Six months ago, Politico declared that Tillerson’s stock was rising in the White House, gradually but successfully winning over President Donald Trump through a combination of cutting the fat at a bloated State Department, and avoiding any media spotlight that would divert attention from his boss. Trump is a media hound; Tillerson is anything but.
He was following orders, Politico made clear, defending the president during overseas trips and keeping his head down.
All the stock Tillerson built up over the spring is now largely gone. The summer and fall were enormously tough times for the Secretary of State. Trump’s undiplomatic tweets on everything from Qatar to North Korea helped undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic endeavors before they’d even started. Back home, Tillerson received incoming from all quarters on Capitol Hill over his State Department budget proposal, a $10 billion reduction from the previous fiscal year. And within the administration, Tillerson was watching his back, knowing full well that the more vocal and ambitious Nikki Haley was likely itching for a promotion (Haley denies wanting Tillerson’s job, but does anyone really believe that?).
In short, it’s been largely downhill for Tillerson lately. Today, people all but assume that he’ll either put in his papers for early retirement or be pushed out. Calling your boss (or widely reported that you called your boss) “a moron” to your colleagues in private and then getting challenged to an IQ test by the president of the United States are not exactly the circumstances of great job security.
How did it get so bad for Tillerson so quickly? Does he even want the job anymore, or is he burned out? Those are the questions that the Washington news media obsesses about. In the end, though, all of them are secondary to this one: What will the administration lose if Tillerson leaves?
Pundits and columnists make a decent living in the criticism business, and there’s plenty to criticize about Rex Tillerson. But there are also things that Tillerson has gotten right. Along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly, there’s no doubt that Tillerson is a crucial member of the administration’s pragmatic wing. Using the phrases “axis of adults” and “adults in the room” has become a common trope in Washington these days, but it rings true on foreign policy, where Tillerson has beaten the drum of diplomacy as loud as he possibly can. Indeed, this is likely a major reason why friends and associates of Tillerson think he’s worn out—no matter how loud he bangs that drum, his best efforts get foiled by off-the-cuff remarks and 140-character statements.
To say that Tillerson is the most vital member of Trump’s national security cabinet would be a stretch, but he is definitely a restraining influence. On the dispute between Qatar and its Gulf Arab neighbors, Tillerson has eagerly embraced the role of mediator, traveling to and from Riyadh, Doha, and Kuwait City this past summer to grease the skids for a diplomatic resolution. Unfortunately, as Mark Perry has reported in these pages, Tillerson has been undermined by the White House from the start. It is difficult to serve as a cool-headed mediator when the commander-in-chief practically labels Qatar a state sponsor of terrorism.
Normally, a secretary of state’s job begins and ends with diplomacy. But in Tillerson’s case, being a diplomat goes hand-in-hand with serving as the janitor, on hand to clean up the mess.
When Trump’s adversarial telephone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was leaked, Tillerson and Mattis teamed up to offer assurances that the longstanding relationship between Washington and Canberra was and will remain solid. The president’s heated comments about America’s acceptance of Australian refugees, the pair told reporters, did not at all mean that the bilateral partnership between the two countries was at risk of imploding. Of course, smoothing the edges of a president’s impromptu remarks is not a new thing for a secretary of state. But this duty is far more important in the era of Trump, when world leaders are both mystified over what U.S. foreign policy is and who in Washington is calling the shots.
Case in point: At the same time that Trump was calling North Korean leader Kim Jong-un names and tweeting that Pyongyang would be destroyed if it dared to threaten the United States, Tillerson was dialing back the rhetoric, perhaps realizing that a military operation on the Korean Peninsula, even a John Kerry-like pinprick, would likely escalate into one of the most horrific wars that we’ve seen this century. “I think the whole situation is a bit overheated right now,” Tillerson told the media during a trip to China last month. “I think everyone would like for it to calm down.” Everyone, including the president of the United States.
Kim Jong-un is obsessively paranoid about the possibility of a U.S. invasion, so Tillerson’s State Department released statements expressing the clear view that Washington has no interest in overthrowing the government in Pyongyang or converting North Korea into some kind of U.S.-imposed democratic utopia. All Washington wants, Tillerson said, was the Kim regime’s denuclearization. While negotiations at the present time are dead, Tillerson’s upfront opposition to regime change in North Korea is nonetheless a small but positive feeler to Kim that the administration is interested in his nukes and missiles, not his dynasty.
On the other hand, Tillerson’s luck in keeping the U.S. in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) may have finally run out. While he was able to guide Trump through an earlier certification of the Iran deal, it looks like he is failing on that front today as Trump is reportedly poised to announce he will not re-certify, leaving the heavy lifting to Congress on how to proceed next.
Is Rex Tillerson the best secretary of state in U.S. history? Not by a long shot—read about morale at Foggy Bottom and you get an idea of how distressing his tenure is to some foreign service officers who have been in the business for decades.
But is he the worst, as some allege? Certainly not. It could get a whole lot worse, and as hard as it may be to believe today, we may eventually miss him when he is gone.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.