The taciturn secretary of state has apparently reached a breaking point.
Josh Marshall, the editor and publisher of Talking Points Memo, has written frequently about the political phenomenon he has termed wraithing: the tendency of every adviser, aide, and ally within Donald Trump’s orbit to eventually be stripped of dignity by their allegiance to the president, ultimately left a ghostlike shadow of their former selves.
It is a sort of metaphysical corollary of the concept of enabling, which Vanity Fair special correspondent Sarah Ellison documents today. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the once powerful ExxonMobil chief executive who stepped down to join the Trump administration, finds himself somewhere in between the two camps, neither wraith nor enabler, soldiering on mostly silently as he struggles to do his job in the shadow of Trump’s 36-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has taken over many of the foreign-policy duties that would ordinarily be Tillerson’s. It was Kushner, not Tillerson, who flew to Israel last week to begin negotiating peace in the Middle East; Kushner, who has served as liaison for Mexico and Canada, and who was recently invited to visit China after coordinating President Xi Jinping’s trip to Mar-a-Lago in April.
At the same time that he has found himself playing second fiddle to America’s princeling, Tillerson is managing a State Department in crisis. The White House budget has called for massive cuts, which would likely reduce staffing by thousands, decimate the diplomatic corps, and downsize the department’s mission. Dozens of top agency positions remain unfilled, the White House has stymied Tillerson’s efforts to hire his own people, and State has been left operating with a skeleton crew. Morale at Foggy Bottom has cratered, and with Tillerson disempowered, career bureaucrats are unsure how to do their jobs.
Those simmering frustrations burst out in the open last Friday, Politico reports, when Tillerson stepped in front of a room full of Trump’s most-senior aides—including his treasured son-in-law and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus—and quickly lost it.
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’s 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 rant was a long time coming for Tillerson, whose quiet, sometimes mind-numbingly slow efforts to reorganize the State Department have clashed with the White House’s demands for the quick appointment of politically convenient appointees. Several of Tillerson’s candidates have been blocked by the Trump administration either because they’re Democrats, Republican Trump critics, or longtime civil servants. In the early days of the administration, Trump rejected Tillerson’s pick of Elliott Abrams, who had served under two Republican presidents yet published an op-ed critical of Trump, as his deputy. The subsequent lack of appointees has only hurt the relationship between Tillerson and the Trump political team.
The feud appears to go both ways. “He went into this with a very negative attitude toward the White House,” a former senior State Department official told Politico, explaining that Tillerson had previously vetoed candidates suggested by Trump’s transition team out of hand.
He has sometimes conducted talks with potential job candidates without telling the White House, said one person familiar with his actions. Tillerson has told senior officials that Trump promised him autonomy, and that he wanted it, according to people who have spoken to him.
“Rex is a 65-year-old guy who worked his way up from the bottom at Exxon, and he chafes at the idea of taking orders from a 38-year-old political operative,” a transition aide told Politico.
The disagreements aren’t just personal, or related to personnel. Tillerson has also found himself undercut and out of the loop on critical foreign-policy matters, such as the diplomatic crisis that enveloped Qatar earlier this month. He raced to defuse the issue when Trump issued several inflammatory tweets appearing to side with Saudi Arabia—apparently not realizing that Qatar hosts a major U.S. military base—and then was undermined again when the president issued a statement in the Rose Garden blaming Qatar—again, a critical U.S. ally—for allegedly supporting terrorism. “I’m not involved in how the president constructs his tweets, when he tweets, why he tweets, what he tweets,” Tillerson said, shortly after he learned of Trump’s statements. U.S. officials have repeatedly complained about being caught off guard by the president’s tweets and sudden foreign-policy pivots, on everything from China’s relationship with North Korea to the civil war in Syria.
Rubbing salt in the wound, it was reportedly Kushner who took it upon himself to chide
Rubbing salt in the wound, it was reportedly Kushner who took it upon himself to chide Tillerson’s team after he erupted in the West Wing. The 36-year-old shadow secretary later approached Mary Peterlin, Tillerson’s chief of staff, and reportedly told her that Tillerson’s remarks were unprofessional, and that they needed to resolve the issue. As of Thursday morning, however, the issue clearly remained unresolved: