Rex Tillerson was not a Middle Eastern dictator. But the American diplomats he used to lead are practically shooting off celebratory gunfire now that his statue has been toppled from Donald Trump’s Washington.
“On Tillerson: hallelujah!” one State Department official said.
State Department staffers who talked to The Daily Beast described the secretary of state’s downfall as a liberation – even as they grimly recognized that recent history, literal and metaphorical, suggests that what follows liberation is chaos and occupation.
While career State Department officials have a highly difficult relationship with the president, whose approaches on everything from refugees to Russia to race relations have prompted a wave of diplomatic departures, they are in lockstep with Trump over hating Tillerson – though for much different reasons. Trump’s relationship with Tillerson, sources tell The Daily Beast, was further damaged after Tillerson distanced himself from Trump’s public sympathies with the violent white supremacists parading through Charlottesville last August.
Whatever reputation for understatedness diplomats possess went out the door throughout Tillerson’s calamitous State Department tenure. State Department officials were horrified by what they perceived as his disdain for them. His reforms left many experienced diplomats internally marginalized – with little to do but vent to reporters about Tillerson presiding over a decline of American diplomacy that many felt was the entire point of his tenure.
Tillerson was widely loathed for his deep budget cuts; an institutional realignment that many diplomats felt came at their expense; and an inner circle that longtime officials considered to hoard information to the point of insulating Tillerson from the concerns they had about the direction of U.S. foreign policy.
As news of Tillerson’s ouster spread on Tuesday morning—as Tillerson was supposed to be wrapping up a weeklong trip to five African countries—diplomats who talked to The Daily Beast whipsawed between euphoria at his departure and fear about their likely new boss, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, emboldening Trump’s ignorance, bellicosity and impulsiveness.
“Tillerson kept a lot of the crazy in check and was obviously a moderating voice. But he never had the ear of [Trump], had a bad relationship with [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster and was a horrendous manager,” said a second current State Department official.
The first State Department official said that Foggy Bottom should “buckle up” for its incoming chief, Pompeo.
“While Pompeo gives reason for pause, one can have reasonable confidence he won’t sideline the expertise of the building in favor of a handful of ill-equipped ‘advisers’ with limited experience and a disdain for career professionals,” this official continued.
That diplomat’s confidence is going to come under pressure in the very near future. Pompeo has Trump’s confidence, and is also one of the administration’s leading hawks. While at the CIA, Pompeo acquired a quick reputation for distorting internal analysis to favor Trump and his predilections. In October, Pompeo publicly stated that Russian interference in the 2016 election – which the CIA has assessed occurred despite Trump’s denials – “did not affect the outcome,” a conclusion the agency never in fact reached and about which it remains agnostic.
“Pompeo will have the president’s trust but enable his worst foreign policy instincts. Sanity has never been the guiding principle of this White House,” the second diplomat said.
A different State Department official said there was internal speculation that Pompeo would bring aboard a senior official at the State adjunct USAID, Jim Richardson, who was “not well liked.” In a brazen move in January, Richardson had suspended all USAID cooperation with Tillerson and Ciccone’s redesign out of concern for the future of the agency. While many inside State also disagree with the redesign, Richardson was “repeatedly pissing off” department officials with what some saw as a budgetary grab that would undermine the secretary of state’s influence. But Richardson used to serve as Pompeo’s chief of staff, prompting early speculation that Pompeo would elevate him to the seventh floor of Foggy Bottom.
Ironically for a career oilman who received an order of friendship from Vladimir Putin, Tillerson had become far more outspoken about Russian interference in the election than his former boss. In an internal December forum at Foggy Bottom, which quickly leaked to The Daily Beast, Tillerson referred openly to Moscow as having “interfered in democratic processes here.” Tillerson’s final statement as secretary of state, issued Monday night after UK Prime Minister Theresa May blamed Putin for the London assassination of a former Russian spy, accused Russia of being an “irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.”
Putin said jokingly last September he had come to regret giving Tillerson the award.
Tillerson has been all but persona non grata with Trump ever since reportedly calling the president a “fucking moron” and then pointedly declining to personally deny saying it. But even some at State were somewhat empathetic toward Tillerson for the disrespect Trump returned by firing him while Tillerson was on foreign travel, and just weeks after Tillerson’s father passed away.
That disrespect had become the norm for the Trump-Tillerson relationship. For months, Trump practically delighted in shutting down Tillerson in public. After Tillerson made a public overture to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, offering to “talk about the weather” during a December speech, the White House put out a statement saying its hardline position on North Korea was unaffected. Then this month, Trump stunned the world by accepting an overture from Kim for direct leader-to-leader talks – which cut Tillerson out and contradicted the secretary’s attempts to row back toward Trump’s position. (“North Korea must earn its way back to the table,” Tillerson had said three days after his upbraiding.)
It was only one example of Trump gelding a secretary he had personally plucked from the leadership of ExxonMobil. Like an autocrat, Trump had given his son-in-law Jared Kushner a wide foreign-policy portfolio, with substantial and personal influence over critical relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Tillerson’s first trip to Iraq as secretary, where the U.S. was engaged in a shooting war with the Islamic State, occurred in October; Kushner visited in April. In June, Trump defended a blockade of Qatar by other U.S. Gulf partners that Tillerson had sought to end.
But in retrospect, according to knowledgeable current and former officials, the Trump-Tillerson relationship was doomed, in part, by the president’s infamous Charlottesville equivalency between anti-racist protesters and the violent white supremacists Trump said included “very fine people.”
Tillerson was livid, and considered resigning, according to one former senior State Department official. Instead, the ordinarily taciturn, press-averse Tillerson agreed to appear on the Sunday shows—where he tacitly condemned Trump’s remarks. “The president speaks for himself,” he told Fox News Sunday.
Trump and White House officials fumed over Tillerson’s refusal to stick up for the president, according to multiple administration sources, and helped cement his reputation in the West Wing as, at the very least, not somebody who could be counted on as a “team player,” one West Wing official noted.
“It was a shot across the bow. The first time publicly that he had broken with the president. It shook the White House. Everybody watched that and knew exactly what he was saying,” added the former State Department official.
After Tillerson's Charlottesville comment, there was an effort on the part of White House officials to cut State officials out of meetings, according to a current and a former senior Trump administration official. Since the dawn of the Trump era, Tillerson's State Department had already been sidelined in various ways and, post-Charlottesville, the “cold shoulder got a bit colder,” the current official said.
State Department officials began to find themselves left out of key inter-agency conversations. Staffers who left State to join other, smaller agencies found themselves with better White House access than they had before.
That explains some of the relief expressed by current and former Foggy Bottom staffers. But even those happy to see Tillerson go couldn’t help but note how badly this would scar him.
“This is the last thing he [Tillerson] wanted,” the former State Department official said. “He wanted to go a long time ago himself. He didn’t know why he wanted this job. He realized very quickly he was not the right fit. You can tell.”
“He didn’t leave last summer is to prevent this,” the former official added. “He wanted to control his own exit. He was so hellbent on protecting his legacy that he wanted to control his own exit. Because of the pride.”
Tillerson loyalists ensured that their boss did not leave without inflicting harm on Trump in return. On Tuesday morning, Undersecretary Steve Goldstein said on the record that Tillerson “had every intention of remaining” in office and “did not speak to the president this morning and is unaware of the reason” for his firing. Within hours, the Associated Press reported, Goldstein was fired.
Tillerson, in an impromptu, eight-minute farewell statement at Foggy Bottom, took subliminal shot after subliminal shot at Trump. His voice catching, he did not even pretend to thank Trump for the opportunity to serve as secretary, instead thanking “all of you” in the American public.
In remarks formally aimed at the diplomats who loathe him, Tillerson said the world needs “selfless leaders like these” and people who treat “each other with honesty and integrity” at the helm of the country. He repeatedly praised the importance of traditional allies and partners,” leaving unsaid Trump’s disrespect for them. He warned Russia’s “current trajectory” would lead to its “further isolation” and sought a relationship with China “free of conflict,” remarks at odds with both Trump’s enthusiasm for a trade war with Beijing and the National Security Strategy, authored by national security adviser H.R. McMaster, that considers both countries adversaries. Tillerson praised Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, the military broadly—but not McMaster.
Officials at State were hoping that Tillerson’s inner circle, particularly powerful chief of staff Margaret Peterlin, senior policy adviser Brian Hook and Christine Ciccone, who has running an internally-despised departmental “redesign,” were next to depart. Peterlin in particular is said by multiple sources to have a rocky relationship with McMaster, as did Tillerson.
“They are hated inside State and by the White House, almost universally seen as incompetent,” the first State Department official said.
Though Trump cultivated a reality-show reputation as a decisive boss, Trump chafes at the idea of firing people in person and prefers they simply solve personnel problems for him without confrontation. Tillerson apparently learned about his firing from a presidential tweet.
“Rex is a very good man, I like Rex a lot, I really appreciate his commitment and his service, and I’ll be speaking to Rex over a long period of time,” Trump said on Tuesday.
According to two sources who’ve spoken with Trump in recent weeks about Tillerson, the president would privately knock the intelligence and acumen of his own top diplomat, and vent about what Trump and senior White House staff would often see as Tillerson’s tendency to incorrectly or contradictorily speak for the country on the international stage—in essence, upstaging the president. Trump would express bitterness at what he interpreted as Tillerson “think[ing] he knew better” than the president on foreign policy and high-stakes negotiations, including on North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal.
The Daily Beast reported in October that several senior Trump aides were actively hoping Tillerson would resign late last year after word of the “fucking moron” quote broke. “People in [the White House] who are loyal to the president think Rex Tillerson hates [Trump],” one White House official told The Daily Beast at the time.
Even as Tillerson’s ouster has been rumored for months, leaks about it had recently abated and many at the State Department were taken by surprise. Several diplomats did not even know their boss was out until reporters called them. As of 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, the State Department had issued no internal guidance, another State Department source told The Daily Beast.
“People had sort of thought that Trump had just forgotten about firing him,” the source said.
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein