Rex Tillerson may not be long for the State Department, according to new reporting from CNN.
“The White House is contemplating a scenario to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo within the next few months, multiple government officials tell CNN,” reads the report. “There’s no decision yet on the timing of Tillerson’s departure, which has been expected for months. But multiple sources close to the White House and across government said Pompeo is the leading candidate to take over at the State Department.”
The White House – for what it’s worth – insists that there is no immediate plan to remove Tillerson.
“Rex is here,” Trump said Thursday morning. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders gave a similar stating-of-the-obvious-without-totally-denying-a-Rexit quote too. “Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire Cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump’s administration,” she said. (In other news, the White House confirmed that Tillerson remains a human who resides on planet Earth.)
At this point, however, there is so much smoke surrounding the tensions between Tillerson and Trump that it’s impossible to believe that there’s not some fire smoldering at the center of all of this.
There was the time last month when Tillerson held a press conference to rebut reports that he had referred to Trump as a “moron.” Except that he wouldn’t actually answer the question of whether he had called Trump a “moron.” Which was weird.
Or the time over the summer when Tillerson refused to defend Trump’s comments about the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. “The President speaks for himself,” Tillerson said.
Or the time when Tillerson’s friends told CNN he was frustrated about the constant “tug of war” with the White House and believed that he might not last a full year in the job.
Point is: There’s a whole heck of a lot of “there” there on Tillerson vs Trump.
Which is telling – especially when you consider how Trump cast Tillerson’s selection as Secretary of State.
“He’s a world-class player,” Trump said of Tillerson before formally nominating him. “He’s in charge of an oil company that’s pretty much double the size of its next nearest competitor.”
“You bring the unique skills and deep deep insights … into foreign diplomacy our nation needs to foster stability and security,” Trump said when Tillerson was formally sworn in as the nation’s top diplomat.
Tillerson was seen – by Trump at least – as the crown jewel of his Cabinet. Tillerson was the ur-example of Trump’s oft-repeated campaign promise that when he was President the best and brightest in the business world, who weren’t involved in government at all, would rush to be part of a Trump administration.
And then there was the fact that Tillerson looked the part. Tall. Commanding. And a titan of business and industry. Deep voice. Etc. (If you think that Trump doesn’t care about appearances, I’d refer you to this piece.)
Despite the fact that Tillerson checked every box on the Trump checklist – including that his nomination caught the political crowd somewhat by surprise – the honeymoon period for the two men lasted a very brief time.
Why? Lots of reasons large and small but, most importantly, because Tillerson believed himself to be a somewhat independent actor – with broad discretion on how to handle matters both within the State Department and on the diplomatic front. Tillerson never envisioned his role as a Trump lackey or someone who simply did exactly what Trump wanted, no questions asked.
A shining example of that lack of lackiness came in June during a totally-over-the-top Cabinet meeting in which many of the top advisers to Trump tried to one-up each other in their praise for Trump. Tillerson was a notable exception; “Thank you for the honor to serve the country. It’s a great privilege you’ve given me,” Tillerson told Trump.
Trump not only wants loyalty out of those who work for him. He wants subservience. Remember that Trump views himself as the only indispensable piece in the government. He views everyone in his Cabinet – and in the government – as people who work for him and whose main job should be to promote Trump and the Trump brand.
If you need more evidence of that reality, check out who White House sources suggest would replace Tillerson if/when he leaves State. The leading name is Pompeo, who has been a very close Trump ally. Ditto Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who is the top name mentioned as a replacement for Pompeo at the CIA.
Both men have spent the first 10 months of Trump administration demonstrating loyalty to the President and his policies. He likes that. And he tends to reward people who support him and say nice things about him.
The arc of the Trump-Tillerson relationship should be instructive for Pompeo, Cotton and any of the other current Cabinet members, however. Trump quickly falls in love with the idea of a person. And just as quickly he falls out of love with that person. He is mercurial. He is moody. He moves the goalposts in terms of his expectations of how the people around him should act.
The struggles of Tillerson should serve as a cautionary tale. He came into the Trump Cabinet as its most touted member. He has spent much of his time in the job feuding with the White House – and beating back report after report that he won’t even last the year.
It’s hard to imagine this is how Tillerson imagined things would play out when he accepted the job.
Rexit is coming.