• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Tillerson Takes His Leave

March 2018

Of all the departures from the Trump administration (which, at the time of this writing, number twenty-two in total and five in the last two weeks) least unexpected among them was that of Rex Tillerson. From the outset, he and the president were oil and water, unguent and solvent. Wherever one stood, the other hastened away. Whenever one dithered, the other was adamant. So different, so diametrically and fundamentally opposed were their opinions and their personalities that any fleeting moment of harmony, any passing sense of amity between the two former businessmen was more likely an accident than a genuinely friendly alliance. Initially, it was obvious their relationship was incompatible. Ultimately, it was proved unsalvageable. The only lingering question, as Tillerson takes his leave, is why they committed to each other for as long as they did.

Seldom is temperament, and temperament alone, a sufficient gauge for the judgment of one’s prospects in office. Too many other variables, too many subtleties and idiosyncrasies must be accounted for as they sneakily bake themselves into the cake. And compared with one’s comportment in the private sector, ExxonMobil in Tillerson’s case, The Trump Organization in Trump’s, a certain attitude of amicability (if only superficially applied) is needed upon entering the public sphere.

Tillerson, in the mercurial mind of the president, had invited his own disapprobation. He was thought to be impudent and aloof—both ailments for which there was no cure. He was thought to be disloyal, ungrateful, and, above all, incapable of carrying out the president’s, shall we say, inward-looking agenda. Tillerson was accustomed not to the insulation of America from the world, but of himself from other men. He was doggedly private in his own business affairs, humble in his extravagances—an independent and self-reliant chief executive and tycoon. He was a man who, perched high atop the ExxonMobil hierarchy, took his lunches alone and delegated from above. In a word, he was reticent, what with his experience and his Southern drawl, but in action he was cutting and swift. From his humble, austere origins in Oklahoma, he learned one must be circumspect, not brash, guided, not astray. By the time Trump called upon him to serve as, for all intents and purposes, America’s second-in-command, Tillerson was already too much his own man.

His agenda diverged from that of Trump at nearly every intersection from which divergences tend to occur. To a puzzled observer looking curiously from without, this actually proved useful in some cases; if, indeed, you found yourself hopelessly unfamiliar with, say, President Trump’s stance on any particular policy item, you need only take and invert that of Tillerson and, viola—you had the other’s view. What was one, you induced into two. For me, at least, this reliable little manipulation proved its worth time and again.

It did so on too many issues to name. It applied itself first to the Paris Climate Accord. Tillerson openly supported America’s commitment to the multi-national agreement. He did so publicly and urgently, as if he were some repentant oil-baron beset by sins of emissions past. Trump, on the other hand, felt little allegiance to his predecessor’s international, environmental piece de resistance and in the Rose Garden last spring, he made this unequivocally clear. Regarding the intractable problem that is North Korea, Tillerson ventured hesitantly down the ill-lit path of diplomacy. Trump chose instead to incinerate any hope for a bloodless peace with fire, fury, and untold pugnacity. To the Iran Nuclear Deal, Tillerson was earnestly obliged, whereas Trump wanted not only to de-certify it, but to extirpate it root and branch. As for Qatar and Russia, the disparity of opinion was stark: Tillerson looked upon Qatar with sympathy and Russia with impatient contempt. Reverse those feelings, and you’ll capture in an instant—but, maybe, only for an instant—the opinions held by President Trump.

And while feelings can be fleeting, words are less easily erased. Once imprinted, especially upon a fragile ego susceptible to pain, they can make or mar a man’s fortune, and even seal his fate. When it leaked in the mid-summer months that Tillerson had called the president a “f***ing moron”, probably, it sealed his fate. Tillerson’s crude yet candid imprecation whirled around the nation. He was forced to go on live television, defend himself, flatter the president, and attempt to convince a skeptical America that the twain were, in actuality, good chums through and through.

But compared with what happened next, this was but petty palace intrigue. Not long thereafter, in the waning days of August and the early hours of a new school year, the white supremacist attack at Charlottesville took place. Across the street, students were strewn while in critical distress, many victims lay. Trump responded, sheltered in his gilded, namesake atrium, with his now infamous, then odious “both sides” remark. To such a repulsive statement, such a coarse remark, Tillerson’s rejoinder, when asked by a reporter to provide one, was that “the president speaks for himself”. Concerning the moral ground in which each planted his flag on this matter, the divergence between them couldn’t be more clear.

The moment this sentence slipped through Tillerson’s teeth, it became manifestly clear, beyond a scintilla of a doubt, that his and Trump’s relationship was done. It didn’t appear to be at the time, but the statement was the most honest synopsis of their fractured relationship and the realization that, from this irredeemable point, it would move no further beyond. In the end, Rex Tillerson is better without Donald Trump—and Donald Trump without Rex. But who, in the end, was better for America?

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