The blunt firing of Rex Tillerson, relayed Tuesday morning via presidential tweet, was met with more indignation than shock inside the limestone walls of the State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom. “It was chaos . . . it was a ‘W.T.F.’ moment,” a current state department staffer said of the episode, which had been quietly anticipated for months. “Everyone had been expecting a moment like this to happen, some sudden off-the-cuff decision,” but the unceremonious ouster still stung. Technically, Tillerson was America’s top diplomat, the staffer said, but in other ways, he had become “an afterthought” in an administration where the only voice that matters is Donald Trump. “Mike Pompeo, Director of the C.I.A., will become our new Secretary of State,” the president wrote. “He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the C.I.A., and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!”
Sources paint a conflicting picture of when, precisely, Tillerson learned that he’d been given the ax. Diplomats had seen the writing on the wall last week, when Tillerson, left in the dark over Trump’s surprise plan to meet with Kim Jong Un, grumbled that the U.S. was a “long way from negotiations” with North Korea. The following day, while traveling in Africa, a spokesperson said that Tillerson had fallen ill. “We knew something was up on Friday. Just as we thought he had dodged the bullet,” a second State Department staffer told me, adding that according to sources that were on the trip with Tillerson, the secretary “Didn’t appear sick.” According to The Washington Post, that was the same day that Trump told him to step aside. As I was told by a former diplomat in contact with officials at the U.S. embassy in Kenya, staffers were outraged that Tillerson continued his visit after he was reportedly fired, with one fuming that Tillerson had wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars.
A State spokesperson, however, disputed that timeline. In a remarkable statement Tuesday morning, Steve Goldstein said that Tillerson had been blindsided by the president’s decision. “The secretary had every intention of staying because of the critical progress made in national security,” Goldstein, the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, said. “The secretary did not speak to the president and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.” Shortly after contradicting the White House, Goldstein was also fired.
The proximate cause of Tillerson’s ouster, too, is in dispute. “It had become pretty clear that his role had become untenable and that he was no longer effectively serving the president and the country,” Brett Bruen, a former foreign-service officer, told me. “It was time for him to go.” But being undercut—again—on North Korea might have been the final straw for the embattled secretary. “It sends a pretty strong signal that State is not part of the discussion anymore on the top level issues,” the current staffer told me. “I think sometimes people forget that he is very low-key, he is down to earth but he does still think of himself as this C.E.O. and more than anything else this embarrassed him.” In a final act of defiance, Tillerson broke with the White House late Monday, declaring that the brutal killing of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent in the United Kingdom was “a really egregious act” that “clearly came from Russia.” A senior State Department official saw the remark as a message to Trump. “He couldn’t have made this comment without knowing that this was a little bit of a ‘stick your finger in that direction,’” the official told me.
The enmity appears to run both ways. Trump, who had repeatedly denied reports that Tillerson’s exit was imminent, was openly dismissive of his former secretary in comments to reporters Tuesday morning, saying that he and Tillerson “were not thinking the same” and predicting that “Rex will be happier now.” Tillerson has not yet released any personal statement.
While Tillerson was widely seen as ineffective by his staff, who fumed over the secretary’s efforts to downsize the department, the appointment of Mike Pompeo is equally portentous. Despite long-standing rumors that the C.I.A. director and favored Trump adviser would take over State, Pompeo remains a largely unknown quantity in Foggy Bottom, where the rank-and-file fear that Pompeo will over-militarize the State Department and prove more hostile to the bureaucracy. As one staffer characterized it to me last year, Pompeo “would be the secretary of war, not state.”
“I continue to have serious concerns that Mike doesn’t bring the requisite knowledge of the work of diplomacy and that he could well transform the State Department into an agent of the C.I.A., which has been a concern going back for decades and that diplomats have worked very hard to avoid,” Bruen told me, emphasizing the importance of having a civilian in charge of the nation’s foreign affairs. Rob Berschinski, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, expressed similar concerns. “It’s hard to fathom Tillerson having done a worse job of rallying America’s diplomats over the course of his tenure,” said Berschinski, who served under President Barack Obama. “That said, by all accounts Tillerson was an appropriately cautious counterweight to many of the hawks and foreign-policy neophytes surrounding the president . . . the White House’s announcement of Mike Pompeo as his replacement, and Gina Haspel as C.I.A. director, may also portend the rise of a significantly more hawkish U.S. foreign policy.” (Haspel, he noted, “is a particularly controversial choice, given her reported past involvement in torture at C.I.A. black sites. No one responsible for torture should be leading a federal agency, period.”)
Whatever the respective qualifications of Tillerson and Pompeo, however, sources in the diplomatic community were in agreement that Tillerson had become unable to perform his job. The first State Department staffer remarked that Tillerson had “lost control” following the news that Trump had agreed to a summit with Kim without consulting him. “He used to do those two dinners a week [with the president], and now he is barely seen at the White House,” the staffer said. Ousting Tillerson at a critical moment in the North Korea negotiations appeared to rattle some nerves. But as Washington moves toward talks with Pyongyang, Pompeo’s relationship with the president is seen as an advantage. “Given all that is going on, having a [secretary of state] who has the confidence of the president and an established relationship with the president will surely be good,” a former career foreign-service officer told me.
At the end of the day, the No. 1 currency in Trumpworld is loyalty—which Pompeo has proven over the past year. Under Trump, it is unlikely that any secretary of state will have the authority to speak on behalf of the president without his input, or else risk being publicly contradicted, as Tillerson often was. When it comes to foreign policy, the senior State official told me, leading the department is little more than an exercise in “obedience and kowtowing to the White House.” But at least Trump and Pompeo are somewhat simpatico. “Maybe that idealism of last spring of, let’s let Tillerson work his magic so that he can exert some influence and help guide and advise and put diplomacy at the heart of discussions in the White House—looking back, that seems a bit naive,” the official added. “I think that Tillerson concluded that some months ago as well.”