Ground Game

Tillerson is out, but this question remains

On Tuesday morning, the top question wasn’t why President Trump decided to fire his secretary of state, but why he decided to do it when he did.

Trump and his now-outgoing secretary of state Rex Tillerson haven’t agreed on much since he was confirmed. In the year since, Trump demonstrated how strained relations were by repeatedly undermining Tillerson or keeping him out of the loop altogether. When Trump agreed this month to a meeting in May with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Tillerson’s own public comments just hours before suggested he had no idea.

Still, despite persistent rumors that Trump was set to fire Tillerson at different points throughout his tenure, most recently in December, Trump didn’t do it until now. Why now, and not all the times before, is the question that hangs in the air.


Related to that is the question of the timeline.

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The White House originally said Tuesday that President Trump fired Tillerson on Friday and told the secretary of state to cut his trip to Africa short and return to Washington.

But many news outlets, including NBC and CNN, reported that Tillerson found out he was fired went he saw Trump’s tweet Tuesday morning that CIA director Mike Pompeo would be the “new Secretary of State.”

When Tillerson finally went before the cameras Tuesday afternoon, he skipped past what happened Friday or Tuesday morning and began his comments saying the president called him shortly after noon to thank him for his service.

But do the intricacies of the Tillerson timeline really matter? Some observers seem to think so.


After all, Tillerson was aboard a US government aircraft, giving interviews late Monday. Speaking to the press, he referred to the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter in the United Kingdom as a “really egregious act” potentially carried out by Russia, though he cautioned that it was unknown whether the Russian government knew of it.

The statement was in keeping with one issued Monday by UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who said she believed it was “highly likely” that Russia was somehow involved with the poisoning, which employed a rare nerve agent in the city of Salisbury.

In a further statement to reporters on the plane, Tillerson said the action would “certainly trigger a response. I’ll leave it at that.”

What such a response would look like is unclear. Tuesday morning, Trump told reporters: “It sounds to me like it would be Russia based on all the evidence they have” regarding the poisoning. “As soon as we get the facts straight, if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

Whatever the outcome, Tillerson won’t be a part of it. He announced that he will leave the State Department on March 31 and offered his appreciation to those with whom he worked.


“I close by thanking all for the privilege of serving beside you for the last 14 months,” he said. “Importantly to the 300-plus million Americans, thank you for your devotion to a free and open society, to acts of kindness toward one another, to honesty, and the quiet hard work that you do every day to support this government with your tax dollars.”

He did not thank President Trump during the speech.

While the circumstances regarding the news of Tillerson’s firing might, at first glance, have seemed trivial, that didn’t appear to be the case for the White House. The Associated Press reported that one of Tillerson’s top aides was also fired Tuesday after he differed with the White House’s timeline on the secretary of state’s termination.

Trump must have understood the optics of the timeline of when he decided to make the firing public. He could have waited until Wednesday or Thursday or even next week and it would have made little difference to him internally. After all, it seems that Trump has been operating without Tillerson for a while. But for the news to break at just this moment is yet another twist in a unusual tenure.

James Pindell can be reached at