• Nawal Ali

What Went Wrong: the Downfall of Rex Tillerson

The dismissal of Rex Tillerson as the Secretary of State was not unexpected. There had already been discussions by government officials about Tillerson being fired since December 2017. Mistakes made by Tillerson as Secretary of State made him a dead man walking during his one year as the head of the State Department.

Robert Jervis, former president of the American Political Science Association and professor in International Politics at Columbia University argues that the Secretary of State draws from power and influence from five sources. These sources are presidential backing, support from the State Department’s bureaucracy, relationships with other cabinet officials, public, and media praise, and perceptions by foreign diplomats and governments. Using these criteria, we can look at how Tillerson’s relationship with each source shows his weakness at Secretary of State and made his departure inevitable.

When analyzing presidential support, Tillerson had made clear steps establishing a relationship with the President, especially since both the former Secretary and President were not personally close before Tillerson’s nomination. Tillerson has met with President Trump in person 37 times last year. He also backed the president’s federal employee hiring freeze and departmental budget cuts to maintain a positive relationship with President Trump. However, Tillerson, over time has been contradicted by the President many times on different policy matters. A prominent example would be Tillerson public pursuit of negotiations with North Korea has been undermined by the President’s own proclamations of opposing North Korean negotiations while Tillerson’s insistence that negotiations would not happen with North Korea earlier in the year was contradicted by the President’s announcement of a summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un. Over time, these contradictions and disputes undermined Tillerson’s credibility and harmed his performance to do the job.

Throughout Tillerson’s tenure, the career officials of the State Department also had an acrimonious relationship with the now former Secretary. Max Bergmann, a former official at the State Department for six years, reported a massive decline in morale among the civil servants and Foreign Service Officers working in the department since Tillerson became Secretary. An internal survey done by the State Department last year showed that thousands of State Department employees have concerns about Tillerson’s leadership. Tillerson by the end of his departure did not much support from Foggy Bottom when the President and his staff started looking for alternatives.

One major move that Tillerson made that reaped dividends was establishing a close working relationship with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. For a successful secretary, this would have been a great first step to cultivating relationships with members of the President’s cabinet. However, aside from Mattis, Tillerson made no inroads with other cabinet officials undermining his ability to navigate the complex nature of government.

One of the critical tasks a Secretary of State has is communicating with other foreign governments and officials. On this responsibility, Tillerson clearly failed. Despite having a Rolodex of foreign government officials in the Middle East and other regions from his days working at the Exxon Mobil, Tillerson’s personal network was outdated when negotiating with the same countries today. Key allies preferred working with Jared Kushner, the President’s son in law rather than with the Secretary. The inability to maintain effective relations with key foreign governments wounded Tillerson’s ability to effectively handle the job.

Tillerson also had a very negative relationship with the media. Staffers hired by his office maintain heavy-handed treatment of reporters that undermined any journalist willing to be sympathetic to Tillerson. The constant barrage of stories about Tillerson’s incompetence and inability to maintain a functioning State Department showcased his team’s inability to spin to the media and cultivate positive portrayal.

These sources of influence that Jervis writes about are critical for a Secretary to cultivate. It is through these avenues that cabinet officials like the Secretary of State gets the power to implement policy as well as the ability to stay in the job. Witness his former colleague Jeff Sessions whose ability to cultivate political allies in Congress, his department, and with other government officials allow him to stay as Attorney General despite sometimes disputes with the President and enact his preferred policies. The next Secretary of State, Pompeo should take the necessary steps to look at the mistakes Tillerson makes if they want to stay in the job.

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