Yesterday, NBC News reported a gossipy tidbit too juicy for the Washington press corps—or the President— to pass up. Secretary of State Tillerson over the summer came within a hair’s breadth of resigning and after one exasperating meeting allegedly called the President a “moron.” NBC:
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was on the verge of resigning this past summer amid mounting policy disputes and clashes with the White House, according to senior administration officials who were aware of the situation at the time.
The tensions came to a head around the time President Donald Trump delivered a politicized speech in late July to the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led, the officials said.
Just days earlier, Tillerson had openly disparaged the president, referring to him as a “moron,” after a July 20 meeting at the Pentagon with members of Trump’s national security team and Cabinet officials, according to three officials familiar with the incident. [….]
The State Department’s spokesperson has denied the story. Secretary Tillerson himself has denied that Vice President Pence had to convince him not to resign. President Trump, in his own colorful way, has responded to the story as well:
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 4, 2017
Whether the story is fake news or political gossip, it nonetheless points to very real problems that this Administration is facing in its operations. That Tillerson might say such a thing about his boss in front of staff who might leak, or that he was on the verge of resigning, is made believable by a series of very public rifts between Tillerson and the President. We’ve written before about the President and Secretary of State being at cross purposes over the Qatar crisis. Other examples include Tillerson’s apparent surprise that the President had already made a decision about the Iran nuclear deal, which is an extension of previous divisions between the President and his national security advisors over re-certifying the deal that emerged in July. The latest, and perhaps most humiliating example was President Trump’s rebuke last weekend of Secretary Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts towards North Korea:
I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 1, 2017
While Tillerson might be the most frequent focus of the President’s opprobrium these days, he’s hardly the only senior official to be subjected to such treatment. In an interview with the New York Times in July, the President said that if he had known that Jeff Sessions was going to recuse himself from the Russia investigation he would have picked somebody else as Attorney General. And the President was clearly seething over the stories surrounding HHS Secretary Tom Price right before the latter resigned. Then of course there are the slew of advisors inside the White House who have been sent packing in the past few months—Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Sebastian Gorka, Anthony Scaramucci, and Steve Bannon the highest-profile among them. The installation of John Kelly as Chief of Staff appears to have stabilized things to a certain degree, but stories (like this one) continue to bubble to the surface, suggesting that the “adults” are working overtime to “protect” the President from his own worst instincts, especially on foreign policy.
Tillerson’s survival at his job is less critical than it appears. While he has been portrayed by the media as one of the above-mentioned “adults” on foreign policy, he has shown himself to be a political neophyte who hasn’t notched any successes at his job. Indeed, a case can be made that this latest episode, which looked like a forced show of contrition, coming as it did hot on the heels of the President undercutting him publicly on North Korea, has fatally harmed his credibility. Who among his foreign counterparts would negotiate with him now, knowing that he ultimately does not speak for the White House? A credible interlocutor might be better for American foreign policy than an “adult” whom the President doesn’t trust.
Is the ongoing narrative about “adults” true, or just the product of journalists cobbling self-serving leaks into a master narrative? It’s impossible to know for sure, but there is circumstantial evidence that there is something to it. One U.S. official told BuzzFeed News that Secretaries Mattis, Tillerson, and Steve Mnuchin have a “suicide pact”, in which pressure on one to resign would be taken as an attack on all. That follows reporting of an agreement between Mattis and Kelly that one of them would remain within the United States at all times. True or not, it’s almost certain that existing American alliances have been kept more-or-less on an even keel by the mere idea that steady hands, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, National Security Council chief H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly, are helping the President keep within a broadly-defined mainstream of American foreign policy.
Can this chaperoning engagement be sustained? McMaster reportedly fought a fierce battle behind the scenes with the White House on Afghanistan strategy. In the end, he managed to win the President over, but not without taking his lumps. Next up: a possible rift between the President and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, Secretary Mattis confirmed that it was his view that re-certifying the Iran nuclear deal was in the national security interests of the United States. Mattis let this slip despite statements from the President that he intended to decertify the deal, and in the face of Iran hawks like Senator Tom Cotton, who have been egging the President on. The President’s respect for his Defense Secretary seems to have allowed Mattis to more or less manage his own shop up to this point. But will this continue to be the case?
Some of these concerns might be mitigated if the Administration had a deeper bench. While the Administration has grounds to decry that the Senate is taking an inordinately long time to confirm each nominee, they’ve also made fewer total nominations than any incoming Administration in the past 30 years. Virtually none of the assistant secretary positions at the State Department have nominees. Nor does John Kelly have any proposed successor as head of the Department of Homeland Security. Tom Price’s resignation leaves that department headless for the foreseeable future as well. Though not all of these positions have a direct bearing on foreign policy or national security, their vacancies suggest a bureaucratic dysfunction that greatly magnifies any of the staffing turbulence that this Administration appears to be particularly prone to.
The “moron” talk, or the whole idea of “adults” in foreign policy, may well be fake news—rumors and and self-serving narratives concocted by a Washington press corps seething at a Trump Administration it cannot stand. But even if this is so, it’s hard not to conclude that the Trump Administration is having a rocky time merely running itself. Whatever your political affiliations, that’s not welcome news.