On Tuesday, President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with a tweet. “Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State,” Trump wrote. In response, Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein issued a statement that said the “Secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason.” (Goldstein himself was reportedly fired hours later).
The secretary’s discontent can be read between the lines of Goldstein’s statement, but the reason for Tillerson’s firing has been uncomfortably obvious for several months now. In October, The New Yorker reported that during a meeting with national security officials Tillerson referred to Trump as “a fucking moron,” an insult that the State Department denied and Trump downplayed. Still, Tillerson’s fate was spelled out in countless news cycles during the past six months, making his exit the most excruciating Trump administration departure yet. As early as October, Axios reported that White House sources believed Pompeo would succeed Tillerson. Trump even responded to these reports, disparaging them as “FAKE NEWS.”
The remainder of Tillerson’s tenure seems to have been a punishment designed by Trump to reverse the humiliation that Tillerson’s comment wrought. If Tillerson had departed in October, by firing or resignation, the whole “moron” affair would’ve embarrassed Tillerson but endeared him to a great portion of the country. But the secretary’s insistence on staying as long as he did, and thus having to deny his vivid contempt for the president at every turn, only humiliated Tillerson in the long run. If Trump is a “fucking moron,” then Tillerson’s willingness to continue in the job suggests that he’s an even worse figure in the grand scheme of Trump’s administration — a tool and a coward.
Of course, the press has frequently resurfaced Tillerson’s remarks. Meanwhile, his frustrations with the president have been justified as Trump has spent the past several months enraging African diplomats, irritating North Korea, and threatening a trade war against U.S. allies. Tillerson has had the thankless job of maintaining relations with foreign dignitaries amid the president’s many undiplomatic outbursts. For more than a year, Tillerson has overseen a chaotic foreign policy administered by a decimated agency staff. Just last week, Tillerson stumped across Africa, looking to repair diplomatic relations strained by Trump’s description of several nations as “shithole countries.” Tillerson cut his trip short and returned to Washington just hours before Trump announced his successor.
Tillerson isn’t the only senior official whose relationship with Trump has become defined by mutual contempt. Attorney General Jeff Sessions continues in his job despite Trump’s unabiding displeasure with his recusal from the Russia investigation. Trump has described Sessions as “beleaguered,” an assessment that no observer would dispute. Trump has also reportedly described Sessions as “Mr. Magoo,” the bumbling cartoon character, and Sessions has said nothing publicly in response. If Trump had ditched Sessions a year ago, the president would have courted only more scrutiny during the inquiry into possible ties between his campaign and Russia. As it stands, Sessions — one of Trump’s earliest political supporters — serves at Trump’s unrelenting displeasure, the whipping boy for a boss who doesn’t punish “disloyalty” with dismissal, but rather with more indefensible work.
It is unclear when Sessions’s debasement might end, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference proceeds at a mysterious pace and Trump’s whims remain as unpredictable as always. In 14 months, the Trump administration has achieved the has achieved record-setting turnover of senior staff. Each departure concludes a story of petty humiliation, personal implosion, and failure, from the exasperating exits of Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, Anthony Scaramucci, and Steve Bannon, through the recent departures of Hope Hicks, Gary Cohn, and now Tillerson. Trump’s former secretary of state is the only one of those figures who crossed Trump in spectacular fashion, and yet his departure seems the weakest and most disgraceful of all (yes, even more disgraceful than Scaramucci’s press bender). Tillerson’s five months of saving face hardly seems to have been worth the trouble. Now, he can swear as freely as he likes — and Trump can rest easy knowing he humiliated Tillerson tenfold.