Rex Tillerson was in trouble. He had been overheard calling President Trump a “moron,” and NBC News was reporting the story (other outlets later noted that he actually said, “fucking moron”). To make matters worse, the embattled secretary of state summoned reporters to a press conference to clean up the mistake but inexplicably fueled the story by refusing even to deny trashing his boss. Instead, he complained. “This is what I don’t understand about Washington,” Tillerson told reporters amid the controversy last fall, the first of many that would spell the beginning of the end of his short, rocky tenure as America’s top diplomat. “I’m not from this place. But the places I come from, we don’t deal with that kind of petty nonsense.”
Tillerson, a career oilman from blunt-spoken Texas, had come to the State Department with significant overseas business experience but was still very much a novice in the ways of international diplomacy. In the end, though, if there’s one thing his short year in Foggy Bottom proved, it’s this: The foreign capital he didn’t understand was Donald Trump’s Washington.
Defying the laws of political gravity at every turn, Tillerson feuded with fellow Cabinet members, clashed with White House staff, and alienated many of the thousands of career officials at the State Department who initially welcomed him as a voice of establishment calm in an unsettling new administration only to watch as he slashed their budgets and devalued their work. He was barely on speaking terms with national security adviser H.R. McMaster, engaged in a bitter turf war with presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, disdained by key members of Congress who had once cheered for him, and almost comically out of the loop on key policy decisions. When senior officials from key allies came to town, they often didn’t even bother to schedule meetings at Tillerson’s marginalized State Department anymore, and several of his own ambassadors were outright insubordinate by the end, realizing that power lay in the White House not in the secretary’s wood-paneled office on the State Department’s 7th floor.
But that litany, long as it is, does not fully explain why he lost his job. When Trump ignominiously fired Tillerson by tweet on Tuesday morning as the clueless Tillerson flew back from Africa, the president made clear the secretary of state was being dumped for opposing him one too many times – and not even bothering to hide it. “We disagreed on things,” the loyalty-obsessed Trump told reporters. “It was a different mind-set.”
For most of the last year, I listened as source after source who encountered the secretary of state recounted Tillerson’s disagreements – many that became public, some that never did – with the volatile new president’s foreign policy on issues ranging from the Iran nuclear deal (Trump’s publicly stated reason for firing him) to Russia to Middle East peacemaking and trade. Invariably, the former ExxonMobil CEO tried to steer Trump toward less inflammatory policies. Trump had been attracted to Tillerson initially as a wealthy businessman and outsider to Washington like himself; a distinguished-looking graybeard in a tailored suit seemed just the fit for a president for whom appearances matter almost above all else. But Tillerson turned out to be the opposite in almost every way of his bomb-throwing boss, an old-school realist and real-life Boy Scout who thought he could conduct the sort of pragmatic, by-the-books diplomacy that had worked in putting together oil deals. That was never going to fly with the impulsive Trump, who undercut him publicly and privately from the start.
Tillerson never seemed to figure it out. And in the end, that was his big mistake: he didn’t get the world wrong; he got the president wrong – and his own staff too. He thought the State Department was his enemy but it wasn’t. The White House was.
“The problem is, he lost the confidence of the president,” said Steve Hadley, the former Bush administration national security adviser whose partner, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had recommended Tillerson for the job in the first place. “That’s fatal.”
As I soon as I heard the news Tuesday morning of Tillerson’s unceremonious dumping, I thought back to a conversation I had with a senior Republican in December, on a day when New York Times was reporting that Tillerson would soon be fired and replaced by CIA director Mike Pompeo, the exact scenario that had finally played out three months later.
“It's a snake pit,” the Republican, who has remained in contact with many of the key players on the Trump team, told me on that day back in December. “There are personality tensions between the president and Tillerson, between the president and McMaster, between McMaster and Tillerson. It’s broken and it’s going to have to be fixed one way or another. It can’t go on like this.”
Initially, foreign policy hands saw Tillerson as part of an “axis of adults” that would help rein in Trump, to curb his wildest impulses for doing things like blowing up NATO and disrupting global trade. But while he forged a strong alliance with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis – a partnership that, several sources told me, continued up until the end – he angered the equally embattled McMaster, who was also finding it hard to get along with Trump and felt under siege by the hardline nationalists like Steve Bannon inside the White House. “He and Mattis were joined at the hip, and that made for a very effective team,” the Republican told me.
But Trump grew increasingly comfortable overruling them anyway. Go down a long checklist of Trump’s signature foreign policy decisions, and Mattis and Tillerson have often been on the losing side. Both spoke out publicly, for example, when Trump chose to “decertify” the Iran nuclear deal last fall, and have lobbied hard in private to stop him from outright walking away from it, as he now threatens to do by May. They also objected to Trump’s decision to unilaterally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to withdraw from the global climate pact, and to impose steel and aluminum tariffs, a move just last week that prompted a whole wave of worried allies beating down Tillerson’s door.
That record inevitably leads to questions – very much unresolved – about just where Mattis and McMaster now stand with a president who has shown his willingness to run the country without heeding their advice. McMaster was already a marked man, and his internal battle over Tillerson may well end up being a Pyrrhic one; I spoke with several plugged-in Republicans last week who told me reports were accurate that Trump was planning to dump McMaster and considering whether to install former Bush administration national security aide Steve Biegun in his place.
Having finally fired one member of his angry, backbiting national security team, what’s to stop Trump from parting with others?
At the least, Washington won’t have the embarrassing Tillerson drama to cluck over anymore.
Ever since the “moron” comment leaked out, there had been reports of an imminent Rexit, and foreign leaders understood the State Department was no longer a reliable source of information on just what constituted Trump administration policy. They might not be sure who spoke for the president, but they were pretty sure it wasn’t Rex Tillerson. Amid the “moron” furor in early October, a senior White House official told me, exasperated, “There’s no one left who supports Rex anymore.” Trump, in fact, came close to firing him numerous times, I was told, including one Friday in late October. “I thought today would be the day,” a Trump adviser I ran into said at the time.
But Tillerson refused to take the hint. I spoke with an outside adviser of his who called him over the winter after one of the periodic stories announcing his impending departure. “The president may fire me tomorrow,” Tillerson told the caller, “but I’m not a quitter.”
Invariably, Tillerson and those around him would attribute his troubles to the vicious internecine struggles that characterize Trump’s chaotic White House, but what that meant was when another dispute with Trump cropped up, as it inevitably did, Tillerson had few if any backers left to stand up for him – and more and more insiders who simply saw him as a dead man walking. “They weren’t on the same page on a lot of issues,” a senior Mideast official told me in December. “You can’t have your chief diplomat disagreeing with the president. Especially when the split is that public.”
But of course Tillerson was hardly the only Trump appointee to disagree with Trump; the president’s top economic adviser quit in protest last week after the president overruled him on trade tariffs. And besides, many of Tillerson’s critics see those policy fights with Trump as a badge of honor. The reason that the instant obits and internet hot takes pronounced Tillerson “the worst secretary of state ever,” as former Bush administration official Eliot Cohen wrote in the Atlantic and others quickly followed, was his disastrous stewardship of the State Department itself.
And that is a rap that will be hard for Tillerson to beat.
An insular engineer by training, Tillerson shunned the department’s professional staff from the start, embarked on a grand but ill-conceived revamp that seemed inspired by the worst of corporate restructurings, endorsed Trump’s proposed sweeping budget cuts, and seemed to shun the secretary’s traditional role as a public spokesman around the world for American democracy and the promotion of human rights.
He surrounded himself with a small staff of loyalists and kept information so close hold among them that a senior State official told me the rest of the bureaucracy had taken to calling Tillerson’s team “The God Pod.” Policy planning chief Brian Hook, a respected Bush administration veteran who broke with many GOP establishment friends to work for Trump, seemed to be involved in every substantive matter; Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, came in for particularly scathing criticism, especially after a decree was handed down to even top officials not to send memos to the secretary: “We were clearly told, ‘Don’t call us, we’ll call you,’” the senior State official, who was one of dozens to eventually quit in dismay, told me. “The degree to which the secretary cut out virtually everybody from all decision-making is what is unprecedented.”
A few weeks ago, I met with a senior State Department official, trying to understand what had gone so wrong.
Tillerson, at the time, was still in denial mode, believing that if he only “got closer to the president,” he could serve him better. But the official described a secretary of state embattled.
He confirmed Tillerson’s feud with McMaster. He described an aggressive White House operation under presidential son-in-law Kushner that was trying to horn in on State Department meetings. And there were running fights even with officials who nominally reported to Tillerson, like the U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who would not acknowledge the secretary as her boss because of her own Cabinet rank and was openly end-running around him to the White House.
So were others. The official described one envoy who that same day was going to the White House to lobby for a policy Tillerson opposed. Why?, the official asked. “You work for Tillerson,” he remembered telling the defiant ambassador, “and that’s not what Tillerson thinks.”
In the end, though, Tillerson’s troubles were too often of his own making. When I asked about complaints involving Tillerson’s Praetorian guard of advisers like his chief of staff, the official was clear with me. “The problem is not them,” he said. “The problem is him.”
Tillerson spent much of his last week in office fielding complaints about Trump and his decisions. I talked with the foreign minister of one European country who met with Tillerson at the State Department days before he was fired. The European voiced his country’s strong concern about the massive new tariffs on steel and aluminum that Trump had just announced over the objections of advisers like Mattis and his soon-to-quit economic chief Gary Cohn. Tillerson, the minister told me, listened carefully to the criticism of the president’s tariff plan – and didn’t bother to push back. Soon after that meeting, Tillerson left on his ill-fated final trip to Africa, where leader after leader took him to task for Trump’s leaked comment trashing immigrants from “shithole countries” like their own.
Meanwhile back in Washington, Trump had a final few indignities to heap on the secretary, announcing his surprise decision to hold a nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that a clearly out-of-the-loop Tillerson had not been consulted on.
On Tuesday morning, as he discussed his firing of Tillerson with reporters on the White House lawn before heading off to California, Trump still hadn’t bothered to call Tillerson. But the president said something that virtually everyone, including most likely Tillerson himself, could agree on.
“He’s going to be very happy,” Trump said. “I think Rex is going to be much happier now.”