Rex Tillerson Clashing With White House Over Personnel And Other Issues

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is apparently chafing under a White House that isn't letting him do his job.

Politico  has a report this morning indicating that seems to indicate things are getting tense between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the White House:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s frustrations with the White House have been building for months. Last Friday, they exploded.

The normally laconic Texan unloaded on Johnny DeStefano, the head of the presidential personnel office, for torpedoing proposed nominees to senior State Department posts and for questioning his judgment.

Tillerson also complained that the White House was leaking damaging information about him to the news media, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Above all, he made clear that he did not want DeStefano’s office to “have any role in staffing” and “expressed frustration that anybody would know better” than he about who should work in his department — particularly after the president had promised him autonomy to make his own decisions and hires, according to a senior White House aide familiar with the conversation.

The episode stunned other White House officials gathered in chief of staff Reince Priebus’ office, leaving them silent as Tillerson raised his voice. In the room with Tillerson and DeStefano were Priebus, top Trump aide Jared Kushner and Margaret Peterlin, the secretary of state’s chief of staff.

The encounter, described by four people familiar with what happened, was so explosive that Kushner approached Peterlin afterward and told her that Tillerson’s outburst was completely unprofessional, according to two of the people familiar with the exchange, and told her that they needed to work out a solution.

“Colleagues are capable of frank exchanges,” said R.C. Hammond, a State Department spokesman, when asked about the disagreement. “Evaluating nominees did get off to a slow start, but it is now moving along at a pretty good clip.”

It was the loudest manifestation yet of how frustrated Tillerson is in his new role. He has complained about White House attempts to push personnel on him; about the president’s tweets; and about the work conditions in a West Wing where he sometimes finds loyalty and competence hard to come by. Above all, the former ExxonMobil CEO, accustomed to having the final word on both personnel and policy in his corporate life, has balked at taking orders from political aides younger and less experienced than he is.

Disputes between the White House and a Cabinet secretary, particularly over personnel, aren’t unusual. The Obama White House told Hillary Clinton that her friend Sidney Blumenthal couldn’t join her at the State Department. Other secretaries in Trump’s Cabinet have also clashed with DeStefano, who has a difficult job balancing White House requests, political considerations and headstrong Cabinet secretaries, many with executive experience.

“It’s very common that there would be some tensions and some tussles between the White House and departments or agencies about senior personnel decisions,” said Matthew Waxman, a senior official in the State Department and National Security Council under President George W. Bush. “It’s just very abnormal that these issues wouldn’t be worked out more quickly.”

Waxman, now a professor at Columbia University, said the fights are likely harder for a Cabinet secretary like Tillerson, who is accustomed to supreme control as a CEO. “But we have a system of government where political appointments run very, very deep,” he said. “It’s the way the system works. The White House has the final say.”

While it is correct that the White House has the final say on personnel decisions, Tillerson’s frustrations are understandable. Since he took office, there have been near-constant reports about conflicts between him and White House staffers over the pace of appointments to sub-Cabinet positions at Foggy Bottom that require confirmation by the Senate and the fact that the Trump Administration has been slow to fill positions. This applies not only to several of the important Deputy Secretary position that serve directly under Tillerson, but also Ambassadorships, many of which remain without even a nominee being named. Additionally, the White House is obviously trying to take end runs around Tillerson by making Jared Kushner some kind of de facto  Secretary of State. It’s no wonder that someone like Tillerson, who is used to some degree of autonomy, would be frustrated.

As thing stand, the only thing that seems to be holding American foreign policy together is the fact that Trump seems to actually be listening to his trio of main advisers in that area, which consists of Tillerson, Secretary of State James Mattis, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. While Trump does seem to be giving them a free hand, there are also indications and reports of frustrations being voiced by all three regarding the same issues that Tillerson apparently brought up during his tirade on Friday. If they start to walk away from the Administration then we should all be concerned.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held 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 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.


  1. CSK says:

    …”Kushner approached Peterlin afterward and told her that Tillerson’s outburst was completely unprofessional…”

    So what’s the over/under on the length of Tlllerson’s tenure at State, now that he’s been reprimanded by the Twerp-in-Chief?

  2. Mark Ivey says:

    “Tillerson also complained that the White House was leaking damaging information about him to the news media, according to a person familiar with the meeting.”

    Fine Tuned Machine. . . 🙂

  3. Tony W says:

    @Mark Ivey: 3-D Chess

  4. Jen says:

    Who would have thought that CEOs accustomed to always hearing “yes, sir” would react to being told “no” like this?

    Insert an “I’m shocked, shocked, that there is gambling going on here” clip…

    Tillerson gave up a boatload of cash to take this gig. I’m wondering if he’s already starting to regret it.

  5. CSK says:

    @Mark Ivey:

    But you see, that’s the way Trump “ran” his business, with all of his underlings backstabbing each other. Trump liked it that way, because he felt it ensured that they’d be loyal only to him.

  6. CSK says:

    Oh, sweet Lawd. Trump went on a Twitter rampage this morning, trashing “Psycho Joe” and “low I.Q. Crazy Mika,” who apparently begged to come to Mar-a-Lago for three days over some New Year’s Eve. He said he turned them down because Mika was “bleeding badly” from a facelift.

    (Question: How would he know if they spoke ill of him, since he claims not to watch Morning Joe?)

    He really is fixated on women and blood.

    I’m so proud of my president. Aren’t you?

  7. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Tony W: Or is it one-dimensional Mumbley Peg? It’s so easy to get the two confused.

  8. Slugger says:

    Mr. Tillerson is an employee and not a member of the family. That’s how things work now in America.

  9. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Jen: I’m sure he is–especially since the sanctions on Russian oil exploration by American companies that he took the job to get lifted haven’t been.

  10. al-Alameda says:


    But you see, that’s the way Trump “ran” his business, with all of his underlings backstabbing each other. Trump liked it that way, because he felt it ensured that they’d be loyal only to him.

    Trump runs his business like a medieval fiefdom – it’s an autocracy.

    Many modern businesses have autocratic CEOs, however there is potentially a check to that power with a board of directors that can fire a CEO for any reason. Trump’s dysfunctional bankruptcy ridden business ’empire’ has no such check – it’s basically free range Trump and night-at-the-improv all the time.

    Look, RexTillerson knew what he was getting into, he probably didn’t think that it actually would be amateur hour most of the time.

  11. Jen says:

    @CSK: Ben Sasse and Lindsay Graham have already scolded him on Twitter.

    This is so, so weird and deranged behavior by the president. Mika gets the laugh in though with her tweet response.

    Good grief.

  12. Pete S says:

    I think Trump really believes that they all want/need the job more than he needs them, since he and Jared could really handle everything on their own. While still having time for a lot of golf. He may brag about how successful his cabinet is, but that is more a case of “all of these successful people answer to me so I own them now” rather than “all of these successful people are a great resource and I should not be undermining everything they try to do”. I may not share his assessment of how great the cabinet is, but in his position if I felt I had good people working for me I would let them do their jobs.

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    Mr. Trump, in brief remarks, praised Mr. Tillerson’s background and experience, saying, “Your whole life has prepared you for this moment.”

    So now I’m praying for the end of time
    To hurry up and arrive
    ‘Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you
    I don’t think that I can really survive
    Paradise By The Dashboard Light

  14. Jen says:

    @Pete S:

    I think Trump really believes that they all want/need the job more than he needs them

    Probably true, which is painfully ironic considering the fact that most of them are *actual* billionaires who don’t need to slap their names on buildings and frozen steaks to earn cash.

  15. grumpy realist says:

    @Pete S: I’d consider Trump to be the American version of Louis XIV, except that the Sun King was actually extremely smart, well educated, and polite. Trump may think that he’s Louis Quatorze (look at all that gold leaf he likes to plaster everywhere), but the Bourbons would have eaten him alive.

  16. Scott says:

    Kushner approached Peterlin afterward and told her that Tillerson’s outburst was completely unprofessional

    I’m sure that will win Tillerson over.

    WRT to the “morning Joe” tweets:

    Say it once more: Trump is a classless pig and always will be.

    And: There is something wrong with him.

  17. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Hey, Louis XIV led troops in battle, risking his actual, real-life, you know, life as king. He knew the job description, took it seriously and had better fashion sense. Fewer wives, I grant, but probably left them better satisfied. And no one ever questioned the size of his sceptre.

    If you get my drift.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    @Scott: “There is something wrong with him”. That is a dead certainty. Trump was always vaguely in the media-sphere since the 80’s, mostly as the clown prince of real estate, and I always thought he was an epically shallow and vacuous blow hard. But when he actually followed through on his run for the presidency I realized he was actually decoupled completely from reality. He has been involved with so many shady characters and business deals, especially since his numerous bankruptcies, that I always felt he had to be conning us about running. A con artist like him could not possibly expect anything but disaster following increased scrutiny into his ties with the Russian mob, money laundering, and on and on.

    So anyone who thinks that they will ever experience schadenfreude as Trump finally realizes he is in over his head as it all comes crashing down, well, you will never have that satisfaction. It will certainly come crashing down but Trump will never realize he is in over his head. He is not capable of thinking a coherent thought, much less one that would require self awareness.

  19. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Pete S: Yeah, but your business (or businesses as the case may be) have probably been more commercially successful relative to scale than Trump’s, too.

  20. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:


    A con artist like [Trump] could not possibly expect anything but disaster following increased scrutiny into his ties with the Russian mob, money laundering, and on and on.

    Yes, but you didn’t account for his loathsome witlessness. Don’t feel bad; I thought it was a con and was fooled into thinking he was smarter than he actually is, too.

  21. Mister Bluster says:

    I’m Shocked! SHOCKED! I tell you!!!

    Several high-profile Republicans have also voiced their criticism of the president’s tweets, in which he said Brzezinski has a “low I. Q.” and was “bleeding badly from a face-lift.”

    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) tweeted that Trump’s tweets were “beneath the office” and “represents what is wrong with American politics.” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) also chimed in on the backlash, tweeting “please just stop.” “We don’t have to get along, but we must show respect and civility,” tweeted Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME).
    “Obviously I don’t see that as an appropriate comment,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in response to a reporter’s question asking about Trump’s tweets. Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY) said, “Obviously I’m concerned about that type of language.”

    Where were these Dimwits when Pud revealed himself to be a sexual pervert?

  22. grumpy realist says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: I’d like to give a call-out to Nancy Mitford’s book on Louis XIV. Great fun to read, witty, and extremely interesting showing how Louis XIV used Versailles as political theatre for both France and Europe. (In France as a way to drain cash from the powerful nobles and keep them from ganging up on him, in Europe as a showcase for French power AND products for export. Gobelins tapestries, anyone? )

  23. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Ditto Antonia Fraser’s The Loves of Louis XIV

  24. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Mister Bluster: Supporting him in the hopes that he would be able to bring home a tax cut for the top 0.001%, the destruction of Obamacare, opportunities for the US to cash in on Russian oil exploration leases, a wall to keep out the people who aren’t us, etc.

  25. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Mar-a-Lago is to Trump as Versailles was to Louis Quatorze: a place to be sheltered from the turbulence of Washington/Paris. If Trump could, he’d relocate the White House to Palm Beach.