Tillerson's comments defy anything we've seen

Story highlights

  • Aaron Miller and Richard Sokolsky: Even in Trumpland, new comments by Secretary of State Tillerson are breathtaking in their implications
  • In decades of working for Secretaries of State, we've never heard the nation's top diplomat so distance himself from his boss, they write

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him @aarondmiller2. Richard Sokolsky is a non-resident senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2005-2015, he served as a member of the Secretary of State's Office of Policy Planning. The views expressed in this commentary are their own.

(CNN)Diplomacy is by nature a get-along business; and that applies in spades to a relationship between a president and his secretary of state. If there's any arguing to be done or daylight demonstrated, it takes place in private -- behind closed doors.

Aaron David Miller
Richard Sokolsky
In the Trump administration, however, tradition and convention have given way to a new normal where not only the Secretary of State adopts positions on issues from Qatar to North Korea that differ from those of the President, but other Cabinet officials often do so as well.
Even in Trumpland, though, this weekend's comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are breathtaking in their implications. In so many words, the nation's top diplomat, occupying the most prestigious post in the Trump administration, pointedly chose not to defend the "values" of the President of the United States in a stunning interview with Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday."
    Tillerson: I don't believe anyone doubts the American people's values or the commitment of the American government or the government's agencies to advancing those values and defending those values.
    Wallace: And the President's values?
    Tillerson: The President speaks for himself, Chris.
    Wallace: Are you separating yourself from that, sir?
    Tillerson: I've spoken -- I've made my own comments as to our values as well in a speech I gave to the State Department.
    Here are some takeaways:

    Shadow of Charlottesville

    The President's words blaming both sides in the wake of the Charlottesville violence have not only compromised his moral authority at home, but they have also stained the nation's image abroad and created a situation where Trump's own Secretary of State — the nation's putative top voice on foreign policy — will not defend him in Washington or before the world.
    Tillerson was drawn into this fix because Chris Wallace asked him about the UN human rights expert panel condemning the US (without mentioning Trump's name) in the wake of Charlottesville. And instead of defending the President (see Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin), Tillerson delivered the fatal line about Trump speaking for himself, in what could have been his own declaration of independence from Trump.
    In fact the Secretary then went further and referred Wallace to a talk he recently gave at the State Department on diversity, which contained a strong condemnation of racism and bigotry. Add to this National Economic Director Gary Cohn's remarks and those of the heads of the military services all condemning racial hatred in Charlottesville, and you have a cohort of top Trump advisers who are telling the American people to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

    Unprecedented

    But Tillerson's stark and brief rejoinder about Trump speaking for himself is quite extraordinary. In a combined 50-plus years of working for Secretaries of State of both parties, we've never heard the nation's top diplomat so economically and frontally distance himself from his boss. And rarely on such a critical issue of basic American values.
    Secretaries of State just don't do this, largely because a seamless interaction with the President is critically important to the success of the nation's top diplomat.
    Former Secretary of State James Baker used to describe himself as the White House's man at the State Department, not State's man at the White House, for precisely this reason. The easiest way to hang a closed-for-the-season sign on the State Department -- at home and abroad -- is to lose the President's confidence. Tillerson wasn't Trump's first choice or probably second choice for the job; and in the odd bureaucratic landscape Trump has created on foreign policy, it's doubtful he ever had the confidence of his boss.

    Who does Tillerson speak for?

    One can argue that Tillerson should be applauded for standing up for his principles in the Fox interview. But clearly in doing so and implicitly criticizing the President on the values issue, the Secretary of State essentially relegates himself to the margins at the same time.
    Why listen to anything Tillerson has to say if the most powerful man in the country -- if not the world -- has his own view that departs from and contradicts his own?
    The Secretary of State could have gone the Mnuchin route and not drawn this distinction and separation. But he chose not to, which is a testament to his own character and refusal to accept something he knows is wrong. Given Trump's sensitivity, that may have not been the most prudential move; but it was the right one.
    It should be evident by now that on a variety of foreign policy issues, Tillerson and Trump do not agree. But Tillerson took on Charlottesville, the premier issue roiling American politics. And he may well pay a price for it.

    Is Tillerson done?

    We argued in this space not long ago that Tillerson should not resign.
    We said that no matter how withering the criticism or unfriendly the environment, eight months into an administration -- even one as peculiar as this -- was an insufficient period of time to make a judgment on departing. That's still our view.
    His replacement might be worse; and the impact of such an early departure would only add to an image of an administration in chaos and harm the nation's credibility abroad.
    Besides, apart from the question of whether Tillerson is the right man for the job, the fundamental challenge isn't who's the designated Secretary of State. The challenge lies with the President and the way he has chosen to operate and conduct foreign policy.
    Trump could have an American Bismarck as his secretary of state, or bring back Henry Kissinger or James Baker, and it wouldn't matter as long as Trump, in the immortal words of former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, is the "vicar" of American foreign policy.
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    Assuming his comments are not walked back or re-interpreted, Rex Tillerson stood up for what he believed in on the issue of American values, reflecting the tradition and philosophy of his beloved Boy Scouts. Let's hope he won't pay a price for doing so.