Reports in the past week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called President Trump a “moron” stoked a flurry of speculation Tillerson would resign soon. Speaking on Wednesday, Tillerson declined to address the incident in question, but emphatically denied rumors of his resignation, saying that he would serve “as long as the president feels I can be useful to achieving his objectives.” However, such shows of loyalty to the President haven’t stopped the rumor mill from moving ahead at full speed. The media firestorm only grew on Tuesday when President Trump proposed an “IQ test” faceoff with Tillerson, raising new questions about the frayed relationship between the two.
All this speculation begs two important questions, though. First, what would it take to for Trump to fire Tillerson ? And what would it take for Tillerson to resign?
The President’s View
At the outset of his term, the president had high hopes for Tillerson as America’s top diplomat. As a veteran oil executive, businessman, and former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, Tillerson’s experience as a corporate dealmaker matched what Trump was looking for in his new West Wing “boardroom”—someone who would help him with tough international negotiations (e.g., NATO, NAFTA) .
Over the past seven months, though, the president’s objectives have repeatedly clashed with Tillerson’s, with Tillerson often on the losing side of major internal foreign policy battles [unclear what the last part of this sentence means]. On Iran, Qatar, and North Korea, Secretary Tillerson has taken public stances that have angered the president. Trump generally kept his disagreements with Tillerson private until this past summer, when he repeatedly took to Twitter to air his gripes with his secretary’s preferred policies, often by directly undercutting Tillerson’s foreign policy initiatives. In the midst of the Qatar-Saudi diplomatic rupture, Trump tweeted that the Saudi blockade was evidence of his anti-extremism rhetoric “already paying off,” effectively neutralizing Secretary Tillerson’s efforts to get that same blockade lifted from the US ally. Tillerson was also unable to rouse support for the Iran nuclear deal after the president’s hostile rhetoric culminated in plans to officially decertify the agreement to Congress, effectively taking the final decision out of the State Department’s hands. Tensions finally reached a breaking point last week, when on the day after Tillerson mentioned that direct negotiations with North Korea were underway, the President tweeted that the secretary “was wasting his time.” It was an extraordinary public put-down of Tillerson’s efforts at the lowest point in their relationship thus far.
Whether or not Tillerson will stay on in his job hinges on whether or not the president still feels his secretary is loyal. Trump has made it clear that loyalty is his primary basis for evaluating secretaries. Whether it’s during private meetings as with James Comey, or in public professions of loyalty, Trump wants his officials to serve him above all else. The president also wants his advisors to be effective agents for his agenda, hence why Trump tolerates the occasional snub from the well-regarded Secretary Mattis. Nonetheless, If Trump sees the Secretary of State as harming his image at home in any way, then it could be the nail in the coffin for Rex Tillerson.
Whether Tillerson resigns largely depends on whether he believes he can get anything done in Washington. Over the last seven months, he’s found himself deeply isolated in his department and unable to achieve much without support from his underlings. Of the initiatives that Tillerson has been able to pursue on his own accord, such as defusing the Qatar-Gulf crisis and the North Korea situation, he’s mostly been stymied by his boss, whose tweets can undermine a week’s worth of diplomacy in a few minutes. For the man who ruled Exxon-Mobil with an iron fist, the humiliation endured in just a few months is likely shocking.
But it might be the personal factor that finally pushes Tillerson to resign. Tillerson made no secret of his policy differences with the president at his confirmation hearings, but largely avoided the messier ethical questions of working under Trump. That all changed over the summer at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree, where Trump lashed out at his critics in a rambling political speech decried by Boy Scouts leaders across the country. The episode particularly struck a raw nerve with Tillerson, who himself was an Eagle Scout and president of the Boy Scouts association for a time, and nearly prompted his resignation. Though Vice President Mike Pence managed to convince Tillerson to stay on, it remained uncertain whether Tillerson and Trump ever resolved their personal tension: the “moron” comment and the bizarre IQ test challenge only confirm those suspicions. Though the oil executive stated publicly that he’s still willing to endure working for Trump as long as he felt it was in the interests of the country, it’s clear to the world that his boss’s behavior has yet to cross Tillerson’s personal line. But with a president who excels at crossing lines, it might only be a matter of time before Tillerson exits.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / U.S. Department of State / U.S. Department of Defense