Time is quickly running out for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. America’s top diplomat heads to Europe next week hobbled by reports that the White House is preparing to oust him. On stops in Brussels, Vienna and Paris, he’ll face foreign leaders who will do their best to express comity but also wonder how much longer he’ll remain in the job. Tillerson on Friday dismissed reports that the White House is seeking to oust him as “laughable.” But privately, administration officials said Thursday that the president is considering replacing Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Even publicly, officials offered a tepid defense of the secretary of state, while President Donald Trump sidestepped the question entirely. “I think it’s a death blow,” Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said Thursday. “The secretary of state is only powerful in the sense that he’s a voice for the president or the administration, and what they did to him today is just devastating.” The position he’s in should feel familiar to a secretary of state whose statements have been undermined frequently over his 10 months in office on key issues from North Korea to Qatar. But now, with doubts about whether he’ll even finish this year in his post and reports that Pompeo is poised to replace him, Tillerson will be weakened as he never was before.
The administration’s foreign policy team seems “to be working with two voices, that of President Trump’s Twitter voice and the rest of the administration, so credibility of cabinet members and their negotiating power is always an issue,” said James Norton, a former deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. Relations between White House staff and Tillerson’s inner circle have been broken since the summer, when the two sides all but stopped talking, according to one of the officials, all of whom asked not to be identified discussing internal issues. That dysfunction extended to the president, who soured on Tillerson after a promising first few months in office when the two men frequently dined together at the White House. Publicly, administration spokeswomen declined on Thursday to say Trump has full confidence in his top diplomat. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that “when the president loses confidence in somebody, they’ll no longer be here,” adding only that Tillerson’s “future right now is to continue working hard as secretary of state.”
Tillerson is scheduled to have lunch Friday at the White House with Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis ahead of the Pentagon chief’s long scheduled visit to the Middle East. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tillerson is continuing with a “robust” agenda and highlighted the planned European trip. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called the State Department Thursday to say reports that Tillerson is being ousted aren’t true, Nauert said. But she, too, emphasized that Tillerson, like all administration appointees, “serves at the pleasure of the president.” “He’s continuing with his meetings, he’s continuing with his calls,” Nauert told reporters. Tillerson will travel to Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers and then to Vienna for a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Officials in Europe will view Tillerson’s policy prescriptions as falling within the norm of traditional U.S. foreign policy — but they’ll also know he probably doesn’t speak for the president.
“Tillerson is actually very good at his core job of being a diplomat with foreigners, and he certainly is advancing what I would call a traditional foreign policy agenda,” said James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies who was previously ambassador to Iraq and went on to work under Tillerson at Exxon Mobil Corp. “The issue, though, is they want to deal with whoever delivers the policy.” Part of the problem, White House officials have repeatedly said, has been Tillerson’s refusal to fill political jobs at the State Department. Department officials have pushed back on that complaint, saying they’ve sent lists of potential nominees to the White House only to see them rejected or ignored. The Trump-Tillerson relationship soured over the summer, after the president’s widely criticized comments about racial protests that led to a death in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a politically charged speech he gave to a national gathering of the Boy Scouts of America, an organization Tillerson once led.
Relations worsened further in October, after Tillerson had to address reports that he called the president a “moron” following a meeting of the national security team. The secretary of state denounced the report, although he left it to Nauert to deny he’d uttered the insult. Afterward, Trump suggested staging an IQ-test contest between him and Tillerson. Beyond differences with Trump, Tillerson has few other friends in Washington. Members of Congress from both parties and veterans of the foreign service have been alienated by his slow-moving effort to reorganize the State Department and his support for deep cuts in the department’s budget, which even Republican lawmakers said were untenable.
The timing of a potential shakeup for Trump’s national security team is in flux. The president has told advisers that Tillerson might be out of his job before the end of the year, one of the people familiar with the matter said, a tenure that would be among the shortest in modern times. The New York Times reported that Kelly had developed a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo and nominate Senator Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, for Pompeo’s job. Cotton spokeswoman Caroline Tabler said the senator’s focus “is on serving Arkansans in the Senate.” A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman also declined to comment. Working in Pompeo’s favor is the close relationship he’s cultivated with Trump, delivering the president’s daily intelligence briefing in person most days. Since beginning his tenure as CIA chief in January, Pompeo has served as a key defender of Trump’s policies, from Iran to China, so he’d be less likely than Tillerson to soften the hard edges of the president’s undiplomatic tweets and comments on foreign policy.
The new questions about Tillerson’s future come as foreign policy crises, including North Korea’s nuclear program and rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, dominate much of the White House’s agenda. While Trump and Tillerson repeatedly clashed over policy and politics, State Department officials had described those disagreements as healthy arguments and said the president enjoyed the sparring. They long insisted that Tillerson, 65, planned to stay through the president’s first term.
At the same time, White House officials said Trump — who has relished upending traditional presidential and diplomatic norms — has come to dislike Tillerson for his reserved demeanor and what’s been labeled an “establishment” way of thinking. The two have repeatedly disagreed on policy: whether to stay in the Paris climate change accord, whether to side with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Qatar, how hard to seek a diplomatic solution over North Korea’s nuclear program. After Tillerson told reporters in China in October that the U.S. was talking with North Korean officials through diplomatic back channels, the president undercut him, saying on Twitter that he told his “wonderful” secretary of state that “he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” a reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Nauert suggested Thursday that the intrigue about Tillerson’s future was part of a “tough game of politics” typical in Washington and that the secretary brushed it off in his “unflappable” manner. “He doesn’t always understand and accept how Washington works,” Nauert said.