Albert Camus once wrote: “a man is undone by waiting for capital punishment well before he dies.” That’s how outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson felt for most of a tenure that lasted nearly 15 months. Regular White House leaks have hinted since last year about his looming departure until President Donald Trump pulled the trigger yesterday in a tweet as Tillerson was making his way back home from an African tour.
It is safe to say that no secretary of state in modern US history has been humiliated by the president as much as Tillerson was by Trump. Former Secretary of State Collin Powell may come as a distant second since he was given the dignity of submitting his resignation and announcing his departure after strong disagreements with the White House and the Pentagon over handling the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
One cannot talk about “Tillersonism” or pin down a list of achievements that are specifically credited to the 69th secretary of state. His legacy is one of challenging the president’s unconventional stances and subsequently paying the political price. Tillerson’s biggest asset in the past 15 months has been his alliance with three Marine generals who are handling foreign policy: Defense Secretary James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford and White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly.
The absence of US diplomacy in the past 15 months is not a Tillerson problem as much as it is a White House problem.
These generals threw him a lifeline to remain in power despite his numerous reprimands of Trump. In August 2017, Tillerson said “the president speaks for himself” when Trump initially defended the white supremacist march in Charlottesville. Last October, he held a press conference at the State Department to describe the president as “smart” but never explicitly denied calling Trump “a moron” during a meeting at the Pentagon last summer. Trump perhaps never got over the fact that Tillerson called him a moron, and the relation between the two has since been awkward, to say the least.
Tillerson was visibly trembling while reading his statement yesterday in the State Department’s briefing room. He never mentioned Trump once, and his speech included two coded messages: “I tried to the best of my ability to stop the president’s troubling foreign policy, now it is for the generals to continue the battle”.
His second message hinted that the last straw that led to firing him has everything to do with Russia. Last Monday, Tillerson said the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy in the United Kingdom “clearly came from Russia”, contradicting the White House’s guidance that it was “likely” by Moscow. One thing is sure; we have not heard the end of the behind-the-scenes decision to fire Tillerson and its connection with Trump’s policies towards Russia.
The White House noted that Trump informed Tillerson of the decision to fire him last Friday. However, Undersecretary of State for Public Affairs Steve Goldstein told reporters that Tillerson learned from the president’s tweet like everyone else. Goldstein was immediately fired for contradicting the White House.
The firing of Tillerson and Goldstein shows that the State Department remains under siege by the White House until further notice. The current lack of morale at the State Department is unprecedented as the White House continues attempts to slash its budget, prevent the appointment of key staff, and undermine its traditional role of running the US’ foreign policy. This State Department mandate was essentially delegated to the Pentagon or Trump’s inner circle, most notably his son-in-law Jared Kushner who has been the conduit to Trump for foreign leaders instead of Tillerson. New Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, once confirmed by Congress, will continue to face these same challenges. The measure of his success is striking a balance between his loyalty to Trump and the interests of the institution he will now lead.
The absence of US diplomacy in the past 15 months is not a Tillerson problem as much as it is a White House problem. Institutional and personal rivalries are common in the US bureaucracy; however, the president typically remains above the fray. In the case of Trump, the main foreign policy advisers were coalescing to restrain him, whether on Iran’s nuclear deal, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis or the expected talks with North Korean leader Kim Jung-un. Firing Tillerson changes this dynamic by bringing Pompeo into the mix. As CIA director, Pompeo has enjoyed since last year direct access to the president by briefing him every morning on global intelligence, giving him a decisive advantage over others in the cabinet. Pompeo will most likely ally with Vice President Mike Pence and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikky Haley who congratulated him on Twitter, calling him “a friend”.
The hawkish alliance of Pence, Pompeo and Haley may seek to balance the influence of the three generals, most notably on Middle East-related issues. Backed by the Pentagon, Tillerson has been orchestrating a way to keep the US in the Iran nuclear deal. Now, it may be a different ballgame. However, the gravitas of Mattis in Trump’s White House might maintain the Pentagon’s veto on critical US national security decisions. Mattis has lost an ally in the White House’s “situation room” who often said what the Pentagon chief preferred not to say. Now, Mattis will have to take the lead in National Security Council deliberations, which could lead to tensions with Pompeo down the road.
It is worth remembering that Trump has been facing some rebellion in his administration. After lashing out at his Attorney General Jeff Sessions two weeks ago for not holding the FBI accountable for mishandling the Russia investigation, Sessions was seen the same night walking out to dinner with his deputy Rod Rosenstein who oversees the Russia investigation.
While Trump was angered by this public challenge to his authority, he couldn’t fire Sessions since that move could have led the country to a constitutional crisis. Trump was also challenged by most of his cabinet on his rash decision to meet Kim Jong-un. Only Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin publicly defended him. The firing of Tillerson also sends a message to those who second-guessed Trump’s decision on North Korea that the buck stops with him.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.