Fred LaSor: Firing a Secretary of State
March 15, 2018
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired this week by President Trump, rather peremptorily and with little, if any, explanation. The termination concludes a difficult stewardship of the department and a strained relationship with the president.
Anyone who observed Tillerson over the past year has seen his personal views aren't always well synchronized with the administration. It was said he opposed pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, ending the Iran deal, and, most recently, negotiating with North Korea. There was also an allegation he called the president a moron, although that was never confirmed and he made an unconvincing denial several days after the fact.
There's nothing wrong with a secretary of State differing with the policies of the White House as long as that difference never leaks out. If the Washington press corps ever gets word the secretary and the president disagree, the sharks begin to circle. At that point there's little recourse for the secretary short of resignation. Tillerson said after the moron allegation he would continue to serve at the president's pleasure, which pleasure ended a few days ago.
There's no definitive word of the precipitating cause, if there was a single one, but the apparent disagreement over negotiations with Kim Jong Un is the most recent circumstance and could well have led to the break.
When Tillerson was first nominated and I learned a little about him I was encouraged. He was CEO of ExxonMobil, a large multinational corporation with interests all over the world, especially the Middle East. The U.S. has, of course, been involved militarily in that region for many years, and someone with personal and professional ties could've offered a welcome change from previous secretaries and their attempts to cut the Gordian knot of Israel/Arab/Iranian disputes.
And his experience running a large corporation with more than 72,000 employees would, I thought, serve him well in managing the difficult personnel issues of a cabinet-level department with 11,000 civil service employees, 13,000 Foreign Service employees, and 45,000 foreign national employees in embassies in nearly every foreign country. Alas, his management skill never displayed itself in the State Department, where personal and professional rivalries interact caustically with geographic and functional rivalries. It's not an easy job, and many previous secretaries have thrown up their hands in frustration and allowed the institution to flounder without much guidance.
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Tillerson wanted to cut personnel — always a difficult task in any institution — and budget — even more difficult. My personal reaction was he was on the right path with the cuts, but I regretted not seeing more second- and third-level staffers move in and put their stamp on the department. That happened at a snail's pace, in part because the White House interfered in nominations and in part because Democrats in the Senate slow-walked the consent function. It was never clear more undersecretaries and assistant secretaries would've made things work better, as the long-time holdovers were resistant to change. That was a trait I had seen before and it didn't surprise me.
President Trump has declared his intention to nominate CIA Director Mike Pompeo to take over Tillerson's job. Pompeo apparently did a good job at the CIA, although it's always difficult to know what's happening at a spy agency that tries to keep secrets. At the very least, Pompeo has experience in Washington, having served for six years as a member of the House of Representatives from Kansas.
I wish both men well: Tillerson recovering from his firing and Pompeo managing the snake pit that's the Department of State.