Another day, another report about Trump administration palace intrigue. This time, the man in the crosshairs is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has already gotten plenty of grief from members of Congress for supporting a 30 percent reduction in the State Department’s budget and whose reorganization initiative at Foggy Bottom has plummeted morale. In a little-noticed development last Friday, two senior State Department officials opted to retire rather than continue under Tillerson.
Jonathan Swan of Axios reports that President Donald Trump’s relationship with Tillerson is beginning to sour. “Trump administration officials can’t get their heads around why [Tillerson] still doesn’t have political appointees in the top roles at the State Department,” Swan writes. It’s a concern shared by many Democrats on Capitol Hill who worry about the department’s declining stature within the National Security Council’s decision-making process. Trump also griped to White House staffers after a meeting about Afghanistan that Tillerson was “so establishment in his thinking,” an insult in this administration if there ever was one. Tillerson’s refusal to outright defend the president’s remarks on Charlottesville during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday” definitely didn’t improve matters.
If you’re a cabinet member or a senior White House staff member in this administration, it’s now almost expected that Trump will train his fire on you sooner or later. Steve Bannon, H.R. McMaster, Jeff Sessions, Gary Cohn, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus and General John Nicholson have all experienced Trump’s wrath over the past eight months, some in a longer and more public fashion than others. At this point, Rex should be happy that his boss isn’t humiliating him on Twitter, his most public variety of dressing downs, which Jeff Sessions had to endure for a week.
Fortunately for Tillerson, Trump’s complaints aren’t likely to yield an outright dismissal or a premature resignation. The West Wing can’t afford another major staff change after a month in which the chief of staff, the chief strategist and the most visible television spokesman of Trump’s national security policies either quit or were forced to quit. For all his shyness towards the media and his detachment from career foreign service officers in the State Department, Tillerson is generally on the same wavelength as McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly: a cool-headed adult who isn’t a card carrying member of the Bannon/Gorka/Miller nationalist camp. Lawmakers in both parties might question his devotion to the State Department’s core mission, but they don’t think he’s prone to impulsive decision-making like the president.
What Trump expects from Tillerson besides blind loyalty is hard to know. The president was apparently upset with Tillerson’s advocating for a recertification of the Iran nuclear agreement last month – so upset that he ordered a group of White House advisors to come up with a justification for decertifying the Iranians when the next deadline comes up in October. Perhaps that incident is still grating on Trump?
With this president, however, nobody can really know what will happen until he starts babbling about it. For now, Tillerson will just have to deal with the boss’s displeasure like everybody else in the executive branch.