President Trump is (reportedly) very angry that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (reportedly) called him a “fucking moron.” Now Trump is reportedly weighing whether to replace Tillerson—mere days after undercutting him via pointlessly aggressive tweets about North Korea. Has the relationship between a president and his chief diplomat ever fallen so far, let alone so fast?
To discuss Tillerson’s bizarre tenure, and much else, I spoke by phone recently with Aaron David Miller, the Middle East program director at the Wilson Center who served in the State Department for 25 years and advised secretaries of state of both parties. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Tillerson’s mistakes at the State Department, why it’s so disturbing when a president and secretary of state don’t get along, and why Trump will never allow an effective person to run the department.
Isaac Chotiner: Have you ever seen an equivalent to the Trump-Tillerson relationship among presidents and their secretaries of state?
Aaron David Miller: No. I worked for half a dozen—Shultz to Powell—and for one of my books I interviewed every living secretary of state, including Alexander Haig. There is no precedent either for this kind of public tension, and no precedent for a secretary feeling compelled to respond to press reports the way Secretary Tillerson did the other day. And there is no precedent for open talk of resignation by a secretary of state, at least in the modern period. That also sets this whole episode apart.
Only three secretaries of state in the whole history of the republic have resigned over principle. And only two in the modern period served less than a year and a half. Ed Muskie, when Cyrus Vance resigned in March of 1980 in opposition to Carter’s military mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, served out the rest of his term. Haig served about a year and a half and then left because of tensions within the [Reagan] Cabinet.
What effect will this have on America’s diplomatic posture, even if things are admittedly not going well anyway.
This is the first president in the modern period who failed to have gone even through the motions of empowering the secretary of state as the repository of his policy and as his public voice. When you don’t do that, it is virtually impossible for allies or adversaries to understand what the policy is and who is speaking authoritatively about it. There is no go-to address. You can’t go to the president. You have to go through the secretary of state, which is the reason why presidents create some rule of order on this particular question.
Plus when you have the amount of flowers blooming in the Trump administration—with Nikki Haley talking about all kinds of foreign policy issues, and Jared Kushner managing the Arab-Israeli issue, and Gary Cohn leading the policy on climate change at the U.N., and the president tweeting and making policy unilaterally—it creates the perception abroad that there is a competency issue, and that’s part of the problem now with both the formation and implementation of foreign policy.
But in Trumpland, it is not going to matter who the secretary of state is. Everyone wants Tillerson to resign, but they don’t understand that a secretary of state’s effectiveness is tied to two things. No. 1 is whether the president has his or her back at home, in the shark-infested waters of the Washington bureaucracy, and abroad, because it takes allies and adversaries five minutes to understand whether there is daylight. And if there is, you might as well hang the “Closed for the Season” sign on the effectiveness of the State Department. And No. 2 is whether there are problems in the world that are ripe for resolution. And I would argue to you that the world right now is filled with mission impossibles for the United States. Anyone in Tillerson’s position is going to find himself or herself severely disadvantaged.
OK but even if that is all true, and Trump is Trump, it seems like maybe Tillerson should still resign because, at the very least, maybe you get someone in who has more of a rapport, and that would be helpful for diplomacy, even if nothing very big or great is remotely possible.
Mattis has a good rapport with Trump, and maybe McMaster does as well. It doesn’t stop the dysfunction.
Of course, but still—
If the reports are true, and it’s hard for me to believe, but no other secretary of state would be empowered in another administration and go to Asia, and make comments about three open channels to North Korea. I am told the president was not aware of this. That’s extraordinary! That’s not on Tillerson—that’s on the system. So, would it help, if you had a secretary of state who agreed with everything the president said, and agreed to reflect everything the president wanted whether it was good or bad? No, it would not be good. We don’t need an echo chamber; you need someone who will carry out the president’s policies but will offer an independent judgement.
Isn’t that what Mattis is?
There’s no question about it. What you need, frankly, is a diplomatic equivalent of Jim Mattis. The problem is that the reason Mattis has influence is that, for one, Trump prides himself on being tough and pro-military, and that toughness resonates with the base. And even Trump understands what he doesn’t know about issues relating to national security and projecting military force abroad. Mattis holds a position that is not even first among equals. It’s almost unprecedented that a Cabinet-level official has this kind of influence. It would be great if you had a diplomatic equivalent of that, but you are not going to be able to duplicate it.
Don’t forget Jared. Anyway, how do you understand Tillerson? Sometimes it seems like he is trying to gut the State Department, and then sometimes it seems like he is one of the adults in the room who is sane.
Isaac, it’s both. Look, you have a guy, Tillerson, who, unlike his predecessors in the modern period, has no government experience at all. Shultz was also from the private sector and was at Bechtel for eight years, but he also had three or four significant positions in the government. Tillerson knows the world, and I would argue has good instincts on Qatar, on Iran, on North Korea, on Russia. They are better than the president’s, in my judgment. But he also doesn’t know the ways of Washington, is unfamiliar with the “building.” The State Department is in bad need of reform, but to make that the first priority … when in fact the first priority was creating a credible image, and basically doing everything he could to ensure that his voice—with the president’s approval—was more authoritative than any other person in the administration, he obviously didn’t help himself.
And I think the decision to create no profile in the media was impossible since so much of what his job is for is public diplomacy. But remember, was he Trump’s first choice? No. Second choice? No. Third choice? Among the four candidates, there was Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton, and Jon Huntsman, and maybe more. Tillerson wasn’t included.
David Petraeus, yeah.
And Petraeus, sorry. Exactly. So my question is, would anyone have been a good fit? Would anyone have been able to deal with the reality of Trumpland?
It seems like what would have been best was Petraeus because of Trump’s respect for the military, but again, the problem is obviously, again, having another military guy run the State Department. It’s no win.
To borrow from the Star Trek series, the prime directive of a secretary of state is not just to have the “confidence” of the president, but to actually be able to work with the president to shape foreign policy. Mattis has done it, but I just don’t know given Trump’s lack of interest in diplomacy, and conviction that there are no good agreements unless they were negotiated by him, and a disregard for State, whether he would allow it with anyone.