Donald Trump

Moron-gate: Tillerson’s job in ‘death spiral’ as he publicly confronts reports of rift with Trump

Trump has at times appeared to undercut Tillerson’s message on some of America’s most sensitive national security challenges, including Iran and North Korea

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 1:09pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 October, 2017, 10:29pm

The moment was as remarkable as it was unprecedented: a sitting US secretary of state took to the microphone to pledge his fealty to the president - despite his well-documented unhappiness in the job and the growing presumption in Washington that he is a short-timer.

Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he would stay as long as US President Donald Trump wants him to, and Trump said he has “full confidence” in the former ExxonMobil chief executive. Shortly afterward, Tillerson’s spokeswoman also felt compelled to publicly deny an NBC News report that Tillerson had called the president a “moron”, and she said he was determined to remain in his job.

But Tillerson’s move on Wednesday to reassure Trump of his convictions may well be too little and too late for the long term, according to the accounts of 19 current and former senior administration officials and Capitol Hill aides, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer candid assessments.

The already tense relationship between the two headstrong men has ruptured into what some White House officials call an irreparable breach that will inevitably lead to Tillerson’s departure, whether immediately or not. Tillerson’s dwindling cohort of allies say he has been given an impossible job and is doing his best with it.

For months now, Trump has been piqued by rumours of disloyalty that have filtered up to him from the State Department.

In private meetings, the president has also been irked by Tillerson’s arguments for a more traditional approach on policies, from Iran to climate change to North Korea, and his visible frustration when overruled. Trump has chafed at what he sees as arrogance on the part of an employee.

And as Tillerson has travelled the globe, Trump believes his top diplomat often seems more concerned with what the world thinks of the United States than with tending to the president’s personal image.

Deliberative in style, he has been caught off guard by Trump’s fiery and injudicious tweets and repulsed by some flashes of the president’s character, such as when Trump said there were “fine people” among those marching at a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“The president speaks for himself,” Tillerson said at the time.

Tillerson has also been uncomfortable with the chain of command in the West Wing, sometimes “table dropping” his proposals in meetings - springing PowerPoint slides on his national security colleagues without advance notice.

“He, from my perspective, is in an incredibly frustrating place,” Republican Senator Bob Corker said of Tillerson, calling him one of several administration officials “separating our country from chaos”.

Two career businessmen with different worldviews and management styles, Trump, 71, and Tillerson, 65, came together in something of an arranged marriage last December. Each has been exasperated at the way the other has handled his job, current and former officials said.

But tensions have escalated badly over the past few weeks as Tillerson and his small circle of aides clashed with White House officials over matters as big as the direction of US policy in Afghanistan and as small as Tillerson’s habit, according to White House officials, of neglecting to return phone calls.

Tillerson’s public remarks Wednesday came after months of disagreements between Tillerson and the White House over staffing and administrative matters at the State Department and a disconnection over what Trump saw as Tillerson’s conventional approach to policy matters.

Over the weekend, Trump contradicted Tillerson on diplomatic relations with North Korea and its leader. Trump tweeted that the secretary of state was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” - his nickname for North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

Tillerson has repeatedly ended up on the losing side of important policy discussions, and people familiar with White House views say Trump resents him for the debates he has won, including a grudging decision last month to add US forces to the inconclusive 16-year war in Afghanistan.

“Rex Tillerson has been dealt a bad hand by the Potus & has played it badly. For both reasons he cannot be effective SecState & should resign,” Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass wrote on Twitter ahead of Tillerson’s statement Wednesday.

Haass, a former top State Department official, declined an interview request but also wrote that it would be hard for anyone to do the job well. He cited a Trump policy agenda that includes separating the United States from trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and international compacts such as the Paris climate accord, Trump’s Twitter habit, plus a lack of staff and money.

“The White House thinking is unequivocal that he’s going to be gone soon, but the assumption is that he’s going to quit on his own so Trump can say: ‘Thank you for your year of service,’” said a former senior official who has held recent meetings at the White House.

Tillerson has also held an uncertain balance of power with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, whom Trump tasked with seeking Middle East peace and describes as a key foreign policy adviser.

Tillerson has complained about the fuzzy lines of authority and about being cut out of some decisions involving Kushner, two people familiar with his thinking said. Kushner has told others in the administration that Tillerson is too dismissive of colleagues.

Trump himself has groused that Tillerson isn’t supportive enough during national security meetings, speaking little and sometimes in clipped tones.

Tillerson clashed with other Trump advisers over the administration’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal, and whether Trump should certify to Congress next month that the landmark agreement is in the US national interest.

“His is the traditional, establishment model,” one person who has discussed Tillerson’s views with Trump said.

“It’s the same foreign policy that John Kerry had and it’s the same foreign policy that Hillary Clinton had. It is not America leading. It is America trying to be cordial and collegial with everybody.”

NBC said Tillerson had been on the verge of resigning this summer amid mounting policy disputes with the White House. It said the tensions came to a head around the time Trump gave a politicised speech in July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organisation Tillerson once led. The network claimed Vice-President Pence and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis convinced Tillerson to stay.

The White House and State Department both denied the NBC report that Tillerson had insulted Trump after a national security meeting at the Pentagon over the summer by calling him a “moron”.

But West Wing aides said the rumour of such a remark had floated in the halls before the NBC story Wednesday.

Tillerson declined to directly address the name-calling detail, calling it “petty” and an example of Washington backbiting that is foreign to him. But his spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said later in the day that Tillerson had explicitly denied it in a conversation with her.

On Wednesday, Tillerson praised the foreign policy model that Trump espouses and that Tillerson has argued against in a series of internal debates. Trump’s national security team is united in “doing great things for the United States of America to make America great again,” Tillerson said, echoing Trump’s campaign theme.

“He loves his country,” he said.

“He puts Americans and America first. He’s smart. He demands results wherever he goes and he holds those around him accountable.”

Trump responded favourably. “I was very honoured by his comments,” he told reporters during a visit to Las Vegas.

“Total confidence in Rex, I have total confidence.”

Still, Tillerson’s tenure remains decidedly uncertain, and many in the West Wing and in Congress suggested Wednesday that a “Rexit” was still likely to happen by early 2018.

Tillerson also remains isolated in political Washington, with few confidants aside from Corker on Capitol Hill. He has met only twice with Republican Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee and his party’s leading voice on national security. One of those meetings was before Tillerson’s Senate confirmation.

“Tillerson has no help. No team, no natural allies and he’s not hiring anyone,” one former senior official said.

“There’s a kind of death spiral.”

Additional reporting by Associated Press