Rex Tillerson, a former CEO of ExxonMobile, cuts the figure of a globetrotting titan of industry. And it was this, not ideological alignment on foreign policy, that recommended Tillerson to President Donald Trump. “I have chosen one of the truly great business leaders of the world, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be Secretary of State,” Trump wrote on Twitter in December of 2016. And it was this that led to his downfall too.
I have chosen one of the truly great business leaders of the world, Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, to be Secretary of State.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 13, 2016
Both in terms of style and in terms of substance, Mr. Tillerson proved a poor fit. Mr. Trump’s populist nativism was bound to collide with the conventional foreign policy views of the former oil executive. “I actually got along well with Rex. But really it was a different mindset. It was a different thinking,” Trump told reporters Tuesday explaining his decision.
Tillerson holds very conventional foreign policy views that were often out of step with the nationalist, America first agenda of the President he served. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK,” Trump said this week.
Mr. Trump’s friction with his Secretary of State was no secret. The President’s fondness for Twitter leaves little doubt about exactly what is on Mr. Trump’s mind at any moment in time. And on Oct. 1, 2017, it was Mr. Tillerson’s diplomatic overtures to North Korea.
“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted, adding, “save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
Affixing the superlative, “wonderful” to Mr. Tillerson’s title did little to diminish the extraordinary spectacle of a President publicly cutting down his chief diplomat, whose ability to do his job depends on the perception that he speaks for the President.
It wasn’t the first time that Trump and Tillerson were not on the same page. Last June, as Tillerson sought to defuse a dispute between countries allied with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Tillerson condemned the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar only to be contradicted just hours later by President Trump. At a press conference in the Rose Garden that same afternoon, Trump signaled support for the Saudi position. “Nations came together and spoke to me about confronting Qatar over its behavior,” Trump said, referring to a recent visit to Riyadh. “So we had a decision to make. Do we take the easy road or do we finally take hard but necessary action?” adding that “I decided that the time had come to call on Qatar to end its funding.”
An engineer by training who served for a decade as the CEO of one of the world’s largest companies, Tillerson is deliberate and averse to risk. The smash the system aggressiveness of the early months of the Trump administration was at odds with Tillerson’s style. Tillerson also chaffed at the outsized influence of the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his relationship with Trump’s young, brash, senior advisor Steven Miller, the most ardent keeper of Trump’s nationalist ideology, was tense. To them, Tillerson was a counterproductive globalist interloper in their anti-establishment revolution. And in time, Trump came to agree.
In private, Mr. Tillerson could be downright contemptuous of his boss. He never directly denied reports last fall that he referred to Mr. Trump as a “moron.” Asked about Mr. Trump’s controversial remarks that there were “good people” among the white nationalists protesting in Charlottesville and blame to be shared on both sides for the violence that erupted, Mr. Tillerson told Fox News Sunday that “The President speaks for himself.”
None of this was likely to go over well with a President that values personal loyalty above all else.
There were other issues too. Tillerson’s efforts at management reform at the State Department and isolation from his subordinates rankled career foreign service officers. And he’s rightly been criticized for the laconic pace of appointments to fill senior positions at the State Department.
But, it was his sharp differences with the President, which some of Tillerson’s critics contend crossed the line into insubordination, that ultimately prompted his ouster. Even after Tillerson was dressed down by Trump for his dovish remarks on North Korea, he did little to change his tune.
In a speech at the Atlantic Council in December, Tillerson reaffirmed his openness to dialogue with Pyongyang. “Let’s just meet. And we can talk about the weather if you want. . . . But can we at least sit down and see each other face to face?”
The problem, according to Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, is not that Trump was undermining Tillerson, it was the other way around. “By projecting weakness to Pyongyang, Tillerson was undercutting Trump’s message of strength — and thus making war more likely,” Thiessen wrote this week. “The fact that Tillerson could not seem to grasp this or get on the same page as his commander in chief made his continued leadership of the State Department untenable.”
This is surely how Mr. Trump saw it as well. Whether you agree with Mr. Trump’s foreign policy or not, it is a sound basis for dismissal. Speaking last year after news broke of his “moron” remark, Tillerson told reporters that “President Trump’s foreign policy goals break the mold of what people traditionally think is achievable on behalf of our country,” unspoken was that it turns out he was one of those people.