On the outside, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is Mr. Calm, Cool, and Collected. He rarely, if ever, raises his voice, stays out of the spotlight as much as possible, prefers to deal with his foreign counterparts in the backrooms of Geneva and on the phone in his State Department office, and is reserved to such an extent that commentators have pondered whether he’s bored in his job. If Donald Trump is the loudmouth, sarcastic, showy, and obnoxious New Yorker, Rex Tillerson is the humble, quiet Texan who sits on his porch drinking iced tea after a hard day’s work.
On the inside, however, Tillerson is stewing.
According to two different accounts, one in Politico and the other by veteran national security reporter Mark Perry in the American Conservative, the former Exxon-Mobil chief executive has just about had it with the White House staff undermining his every move. Several sources told Politico that the mild-mannered Tillerson is so frustrated by the disconnect between his office and the White House that he broke character and unloaded, all but screaming in Reince Priebus’s office that the West Wing needs to get out of the way. All he wants is to get on with the job without constant interference and second-guessing from the White House over the people he wants to appoint. Unfortunately for Tillerson, Trump’s political team has him on a short leash, and plans to continue scrutinizing potential State Department hires for absolute political loyalty.
When Tillerson agreed to take the secretary of state nomination, I and many others wondered how a businessman used to giving orders rather than following them would adapt to the “yes sir” climate of Washington. The transition from corporate boss to public servant would likely be a culture shock to him, but it probably wouldn’t be as difficult as people expected. Tillerson, after all, was apparently granted autonomy by Trump to run the department as he saw fit. And he would have the authority to hire people without the kind of micromanagement that the previous White House staff was infamous for.
What Tillerson didn’t expect was that every decision made in the Trump administration would be an internal political knife fight pitting loyalists and family members against cabinet members and career foreign service officers. About five months into Tillerson’s tenure, the State Department remains dependent on officials acting in an acting capacity—partly due to the White House’s insistence that some of Tillerson’s desired nominees aren’t personally loyal enough to Trump. There’s only so much a person can take, and Tillerson apparently reached his breaking point.
Nor did Tillerson expect Trump’s early-morning tweets to complicate his diplomatic duties. When Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, ordered Qataris off their soil, closed air, land, and sea links to the Gulf nation, and issued a list of highly intrusive demands to Doha, Tillerson quickly recognized that he couldn’t waste any more time. He had to work the back channels and the front channels in order to deescalate the crisis. Mediating a quarrel between Gulf Arab royals would be hard even with a conventional president. But playing counselor became infinitely harder when Trump tweeted his approval of the Qatar blockade and suggested that he might have been the reason the Gulf states chose to punish their Qatari neighbor.
The tension between the State Department and the White House hasn’t reached the point of no return. But if this is the status quo the administration is comfortable with, Rex Tillerson may have no option but to return to Texas sooner than he expected. No secretary of state, certainty not one who’s new to the world of diplomacy, can manage American foreign policy in this environment.