WASHINGTON — Rex Tillerson came to Washington 14 months ago as an outside-the-box choice for secretary of state, boasting extensive foreign contacts developed during a 40-year career at Exxon Mobil and experience running a global corporation with the size and scale of a nation-state.
After months of clashes and conflict on issues from North Korea to climate change to the response to the race riots in Charlottesville, Va., President Donald Trump on Tuesday notified Tillerson of his firing via Twitter, naming CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s successor. Trump later explained to reporters that he and the former Exxon CEO “just disagreed on things.”
Trump’s morning tweet ended a fraught relationship and Tillerson’s difficult transition from imperial CEO to public servant. Tillerson quickly alienated career diplomats as he tried to remake the State Department into the image of a Fortune 500 company while chafing at Trump’s style, policies and pronouncements — at one point reportedly describing Trump as a “moron.”
In the end, it may have been the ultimate personality clash between an Eagle Scout and engineer who rose through the ranks of a corporation that values stability, discipline, care and detail and a seat-of-the-pants real estate developer who preferred flash, showmanship and chaos — and played fast and loose with the facts.
“You had an engineer who worked for the same company for decades coming up against one of the greatest brand managers in the last half century. They’re different skill sets,” said Jon Alterman, a state department official under former president George W. Bush and now vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “He never reached a mind-meld with the president.”
Trump’s tweet caught most of Washington off-guard, but Tillerson’s departure had seemed only a matter of time over past several months. NBC News reported in October that Tillerson had to be talked out of quitting by other members of the administration and called Trump a “moron” after a meeting at the Pentagon. That prompted Tillerson to go before television cameras and say he planned to serve “as long as the president feels I can be useful” — though never denied calling the president a moron.
The firing was an inglorious end to what was expected to be a capstone to a long and successful career that had propelled Tillerson to the highest rungs of corporate America. State Department officials told the Associated Press that Tillerson was not given advance notice of his firing, although White House officials disputed that account. They told Bloomberg News that Chief of Staff John Kelly had called Tillerson Friday to warn that he was going to be fired and to return early from a trip to Africa.
Richard Fisher, former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and a friend of Tillerson’s, criticized the handling of the decision as “Trump to the nth degree.” “Treating someone of his distinction and magnitude in this manner is certainly distasteful and disrespectful,” he said Tuesday. “I wish the president had a different sense of style.”
During a press conference in Washington Tuesday, Tillerson said Trump had called him from Air Force One a little after noon, hours after the president’s tweet. “What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges,” Tillerson said, his voice wavering. “I will now return to private life, a private citizen, a proud American, proud of the opportunity I’ve had to serve my country.”
Tillerson spent more than a decade leading Exxon — a company he joined shortly after leaving the University of Texas-Austin. His nomination followed recommendations by former secretaries of state Bob Gates and Condoleezza Rice and seemed to assuage nervousness within foreign policy circles about how the tweet-happy Trump would handle foreign affairs.
Tillerson had extensive experience negotiating with foreign leaders, particularly in trouble spots, such as the Middle East, and in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin had awarded him a state honor. “Tillerson stood out as a cool-headed technocrat,” said Jim Krane, a fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “He was someone who could see past political passions to serve American interests.”
But Trump and Tillerson clashed right out of the gate. Tillerson’s pick to be No. 2 at the State Department was Elliot Abrams, who had served in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. But Abrams, who had criticized Trump during the presidential campaign, was rejected by the administration.
Trump repeatedly undercut Tillerson. When Tillerson suggested diplomatic approaches to the North Korea’s nuclear threat, Trump slapped them down, calling them a waste of time. Trump’s recent decision to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was reportedly made without consulting Tillerson.
Tillerson favored the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by former president Barack Obama, while Trump harshly criticized and threatened to leave it. After Trump’s failure to forcefully condemn white supremacists after the riots in Charlottesville, Va., Tillerson said, “The president speaks for himself.” Unfamiliar with Washington and politics, Tillerson struggled to forge alliances within the White House and on Capitol Hill to help sway the president to his way of thinking.
He also alienated career foreign service officers who form the backbone of the State Department, staffing U.S. embassies and building the relations and expertise needed to carry out U.S. policies across the globe. Tillerson’s plans to significantly cut the department’s budget and streamline its operations met resistance from career diplomats, many of whom chose to leave the department
“He had almost no friends in the White House, with the exception of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. He didn’t have a lot of friends up on the Hill, except for Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). He was just extremely isolated,” said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin political consultant who served as an aide to former Texas U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. “With no advocates and no defenders, you leave yourself open to this kind of thing happening.”
Tillerson’s departure follows that of Gary Cohn, the administration’s chief economic adviser, who resigned last week after failing to convince Trump not to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum. Both men were globalist products of the U.S. corporate world — Goldman Sachs in the case of Cohn — and both clashed with populist advisers to Trump, who came to power on the anti-trade, inward-looking message, “Make America Great Again.”
The two fought unsuccessfully last year to stop Trump from pulling out of the Paris agreement on climate change. Republican reaction to Tillerson’s sacking was largely muted. Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz said they found out about the firing the same way everyone else did and commended Tillerson for his service.
“Rex Tillerson is a good and honorable man,” Cruz said. “It has been clear for some time that the Secretary of State and the President had significant tensions. And so I don’t think anyone was surprised to see a change of leadership at the State Department.”