Rex Tillerson smiled frequently in a public appearance last Wednesday, asserting in his staccato Texas twang that he “wasn’t going anywhere.” Asked how his relationship is with the president as Tillerson departed a photo-op with the Qatari foreign minister, he turned back, smiled, and said simply: “it’s good.”
While I’m not in the business of calling men liars, Tillerson’s portrayal of rosiness in the West Wing seems to contradict a slew of recent reports, and even his own actions. The media foments these perceived divisions within the White House, and it is never clear where the distinction between a truthful and speculatory report can be drawn. According to unconfirmed reports, Tillerson has planned on exiting his role as Secretary of State after Christmas.
I know, it’s a CNN report, which carries with it about as much consumer confidence as a Confederate dollar. But reports that Tillerson has been very much put-off by the public wedgies inflicted upon Attorney General Jeff Sessions by the President. Tillerson, the former CEO and head-decision maker for natural gas giant Exxon, has also made comments that seem to carry inherent criticism of his now-limited role as the president’s underling. Whether this role has been further limited by excessive micromanagement by the President is unclear.
Tillerson said this about his role as Secretary of State:
"Well, it is a lot different than being CEO of Exxon because I was the ultimate decision maker," Tillerson told reporters, per the New York Times. "That always makes life easier."
It is fair to take from that comment that Tillerson was happier in his role as Exxon CEO. The paycheck, professional freedom, and far less glaring spotlight are all reasons why this should be obvious. He was the boss, paid like the boss, and now he’s simply not.
But Tillerson was aware of the hierarchy of Democracy when he accepted the position, and is not known as an easily flappable man. So the announcement last Tuesday that Tillerson was going to take a vacation from his post, and speculation that job stressors were the impetus for this break, were a sign to many that he and his boss were not meshing.
Again, Tillerson has said otherwise.
But the way Sessions has been handled makes it unlikely that Trump’s colleagues will be criticizing him anytime soon, at least in public. The nature of many of Trump’s cabinet members is not to criticize their boss anyway.
We must consider what Tillerson has reportedly faced during his months as Secretary, and how the President has arguably made his job harder than it needs to be. Tillerson recently relented on a months-long stall to assign 33 of his State Department Staff as available to serve on the White House-oriented National Security Council. This had been a point of contention between Tillerson and National Security advisor and NSC head H.R. McMaster, not to mention the president.
Tillerson’s primary motive in this holdout was to return more influence to the State Department, a departure from the “White House-centric” approach to foreign policy, as Tillerson refers to it, under Obama.
It makes sense. Bosses and former CEOs want autonomy to make decisions that matter, and being handcuffed by the White House decision-making and vetting process can’t be pleasant.
Reports on Tillerson’s role in the preservation of the Iran agreement are conflicting. The Times story indicated that he, McMaster, and other top security advisors persuaded the President from his near-adamant position that the Iran deal must be torn up. In a talk with the Wall Street Journal, however, he compared Iran to North Korea. The president has stated that, "If it was up to me, I would have had them noncompliant 180 days ago,” indicating that Tillerson, as Secretary of State, has likely played some role in maintaining the deal. Tillerson has also indicated that he hopes the re-election of Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani would mark change.
Tillerson’s endgame here is a bit confusing, as the dangers of a nuclear Iran was a clear point of agreement among most Trump supporters. Some have suggested, for unclear reasons, that Tillerson would like to appease holdovers from the Obama regime that want to see their primary foreign policy “accomplishment” remain intact. If this is true, it begs the question: does Tillerson understand who he’s working for?
It’s true that the President has been praised for his appointments of department heads that are proven leaders. Many have run companies or armies and are used to being the primary decision maker. It seems that Rex Tillerson, in particular, may not be fit for the downsizing of his influence. Tillerson’s seeming defiance in the cases of Iran and granting his staff freedom to be appointed to the NSC seem to indicate as much.
Perhaps there is more going on that the public will never be privy to. It is unclear whether the former CEO is acting out, whether Trump is indeed a micromanager not granting his underlings levels of autonomy that were promised, or perhaps it is a mix of both.
Hell, for all the false and/or speculative reports circulating these days, their relationship could be spectacular. But certain actions, including Tillerson’s vacation, and the cases of Iran and the appointment of NSC staffers seems to indicate all is not completely well between the two.
Appointing alpha dogs like Tillerson and Trump’s generals comes with a certain amount of risk. Perhaps the President is a micromanager; it is not an unlikely assumption. Perhaps Tillerson would not be happy being anything other than a CEO, having final say in all decisions.
One thing is clear: large egos cannot coexist without occasional conflict or one’s genuine acceptance of a submissive role. With his assertion that their relationship is “good,” and the re-commencement of his government role, perhaps Tillerson is embracing that lesser role.
Or, perhaps he is smiling, knowing that his role as Secretary is not long for the world.