Rex Tillerson Appears To Be On The Way Out

It appears that Rex Tillerson's days at the State Department may be numbered, but his proposed replacement leaves a lot to be desired.

Donald Trump Rex Tillerson

The New York Times is reporting on a potentially huge change at the top of the Trump Administration:

WASHINGTON — The White House has developed a plan to force out Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, whose relationship with President Trump has been strained, and replace him with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, perhaps within the next several weeks, senior administration officials said on Thursday.

Mr. Pompeo would be replaced at the C.I.A. by Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas who has been a key ally of the president on national security matters, according to the White House plan. Mr. Cotton has signaled that he would accept the job if offered, said the officials, who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations before decisions are announced.

It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Trump has given final approval to the plan, but he has been said to have soured on Mr. Tillerson and in general is ready to make a change at the State Department. Mr. Tillerson was at the White House on Thursday morning, although he was not listed on the White House public schedule.

Asked by reporters on Thursday if he wanted Mr. Tillerson to stay on the job, Mr. Trump said only, “He’s here. Rex is here.”

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, later issued a statement. “There are no personnel announcements at this time,” she said. “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.”

John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, developed the transition plan and has discussed it with other officials. Under his plan, the shake-up of the national security team would happen around the end of the year or shortly afterward. But for all of his public combativeness, Mr. Trump is notoriously reluctant to fire people, and it was not known if Mr. Tillerson had agreed to step down by then. Public disclosure of Mr. Kelly’s transition plan may be meant as a signal to the secretary that it is time to go.

At the same time, there was some concern in the White House about the appearance of a rush to the exits given that other senior officials may also leave in the early part of the new year. White House officials were debating whether it would be better to spread out any departures or just get them over with all at once.

The ouster of Mr. Tillerson would end a turbulent reign at the State Department for the former Exxon Mobil chief executive, who has been largely marginalized over the last year. Mr. Trump and Mr. Tillerson have been at odds over a host of major issues, including the Iran nuclear deal, the confrontation with North Korea and a clash between Arab allies. The secretary was reported to have privately called Mr. Trump a “moron” and the president publicly criticized Mr. Tillerson for ”wasting his time“ with a diplomatic outreach to North Korea.

Mr. Tillerson’s departure has been widely anticipated for months, but associates have said he was intent on finishing out the year to retain whatever dignity he could. Even so, an end-of-year exit would make his time in office the shortest of any secretary of state whose tenure was not ended by a change in presidents in nearly 120 years.

While some administration officials initially expected him to be replaced by Nikki R. Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, Mr. Pompeo has become the White House favorite.

Mr. Pompeo, a former three-term member of Congress, has impressed Mr. Trump during daily intelligence briefings and become a trusted policy adviser even on issues far beyond the C.I.A.’s normal mandate, like health care. But he has been criticized by intelligence officers for being too politicalin his job.

Mr. Cotton has been perhaps Mr. Trump’s most important supporter in the Senate on national security and immigration and a valued outside adviser. Officials cautioned that there was still a debate about whether Mr. Cotton was more valuable to the president in the Senate than in taking over the spy agency in Langley, Va., but he is the consensus choice at the moment.

As the Times article quoted above goes on to note, Tillerson’s appointment was considered something of a gamble from the start. Unlike most of the Secretaries of State that have served before him over the past twenty years, Tillerson came to Foggy Bottom with essentially no experience in foreign affairs. Instead, he had spent the previous four decades at various levels of responsibility at ExxonMobil. starting out as an engineer and gradually rising through the corporate ranks to the point where he became a top executive in 1999 and was named Chief Executive Officer several years later. While many of those positions did require Tillerson to meet with various world leaders and other politicians around the world, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is a distinct difference between dealing with foreign government officials as a business executive and dealing with them as the principal diplomat of the most powerful nation on Earth.

While Tillerson has been grouped along with Defense Secretary Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as one of the “sane” voices around Trump when it comes to foreign policy, the reality is that his short tenure as Secretary of State has proven to be less than stellar. By all accounts, his management style as the head of the State Department has led to significant disenchantment among career diplomats and that many of his moves have caused a significant number of these diplomats to either leave their position or leave them feeling as if they are part of a rudderless and essentially leaderless State Department. Additionally, Tillerson has been criticized for his apparently lax attitude toward filling many of the lower-level State Department positions that were vacated at the end of the Obama Administration, as has his decision to support Trump Administration decisions to slash the departments budget. As a result, more than 2,000 career diplomats have left their positions since Tillerson came on board, and morale has been reported to be at fairly low levels. Finally, it’s been obvious for some time that Tillerson and Trump haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye for months, and that Trump has been going behind his back and undercutting him on several key foreign policy matters. The most prominent of these, of course, have come with regard to North Korea, where Trump dismissed Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts even while he was meeting with Chinese officials on the issue, and in the Middle East, where Trump has apparently entrusted his son-in-law Jared Kushner with the task of bringing Israelis and Palestinians to the bargaining table.

Given all of that, the idea that Tillerson’s days are numbered isn’t entirely surprising. As Daniel Larison notes, though, the idea of CIA Director Pomeo replacing Tillerson at State and Tom Cotton replacing him at the CIA isn’t exactly good news:

Assuming the report is accurate, there are a few things we should expect about the future of Trump’s foreign policy if Pompeo ends up at State and Cotton takes his place at the CIA. First, the administration would become even more hawkish than it was, and it would be even more hostile towards Iran. Both Pompeo and Cotton are hard-liners on Iran. We should therefore also assume that the U.S. would fully renege on the nuclear deal in the near future. Pompeo has been a vocal opponent of the nuclear deal, and Cotton has been one of the leading would-be saboteurs of the agreement for years. They would be urging Trump to scrap the deal, which is what he has been wanting to do all year, and I expect that the president would jump at the chance.

Forcing out Tillerson might briefly give the State Department a respite from his “redesign,” but I wouldn’t expect Pompeo to undo the damage that Tillerson has already caused. Instead of having a Secretary of State acting as a brake on Trump’s worst instincts, the administration could soon find itself with one that encourages them. As for Cotton, he is on record advocating for military action against Iran, and he has said many times that regime change should be U.S. policy. If he were in charge of the CIA, Cotton would be only too happy to follow through on trying to destabilize the Iranian government covertly, and he would be willing to give Trump a pretext for launching an attack.

When Tillerson was first appointed, I was at least somewhat optimistic that he, along with Mattis and McMaster, would serve as somewhat of a voice of reason for the President when it comes to an area that it was clear at the time that he lacked any real experience in. While Mattis and McMaster appear to be fulfilling that role, Tillerson has been rather weak and ineffective at State. At the same time, the idea that he would be replaced by Pompeo, and that Pompeo would, in turn, be replaced by someone like Tom Cotton is hardly heartening. As Larison notes, Pompeo and Cotton are more likely to reinforce Trump’s irresponsible jingoism when it comes to issues such as policy toward Iran and North Korea than they are to restrain him. As a result, we could end up with a situation where they end up being more influential than more moderate voices like Mattis and McMaster. Given the issues at stake, that’s hardly something to look forward to.

As the Times notes, the President has not signed off on any of this, but the fact that it’s being floated in the pages of the New York Times suggests that all of this is more likely to happen than not at this point.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. michael reynolds says:

    I’ll believe it when Putin announces it. He’s Tillerson’s employer.


  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    Tom Cotton as Head of the CIA…yeah…that’s not scary at all…..


  3. Mister Bluster says:

    It appears that Rex Tillerson’s days at the State Department may be numbered, but his proposed replacement leaves a lot to be desired.

    This is the administration of REPUBLICAN President Pud. What do you expect?


  4. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @michael reynolds:
    Michael, start with these five characters and tell me how the story develops……
    A power-hungry narcissistic imbecile as C-in-C, surrounded by five war-mongers: Mattis, Pompeo, Cotton, McMaster, and Kelly.
    I’m betting it doesn’t end well.


  5. HarvardLaw92 says:

    It’s rather like watching a train wreck in slow-motion.


  6. michael reynolds says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    You forgot the foreign dictator with a brand-new ICBM. . .

    I place my hope in Trump’s weakness and cowardice. This is a man who can’t fire someone but does it via media leaks. He’s a wuss. So I’m hoping the fool doesn’t gin up the nerve to give Mattis a direct order.


  7. Slugger says:

    Price of crude oil:
    September 2017 $48 per barrel
    Today $57.33

    Mission accomplished!


  8. wr says:

    @michael reynolds: “So I’m hoping the fool doesn’t gin up the nerve to give Mattis a direct order.”

    I’m thinking of the scene in Michael Clayton where Tilda Swinton’s character wants her security guy simply to understand that he should go ahead and murder someone, and he keeps pressing her to make her say the actual words…


  9. Joe says:

    I do not understand the nomenclature “force him out.” Why would Trump not simply fire him? Alternatively, why wouldn’t Tillerson be happy to go? I kind of wonder whether he wasn’t summoned to the White House so they could talk him into staying a little longer.


  10. Mister Bluster says:

    Why would Trump not simply fire him?

    Donald Trump doesn’t want to take responsibility have the balls to fire Tillerson


  11. grumpy realist says:

    @Joe: For all his bluster, Trump is a wimp when it comes to actually saying “you’re FIRED!” to his actual employees.


  12. aFloridian says:

    I just don’t feel good about this. My take has been that Tillerson seemed fairly reasonable and moderate so I was glad he was there relatively speaking. Other than possibly being a “high-handed” and “secretive” asshole with a very dedicated gatekeeper in his Chief of Staff, what has he actually done to have the State folks talking to the media about how bad he is? I get that his relationship with Trump is weak, but you’d think they’d respect him for not kowtowing like everyone else in DT’s orbit.

    They can’t have it both ways. Most people can’t speak truth to Trump’s power – so you’ve either got a Secretary with a weak relationship and integrity or you’ve got a yes man who will almost certainly look down his nose at classic soft power and diplomacy, particularly with non-allies, as “for pussies.”

    I just don’t feel good about this change. The bright side: Living in DC means when the North Korean
    ICBMs start raining down I won’t be around to read Trump’s tremendous and amazing tweets from the Presidential bunker/Air Force One placing blame on everyone else. And Sarah Huckabee Sanders with her classic spin: “Yes DC is gone, but isn’t the real story here that the President has done SUCH a thorough job draining the swamp it’s not even there anymore?”

    For the record though, contrary to how the American media paints him as a dastardly cartoon villain who feeds his family members to ravenous canines whilst twirling his mustache, Kim is not crazy in the least, and so I have to hope this is at worst another Cold War. It’s the millenarian types that scare me. The Soviets didn’t want to die anymore than we did, and I don’t think North Koreans are all that different. Didn’t Sting do a song about that?


  13. Hal_10000 says:

    Trump wants a war. It’s the one thing the President has the least restraint on. With almost all of his agenda having failed, starting a war with Iran or North Korea will make him feel like he’s doing something. Granted, that doing something will be destabilizing the world, wrecking the economy and getting hundreds of thousands of people killed. But dammit, it’s doing something.


  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl: @michael reynolds:

    You forgot the foreign dictator with a brand-new ICBM.

    You both forgot the other foreign dictator with the pee tape.


  15. DrDaveT says:

    Mr. Pompeo would be replaced at the C.I.A. by Senator Tom Cotton

    Pee Wee Herman wasn’t available?


  16. JKB says:

    Tillerson has been out so many times in DC gossip. One wonders why the media keep getting it so wrong. Perhaps this is just torture for the swamp rats down at Foggybottom with hopes only to be dashed.


  17. Gustopher says:

    Sucks to be the worst Secretary of State in modern memory, I suppose.

    He hasn’t done anything genuinely evil, but even Henry Kissinger was able to keep the department staffed. Has he done anything, good or bad?

    He has proven himself to be somewhat worse than a vacancy. An empty chair at least offers the hope that it will be filled.


  18. dazedandconfused says:

    It may be that re-neo-coning State may have been the price for at least McCain’s vote on the tax bill, and perhaps some more, but it may also be they are simply floating this to see if it is. It’s not just about Rex if it includes guys like Cotton and Pompeo, who are polar opposites of Bannonista foreign policy.

    I don’t think Trump capable of caring about anything besides himself and his money.


  19. gVOR08 says:


    Sucks to be the worst Secretary of State in modern memory,

    So far.