Tillerson out, but was he ever really in?

Published 11:37 am Friday, March 16, 2018

by Peter Roff

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s exit has been on its way for so long it’s arrival is anti-climatic. To understand why he’s going though, one needs to look at the reasons he was picked.

Trump needed a big name at Foggy Bottom, the phrase long-time Washingtonians use to describe the State Department. Someone who looked the part but who was not, and this is important, the kind of person who could become the rallying point for the disloyal opposition within the president’s own party at least as he saw it. That’s why Mitt Romney, who Trump openly toyed with like a cat with a piece of yarn, was never really under consideration for the job. All he’d have to do is wait for what could be described as a principled reason to break with the president before heading out the door and on to New Hampshire and Iowa where he would be welcomed by “Never Trumpers” hoping for a 2018 alternative.

This made Romney, or most anyone else with even a normal degree of ambition in the world of politics, an unacceptable choice. Trump instead went to corporate America to find what he hoped would be a like-minded and tough CEO with experience in the multi-national arena.

On paper, Tillerson fit the bill. He looks the part and, as the long-time CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest public companies, he knew just about everyone worth knowing, especially the folks in those unstable regions of the world upon which (at least prior to the fracking revolution) America depended on to help with price stability in the oil market.

So what went wrong?

Strangely enough, his departure seems to have been over policy differences rather than performance. The revolving door at the front of the White House has seen so many people go through it since Jan. 20, 2017 that it scarcely stops moving. But most of the people on the way out have been given the heave ho for failing to back the president or for not performing up to the standards he expected from his subordinates — which means Trump essentially got tired of them.

Tillerson is different. The president, speaking to reporters gathered outside the south portico of the White House Tuesday, said he and Tillerson got along “quite well but we disagreed on things” including the Iran treaty and, one presumes, the direction that should be taken in the upcoming talks between the United States and North Korea.

There’s one little thing that probably has a lot more to do with Tillerson coming to the end of the official road than mere policy differences: Trump apparently wants to be his own secretary of state, and the GOP establishment, whom Tillerson has done so much to sideline inside the hallowed halls at Foggy Bottom, isn’t willing to let that happen.

The idea of Tillerson, if you connect the dots back far enough, apparently came from James A. Baker III, the former Reagan aide and Bush family retainer who held many tops jobs in government, including White House chief of staff (twice) and Secretary of State. People close to the Trump transition at the time bemoaned Tillerson’s links to Bush policymakers like Baker and Bush 43 Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who, while charter members of the Republican foreign policy elite, are anathema to many conservatives still on the scene who backed Reagan as well as the anti-globalists in Trump’s inner and outer circles.

Tillerson deserves some credit for purging many of the State Department careerists who thought U.S. policy should be harmonized with rather than lead global action. But Mike Pompeo, the former Kansas congressman and current director of the CIA whom Trump has named as Tillerson’s replacement, seems a far better fit, both ideologically and operationally.

PETER ROFF is a former senior political writer for UPI and a well-known commentator based in Washington, D.C. Email him at peter.Roff@Verizon.net.