If Rex Tillerson had ended his professional career as chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, his reputation would have been that of a successful leader of one of the world’s largest companies and a devoted supporter of the Boy Scouts.
Instead he will be remembered as one of the country’s weakest and least effective secretaries of state. With no experience in foreign policy or government, he provided little leadership and eviscerated the department he was chosen to lead, enthusiastically carrying out the budget-cutting orders of a hot-headed president uninterested in diplomacy. Scores of senior diplomats and other professionals, the core of America’s foreign service, were either forced out or chose to flee.
And yet we have cause to regret his departure, because his replacement is likely to be worse.
Mr. Tillerson was at least one of the administration’s few realist voices, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. He acknowledged threats from Russia, advocated diplomacy with North Korea, supported the Paris climate pact, and encouraged Mr. Trump to preserve the Iran nuclear deal. But that frequently put him at odds with Mr. Trump.
The relationship was further eroded when it was reported that last summer he called the president a “moron” at a gathering of national security and cabinet officials and, after Mr. Trump spoke respectfully of white nationalists who demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va., Mr. Tillerson said Mr. Trump “speaks for himself.”
So the president announced he would replace Mr. Tillerson with Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director and former Tea Party congressman, who has endeared himself to Mr. Trump with his engaging approach during morning intelligence briefings. Mr. Pompeo has also endeared himself to the climate-denying Koch brothers, who, along with their family, employees and affiliated groups donated $357,300 to his campaigns and political action committee, according to the McClatchy newspapers. Mr. Pompeo is unlikely to be sidelined in major policy debates, as Mr. Tillerson was regularly, even though he too, unlike Mr. Trump, supported his agency’s conclusion that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 elections.But his hawkish approach could do serious damage on major national security issues, including Iran and North Korea, on which he has expressed views at odds with his predecessor’s.
The timing of Mr. Tillerson’s ouster most likely hinges on the fact that Mr. Trump is facing his biggest foreign policy gamble, a decision to hold direct negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, starting with face-to-face talks with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, supposedly in May. Tough trade talks are also looming.