A few months ago, Rex Tillerson was the chief executive of the world’s largest oil company — which is to say, he was the authoritarian ruler of a private empire powerful enough to bend nation-states to its will.
Now, he finds himself widely derided as the least influential secretary of State in modern memory — one who appears to be a subordinate of a 36-year-old trust-fund dilettante who bought his way into Harvard, and married himself into power. Jared Kushner has (reportedly) undermined Tillerson’s attempts to shape foreign policy, while the White House won’t let him staff his department with anyone but pro-Trump sycophants.
Last Friday, diplomatic relations between the State Department and White House finally broke down. As Politico reports:
The normally laconic Texan unloaded on Johnny DeStefano, the head of the presidential personnel office, for torpedoing proposed nominees to senior State Department posts and for questioning his judgment.
Tillerson also complained that the White House was leaking damaging information about him to the news media, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Above all, he made clear that he did not want DeStefano’s office to “have any role in staffing” and “expressed frustration that anybody would know better” than he about who should work in his department — particularly after the president had promised him autonomy to make his own decisions and hires, according to a senior White House aide familiar with the conversation.
The episode stunned other White House officials gathered in chief of staff Reince Priebus’ office, leaving them silent as Tillerson raised his voice. In the room with Tillerson and DeStefano were Priebus, top Trump aide Jared Kushner and Margaret Peterlin, the secretary of state’s chief of staff.
The Politico story goes on to suggest that Tillerson bears significant responsibility for this bad blood. One former State Department aide says that the former Exxon CEO went into his job “with a very negative attitude towards the White House,” while others complain that he isolates himself from the administration.
It’s certainly true that, ideally, America’s top diplomat would be capable of maintaining good relations with his colleagues in the cabinet. And by all accounts, Tillerson has displayed a bizarre disinterest in the expertise of his department’s career diplomats.
But it’s pretty clear that the White House is making it impossible for Tillerson to effectively do his job. There aren’t two equally legitimate sides in the conflicts over hiring. Here’s Politico again:
Many of [Tillerson’s] proposed nominees have been rejected by DeStefano’s Office of Presidential Personnel either because they are Democrats or because they are Republicans who were critical of Trump during the campaign … He’s also faced resistance to leaning on civil servants. Tillerson has expressed his desire to nominate Susan Thornton, a career foreign service officer now serving as the acting assistant secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to take over the job in an official capacity — a move White House staffers have resisted, saying they want a political person in the role.
So: The White House told Tillerson he could pick his own staff — on the condition that he hired no Democrats, or Republicans who weren’t enthusiastic about Trump’s campaign, or career civil servants who might put their subject expertise above unconditional fealty to the president’s whims.
In other words, Trump appears to want Tillerson to follow Ben Carson’s example, and allow the president to fill top State Department positions with family wedding planners and the like.
And the president’s top nepotism hire is already making it nigh impossible for Tillerson to execute a coherent foreign policy. When Saudi Arabia launched a blockade of Qatar earlier this month, Tillerson scrambled to defuse a conflict that threatened to destabilize the region — and hurt an ally that hosts a critical American air base. The secretary’s efforts were immediately compromised by the president’s son-in-law, according to sources who spoke with the American Conservative:
Tillerson called on Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt to ease their anti-Qatar blockade and announced that the U.S. supported a Kuwaiti-led mediation effort. The problem for Tillerson was that his statement was contradicted by Donald Trump who, during a Rose Garden appearance on the same day, castigated Qatar, saying the emirate “has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”
A close associate of the secretary of state says that Tillerson was not only “blind-sided by the Trump statement,” but “absolutely enraged that the White House and State Department weren’t on the same page.” Tillerson’s aides, I was told, were convinced that the true author of Trump’s statement was U.A.E. ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, a close friend of Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner. “Rex put two-and-two together,” his close associate says, “and concluded that this absolutely vacuous kid was running a second foreign policy out of the White House family quarters. Otaiba weighed in with Jared and Jared weighed in with Trump. What a mess.”
It’s hard to imagine that a different secretary of State would have been able to take all of this in stride. Although, these frustrations may be especially difficult for Tillerson to bear: The former oil executive has suggested that he took this position, in part, because God wanted him to — a belief that may generate doubts about just where he stands in the eyes of the lord.