It’s a thankless role to be cast as lead diplomat for the least diplomatic president in living memory. But Rex Tillerson said yes on the casting couch and made his bed in the House of Trump, and now he lies in it.
Yes, you may read that in more ways than one, though how much longer Eagle Scout Rex will tolerate a mendacious and humiliating bit part in a theater of the absurd — and how long the president will tolerate Tillerson’s efforts, however ineffectual, to conduct actual diplomacy — is an open question. Like the arranged Hollywood marriage it was, their uncoupling seems to have hit what publicists and lawyers call “irreconcilable differences.”
It was a spectacle to behold a secretary of state — the most prestigious Cabinet post, fourth in line to the presidency — summoning the press to declare the president is “smart” and “loves his country” (baseline qualifications) and give a nondenial of a heavily sourced NBC report that Tillerson called his boss a “moron.”
It’s “extraordinary” that a secretary of state was “compelled to hold a press conference to deny he intends to resign,” observed Harvard professor Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state under George W. Bush. Tillerson’s been “weakened significantly by his own president, who repudiated him publicly.”
Equally breathtaking was Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, praying Tillerson hangs on because he’s one of only three grown-ups, alongside Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, who “separate our country from chaos.”
Trump jumped into the fray from Las Vegas — where he was supposed to be grieving a national tragedy! — calling himself “honored” by Tillerson’s homage and tweeting three times that NBC was #fakenews and owes “an apology to AMERICA!”
None came, and other newsrooms got sources confirming Tillerson used the m-word in July, after Trump reportedly compared adjusting Afghanistan troop levels to renovating a glitzy Manhattan restaurant. MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle doubled down, saying her source quoted Tillerson calling Trump “a [expletive] moron.”
Turns out there’s a Trump tweet for all occasions, including a cartoon he once shared of Founding Fathers worrying people might someday elect “a [expletive] moron.” Moron-gate called to mind HBO’s “Veep,” in which a narcissistic president demands a probe into which aide called her an expletive — only to conclude it was “everyone.”
Back in the real world, the former ExxonMobil CEO’s qualifications for this job were limited to passport stamps, oil deals, time in the C-suite, and looks from “central casting,” to quote Trump. Even so, Tillerson has more understanding than his boss of the role of diplomacy in averting catastrophes.
That’s a low bar, considering Tillerson backed Trump’s campaign to slash and burn his budget by a third, and fill only 18 percent of top State positions. Morale is in the subterranean blues at Foggy Bottom, as the State Department is known, with career officers quitting in alarming numbers and a near-decade-low in recruits to the Foreign Service. Veteran diplomats who served Republican and Democratic presidents tell me they were treated like rubber stamps, their expertise ignored and their work made impossible.
Tillerson and Trump have publicly locked horns, with the president contradicting his secretary on NATO, a Gulf Arab dispute, Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, and the North Korea standoff. When Tillerson went to China seeking delicate dialogue with Pyongyang, Trump squashed him like a bug, tweeting he was “wasting his time” and “save your energy, Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!”
It must sting to be belittled by someone whose foreign affairs résumé consists of Miss Universe, golf course deals, hotel branding, and hats made in China. Republican graybeards have urged Tillerson to resign to salvage any dignity.
Tillerson may hold on for now out of a sense of duty and White House advisers’ reluctance to throw another man overboard after losing a national security adviser, chief of staff, chief strategist, press secretary, two communications directors, FBI director, health secretary, and deputy attorney general in months.
My bet’s on a Rexit by early 2018. Tillerson doesn’t wield real power in a Donald-centered universe, and unless his replacement is Ivanka or Jared Kushner, I doubt the next secretary of state will either.Indira A.R. Lakshmanan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.