Since being fired by President Donald Trump as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson has kept a very low profile. But on Thursday night in Houston, Tillerson broke that silence in a big way.
Here’s how he described the “why” behind the breakdown of his relationship with the President, according to the Houston Chronicle:
“So often, the President would say here’s what I want to do and here’s how I want to do it and I would have to say to him, Mr. President I understand what you want to do but you can’t do it that way. It violates the law.”
The President of the United States would tell the secretary of state how he wanted things done and the secretary of state would have to tell him it couldn’t be done the way he wanted because that was illegal?
This is all fine!
What’s scary about Tillerson’s admission? A few things.
1) Trump either doesn’t know the law or doesn’t care about the law
2) This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of this sort of I-am-the-law, Judge Dredd-like behavior from the President.
On that second point, remember that former FBI director James Comey has testified – under oath – that Trump, in a one-on-one meeting, asked him to put aside the Justice Department investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. The President publicly pressured then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to take up an investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. (Clinton was not charged in a previous FBI investigation.)
Time and time again – particularly in his interactions with the Justice Department – Trump has shown that he has zero understanding of the limits of his job.
Tillerson described Trump as “a man who’s undisciplined, doesn’t like to read, doesn’t read briefing reports, doesn’t like to get into the details of a lot of things but rather says ‘this is what I believe.’”
That approach is broadly in keeping with Trump’s experience in the private sector. In business, he largely did what he wanted – rules (and consequences) be damned. If things went bad, the penalty, usually, was bankruptcy – and Trump believed he could just deal and talk his way out of that sort of thing.
Trump has never understood the distinctions between being the head (figurehead, some would say) of a company and being the President of the United States. In his dealings with Sessions – and Tillerson – Trump’s assumption is that they will do whatever he tells them to do because, well, he’s the boss.
The idea that Tillerson, Sessions and the rest of the administration ultimately serve a) the people of the country and b) the rule of law is seemingly lost on Trump.
Need more evidence? Trump never forgave Sessions for recusing himself from the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Why? “Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the President,” Trump told The New York Times in July 2017. “It’s extremely unfair – and that’s a mild word – to the President.”
That Sessions recused himself to prevent any perception of bias in the investigation – you know, for the good of the country and all that – was totally lost on Trump. His only reaction to the situation was: This is bad for me, and so Sessions shouldn’t have done it.
Which, really, says it all.
Trump’s total ignorance of the law – whether willful or just from sheer obtuseness – is, at this point, a defining characteristic of his presidency. He simply doesn’t get that there are limits on his power, limits put in place to preserve the office of the presidency – and the broader institutions of our democracy.
We have a President who, according to his one-time FBI director and his first secretary of state, repeatedly proposed ideas that were in violation of established laws. Sit with that for a minute.
Later Friday, Trump responded to Tillerson’s comments on Twitter, saying that his current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “is doing a great job,” adding, “His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, didn’t have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough.”