EDITORIAL: Tillerson refused blind loyalty to Trump. His ouster should surprise no one

Wednesday , March 14, 2018 - 7:56 AM

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Rex Tillerson’s most egregious offense as secretary of state was that he spoke truth to power. The power was President Donald Trump, and the truth was Tillerson’s personal assessment that the president was clueless on foreign affairs. Tillerson’s reported word to describe the president was “moron.”

It was clear back in October that Tillerson’s tenure as secretary of state would be short-lived once the moron reference became public. Shortly afterward, Trump openly mocked Tillerson for saying the United States should exhaust all diplomatic routes to resolve tension with North Korea before adopting a more confrontational approach. Trump tweeted that Tillerson was wasting his time.

The great irony here is that Trump himself is now abandoning his own confrontational approach in favor of face-to-face diplomacy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He said he made the decision to meet with Kim without consulting Tillerson.

Tillerson was right all along. Where he failed was in finding a way to conduct productive foreign policy while gently keeping the president from interfering.

Trump clearly was never comfortable being upstaged by someone of Tillerson’s intellect and experience. As the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, Tillerson was on a first-name basis with foreign leaders and understood the delicate interplay between business and diplomacy. Had he been left alone, and if he’d had more regard for his department’s career diplomats, he could have been very effective in the job.

But Trump wanted a loyalist, not a diplomat. Tillerson, an Eagle Scout and man of principle, absolutely refused the kind of right-or-wrong, blind alignment with the president that Trump demanded.

Doubly insulting was that Trump handed over some of the nation’s most delicate diplomatic missions to his incompetent son-in-law, Jared Kushner, including the Arab-Israeli peace portfolio. After Trump did his best to destroy America’s close relationship with Mexico, Trump assigned Kushner to repair the damage. Kushner has failed miserably.

Underscoring Trump’s crass cowardice, he didn’t have the guts to fire Tillerson in person or even by phone. Tillerson learned about it by text message.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo — like Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster — understands the high stakes of keeping smart, level-headed thinkers in the most consequential Cabinet positions. Pompeo, until now, has maintained a low-key posture with minimal public exposure.

As Tillerson’s likely replacement, Pompeo will have to assume a higher public profile and the risks that accompany pronouncing policy on international controversies even when the president might impulsively tweet out the exact opposite position — without even consulting his secretary.

The tumult surrounding Trump’s staffing decisions doesn’t bode well for Pompeo’s long-term success. America’s best hope is that Pompeo will succeed where Tillerson failed in diverting the president from his own worst impulses.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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