Sunday, July 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: Tillerson: most passive secretary of state in a century

So, finally, Rex Tillerson gets the boot, leaving this much-vacated administration as arguably the worst — certainly the most passive — secretary of state in a century or longer.

President Donald Trump made the announcement Tuesday morning in his favorite form of communication, a tweet, to the apparent surprise of Tillerson, who, just hours before, had returned early from a trip to Africa, where he had been attempting to clean up the diplomatic mess caused by Trump’s "s---hole" remark.

It wasn’t the first time in a week that Tillerson was blindsided. Trump’s surprise decision to meet with Kim Jong Un was made without consulting his top diplomat. In fact, just a few hours before that announcement, the long-beleaguered secretary had told a reporter that direct talks with North Korea were "a long way" off.

Several news agencies reported Tillerson’s imminent ouster back in November, and it was unclear Tuesday morning whether Trump merely delayed the announcement by four months or whether other factors have intervened.

Tillerson’s days seemed numbered even earlier, in October, when he pointedly declined to deny news reports that he’d referred to Trump as a "f---ing moron" at an interagency meeting in July. Since then, the secretary has expressed views opposed to Trump’s on, among other issues, Russian cyberthreats, the wisdom of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the merits of preserving the Iran nuclear deal, and the idea of holding talks with North Korean diplomats (at the time, Tillerson wanted them and Trump undermined his efforts).

And yet Tillerson, who’d spent his entire adult life climbing the corporate ropes at Exxon Mobil, rising to the supreme posts of chairman and CEO, proved ill-equipped for the ways of Washington and utterly inept when he gave the city’s games a go. Most people in his position, finding themselves isolated from the White House, would cultivate countervailing centers of power — key legislators, the press, foreign leaders, or other conduits of influence. Or they would focus on an issue that they could dominate, in part because their bureaucratic competitors didn’t notice it or didn’t care. This is how Colin Powell operated in his brief time as George W. Bush’s secretary of state, and he may have prevented a small war between India and Pakistan in the process.

Tillerson did none of this. He presided over a mass exodus of the diplomatic corps and a hemorrhaging of his department’s budget. He tolerated his exclusion from key meetings of foreign policymaking, allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by the likes of Jared Kushner (who, as the Pentagon’s top officers learned, could easily be ingratiated and co-opted), and opened few, if any, back channels with Capitol Hill or the media.

His replacement at State, CIA Director Mike Pompeo (who was reported to be his successor when the stories first floated last fall and who, even at the time, was said to be prepping for the new job), might at least take his responsibilities seriously and — given his prior experience as a congressman — navigate the city’s shoals with greater savvy.

Pompeo is more hawkish than Tillerson on North Korea and Iran, and he has displayed loyalty to Trump on high-profile issues. For instance, while he echoed the intelligence community’s unanimous finding that the Kremlin interfered with the 2016 election in a way that helped Trump win, he added that the agencies had also concluded that the interference did not affect the election’s outcome. In fact, the official report by the director of national intelligence stated that there was no way to determine whether it affected the outcome, not least because intelligence agencies are proscribed from inquiring into domestic politics. Pompeo has also said that Kim Jong Un is "a rational actor" and therefore unlikely to launch a nuclear attack on the United States, knowing that we would retaliate. This contradicted the claim by H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, that Kim could not be deterred from launching an attack. Yet Pompeo has not parted explicitly from Trump’s more belligerent approach to North Korea — though now, with the upcoming summit, he might pave a more moderate path that parallels Trump’s.

Whose head is next for the chopping block? McMaster has long been rumored as a candidate, especially after he declared, in the wake of Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians, that the evidence of Russian hacking was "incontrovertible." The latest rumor is that he’ll be replaced by John Bolton, a longtime hawk’s hawk who advocates pre-emptive attacks against North Korea and Iran.

Trump’s national security team may soon more fully reflect Trump’s policy instincts, but — especially given his eagerness to leap into high-level talks with the North Korean leader — it’s less clear than ever just what those instincts are or where they will lead us.

© 2018 Slate Group LLC

Comments

Editorial: NFL calls wise time-out on disciplining protests

The National Football League kept an embarrassing situation from becoming even worse by shelving its new policy clamping down on players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.The league announced late Thursday it would suspend the 2-month old p...
Published: 07/20/18
Editorial: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s responsible budget

Editorial: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s responsible budget

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is shoring up his final year in office with the proposed city budget he released Thursday. The plan includes no big-ticket items, opting instead to maintain ongoing investments in parks, roads and other basic public services....
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18

IRS making ‘dark money’ darker

Under a perverse interpretation of federal law, tax-exempt nonprofit organizations supposedly devoted to "social welfare" can spend large amounts of money to influence elections without publicly disclosing the identities of their donors. But instead ...
Published: 07/19/18
Updated: 07/20/18
Editorial: Ferry is fun but should pay for itself in long run

Editorial: Ferry is fun but should pay for itself in long run

The CrossBay Ferry appears headed for another round of rides across Tampa Bay, with local governments pledging one more year of financial support. But as more taxpayer money is steered into this project, it’s important to recognize what purpose the f...
Published: 07/18/18
Updated: 07/20/18
Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

Editorial: Scott should order investigation of concealed weapons permitting

To his credit, Gov. Rick Scott says he is considering requests to order an independent investigation of how Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s office screens applications for concealed weapon permits. It’s a reasonable request, and the governor h...
Published: 07/18/18
Editorial: Algae blooms, toll woes and beach battles -- Florida’s fouled up summer

Editorial: Algae blooms, toll woes and beach battles -- Florida’s fouled up summer

July in Florida. The height of summer tourist season. Rental cars clog the highways and tourists crowd the beaches, motels and all-you-can-eat shrimp joints. Many of our neighbors are off to North Carolina or somewhere cooler. So it’s an awfully inco...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/20/18
Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Editorial: Sacrificing two kayaks and a Toyota for free speech

Maggy Hurchalla joked this spring that all she could offer a billionaire who won a $4.4 million judgment against her after she exercised her free speech rights were "two kayaks and an aging Toyota.’’ The billionaire didn’t laugh. This week, Martin Co...
Published: 07/17/18
Updated: 07/18/18
Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

Editorial: Trump sides with Putin over America

In one of the most surreal news conferences of our time, President Donald Trump actually stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday and called the federal investigation into Russia’s meddling into the 2016 election "a disaster for our coun...
Published: 07/16/18
Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

Editorial: A vote for preserving waterfront parks by St. Petersburg City Council

The St. Petersburg City Council made the appropriate but difficult decision to reject a contract with renowned artist Janet Echelman for one of her aerial sculptures. It would be wonderful for the city to have one of her signature works, but Spa Beac...
Published: 07/13/18

‘Everybody needed to know what happened’

The brutal murder of Emmett Till, a black Chicago youth, in Mississippi nearly 63 years ago went unpunished, but not forgotten. A decision by his mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to allow an open casket at Emmett’s Chicago funeral represented an act of def...
Published: 07/13/18