Rexit: Tillerson Leaves Behind A Crippled State Department And An Uncertain Future

A look at Rex Tillerson’s historically brief stint as Secretary of State, and what we can expect from his replacement
Rex Tillerson walks down a hallway after his final speech as Secretary of State at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Rex Tillerson walks down a hallway after his final speech as Secretary of State at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, March 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The ever-revolving door that is President Trump’s cabinet took another turn Tuesday and claimed the United States’ top diplomat Rex Tillerson. Long rumored to be on Trump’s shit list, Tillerson was finally recalled last weekend and officially let go, in typical Trumpian, via a tweet.

Mr. Tillerson has now become’s the nation’s shortest-tenured Secretary of State. He is set to be succeeded by current CIA chief Mike Pompeo, a fiery and ambitious Trump loyalist, who is said to have the President’s ear.

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The Tillerson Era

In the American history textbooks of the future, Rex Tillerson will be unlikely to feature prominently. One of many under-qualified Cabinet members of Trump’s cabinet, Tillerson will be known for little more than the chaos and attrition he has left behind at the Department of State.

A former chief executive at Exxon, Tillerson was one of many administration appointees that seemed to lack any relevant experience or know-how about the position for which he was selected. His warm ties with Russia (which included multiple deals with state oil company Rosneft and an award of the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013) also raised further suspicion of collusion between the Trump team and the Kremlin during the election.

Despite this, most held him in higher regard than inexperienced obstructionists such as Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, or Scott Pruitt. In demeanor and tone at least, Tillerson seemed to follow the example of H.R. McMaster and General James Mattis, the so-called “adults in the room” that are the supposed stabilizing forces in an administration hell-bent on tearing down American democratic institutions.

However, Mr. Tillerson quickly proved himself not to be up to this task. When President Trump decided to cut State Department funding by 30 percent, Tillerson dutifully executed what he called a “reorganization” of the Department. What transpired was, in fact, a wholesale cull of top American diplomats, in addition to huge reduction in funding for major activities abroad.

The exodus was so large, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright called it a “national security emergency.” In a letter to Mr. Tillerson, Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee estimated that “[t]he number of minister counselors in the State Department has decreased by 15 percent, career ministers by 42 percent, and career ambassadors by an astounding 60 percent.” Key positions within the Department, including those related to the most pressing foreign affairs issues, still lie unfilled. Many junior staff are undertaking decisions that should be done by much more senior officials.

The reductions imposed by the administration are not just limited to staffing. In its latest proposed budget, the administration aims to cut funding from $55.6 billion to $37.6 billion. The cuts include major reductions in foreign assistance, including a 44 percent reduction in US contributions to peacekeeping missions, a 33 reduction in bilateral economic assistance, and a reduction of about a quarter on multilateral assistance and international security assistance, respectively.

Though blowing up the State Department is straight out of Trump’s playbook, Tillerson is the man with the finger on the button. His acquiescence to Trump, and weak leadership in general, has left a mark on American diplomacy that will endure at least in the medium term. He leaves behind a severely crippled State Department, one which will struggle to protect America’s interests, ensure global order, and provide critically needed aid around the world.

The weakness of American foreign influence could be seen in one of Tillerson’s last major actions as Secretary. Before embarking on a visit to Africa, Tillerson pledged over $500 million to fight famine in sub-Saharan Africa. In a speech announcing this, Tillerson cautioned against African countries accepting lending by China, calling Chinese deals in the continent predatory, corrupt, and likely to leave poor African countries in debt.

Though he may have a point, African leaders are unlikely to heed it much. China is vastly outspending the US in assistance to Africa. It unveils multiple projects in the amount Tillerson pledged every year, and has been the continent’s biggest trading partner for almost a decade. With this in mind, and with Trump’s “shithole” comments ringing in their ears, officials Tillerson met with did little more than polite nodding along and sent the bumbling Secretary on his way with little to show for the endeavor.

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Why Was Tillerson Fired?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, January 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, January 11, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Tillerson’s bungling of the top diplomat job was not what got him fired. Indeed, in this administration, not performing your duties properly seems to be commended rather than discouraged.

From the get-go, Trump and Tillerson did not like each other. Both former businessmen, Tillerson lacked the military background that seems to be the only credential Trump has respect for. Trump never seemed to be a fan of Tillerson’s approach, openly criticizing his actions on things such as trade, the Iran deal, and negotiations with North Korea (which Trump now says he is open to.) The Secretary of State did not seem to be within Trump’s inner circle, particularly when it came to crafting important strategy on issues such as national security or trade.

Tillerson, for his part, found it difficult to hide his disdain for Trump. He was reportedly flabbergasted at Trump’s utter lack of knowledge of basic foreign policy matters. His demeanor at Cabinet meetings, reportedly slouching and eye-rolling at the president’s remarks were said to have irritated the President. After a national security meeting where Trump compared the strategy in Afghanistan to renovating a restaurant, Tillerson called him a “fucking moron.”

Indeed, it seemed not a matter of if but when Tillerson would go. He was rumored to be on his way out several times, though this was always contradicted by the administration. Still, the timing of the firing was odd.

While in Nigeria on the aforementioned Africa trip, Tillerson cut the trip short to fly back to Washington. Right before he left, however, he issued a strong rebuke to Russia for the nerve agent attack of the former Russian spy in the UK, saying those “responsible — both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it — must face appropriately serious consequences.” The next day, he was officially fired via a tweet from Trump.

Whether he was fired for the Russia comment is unclear. White House officials insist this was a long time coming, and that Chief of Staff John Kelly had warned him about a potential sacking as early as Friday. However, the imminence of the firing was contradicted by other reports, including from Tillerson’s aide Steve Goldstein, who was then fired for going against the White House’s account.

Whether Tillerson was fired for his Russia comments or not we may never know. Tillerson did bring up the need to respond to Russian behavior in his farewell speech, something Trump has shown hardly any interest in doing. But the bizarre nature with which this came about will do little to stamp out collusion allegations between Trump and the Kremlin.

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Mike Pompeo: From The Frying Pan Into the Fire?

CIA Director Mike Pompeo listens while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington —May 11, 2017 file photo,(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

CIA Director Mike Pompeo listens while testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington —May 11, 2017 file photo,(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

In Mike Pompeo, Trump has seemingly found his yes-man. Trump gushed to reporters of their purported chemistry during Pompeo’s time at the CIA, and reports suggest that Trump valued his judgment and the intelligence briefings Pompeo provided (whether he understood the briefings has not been confirmed.) Pompeo’s brash style is also seemingly more to Trump’s liking.

The appointment marks a fast rise up the ranks for Mike Pompeo. A former Kansas aerospace executive, he became a congressman in the Tea Party wave of 2010. He received outsize donations from the Koch brothers in his congressional campaigns, but still styled himself as a populist of sorts. During his time in Congress, Pompeo served on the committees on Intelligence, Energy, and Commerce, as well as subcommittees on Digital Commerce, Consumer Protection, and the CIA. He was also on the United States House Select Committee on Benghazi, the Trey Gowdy-led effort to discredit Hillary Clinton with seven investigation that yielded nothing but taxpayer waste.

As a congressman, Pompeo was no stranger to inflammatory remarks and hardline stances. His first claim to fame may have been his Islamophobia. During his 2010 campaign, Pompeo was forced to apologize after promoting an article on his Twitter page that called his Indian-American opponent a Muslim “turban-topper.” After the Boston bombings, Pompeo delivered a speech in which he suggested that Muslim leaders who did not condemn terrorist attacks committed in the name of Islam were potentially complicit in the acts. He has also been linked to prominent anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney.

Perhaps because of his Islamophobic views, Pompeo has taken a very hawkish line against Iran. He was one of the loudest critics of President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. As CIA Director, he even wrote a letter to Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force in the Middle East, warning the commander against threatening American forces fighting ISIS in Iraq, an act that could have renewed tensions between the two countries. As Secretary of State, he may very well seek to foil the deal further.

On issues such as North Korea and Russia, he has seemingly hedged between Trump’s views and more sane approaches. He had previously favored pursuing regime change in the Hermit Kingdom but has recently said he is in favor of diplomatic solutions. Unlike Trump, he has not questioned the seriousness of Russia’s meddling in America’s democratic system.

Pompeo should be pressed on his Islamophobia and hardline stances in his confirmation. Should he be appointed, a likelihood, he will no doubt play the role of the utmost loyal servant in Trump’s Cabinet. Whether he will choose to parlay this into pursuing a competent and stable foreign policy, or will simply appease Trump’s whims, remains to be seen.

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