Trump wasn’t happy with his State Department finalists – but then he heard a new name
Unexpected selection shows the decision-making process and leadership style of a president-elect who has never worked in government
Donald Trump sat in his office at Trump Tower on December 2 facing the most important choice of his transition to the presidency, and his indecision had set off a war among his top aides.
Some favoured Mitt Romney, who had trashed Trump during the campaign. Many wanted the ultimate loyalist, Rudolph Giuliani. Others preferred Senator Bob Corker or retired general David Petraeus. Trump, who hated being pressured when making important decisions, insisted he needed more time. He seemed to have misgivings about all of them.
Then, by happenstance, Trump welcomed into his office a man who has served presidents of both parties, Robert Gates. Trump asked his guest, a former CIA director and former defence secretary, what he thought of the four candidates. After Gates ran through his thoughts, it seemed that Trump was “looking for a way out”, a person familiar with the session said. Trump asked whether there was someone else to consider.
“I recommend Rex,” Gates told Trump, referring to Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil. Gates said in an interview that he had not gone to the meeting intending to recommend Tillerson, and he did not recommend anyone else. Separately, on the previous day, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had proposed Tillerson to vice-president-elect Mike Pence. Rice and Gates, who run a consulting firm that counts ExxonMobil as a client, had jointly concluded Tillerson might give Trump a fresh alternative.
“[Trump] seemed intrigued,” Gates said. “It was not something he had considered.”
The result was an unexpected decision, nominating as the country’s top diplomat a multinational corporate chief executive who had previously been on nobody’s short list for the job. It provided a lesson in the decision-making process and leadership style of a president-elect who has never worked in government and is applying his unorthodox style to decisions that could shape the world.
Two days after Trump met with Gates, as Sunday talk show guests speculated about Trump’s choice, those closest to the decision had come up with a scorecard. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, was in first place, Romney was just behind at “1A” and Petraeus was “in the mix”. Tillerson remained a contingency but his stock was starting to rise.
Giuliani had been one of Trump’s most stalwart defenders during the campaign, and his name was pushed particularly hard by Trump allies such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
But Trump became increasingly concerned about the 72-year-old Giuliani’s fitness for the job. Trump confided to friends he thought that Giuliani, two decades removed from his heyday running New York, was past his prime and might not have the stamina or discipline to travel the globe and negotiate delicate matters.
Over Thanksgiving, as Trump retreated with his family to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort, Trump’s focus had turned to an unlikely pick: Romney. The 2012 Republican presidential nominee had been one of Trump’s harshest critics, calling him a “fraud” and a “phoney”. Trump had dismissed Romney as a “choker” who walked “like a penguin”.
But one of Romney’s closest friends, Stephen Pagliuca, the co-owner of the Boston Celtics and a former colleague at Bain Capital, told Romney he should consider the job while telling his friends working for Trump that they should consider the idea, too.
Trump liked the idea of reconciling with a former enemy. As one long-time Trump associate noted, Trump had a history in his businesses of feuding bitterly with competitors and others, only to join forces with them. Given their histories, a rapprochement between the two was not so unthinkable.
After their meal at the swanky Jean-Georges restaurant, Romney lavished praise on Trump, saying he had been “very impressed” by Trump’s vow to be an inclusive president. A Trump friend said the president-elect, who did not join Romney in talking to reporters afterward, enjoyed watching his dinner partner appear to grovel for the post.
Some of those in Trump’s orbit who opposed the Romney selection presented the process as a punishment of sorts. Long-time Trump associate and provocateur Roger Stone later said in an interview with Alex Jones on the Infowars show – which has pushed a variety of conspiracy theories – that the president-elect strung Romney along to “torture him”.
Trump was hearing from aides and supporters upset by the prospect of handing such a big job to Romney. Campaign manager Kellyanne Conway took to the Sunday news shows to describe a Romney pick as a betrayal of Trump’s base.
Trump was seriously considering Romney. But he had a request, according to a close Romney ally: an apology. Romney, author of a book called No Apology, refused, the ally said.
A second stumbling block was that Romney and Trump differed on Russia. Romney has called Russia the top geopolitical foe of the US, while Trump has said he wants to have close ties with Moscow. Romney knew he was at odds with Trump but had hoped to provide balance in the administration, the associate said.
Romney gradually fell from his 1A position. So, too, had Giuliani fallen. On December 9, five days after being categorised as Trump’s top choice, Giuliani said he was taking himself out of contention. The Trump team was concerned not only about Giuliani’s stamina but also his ego. One Trump associate said Giuliani had refused to consider heading the Homeland Security and Justice departments. Only State would do.
“He got out too far in front of Trump,” the Trump associate said. “He became the star. Trump doesn’t like more than one star ... When you give an ultimatum that I will only take one position, it doesn’t work.”
Trump’s list of candidates continued to narrow. Then, in a surprising twist, Petraeus was ascendant. The retired general and former CIA director, who once was mentioned as a presidential candidate, had fallen after pleading guilty to mishandling classified information, which he had provided to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell. Trump, who had been harshly critical of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information, did not seem to see Petraeus’s action as disqualifying him for consideration. A number of Petraeus’s fellow generals lauded his intelligence and loyalty.
“Just met with General Petraeus – was very impressed!” Trump tweeted.
Soon, however, news accounts reported that Petraeus was still on probation. He would have to notify his probation officer of his travel plans. His home, car, cellphone and computer would be subject to search without a warrant. Trump did not explain his decision to rule out the retired general, much to the frustration of Petraeus allies.
“Only the president-elect and transition folks can say why he fell out of the mix,” former Petraeus spokesman Steve Boylan said. “I don’t know if it was the news articles, or anti-Petraeus people taking a stance on it. I’m not aware of anything specific that would have said: ‘No, you are no longer being considered’.”
So it was that Trump, who had devoted more time to this decision than any other, prepared to meet with Gates on December 2, thinking about the possibility of expanding his search. Gates wasn’t even supposed to be there. A day earlier, he had met with Trump’s pick for national security adviser, retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn, who proposed a meeting the next day with Trump.
After Gates went through the pluses and minuses of the four candidates, and Trump had asked about other possibilities, Gates made his pitch for Tillerson. It was an unexpected move. Trump didn’t know the ExxonMobil CEO.
Gates initially knew Tillerson through their shared work with the Boy Scouts of America. They later had a work connection when ExxonMobil became a client of the RiceHadleyGates, an international consulting firm.
As word had leaked that Tillerson was the likely pick, a chorus of critics noted that Tillerson had been close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had worked with ExxonMobil on energy deals.
The company had an interest in closer relations, given that some of its operations in Russia are on hold due to economic sanctions imposed after the country annexed Crimea and supported insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Tillerson was awarded the Kremlin’s Order of Friendship in 2013. Senator John McCain questioned Tillerson’s relationship to Putin, saying on CNN: “I don’t see how anybody could be a friend of this old-time KGB agent.”
But Gates said Tillerson’s experience doing business in difficult parts of the world is an asset and not because he has any cosy relationships with despots.
“It would be a mistake to confuse a friendly relationship with friendship. Rex is a very tough-minded realist” who well understands Putin and his own position and motives, Gates said.
Gates had seen the inspirational and motivational side of Tillerson when the executive was talking to Boy Scouts and volunteers.
“If you want to understand Rex Tillerson, and it may be a corny thing to say, but you’ve got to understand that he’s an Eagle Scout,” Gates said.
Trump, who has been drawn to fellow executives for cabinet picks, liked what he heard. He invited Tillerson to Trump Tower, and the two met on December 6 and again on December 10, after which Trump offered the State Department job.
A potentially bruising confirmation hearing is pending, but Trump was confident his unorthodox process had worked. He seemed to relish the battle ahead.
Typically, Trump chose Twitter to announce his decision on December 13. He had chosen, he tweeted, “one of the truly great business leaders of the world”.
From Syria to North Korea, Tillerson would inherit a messy global situation
From Syria’s bloody civil war and the slow-burning crisis in eastern Ukraine to perennial diplomatic headaches such as the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes, Rex Tillerson can expect to face a messy, complex world as the chief US diplomat.
North Korea’s secretive, authoritarian government has conducted five nuclear tests over the past decade, four of them during the Obama administration and two this year alone, along with an unprecedented flurry of ballistic missile tests. The North’s tests have brought tighter UN Security Council sanctions, including some passed last month that aim to cut its export earnings by a quarter, but as yet no sign that Pyongyang’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, is willing to restrain its nuclear and missile programmes.
Tillerson may quickly find himself dealing with a crisis of Donald Trump’s own making with China, given Beijing’s angry response to the Republican president-elect’s view that Washington did not necessarily have to stick to its long-standing position that Taiwan is part of “one China”. If he were to upend some four decades of settled US policy, Trump risks antagonising Beijing, which could decide to restrict cooperation with the US or, if truly pushed, seek to subvert US policy aims around the world. The US has a vast array of interests with China, which is the third-largest destination for exports of US goods and the largest source of goods imported into the US market. China is also the largest holder of US government debt.
Tillerson will inherit an increasingly complex conflict in Syria, where the rebel-held eastern portion of Aleppo is on the verge of falling to Syrian government forces backed by Russia, Iran and Shiite militias from Lebanon and Iraq. The civil war, now well into its sixth year, pits President Bashar al-Assad against a range of rebel groups, many supported by outside powers including the US, Turkey and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. If Trump cooperates with Russia against Islamic State (IS), which holds a swath of northeastern Syria, there is a risk that moderate rebels could gravitate toward militant Islamist factions that pose a potential threat to Western interests.
Next door in Iraq, Tillerson will confront a country struggling to overcome deep ethnic and sectarian divisions as it fights to stamp out the Islamic State insurgency with the help of some 6,000 US support troops and military advisers. Even if Iraqi security forces prevail in retaking the IS stronghold of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, the extremist group is expected to revert to waging a guerrilla war against the Shiite-dominated central government. That could force Trump and Tillerson to decide whether the US should remain engaged – and attempt to counterbalance the powerful influence of neighbouring Shiite-led Iran – or play a diminished role.
Trump has harshly criticised the agreement struck on July 14, 2015 between Iran and six major powers under which Tehran agreed to restrain its nuclear programme in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Many Republicans, particularly in the US Congress, have argued that the deal, negotiated by the US, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia, should be torn up. While Trump has been critical of the agreement, it is not certain he would walk away from it. For one thing, Israeli officials say they prefer to have Iran live under the deal’s restraints and subject to its transparency measures.
Russia seized the majority Russian-speaking Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after an uprising toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president. Ukraine, the US and many governments in Western Europe also say that Moscow has armed and encouraged pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, and covertly infiltrated Russian military personnel. Germany and France have tried with little success to convince both sides to implement a peace deal agreed to in Minsk last year.
Additional reporting by Reuters