• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Take On Tillerson's Leave

October 2017


The question in Washington seems no longer to be if, but rather when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will bid the Trump administration adieu. Astute insiders, of whom there are many, have long predicted the day would come, that of Tillerson’s ouster.


In much the same way oil takes ill to water, Tillerson’s personality—shaped through his years as the chief executive of ExxonMobil—didn’t mix well with Trump’s. The former was all gravity, punctiliousness, and solemnity; the latter, fluidity, emotion, and irascibility. The two personalities—both of an “alpha male” inclination—simply never jibed. Few within the administration believed, however, that Tillerson’s resignation would come so soon.


For a man fourth in line to be the president, should the unlikely circumstances arise, the Secretary of State historically has enjoyed a position of relatively high repute. So high, in fact, that many who once held the position were able later to jump three spots and land themselves in the Oval Office. Historically, they accomplished the feat by way of election rather than succession. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Martin Van Buren arrived at the presidency via this route. Equally worth noting are the others who’ve been somewhat less successful in traversing this Secretary-Presidency bridge; for examples, one needn’t look further than William Jennings Bryan nor closer than Hillary Clinton.


For the most part, with Bryan being perhaps the most notable exception (he was staunchly opposed to the disquieting prospect of Wilsonian international politics, which would require of America her intervention abroad), all of these past Secretaries of State served their cabinet and their country with their president’s steadfast support. The support was thus reciprocated in turn.


This hasn’t been the situation for Tillerson and Trump. From the outset, President Trump has importunately stepped on Tillerson’s toes. While the nation’s chief diplomat was attempting to establish a foreign agenda and to communicate his and the president’s positions abroad, Trump undermined the constructive process. This sequence of events played out most recently when President Trump—in commenting on North Korea—told Tillerson that he ought to save his energy and “stop wasting his time” negotiating with the Kim regime. In much the same way, Trump and Tillerson have found themselves forwarding disparate messages on matters pertaining to NATO, Yemen, and Iran. (The deadline to re-certify the Iran nuclear deal comes this week. Tillerson, for his part, is an advocate of furthering America’s commitment to the deal—a position to which Trump is opposed).


Earlier in the summer, Tillerson is said to have been enraged by Trump’s speech at the annual Boy Scout’s Jamboree. The gathered scouts, of whom there were thousands, excitedly awaited their chance to hear a sitting president speak. Little did they know, they were to unwittingly served as a medium through which Trump could talk to his polictical base. He proceeded to deliver a politically-charged, thirty-minute invective about his political qualms in Washington. Tillerson, who as a lad in Oklahoma flourished as such a scout, eventually went on to serve as the Boy Scout organization’s national president from 2010 till 2012. It was for that reason he was so appalled to hear what Trump had to say to the same boys over whom he presided for two years.


It was reportedly at this time that Tillerson came close to resigning from the cabinet outright. As the story goes, the situation was salvaged only by the intervention of Vice President Pence. Pence was able to coax Tillerson to stay on board, if only for a little while longer. He even tried to coach his wavering Secretary of State on how to deal with President Trump’s vagaries. For the sake of stability, especially in the wake of the departures of Scaramucci, Priebus, and Spicer, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelley chimed in to implore Tillerson to stay.


Stay he did, but the relationship hasn’t improved as this desperate staff might have hoped. And while Trump has troubled Tillerson, Tillerson has also angered Trump. Aside from calling his boss a “f***ing moron”, which was either a moment of candid parapraxia or of a bluntly state frustration, Tillerson openly rebuked President Trump after the Charlottesville attack. In response to Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” remark, Tillerson famously said that the president “speaks for himself” when allocating or misallocating an actor’s moral worth.

Upon learning of Tillerson’s remark, the president is alleged to have been enraged; he thought this comment sanctimonious and disloyal and subversive. The relationship has been irreparably fractured ever since.


That said, this isn’t the first high-ranking administration official with whom Trump has been at loggerheads. You might remember the issue between Trump and Attorney General Sessions months ago. Back then, Trump publicly and vituperatively attacked Sessions without any provocation. He called the former Alabama senator “weak”, “beleaguered”, and an “idiot” back in May, with some reports claiming that Trump actually raised the idea to Sessions about his resignation.


Although President Trump publicly excoriated him (and privately nudged him) Sessions won’t quit. This is where Sessions and Tillerson (and their respective responses to Trump’s assaults) diverge. From the incipient stage of Trump’s presidential candidacy, Sessions was an obsequious supporter. He was actually proto-Trumpian in a way; he was a strident nativist, populist, and anti-immigration hawk prior to the arrival of Trump. Thenceforth, his fulsome support and loyalty to then-candidate Donald Trump all but guaranteed him a place in the White House. And because Sessions’ raison d’être as a senator forever was to pass anti-immigration and anti-drug policies through the chamber, he was a natural fit for an administration who shares in these pursuits. It’s clear that Sessions is enamored of his current role—as if he were bred for it and it for him. For this reason, regardless of the verbal abuse to which Trump subjects him, Sessions will be staying put.


Tillerson, on the other hand, appears to lack Sessions’ determination to keep his cabinet position. Unlike Sessions, Tillerson has never been beholden to Trump—he was never a smarmy primary ally nor strident adherent in the general election. Tillerson didn’t accept his job with aspirations to ameliorate America in the way that Sessions did. On the contrary, Tillerson was rather reluctant to forgo his impending retirement (for which he was to receive $180 million in severance pay from ExxonMobil on top of his accumulated $300 million net worth) and settle in for a government job. Who could blame him for not wanting to cast aside the start of his inchoate and—with that severance package—comfortable golden years so that he might serve a capricious, bumptious, often-puerile, and always disagreeable Commander-in-Chief?

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