probably also not long for the Trump White House.

Still, for all his preference for anti-establishment thinking, Trump confirmed in making Pompeo his top diplomat an established truism about the secretary of State. Longtime diplomats and experts in American diplomatic history all say that the mark of a successful secretary of State is one who has the trust of the president and works well with him.

As Trump said Tuesday, “I've worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time… We're always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good, and that's what I need as secretary of State.”

Clearly Trump and Tillerson never established that critical “wavelength,” which experts deem essential.

Developing a rapport

“The key to the success and indeed the longevity of any secretary of State is his or her relationship with the president – and it’s very clear that rapport never developed between Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson,” says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asian affairs in the Clinton administration and a former White House national security staffer during the Carter administration.

On the other hand, Mr. Inderfurth says he has seen indications that Pompeo could be of the temperament to establish (or perhaps develop further) the all-important “rapport” with the president.

Inderfurth says he recalls being surprised when he came upon the CIA director on “Face the Nation” last Sunday. “My first thought was, ‘What the heck is the CIA director doing on a national news program discussing national security affairs, that’s very unusual,’ ” he says. “But then after getting over my surprise I was quite impressed by how deferential and really obsequious Pompeo was toward the president, how he kept repeating how on top of every issue the president is,” he adds.

“I think we’ve learned that this president requires that kind of deferential treatment not just publicly but behind closed doors as well,” Inderfurth says. “And it’s quite clear that Tillerson, while trying to establish a relationship with the president, never fully deferred to Donald Trump’s my-way-or-the-highway approach but saw it as his job to pursue America’s over-arching diplomatic interests.”

Whether Pompeo – a former Republican congressman from Kansas who displayed little use for his party’s internationalist foreign-policy mainstream – will fully jell with the president’s style remains to be seen. But analysts note that as CIA director he quickly adapted tasks like presenting the daily intelligence briefing in a manner that fit this president. And Pompeo seems to be on the Trump “wavelength” on key issues.

“Pompeo all along has been of the view that the Iran deal has got to go,” notes Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest.

What is unclear at this point is what stance Pompeo will take vis-à-vis Russia – whether he will fall in line with Trump in giving Russia a pass on its growing global aggressiveness (and specifically on interference in the 2016 election) or will stake out something of a more independent approach as Tillerson tried to do.

Final jab at Russia

Tillerson took one final swipe at Russia Monday – even as he returned from his shortened Africa trip – declaring Russia “clearly” responsible for a poison attack in Britain that targeted a former Russian spy who had turned Vladimir Putin critic.

Even though he knew he was finished in his job, Tillerson expressed solidarity with the British government – which earlier had hinted the attack could prompt an invoking of NATO’s Article 5, which calls for mutual defense among Alliance members. The attack would “trigger a response,” Tillerson told reporters aboard his return flight to Washington.

The final jab at Russia did not go unnoticed.

“Secretary Tillerson’s firing comes one day after he once again spoke out against Russia when the President would not,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D) of Delaware in a statement Tuesday. On Monday the White House – which Senator Coons said “has notably refused to address the real threats that we face from Russia” – pointedly declined to join British Prime Minister Theresa May in blaming Russia for the poison attack. Trump agreed in a phone call with Prime Minister May Tuesday that Russia must be held accountable for the attack.

Yet as important as the growing challenge posed by Russia may be, some analysts say it was more than anything Trump’s sudden decision to engage with North Korea – and a desire to have a national security team to his liking – that prompted Tillerson’s departure now.

“I think that once Trump made the decision to take on what may be the biggest superpower summit since the Cold War,” Kazianis says, “he also realized that he’s going to want around him a team that he knows he can trust.”

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